The Turn of the Screw (Henry James, 1898)

Everybody’s heard of it. The title is intriguing and mysterious and memorable. But, oh… Henry James… I read “The Turn of the Screw” in college and was surprised and disappointed by the dullness of it. Then, after I read James’ The American, I swore never to touch anything by him again.

Fast forward some decades: OK, well, I thought, maybe time had effected a change and I should try “Turn of the Screw” again. I heard somewhere that no young person could properly appreciate James. You had to be seasoned by age to really get his work. Um-hm.

On to the story, then. A young woman (we never learn her name) tells us how she was hired to be governess of two orphans who live at their uncle’s country estate, under the care of some servants, while he lives permanently in London. Her first-person narrative describes how she arrives and takes charge of young Flora and Miles, giving clues, at the same time, that all is not right with her, in terms of mental stability. Her attraction to the children is intense: Miles is “incredibly beautiful,” he has a “positive fragrance of purity,” he is “something divine,” and she feels a “passion of tenderness” for him, etc.

She walks the grounds of the estate in the evening, fantasizing about meeting a handsome man and then she sees an unfamiliar figure standing on the battlements of the house’s tower, staring at her with disturbing intensity. She immediately wonders if the house has a mystery of Udolfo or a hidden relative kept in confinement.

In a passage that calls to mind “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator says:

There were hours, from day to day — or at least there were moments, snatched even from clear duties — when I had to shut myself up to think. It was not so much yet that I was more nervous than I could bear to be as that I was remarkably afraid of becoming so; for the truth I had now to turn over was, simply and clearly, the truth that I could arrive at no account whatever of the visitor with whom I had been so inexplicably and yet, as it seemed to me, so intimately concerned. It took little time to see that I could sound without forms of inquiry and without exciting remark any domestic complication. The shock I had suffered must have sharpened all my senses; I felt sure, at the end of three days and as the result of mere closer attention, that I had not been practiced upon by the servants…

Her concern about being nervous and her belief in her senses being sharpened are surely a deliberate echo of the mad narrator in Poe’s story; she also invites comparison to Northanger Abbey‘s Catherine Morland — if Catherine were prone to actually making herself see and believe in characters from her beloved gothic horror novels.

She sees the man again, and becomes convinced that he is a ghost, and then she sees another ghost, becomes convinced the children see the ghosts but pretend not to, and constructs a horrific but only vaguely-hinted-at plot of the ghosts to take possession of the children. It is a complex narrative and cannot be quickly summarized while doing full justice to the chain of events.

The story has a reputation for being ambiguous — that is, creating doubt whether the narrator is mad or the ghosts actually exist. But it seems to me that James carefully gives us all the evidence that we need in order to know that the narrator is deluded. The cleverness of the story is in letting the narrator herself tell us, unintentionally, that she is out of touch with reality.

Some readers find this story psychologically thrilling. I still find it to be trying, and somewhat of a bore. Give it a shot, and see what your reaction is. It’s subtle; if you prefer to imagine your horrors into a story, this is for you.

Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book (M. R. James, 1895)

A Cambridge academic, Dennistoun, comes to a little French town to study and photograph the old cathedral — its stalls, organ, choir screen, and other treasures. The sacristan, who opens the church and stays with him during the hours that it takes to record and observe everything, is a nervous — very nervous — man:

[He had] a curiously furtive, or rather hunted and oppressed air. He was perpetually half-glancing behind him; the muscles of his back and shoulders seemed to be hunched in a continual nervous contraction, as if he were expecting every moment to find himself in the clutch of an enemy.

A not-unfounded expectation, unfortunately.

Dennistoun, although he hears sounds — “curious noises, muffled footfalls and distant talking voices,” puts these down as merely the “strange noises that trouble a large empty building” and inwardly speculates that the cause of the sacristan’s nervousness may be that he is a henpecked husband.

