Thursday, October 24, 2019

"Man-Size in Marble" (1887)

I first knew of E. Nesbit as a children's author when I was a kid, by way of Edward Eager novels, but I never found any of her books (the E is for Edith) when I looked for them at my public libraries in the '60s. I never knew anything about her. I didn't know she was a woman. I wasn't even sure she was real. I barely understood she also wrote horror fiction though later I remembered her name in anthologies—it rang a bell, that was all. I never made the connection until recently. Her biography suggests her wide-ranging interests and the wild intellectual churn of her life, as she wrote continually for money, cofounded the socialist Fabian Society in England, bore three children and adopted others her husband had by another woman (who also lived with them), and collaborated with others as well as writing her own fiction for children and adults, horror stories, memoirs, and poetry. This story is one of her first and may be her most famous among the horror stories (with "John Charrington's Wedding," which is at least as good). "Man-Size in Marble" is remarkable not so much for its tale, more competent than inspired, but for some of the details and especially for its voice, which is deceptively easygoing yet bracing, seething, almost caustic when read in a feminist frame. She's an obvious source for Shirley Jackson. "Although every word of this story is as true as despair, I do not expect people to believe it," she begins. It's a man's voice—a newlywed, in fact—but the clear-eyed feminist revolutionary writing the story obviously understands the painful ironies of social double standards, signaling from behind over his shoulder. Many Nesbit horror stories feature relationships between men and women but they are rarely this happy. He is a painter and his wife a writer. They are bohemians, for all their youth, bright and sophisticated but unable to afford London. Their requirements for a cottage in the country—sanitary and picturesque—take some work but are finally met in a small village in the marshy southeast of England.

I say the story is uninspired but that's not exactly true. The premise is unusual—it would be interesting to learn Nesbit's genesis of it. There's a church in the village, and in the church are two statues, about which there is an extraordinary All Saints' Eve legend. The couple's housekeeper, Mrs. Dornan, refuses to be there for the occasion, quitting her job if she has to but saying she's happy to return the week after. The narrator is more focused on the inconvenience first and then on his amusement at the way Mrs. Dornan expresses herself. He refers to the statues in the church as "effigies of the knights in armor" but she has another way of putting it: "'I mean them two bodies, drawed out man-size in marble,' she returned, and I had to admit that her description was a thousand times more graphic than mine, to say nothing of a certain weird force and uncanniness about the phrase 'drawed out man-size in marble.'" The narrator also likes, when Mrs. Dornan gets to the legend itself, how she says they "sits up on their slabs, and gets off of them, and then walks down the aisle, in their marble." I like how actively he misses the point (and the danger) and yet how understandable that is—it's classic horror stuff. We know perfectly well this is heavy foreshadowing, that it's a horror story and these things will happen. And as ridiculous as they are, Nesbit finds a new way to drive home the perversity of horror (and her rage) with an ice-cold voice that verges on brutality in the recounting and a strange detail that only unfolds in its terrible implications. In a hand of the dead woman, the narrator's wife, is a finger from one of the statues which is found in the church next day broken overnight. By the evidence, the thing was raping her in its marble. And she fought.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Read story online.

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