Short Story Review: “The Canal” by Everil Worrell

(Cover by Hugh Rankin. Weird Tales, December 1927.)

Who Goes There?

We don’t know much about Everil Worrell, which sadly is the case for most pulp-era female authors, whose legacies have only been partly rescued by modern faminists and allies. Clearly there is much work left to be done. We do know that Worrell contributed to Weird Tales fairly regularly—and virtually nowhere else; she more or less retired from writing fiction after the first incarnation of Weird Tales went under. She never wrote any novels. Hell, you can collect all of her short fiction in a slim-enough volume. While her work as a whole remains obscure, she does have at least one canonical piece of vampire fiction under her belt: “The Canal,” which H. P. Lovecraft liked enough to mention said fondness in multiple letters. I can sort of understand why Lovecraft liked this one, but while it shares a few traits with Lovecraft’s own fiction it is certainly not cosmic.

“The Canal” is Worrell’s most famous story and it’s one of those that was deemed popular enough back in the day to be reprinted in Weird Tales as a classic; its publication history is also a bit tangled. There are apparently two versions of “The Canal,” one that was printed in Weird Tales twice and one that was “revised,” either by Worrell or by August Derleth for an anthology he edited, to have a very different ending. Not that I’m big on the original version’s ending, but from what I’ve heard the revised ending is worse. To my surprise there are multiple reviews of this story online, but even so, if you would allow me to have my own take on things…

Placing Coordinates

First published in the December 1927 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive; was later reprinted in the April 1935 issue, which can be found here. Be warned that ISFDB doesn’t do a good job at differentiating the original version from the revised version, though it at least tells us The Vampire Archives (ed. Otto Penzler) uses the latter, and of course that version made its first appearance in The Sleeping and the Dead, edited by Derleth. You may also be curious to look out for H. P. Lovecraft’s Favorite Weird Tales (ed. Douglas A. Anderson), which is what it says on the tin. Surprisingly “The Canal” is not on Project Gutenberg, which means either a) it’s just a bit too obscure to have been picked up yet, or more likely b) some evil scumfuck has not let the copyright expire for it. You have options, but if you wanna be on the safe side and be sure you’re reading the version that Worrell first wrote then the Weird Tales publications are your best bet.

Enhancing Image

The narrator is a recent college grad who also happens to be one of those people who, had he been born in 1990 and not 1900, would surely be jamming out to My Chemical Romance in the 2000s. He would either be a scene kid or really into goth rock. Outside of his office job (which he doesn’t like, naturally), he doesn’t really socialize with people, and much prefers to go on nightly walks by yourself. Going out for strolls is one of those things you did to pass the time in the era before TV, which, in fairness, at least there’s potential for exercise here.

The narrator being a moody loner who thinks of a walk by the local cemetery as fun is very Lovecraft-esque, I’ll say that—or at least it appeals to Lovecraft’s sensibilities. We even get a reference to Poe early in the story. Oh baby, this is the kind of shit that appeals to me. I’m a student of the macabre and Worrell knows how to tick my boxes.

Anyway, going back to the office job, the narrator’s co-workers have set up camp in the woods, right by the river, as what I have to imagine as like a team-building thing, although why these are called “pleasure” camps eludes me. Not that the narrator is enthused about this either. “At night these camps were a string of sparkling lights and tiny, leaping campfires, and the tinkle of music carried faintly far across the calmly flowing water. That far bank of the river was no place for an eccentric, solitary man to love.” Wandering off on his own, the narrator comes to the canal by the river, filled with mostly stagnant water, and oddly smelling of decay—and it’s here that the plot really kicks into motion.

There’s a boat in the canal, stationary, not going anywhere in the stagnant water, and on that boat is a woman, more beautiful than any the narrator has seen before. We don’t get the woman’s name, but we know that her power to seduce is strong and that something is not right about her; given that I’ve said before that this is a vampire tale, you can guess what that something is. What’s important, though, is that for our solitary young man this is practically love at first sight, even though the woman is acting strange: for one, she won’t let him get on the boat. She’s also nocturnal, only coming out of the boat at night; meanwhile her father guards the boat by day while she sleeps. Nothing to see here!

