Blackwood’s back! What happens when a writer most famous, in his own lifetime and in ours, for his horror turns his attention to not-quite-horror? The Human Chord happens, that’s what.
This book is weird, man. Spinrobin’s our main character, and yes Spinrobin is his name. He’s an out-of-work young man in London wanting to find some adventure in his life. He answers an ad for someone who has taken choral lessons, can read and speak Hebrew, and isn’t averse to danger. So naturally he answers the ad and starts working for this big minister (big as in Grizzly Adams, not big as in famous) named Skale.
Skale is trying to teach his housekeeper, his niece, and Spinrobin how to sing the name of God.
Yes, that’s actually what he’s trying to do.
Here’s the reasoning in the story. Everything has a true name – now a familiar, staple trope of fantasy. God must have the same. Being able to know and speak the true name of something gives you power over it. Skale demonstrates that power to Spinrobin a few times. He traps sounds in a room, long after the thing that made the sound is gone. It’s a little like that thing in Metalocalypse where they record music on water, except curtains, air, and musty country house rooms, I guess.
They also sing Spinrobin’s true name at one point, and he has a spiritual experience pretty much like taking LSD but without all the risks of a bad trip or flashbacks. I shouldn’t say there’s no risk of a bad trip, actually; there is, but the singers would have to screw up or intentionally alter the name being sung in the middle to do it. Apparently altering the name would alter the person? Something, something, dark side, I don’t know.
Skale’s niece is named Miriam and she’s lovely and wonderful and Spinrobin’s going to fall in love with her, all right? This book was written in 1910, you can fill in for yourself her qualities. Miriam and Spinrobin spend a lot of time together, training their voices, staring at each other, and being in awe and vaguely afraid of Skale. They begin to talk about Spinrobin’s childhood, and he tells her about his imaginary friend Winky. I’m not making this up. Blackwood made this up. I have no idea what’s going on. Winky was your standard issue imaginary friend, but Miriam gets way too into the idea of Winky, and starts going on and on about whether she can meet Winky too, and if Spinrobin will share Winky with her.
Uh. Just go ahead and imagine the face I’m making, if that’s all right with you. I’ll imagine yours, we’ll be even.
I’ll be honest here. Winky’s code for a baby. Miriam’s imagining their life together after all this blows over, and she’s imagining the baby they’ll have when they’re married. OK, fine, good, but remember all the shit about God’s true name? Yeah, the plot? Back to that shit.
Skale’s research continues, though I have no idea what the hell he’s researching. He knows God’s true name at the book’s beginning. I should point out here that Skale isn’t apparently evil or anything. He wants to better the world by hooking up to God like a power transformer and singing the world into a better place. So, uh, good for him, I guess? God’s name is as to human names as a chord is to a note. Human “names” are notes or very simple songs, but God’s name is a complex song made of chords, and for that you need four tones, right? Hence the four singers. And his plan is to wait for some night where things are spooky, haul everyone out of bed so they’re totally not prepared, run them toward the basement, where each will be stationed along increments until we reach Skale himself in some sort of sound-trapping workshop thingie down there. As in, Miriam at the top of the stairs, Spinrobin at the bottom, the housekeeper down the hall, and Skale in the room. I guess there’s a good reason for that? Again, I have no idea.
So it happens, the night comes, everyone is hustled out of bed posthaste, according to plan. I guess. But wait! Miriam has been having second thoughts to match Spinrobin’s general sense of spinelessness (Spinrobin would make a good harem lead if there were more women he could speak to and still be proper). Miriam sees something Spinrobin hasn’t, and that the reader likely has since the third or fourth chapter. The world will be remade; humanity will be remade. People will aspire to spiritual and religious heights and leave behind all the dross and crap they dealt with before. This sounds very good, but all the crap we made to amuse ourselves down here will fall by the wayside too. Literature, art, stealing stuff you don’t need (I’m looking at you, Ms. Rider); also bonin’ will probably not be nearly as important when we’re all godly bundles of sound wafting around, making stuff awesome and boring as fuck all the time. So Miriam won’t get to be all creepy and obsess over “Winky” any longer, she’ll be way too good for that crap.
Moral of story time: things could be awesome, but we love our human things very much, and that’s not bad.
OK, as a moral goes, it’s fine. It implies there are good things on earth and that we’re not all evil drones of Satan waiting for someone to rub our heads with holy water (Blackwood’s dad was a fire-and-brimstone preacher, so, yeah, that’s pretty relevant here).
Back to the plot! As Spinrobin and Miriam sit and stare back at the house through the rain and wind from atop a nearby hill, something goes inexplicably wrong, dun dun dun. The specific line is that “Philip Skale had somewhere uttered falsely. OK, so they abandon the plan because they don’t want to do it, and all right the narrator tells us they can’t tell down in the basement that our creepy lovebirds aren’t around any longer, but in addition to that Skale also screws up. Was that necessary? I presume it has to be his fault he dies, and not the innocent lovebirds. Jeez.
Bottom line time, should you read it? Actually, yeah. It’s pretty fun, while being pretty ridiculous. Blackwood’s writing is always good, and sometimes it’s great in this book. It articulates a very specific kind of turn-of-the-century (would that be –last-century- now?) worldview about science, spirituality, and the ways in which they might be able to interact and become the same thing.