Finally, Dennistoun’s work is done and the two leave the church. Outside, the sacristan hesitantly broaches the subject of whether Dennistoun would be interested in seeing an old book. As a matter of fact, Dennistoun dreams of finding a rare book, and is curious enough to accompany the old man to his house. To his delight, Dennistoun is shown a wonderful treasure, a collection of very old illuminated manuscript pages taken from different medieval volumes, assembled by a former canon of the cathedral more than 200 years earlier. He buys it at a price that is much less than its value and takes it back to his hotel room, leaving the sacristan a noticeably happier man. Dennistoun, however, as he sits leafing through his newly acquired treasure, begins to feel uncomfortable, as though someone were behind him.

M. R. James is a master of the creepy tale, and, as with all his stories, this one is more rewarding the more you pay attention to the details. Old Canon Alberic, compiler of the scrapbook and ancestor of the current sacristan, has left a note at the end of the book that gives the reader a clue to his downfall:

12 Dec. 1694. It was asked: Shall I find it? Answer: Thou shalt. Shall I become rich? Thou wilt. Shall I live an object of envy? Thou wilt. Shall I die in my bed? Thou wilt.

Another pleasure of a James story is the author’s subtle, dark humor. It must be admitted that most writers of ghost stories find themselves unable to be both frightening and witty: James can do both. As Dennistoun browses the scrapbook, alone in his hotel room, he overflows a bit with gratitude to the man who was the creator of the treasure he has purchased:

“Bless Canon Alberic!” said Dennistoun, who had an inveterate habit of talking to himself. “I wonder where he is now! … Dear me! I wish that landlady would learn to laugh in a more cheering manner. It makes one feel as if there was someone dead in the house.”

The one who was struck with mirth at Dennistoun’s words knows exactly where Canon Alberic is.

The Judge’s House (Bram Stoker, 1890)

University student Malcolm Malcolmson’s examinations are coming up and he needs a quiet place to study. No distractions. A place, he decides, where he knows nobody, so he won’t be tempted to spend any time with friends. He doesn’t even want his friends to know where he is.

A little extreme? Just wait. He buys a train ticket for a town he’s never heard of, three hours away, a sleepy little town called Benchurch. He stays one night in a quiet, respectable little inn and, the next day, looks for a place even more isolated:

There was only one place which took his fancy… in fact, quiet was not the proper word to apply to it — desolation was the only term conveying any suitable idea of its isolation. It was an old, rambling, heavy-built house of the Jacobean style, with heavy gables and windows… surrounded with a high brick wall massively built… His joy was increased when he realized beyond doubt that it was not at present inhabited.

Not by humans, anyway.

The real estate agent is glad to rent it to him. No one else will take it, for there is an “absurd prejudice” against the place.

The landlady of the inn… threw up her hands in amazement when he told her where he was going to settle himself. “Not in the Judge’s House!” she said, and grew pale.

Malcolmson is amused by her concern and by her attempts to talk him out of it. Right about now, is anyone starting to think that this foolish young man deserves whatever he gets?

He takes up residence in the house, fixing his study area in the house’s great dining room. The great number of rats scurrying about in the walls and their little eyes glittering in the holes they’ve chewed in the paneling don’t bother him. He does become annoyed at the enormous, cocky rat that emerges and sits itself down on the seat of an oak chair by the fireplace, “steadily glaring at him with baleful eyes.” He throws his books at the creature to scare it away, and only the final volume has the desired effect:

[The rat] gave a terrified squeak, and turning on his pursuer a look of terrible malevolence, ran up the chair-back and made a great jump to the rope of the alarm bell and ran up it like lightning… He picked up the books one by one, commenting on them as he lifted them. “Conic Sections he does not mind, nor Cycloid Oscillations, nor the Principia, nor Quaternions, nor Thermodynamics. Now for a look at the book that fetched him!” Malcolm took it up and looked at it.

It is the Bible given to him by his mother.

Undeterred, he continues his residence in this nice, secluded study nook. Ooh, he is just asking for it, isn’t he?

You can find the story here. An audio version is here. An illustration by Edward Gorey: here. This story is widely available and easy to find; it’s in many anthologies and Bram Stoker collections.

On the fear-meter, this ranks 8 out of 10. Higher, if your relationship with rats is a little uneasy.

What is a ghost story?