The following exchange, in which the woman explains her arrangement with her father (whom we don’t see), is pretty odd:

“In the night time, my father sleeps. In the daytime, I sleep. How could I talk to you, or introduce you to my father then? If you came on board this boat in the daytime, you would find my father—and you would be sorry. As for me, I would be sleeping. I could never introduce you to my father, do you see?”

“You sleep soundly, you and your father.” Again there was pique in my voice.

“Yes, we sleep soundly.”

“And always at different times?”

“Always at different times. We are on guard—one of us is always on guard. We have been hardly used, down there in your city. And we have taken refuge here. And we are always—always—on guard.”

I dunno, man.

The woman and her father used to live in the city, but no longer—for reasons the woman is conspicuously vague about. The point is that both the woman and the narrator find the city oppressive (for different reasons, as it turns out), and at first this sounds like a match made in heaven. Both are solitary, fed up with the fuss and conformity of urban life, and very goth. Without knowing what he’s getting into, the narrator swears allegiance to the woman and promises to meet her only at the time and place she wants, which, ya know, is not something a rational person ought to do.

There’s a good deal of gripe about with regards to the narrator’s stupidity, but I have to give props to Worrell for not shying away from the erotic aspect of vampires, which is virtually always there anyway. The vampire as seducer goes back to at least Carmilla (who gets bonus points for lesbianism), and it’s a tradition that would be well held up in Weird Tales but not so much in Unknown, partly for reasons of subverting tradition but also because the latter magazine is considerably more puritanical. At least here the narrator, despite his “eccentric” demeanor, is very much in love and, more implicitly, is very much horny. The narrator’s struggle (by his own admission) to think straight is what allows there to be conflict with stakes at all.

The setup is simple. There are only two characters worth anything, maybe a third if you count the narrator’s pesky co-worker. Worrell turns what almost feels like a one-act play into a short story with a real atmosphere of its own, even if it could also work on the stage. There is one thing, however, that would be hard to do justice on the stage, and that’s the ending—the thing that August Derleth meddled with for the story’s first book appearance, possibly with or without Worrell’s input (we’re not sure on that). As such, since it’s easily the most unexpected element, I’ll discuss the ending and not much else in the spoilers section.

There Be Spoilers Here

The woman being a vampire is not a twist; for one “The Canal” is consistently labeled as a vampire story, but even if you didn’t know that the woman being a vampire is extremely telegraphed. The narrator hears about a vampire victim (bite on the neck and everything) from his co-worker and to his horror it lines up with the woman’s own story of fleeing the city. Upon remembering his vampire lore like a good goth boy (especially the part about vampires not being able to cross running water), the narrator concludes that he’s fallen head over heels for a dark creature of the night. The father being dead (as in dead dead, not undead) is a good twist, though. For some reason the woman did not turn her father into a vampire; he helped her out of the city, “but died without becoming like her.” The backstory for the woman is never entirely given away, which I like, since there remains at least a bit of mystery and frankly you can’t have a good horror yarn without some questions left unanswered.

I think the ending itself is too short. After the vampires break out and infiltrate the camp site, we’re given very little time when the narrator attests to planting dynamite along the canal and killing himself once he’s done his job. This is a lot to lay on a reader in the space of a single page. While the narrator committing suicide and doing a little bit of terrorism is alluded to at the beginning of the story, there’s basically no transition between the attack on the camp site in the climax and the narrator’s resolve to get rid of the vampires at the very end. Still, this is at least more unconventional than the ending Derleth gave us for the “revised” edition, in which apparently the narrator kills the woman with a stake mid-embrace, which is more romantic but also more cliched for vampire fiction.

A Step Farther Out

I liked it. It didn’t reinvent the wheel or anything. This is the first original Weird Tales story we’re covering and it definitely feels like one, being overtly Gothic, even namedropping Edgar Allan Poe, and balancing a mix of horror with barely suppressed sexual angst. It’s lurid: the whole plot kicks off because the narrator gets a boner over meeting a chick in the woods this one time. I’m also mixed on the ending, but at the very least I can’t say it was expected; the woman being a vampire is obvious from the get-go, but the ending is… not. With all that said, if I have to read another vampire story in the next month, after having reviewed like three of the damn things last October, I’m gonna [YASS] myself.

See you next time.


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