Saturday, October 29, 2016

they perfectly availed to make what he saw portentous - later Henry James ghosts

Be warned, there’s some scary stuff in this post.  It’s about “The Third Person,” a Henry James ghost story from 1900.

Miss Susan Frush and Miss Amy Frush are second cousins and old maids of the not-so-old variety.  They inherit a house and decide rather than to sell it and split the money to live in it together.  They get along well, except that Miss Susan takes her naps at the wrong time and Miss Amy hogs the sofa cushions.

Does the house come with a ghost?  “Yes; the place was h----- but they stopped at sounding the word.”  A figure with a strange tilt of the head has been appearing in Miss Susan’s bedroom, perhaps an 18th century ancestor who was “’Hanged!’ said Miss Amy – yet almost exultantly.”

Poor Miss Amy, the younger cousin, has not seen the ghost at this point.  The older Miss Frush has, in her bedroom, looking at her, with his oddly bent head.  “’It breaks their neck,’ she [Miss Amy] contributed after a moment.”  Amy begins to sound a bit bloodthirsty, but this is a gentle story of ghostly jealousy.  Poor Amy wants to see the ghost, too.  Why won’t her cousin share it?

Perhaps Amy does not possess the same degree of sublimated sexual hysteria as Susan.  I can imagine a critique of the old maid clichés of this story, but again, the overall effect is gentle.

“The Third Person” ends with an exorcism of the ghost that bookish folk, and who would read this, ought to find pretty funny.  It turns out James was writing a shaggy dog story about international copyright.  Pretty scary!

“The Jolly Corner” is from 1908, but is practically from a different writer.  The style of Late James is fully deployed:

It had belonged to that idea of the exasperated consciousness of his victim to become a real test for him; since he had quite put it to himself from the first that, oh distinctly! he could “cultivate” his whole perception.  (Ch. 2)

And also the Late James concerns, the “Beast in the Jungle” theme.  The ghost in “The Jolly Corner” is the protagonist’s other self, who he would have been if he had stayed in New York City rather than abandoning America for Europe thirty years ago.  He searches for this other self – and encounters it – by prowling around in his childhood home.  This all sounds autobiographical, except that the character for some reason imagines he would have been “monstrous,” and would have damaged eyesight, and would be missing two fingers from his right hand.  Well, maybe that is exactly what James imagined.  It is a very specific vision.

As abstract as the concept might be, the story is actually frightening in the manner of ghost stories, or at least the protagonist is frightened he spends eight or nine pages in the middle absolutely freaked out because a door that he thinks ought to be open is closed.  He nearly throws himself out of a window, he is so scared.  The thickness of the prose meant that I felt like I was with the character, in this condition, for a long time.

It was with these considerations that his present attention was charged – they perfectly availed to make what he saw portentous.

Yes, they do; they did.

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