The ghost of Caesar appears to Brutus

The angry ghost of Caesar appears to Brutus

Looking for a definition, I found in the Oxford Companion to English Literature that a ghost story is a narrative that has as its central theme “the power of the dead to return and confront the living.”

This definition captures the heart of this kind of story, but it leaves out such supernatural creatures as demons, witches, and other spectral creatures that aren’t the returned dead. The Oxford entry goes on to cite “Green Tea” as an example of a ghost story, and yet it must be pointed out that the demonic monkey is certainly not a ghost. I would group stories of ghosts and demons together as “ghost stories.”

Should Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” be considered a ghost story? I was inclined not to, and then my husband pointed out that it is all about the dead returning to confront the living — albeit in a psychological sense. So yes, it can be encompassed in the genre, I think. (Who would want to exclude such a terrific story, if you didn’t have to?)

Guilt is one of the powerful drivers of a ghost story. The ghost may return to avenge its murder (as “The Tell-Tale Heart”, Stevenson’s “The Grave Robber”, Le Fanu’s “The Familiar” and many others). Or the ghost may be the guilty party, tormented and driven to reveal its crime (Le Fanu’s “Madame Crowl’s Ghost”), or simply tied to the scene of its crime as punishment. Sometimes the ghost, who when alive was guilty of terrible crimes, continues to commit his evil deeds as a malevolent spirit (“The Judge’s House” by Bram Stoker; “Count Magnus” by M. R. James).

There are ghosts (fearsome but not malevolent) who warn of impending death (Le Fanu’s “The White Cat of Drumgunniol”; Dickens’ “The Signalman”) — similar to a banshee, although in the Le Fanu story, at least, the spirit cat differs from a banshee in that it began to haunt the family as the result of a deadly crime and continues to haunt the innocent descendents of the perpetrator.

More discussion of what makes a ghost story, and what the ghost story implies, to follow.

Green Tea (Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, 1869)

It’s been a rough week, in terms of having time for blogging. I’ve still been reading new stories, but haven’t written about them. A ghost story or two each night… I’ve had some unsettling dreams, and one story in particular (“Madame Crowl’s Ghost” by Le Fanu) I would not recommend to anyone else for that time slot right before sleep. It is interesting to notice how potent the subtleties of a ghost story can be.

So! Moving along now. Setting is so important to a ghost story, isn’t it? Darkness is perhaps the most common and important ingredient for fear. We can’t see what’s there. We imagine… and we can imagine things that we fear the most, even if we don’t fear them in the daylight. But there are other parts to setting: castles, old houses, uninhabited houses, wilderness or waste (see Blackwood, or Edwards’ “The Phantom Coach”)–wherever there aren’t a lot of other people around, because we become much braver about the supernatural when we have company.

How about on a bus? Seems unpromising. But just read “Green Tea” — I swear it has the most chilling scene you will ever read, when the Rev. Mr. Jennings is the last passenger still in the vehicle, going home at twilight. Yes, I’m going to quote it, and you should stop here if you think this will spoil it for you:

The interior of the omnibus was nearly dark. I had observed in the corner opposite to me at the other side, and at the end next the horses, two small circular reflections, as it seemed to me of a reddish light. They were about two inches apart, and about the size of those small brass buttons that  yachting men used to put upon their jackets. I began to speculate, as listless men will, upon this trifle, as it seemed. From what centre did that faint but deep red light come, and from what — glass beads, buttons, toy decorations — was it reflected? … these two luminous points, with a sudden jerk, descended nearer and nearer the floor, keeping still their relative distance and horizontal position, and then, as suddenly, they rose to the level of the seat on which I was sitting and I saw them no more.
My curiosity was now really excited and, before I had time to think, I saw again these two dull lamps, again together near the floor; again they disappeared, and again in their old corner I saw them.
So, keeping my eyes upon them, I edged quietly up my own side, towards the end at which I still saw these tiny discs of red.
There was very little light in the bus. It was nearly dark. I leaned forward to aid my endeavor to discover what these little circles really were. They shifted position a little as I did so. I began to perceive an outline of something black, and I soon saw the outline of a small black monkey, pushing its face forward in mimicry to meet mine; those were its eyes, and I now dimly saw its teeth grinning at me.

