Lovecraft's essay Supernatural Horror in Literature is a great starting source for finding very good but relatively unknown horror gems. I've been slowly working my way through Lovecraft's picks, and recently Leonard Cline's The Dark Chamber (1927) caught my eye:
Lovecraft adored this novel! After working his way up the library waiting list to read it, he wrote ecstatically about it to Donald Wandrei on March 16, 1928:
My only reading since "Witch Wood" has been "The Dark Chamber" by Leonard Cline, & this is an absolutely magnificent work of art! Poetry -- song -- & the ultimate quintessence of atmospheric morbidity & horror. It rambles unfortunately in its effort to build up a dense miasma of unwholesomeness & madness, but even the divagations are authentic art. And the main stream is superb -- the terrible quest of a scholar back through the corridors of memory, personal & ancestral. Ugh! The strange odour.... & that hellish hound Tod, that bays in the night.... Don't miss it!
A good recommendation, eh? In a rare occurrence, however, I find myself somewhat in disagreement with Lovecraft. I enjoyed The Dark Chamber, but found it fell short of my expectations.
The story is narrated by Oscar Fitzalan, a young composer and musician, who accepts a job in the crumbling estate of Mordance Hall from its reclusive and driven owner, Richard Pride. Aside from Pride and a couple of servants, the inhabitants of the Hall include Pride's secretary, Wilfred Hough, Pride's wife, Miriam, his daughter, Janet, and Tod, a massive and threatening black hound which serves as Pride's pet.
Oscar has been hired by Pride to play music for him, though not for pleasure. Pride has been involved in a decades-long experiment to probe the recesses of his memory and unlock forgotten events of his own life -- and lives that came before his own. Pride's outlying lab building -- and dark chamber -- includes thousands of filing cabinets filled with Pride's carefully documented recollections of events in his life, meticulously organized. Though it is mostly hinted at in the book, Pride is experimenting with ancestral memory, the idea that an individual retains memories of his forefathers' lives, and Oscar has been hired to play traditional and tribal music that will help Pride dig deeper into his past, even into prehistory.
If this idea sounds familiar, you've probably seen the movie Altered States (1980), in which a man experimenting with a sensory deprivation chamber sets himself on a path of personal deevolution. That movie was based on a novel by Paddy Chayevsky, however, and does not seem to be directly related to The Dark Chamber.
Surprisingly little of the novel concerns the actual experiment. Primarily, it focuses instead on the relationships of Oscar with the other residents of the house, and the increasing alienation of all as Pride turns deeper inward and away from ordinary human understanding. I would say that the majority of the novel is more of a very atmospheric and dark soap opera than a horror story.
Oscar is a relatively young man, and a romantic, and utterly unprepared to deal with the cynicism which is prevalent in Mordance Hall. His interactions with Janet, Miriam, and Pride himself gradually break his own spirit and idealism.
The descriptions of Mordance Hall, decaying due to the negligence of its obsessed master, are quite atmospheric and well done. There is a feeling of oppression and despair which builds as the novel progresses which does a very good job of setting the reader on edge.
In the end, though, I was disappointed by The Dark Chamber as a horror story. I typically argue that "less is more" in writing truly frightening horror, but there were too few "horrific" or even "suggestive" events in the novel to capture my attention. In Cline's defense, however, he was not necessarily writing a horror novel: he seems to have been much more interested in the ways the characters cope with depressing and lonely circumstances. The ending of the novel also feels rather a bit of a let down, especially after the build up of tension and expectation throughout.
It is a beautifully written book, however, with a compelling idea behind it. Those moments of atmospheric horror which do appear are very well done.
Leonard Cline himself wrote very few novels, due to rather tragic circumstances in his life. In 1927, the same year The Dark Chamber was published, Cline shot and killed a good friend in a drunken brawl. He was sentenced to a year in prison for manslaughter, of which he served only 8 months. He was able to get a good job with Time Magazine after his release, but his comeback would be short-lived: he died six months after release of a heart attack.
It's a shame, because Cline definitely had great artistic skill. I wonder if his later work would have fulfilled the promise that The Dark Chamber showed.