Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Dickens and Collins trade ghost stories

The Dickens-Collins team gave us a well-made, amusing little murder story in the 1867 “No Thoroughfare.”  In an earlier collaboration, the 1857* “The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices,” they abandoned any attempt at structure or sense and just let each author do his thing.  What things they do.

Following familiar types, Francis Goodchild thinks idleness means mountain climbing, scuba diving, and other vigorous non-productive activities, while Thomas Idle just wants to sit on the beach all day, or even better to sit by the hotel pool, since the beach is so far away, or best of all, why leave your room at all?  These two wander around northwest England.  That is more or less the frame.

Goodchild is sort of Dickens and Idle is kind of Collins.  They really did go on a tour of that region.  The division of labor is that Dickens writes the Goodchild parts and Collins writes the Idle parts.  Dickens writes about the characters climbing a mountain, much against Idle’s desires, while Collins writes about them coming down the mountain, giving Idle a terrible strain, his punishment for doing anything active, or else his gift since now he no longer has to climb any more mountains.

Dickens writes a ghost story, a good silly one, in which a hanged man tells of his crimes.  Here he is, just before Goodchild figures out he is a ghost (the reader will likely be way ahead of him):

His cravat appeared to trouble him.   He put his hand to his throat, and moved his neck from side to side.   He was an old man of a swollen character of face, and his nose was immovably hitched up on one side, as if by a little hook inserted in that nostril.   Mr. Goodchild felt exceedingly uncomfortable, and began to think the night was hot, and not cold.  (Ch. IV)

Collins has his own ghost story, although, following his Sensational method, there is in the end no ghost.  A man spends the night in a hotel room with a corpse.  I wonder if at some point it will seem to move:

When he looked at the bed, now, he saw, hanging over the side of it, a long white hand.
It lay perfectly motionless, midway on the side of the bed, where the curtain at the head and the curtain at the foot met.  Nothing more was visible.  The clinging curtains hid everything but the long white hand.

And so on.  Not bad.

My favorite Collins bit is midway through Chapter III, when we learn why Idle is so idle.  He reflects on three “disasters” in his life, three times when he made “the mistake of having attempted to be industrious” and was met with nothing but suffering.  “He had forfeited the comfortable reputation of being the one lazy member of the youthful community whom it was quite hopeless to punish.”  Poor fellow.  The few pages could be made into an Idler’s Manifesto if that did not take so much effort.

One last thing tomorrow, a bit of prime Dickens.

*  Yesterday I for some unknown reason put the story in 1868.  It comes last in the Oxford Christmas Stories book.  Maybe that confused me.


  1. Thank you for the Dickens-Collins postings. I am intrigued. And my "must read" list has gotten longer. All the best from the purveyor of odds-n-ends at "a commonplace from eastrod."

  2. Oh good. I thought this piece would be a breeze, but it was a struggle.

    I see that you are back in the blogging business. Good luck, have fun, the usual stuff. I wish you a series of good books.

  3. Thank you for the good wishes.
    Although the outward appearance of my blog would seem to suggest it is Flannery O'Connor from wall-to-wall, I promise diversified content. I am a reader with eclectic "tastes," and I never know what I might be raving over from one week to the next. But for, I am on the verge of becoming a Dickens-Collins fan again. Thanks for the motivation.

  4. I normally read one of the Christmas Books over Christmas, but I was dipping into my 2-volume edition of Christmas Stories - which includes both these collaborations with Collins.

    Dickens loved all things to do with this season, and that includes the ghost story, but it wasn't really a genre that came naturally to him. His imagination was too whimsical and his literary persona (as opposed to his real-life persona) was too genial and warm-hearted to allow him to conjure up the atmosphere of chilly desolation that teh ghost story ideally requires. "The Signalman" is pretty good, yes, but supernatural terror is best evoked by telling less than one could - by implying more than one tells; and Dickens' characteristic maximalist approach tends not to work too well in this context.

    I'm working my way through the Christmas Stories right now. A decidely mixed bag, but with some fine things in them.

  5. The Dickens ghost story in "Lazy Tour" is frankly pretty ridiculous, although that is part of its fun. You are right; Dickens does not minimalize, but rather piles on more stuff.

    The Collins creep show is more of a psychological horror story, and probably more legitimately chilling, in the vein of Poe's obsession with being buried alive.

  6. I've read this book recently as well and I liked it. Some parts were better than others but all the laziness meditations and the walks in the mountains were great fun.

  7. Yes, good. A hodgepodge, but fun to break about and enjoy like a, like a, like a pan of cinnamon rolls.

    Eh, maybe not. I tried.