Augh! And, as it becomes clear, it’s not a real monkey, but a spectral one, and it’s here to stay with poor Rev. Jennings.

And, let me conclude, that green tea, curiously, did not then have attributed to it the healthful effects that it now does.

Wandering Willie’s Tale (Sir Walter Scott, 1824)

Pursuit and capture of a Covenanter

Pursuit and capture of a Covenanter

This one was new to me, and it’s a fine tale. Sir Robert Redgauntlet, 17th century Scottish laird under Charles II, is an enthusiastic persecutor of Covenanters (Scottish Presbyterians, see this):

Glen, nor dargle, nor mountain, nor cave, could hide the puir hill-folk when Redgauntlet was out with bugle and bloodhound after them, as if they had been sae mony deer. And troth when they fand them they didna mak muckle mair ceremony than a Hielandman wi’ a roebuck — it was just “Will ye tak the test?” — if not, “Make ready — present — fire!” — and there lay the recusant.

Steenie Steenson, tenant of Sir Robert and a favorite piper of the laird, is not good at managing his money and is two terms behind in his rent. Called to pay, Steenie knows he’d better come up with the money or flee. Redgauntlet is not a man anyone cares to anger, “for the oaths that he swore, and the rage that he used to get into, and the looks that he put on, made men sometimes think him a devil incarnate.”

Steenie borrows the money and goes off to the castle to pay up. He is taken to see the laird, who has with him his pet monkey, humorously named Major Weir (his namesake was a notorious wizard). Unfortunately, after he’s handed over his bag of silver to Sir Robert, and before he’s received his receipt, the laird, ill with gout and kidney stones, has an attack. The scene is striking and horrible enough to quote:

Sir Robert gied a yelloch that garr’d the castle rock. Back ran Dougal — in flew the livery-men — yell on yell gied the laird, ilk ane mair awfu’ than the ither… Terribly the laird roared for cauld water to his feet, and wine to cool his throat; and Hell, hell, hell, and its flames was ay the word in his mouth. They brought him water, and when they plunged his swollen feet into the tub, he cried out it was burning; and folk say that it did bubble and sparkle like a seething cauldron. He flung the cup at Dougal’s head and said he had given him blood instead of burgundy; and, sure eneugh, the lass washed clotted blood aff the carpet the neist day. The jackanape they caa’d Major Weir, it jibbered and cried as if it was mocking its master; [Steenie’s] head was like to turn — he forgot baith siller and receipt, and downstairs he banged; but as he ran, the shrieks came faint and fainter; there was a deep-drawn shivering groan, and word gaid through the castle that the laird was dead.

Steenie is called to account for the overdue rent by Sir Robert’s heir, arriving from Edinburgh after his father’s death — and there is no witness, and no record of the payment, and no sign of the silver itself. It would be criminal to summarize the entire story, because it would ruin the reading experience. “Wandering Willie’s Tale” is found in many anthologies of ghost stories and is also online at Bartleby’s. The Scottish dialect should pose little difficulty, as most words can be understood simply by pronouncing them aloud, and context should suggest the meaning of the rest. But if you need to look up, say, yett or tass, go here and third down on the right is the Scots dictionary.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Washington Irving, 1820)

Ichabod Crane meets the headless horseman

Ichabod Crane meets the headless horseman

I was jotting a list of ghost stories to read in October — or revisit, if a favorite — and for that purpose I also found a short history of the genre. It seems that Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a landmark in the early development of the ghost story. (That’s not to say that supernatural stories haven’t been around for a much longer time, of course.) I’m not going to worry about definitions yet, and I’m perfectly happy to start with such a famous and favored tale.

This is a leisurely story that takes its time at the outset to establish a vividly drawn setting — Tarrytown and nearby Sleepy Hollow, a farming community on the banks of the Hudson, its population descended from the original Dutch settlers:

Some say that the place was bewitched by a high German doctor, during the early days of the settlement; others, that an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his pow-wows there… Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power… The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions… including the apparition of a figure on horseback without a head.

