Thursday, August 01, 2019

"The Screaming Skull" (1908)

I can only guess what this F. Marion Crawford story is doing in the Vampire Tales collection because I don't actually detect any vampire elements beyond some loose interpretation of the term "undead," which is never used or even implied here. No ruby red lips, in other words. If anything it's a ghost or haunted house story—specifically, haunted bedroom. But you can see from the big roundup below that it's enormously popular even in my relatively small sample. It's often hailed for its device of the hysterical first-person narrator, though I'm not sure how it can be called an innovation when you consider Edgar Allan Poe's even more widely anthologized "Tell-Tale Heart" from 1843. "The Screaming Skull" is an improvement on that score, and often wonderfully well done, I'll give it that. But this great strength can also become the greatest weakness, in both stories. "The Screaming Skull" is a little long and can drone on implausibly. The first-person narrator is speaking to another person, or believes he is, which leads to awkward constructions just trying to hold the concept together, e.g., "You want to know whether I stayed in the house till daybreak?"

So what exactly is this one-sided Bob Newhart routine all about? As far as I'm concerned, it's the premise that makes this story more than the narrative strategy. There's a skull. And it screams. That's it. Everything else is window dressing. Here's a short passage that has it all, good and bad:

You ask me why I don't throw it into the pond—yes, but please don't call it a "confounded bugbear"—it doesn't like being called names.
There! Lord, what a shriek!

It's so simple, so audacious, so ridiculous, so impossible, so thoroughly hammered home. It's not exactly scary, or even that uncanny, though it's certainly weird. Much of it, the best of it, is almost perfectly vexing, like an I Love Lucy episode. It's closer to the kind of comedy the Evil Dead movies trafficked in. The screaming skull screams even when you talk about it in another room—even when you think about it sometimes. (Perhaps the telepathy is what wins it its vampire wings.) It definitely screams when you try to move it from the cabinet in the master bedroom, and if you leave it there it makes random grumbling noises all night and wakes you every morning at 3:17 a.m. The screaming disturbs the help and makes it impossible to keep the place adequately staffed. If you try to throw it away—you can't throw it away. It's like a booger. There's a macabre backstory driving all this divine foolishness as much as the proof of concept, like what happens when you try to get rid of it. The skull belongs to a woman who is connected to the narrator. In fact, he has inherited the mansion she and her husband once lived in. She was killed by her husband in a notably grotesque manner. My skull would be screaming for all eternity too if I were done that way. The narrator blames himself (and evidently so does the screaming skull) because he suggested the manner of murder in a lighthearted way to the couple at a dinner party. He didn't know the husband was actually going to do it!

It's fair to say "The Screaming Skull" looks forward to H.P. Lovecraft, at least insofar as it pounds the implausible until we relent and believe. It doesn't matter how unlikely it might seem at first, whether screaming skull in the bedroom cabinet (like, where are the vocal cords even?) or writhing octopus head in outer space, they strike the grim and hysterical tone and pile on the hideous detail. Crawford was a bit older and more into ghosts but he was often good with hideous detail—another famous story by him, "The Upper Berth" from 1885, is more conventional in some ways, but uniquely tactile in its effects—the ghost is aboard a ship at sea and can be touched and felt. "The Screaming Skull" may go on a little too long (also like Lovecraft and not like "The Upper Berth") but it's anthologized all over the place for multiple good reasons and counts as essential.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Realms of Darkness, ed. Mary Danby (out of print)
Vampire Tales: The Big Collection, pub. Dark Chaos
The Weird, ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Read story online.

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