Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A scary ghost story from Thackeray - HE, I promise you, won't stand any nonsense

I almost forgot to do my Halloween reading, but then I remembered, so tonight’s text is “The Notch on the Ax” by William Makepeace Thackeray, published in 1863 the Cornhill Magazine.  In two parts, I guess, since this is in the dead center of the story:

At this moment the clock (after its previous convulsions) sounded TWELVE.  And as the new Editor of the Cornhill Magazine--and HE, I promise you, won't stand any nonsense--will only allow seven pages, I am obliged to leave off at THE VERY MOST INTERESTING POINT OF THE STORY.

Can you imagine the suspense of the original readers?  I have not said anything about the story, so I suppose not.

This story has everything:  ghosts, Freemasons, mesmerism, Bluebeard, table-rapping, Mary Queen of Scots, artificial limbs, silly accents, a guillotine, a woman named Blanche de Bechamel.  On second thought, there is a lot it does not have.  Thackeray meets an ancient man who tells him a ghost story.  That is the action, more or less.  I read the story in a collection archived at Gutenberg.org which had a prefatory note telling me that “the style of each principal sensational novelist of the day is delightfully imitated.”  The sensation novel had been invented only three years earlier by Wilkie Collins, so this sounded like fun, although I wondered if Collins had a strong enough style for me to recognize a parody, much less that of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, much much less that of some voguish bestseller whose name I do not know.

Who is the writer, for example, who always disguises the names of the “real” characters with dashes – “(of course I don't mention family names)”?  As in

'Captain Brown,' I said 'who could see Miss Sm-th without loving her?'


As he said "Ha!" there came three quiet little taps on the table--it is the middle table in the "Gray's-Inn  Coffee House," under the bust of the late Duke of W-ll-ngt-n. 

Even going so far as to disguise the exact relationship between people:

As I live, he here mentioned dear gr-nny's MAIDEN name.  Her maiden name was ----.  Her honored married name was ----.

"She married your great-gr-ndf-th-r the year Poseidon won the Newmarket Plate," Mr. Pinto dryly remarked.

Maybe this is not meant to be anyone in particular and is just a good gag.

Later, as the part of the story related to the title finally got moving (i.e., why does the little guillotine have a notch in its blade, why does the headless ghost seem so upset with the old man), to my surprise I did recognize the parody.  A fugitive is hiding in a convent in Paris – a clue right there – and is forced (by hypnotism) to leave it.  Lists begin to appear, and paragraphs composed of single sentences, short ones.  Some puzzling precision intrudes.

"And he came to No. 29 in the Rue Picpus--a house which then stood  between a court and garden--

"That is, there was a building of one story, with a great coach door.

"Then there was a court, around which were stables, coach-houses, offices.

"Then there was a house--a two-storied house, with a perron in front.

"Behind the house was a garden--a garden of two hundred and fifty French feet in length.

"And as one hundred feet of France equal one hundred and six feet of England, this garden, my friend, equaled exactly two hundred and sixty-five feet of British measure.

"In the center of the garden was a fountain and a statue--or, to speak more correctly, two statues.  One was recumbent,--a man.  Over him, saber in hand, stood a Woman.

"The man was Olofernes.  The woman was Judith.  From the head, from the trunk, the water gushed.  It was the taste of the doctor:--was it not a droll of taste?

I stop here because this is where I finally figured it out – this is V-ct-r H-g-!  Thackeray is having fun with Les Misérables, which had been both published and heroically translated into English only the year before.  I had not thought of Les Misérables as a sensation novel, but in the English context of course it is.  “If the fashion for sensation novels goes on, I tell you I will write one in fifty volumes” Thackeray promises at the end of the story, but sadly he died later that year.

For somewhat scarier public domain stories, see the Little Professor’s Halloween Horde of Horrible Happenings.  She has been blogging as the Little Professor for ten years now, longer than I have been alive.


  1. This sounds more funny than scary, which makes it better.

  2. Not remotely scary. One might guess that Thackeray's view is that these types of stories are inherently ridiculous more than scary. One might guess that I am projecting my views onto Thackeray.

  3. It annoys me to no end when the author leaves out pertinent vowels to "disguise" names mentioned. That alone is scary reading for the effect it has on my senses! Love, B-ll-zz-

    (See how ridiculous it is?!)

  4. It is such a good joke. Like Th-ck-r-y, I always think, this is supposed to simulate "realism"? Ludicrous.