Ichabod Crane is not a native of the area, but came there from Connecticut to serve as schoolmaster. I delight so in the picture that is drawn of him that I’ll quote that, too:

He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose , so that it looked like a weather-cock, perched upon his spindle neck, to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.

We get to know him in his professional aspect as the schoolmaster who doesn’t spare the rod on young scholars who displease him (the “little, tough, wrong-headed, broad-skirted Dutch urchin, who sulked and swelled and grew dogged and sullen beneath the birch”); who befriends those students  with mothers or sisters who are good cooks and generous with food; and who is an enthusiastic consumer of ghost stories during long winter evenings, and a firm believer in witchcraft, the supernatural, omens, and awful portents.

By the difficulty I have in refraining from quoting from nearly every paragraph, I hope it is apparent that there is much pleasure to be derived from the story in the way it is told, in its witty language and vigorous images.

Ichabod falls in love with the farmhouse and wealth of a prosperous farmer, Mynheer Van Tassel — er, with Van Tassel’s lovely daughter Katrina, “plump as a partridge; ripe and melting and rosy cheeked as one of her father’s peaches.” And in his courting he is edging out his nearest rival, the roystering Brom Bones, athletic, skilled in horsemanship, and mischievous. Likable as Ichabod is, as an entertaining character, his designs on Katrina are not an outcome to be hoped for: he fantasizes about selling this beautiful, bountiful farm for a good sum after Katrina inherits it, and striking out west.

On an autumn day, Ichabod receives an invitation from Van Tassel to come that evening to a party, a “quilting frolic” with lots of food and merrymaking. Needless to say, he attends, and along with the food Ichabod gets a full helping of hair-raising ghost stories among the men. And then… he has to go home in the dark. LOL.

OK, most of us have an idea of what happens in the climax, because the story is just part of the season. And yet few people have actually read it. The story is readily available — go take it off the shelf or check it out from the library or download it onto your reader. Like “Betsy Murphy,” the story that I remember my father telling me when I was young, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” will only scare the very young, and that scare will be pleasurable. Adults will find a sophisticated and funny story, in entertainment value well worth the reading.

Season of Mists and Hauntings

When the days are getting chilly and the nights long, I start turning to ghost stories. The time has to be right: it must be dark outside, and fairly late, and I in bed, with one bedside light. And then, in the quiet, I open an M. R. James volume, or Le Fanu, or Blackwood…

The earliest story I can remember being told as a young child was a ghost story. My father would sit down on the bed and I’d request the story by name: “Tell me ‘Betsy Murphy’!” My father told it in first person, as something that had happened to him, and as I remember it went like this:

“Well, I had to walk home in the dark one night, and as I was coming across a field I came to a fence and there were some turkeys sitting on top of the fence. They were so tame that none of them flew away when I came up; they just sat there and looked at me. And I thought one of them would make a good dinner and I took the largest one and tucked it under my arm and went on toward home. And just as I was getting close to the house, that turkey looked up at me and said, ‘You’ve carried old Betsy far enough, haven’t you?'”

Usually, that was the end, although sometimes my father added that he dropped the turkey and ran. But he loved to deliver that final question with menace, although there was always a hint of a smile, too, and he plainly thought that was the proper conclusion.

The story fascinated me, I guess, because I was never quite sure of my own attitude toward it. Betsy Murphy was not a cheery Disney-style talking animal; she made me uneasy, and yet she hadn’t done anything terrible, exactly — she had just talked. Every time I heard the story, I considered again the scene: the dark, lonely field and the preternaturally tame bird sitting on the fence, looking back at my father.

From my adult standpoint now, the story seems to be about witchcraft, and I would guess the story is very old, certainly not original to my father. It seems allied to those European tales of witches who could transform themselves into animal shapes to work harm on their neighbors or consort with other demonic beings.

“Betsy Murphy” still has that uneasy mix of understated fear and humor that I found in it as a child, when it gave me chills but not nightmares. Sometimes I laughed at the end; sometimes not. For a story that took only a minute or two to tell, it nevertheless had an element of ambiguity that made it more than a tale quickly told and forgotten.

I’ll be revisiting some favorite ghost stories and looking for some new ones during October, to keep me entertained in the late hour before sleep.