Warming Up to Horror? Try “August Heat”

August HeatAmong the most appealing elements of the horror genre is its diversity. I grow skeptical when people say they don’t like horror. I think there’s something in horror for everyone, an assertion that I hope my blog will prove, one day when I’ve been at this for a very long time. (Two weeks is hardly enough time to capture the intricacies and variety of the genre). You can, for instance, watch a mildly eerie old black and white film – maybe a Tod Browning – or watch someone’s limbs get torn off, shred by last sickening shred, in an Eli Roth film. You can read something as dark as Poe, or you can take a lighter, simpler helping of horror, say with the story “August Heat” by William Fryer Harvey. I read “August Heat,” last night, and thought it was a refreshing dose of abnormality. As a side-note, I’ve avoided major spoilers in this review.

“August Heat” differs from most horror texts I’ve read because the mood throughout the bulk of the story is unusually light-hearted. Harvey has a simple, appealing writing style, and he doesn’t feel the need to announce how horrible – or horrifying – his character’s experience is. The story opens with the protagonist – an artist, James Clarence Withencroft – in his home, alone, creating a detailed sketch. The sketch is of a criminal in a courtroom who is, at that moment, convicted of a crime. Harvey’s protagonist emphasizes how enormously fat the man in the sketch is – a detail I mention because it becomes important later in the text, and Harvey’s inclusion of details is obviously deliberate.

One of my favorite things about this story is what Harvey does with our sense of place. I took a class in college that emphasized how important it is to establish a sense of place in a creative piece, and Harvey manipulates sense of place so we feel that we, and Withencroft, are walking in a dream. Withencroft leaves for a walk, and describes the streets he walks on. However, his memory fails him and he notes: “From there onwards I have only the vaguest recollection of where I went. The one thing of which I was fully conscious was the awful heat, that came up from the dusty asphalt pavement as an almost palpable wave. I longed for the thunder promised by the great banks of copper-cloud that hung low over the western sky.” The oppressive heat and the imminent thunder storm are the only indicators that the protagonist is entering a potentially threatening situation, the only harbingers of eerie events that the story provides. Generally, his voice is nonchalant as he relates his experience.

Withencroft estimates that he “must have walked for five or six miles, when a small boy roused me from my reverie by asking the time.” I’ve touched on theories of space and place in previous posts. To geographer Yi Fu Tuan, space is openness and freedom, the experience of the unfamiliar, while place is warmth and familiarity. During this hazy, dream-like five to six mile walk, Withencroft leaves the familiarity of “place” and enters a new sort of strangeness that Tuan would likely characterize as “space.” He finds himself outside the house of a man named Charles Atkinson. Withencroft’s geographical transition makes sense; the unusual event that he is about to encounter would occur most appropriately in unfamiliar territory.

As such, now that Withencroft has entered space, bizarre occurrences begin to unfold. Again, I’m making it a point to avoid major spoilers in this post – which is hard, because the text’s plot is fascinating – but think of the old black and white Twilight Zone television shows; what happens to Withencroft is not unlike something that would happen in The Twilight Zone. When Withencroft meets Atkinson, he notes: “There was something unnatural, uncanny, in meeting this man.” This is the only line in the story – except for the last paragraph – that openly points out that something is bizarre or unusual. Unlike certain horror stories that announce how macabre their events are and emphasize a sinister, twisted atmosphere – say, for instance, Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” Harvey, in general, lets the events speak for themselves.

What happens between Harvey and Atkinson? Well, you’ll have to read the story to find out. Suffice it to say, this work isn’t as unsettling as a Poe story, but the ending is still unnerving, and frustratingly ambiguous. The reader his left to infer the protagonist’s fate at the end of the story, although one possibility may seem obvious. I found myself intrigued by the mood shift in the last paragraph and allured by the story that Harvey created, but ultimately I wanted more. He had many interesting “semi-twists,” that didn’t build up to a major twist like I’d hoped. I wanted more explanation for the story’s bizarre coincidences.

Still, I would highly recommend this story to anyone who wants a relatively short, simple read. This story is appropriate for lovers of the horror genre, newbies to horror, and those who are uncertain about whether or not they enjoy the strange and unusual. This story raises intriguing questions, and it’s certainly creepy, but not in a way that will leave you up at night. “August Heat” is a refreshing deviation from some of the wordier, more intense fare that late 19th and early 20th century horror writers often provide. In short, it’s a good read.

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Warming Up to Horror? Try “August Heat”

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