Thursday, October 18, 2012

It will take a very tangible ghost to frighten me - ghost stories by H. G. Wells and F. Marion Crawford

“The Upper Berth” (1886) by F. Marion Crawford and “The Red Room” (1896) by H. G. Wells.  The titles link the stories – both are in the “spend the night in a haunted house” ghost story sub-genre, sub-sub-genre “haunted room.”  If you are thinking that I’m slicing things a little thin, you are correct.  But I’m not the one who wrote the stories.

Crawford sets his ghost story on a passenger liner, and the haunted room is actually a haunted cabin.  A surprising amount of space is given to the mechanics of a cabin porthole which refuses to stay closed:

My eyes were riveted upon the porthole.  It seemed to me that the brass loop-nut was beginning to turn slowly upon the screw – so slowly, however, that I was not sure it turned at all.

One of the great benefits of the ghost story is that it forces writers to pay such close attention to objects and spaces and movement – a brass loop-nut, you don’t say.  Ghost stories are often so pleasingly material, much like good mysteries.

“The Upper Berth” is written like a mystery, and is a cousin of the “locked room” mystery sub-genre.  The narrator and his assistants dismantle the cabin’s furniture and test the walls to make sure there are no secret passages.  I have been wondering how some of these stories would seem if a reader did not suspect that they were ghost stories.  If I had not encountered Crawford in The English Book of Ghost Stories I might have read it looking for clues to the puzzle rather than signs of the supernatural.  I might have been disappointed by the ending, since an immaterial ghost is not really such an ingenious solution to a locked-room mystery.

Now, to read “The Upper Berth” this way I also would have had to skip the two-page frame in which I am directly told that this is a story about how the narrator saw a ghost.

H. G. Wells is even more direct in “The Red Room,” beginning the story with this:

"I can assure you," said I, "that it will take a very tangible ghost to frighten me."  And I stood up before the fire with a glass in my hand.

"It is your own choosing," said the man with the withered arm, and glanced at me askance.

The first line is pure irony.  The idea that a tangible ghost is more frightening than an intangible one is just the kind of youthful hubris a ghost story is meant to deflate.  This particular narrator, though, unlike Crawford’s, seems to overestimate his steadiness and rationality.  He is practically reduced to hysterics by the shadows in the corridor outside of the haunted room:

A bronze group stood upon the landing hidden from me by a corner of the wall; but its shadow fell with marvelous distinctness upon the white paneling, and gave me the impression of some one crouching to waylay me.  The thing jumped upon my attention suddenly.  I stood rigid for half a moment, perhaps.  Then, with my hand in the pocket that held the revolver, I advanced, only to discover a Ganymede and Eagle, glistening in the moonlight.  That incident for a time restored my nerve, and a dim porcelain Chinaman on a buhl table, whose head rocked as I passed, scarcely startled me.

And we still have another paragraph before he sets foot in the room.  “Scarcely startled” – it’s gonna be a long night, kid.

Wells does something curious and irritating at the very end of the story.  Questioned about his bad night, which had already been described in detail to the story’s reader, the narrator turns to allegory.  What was in the room? 

"The worst of all the things that haunt poor mortal men," said I; "and that is, in all its nakedness --Fear!"

Crawford’s narrator, late in his story, specifically tells us he was frightened.  M. R. James did the same thing; so did Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.  I wonder why this is necessary.


  1. I have been wondering how some of these stories would seem if a reader did not suspect that they were ghost stories.

    Perhaps they'd seem like G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown mystery stories. One of the running gags is that characters offer all sorts of supernatural explanations for murders before the priest, the only rational character, offers a plausible solution.

  2. Yes, that sounds about right.

    That would be a fun week to parallel this one - ask for favorite mystery stories from the Golden Age, Chesterton and Christie and so on. I barely know their work either.