Thursday, December 19, 2019

"The Crown Derby Plate" (1933)

Marjorie Bowen's story is another ghost story set in the boggy foggy countryside of England at Christmastime. Its single best feature is caught in the opening line: "Martha Pym said that she had never seen a ghost and that she would very much like to do so, 'particularly at Christmas, for you can laugh as you like, that is the correct time to see a ghost.'" Yes, laugh as you like, Christmas is the time for scary ghost stories. Andy Williams sings it in "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." Charles Dickens understood it, and filmmakers from Ingmar Bergman (Fanny and Alexander) to Tim Burton (The Nightmare Before Christmas), though Bob Clark (original mastermind of Black Christmas) may not exactly be getting it. This is an admirably moody story, reminiscent of the stylish Woman in Black movies. Martha Pym, collector of fine china and proprietor of an antique store in London, is on her annual holiday visit to her cousins when she learns an abandoned mansion in the area is now occupied. The previous owner had died there decades before—at the estate sale that followed, Miss Pym had found a nearly complete set of Crown Derby china. It is now her hope that the present resident, whoever it is, may have found the missing plate. Her journey to the mansion and her encounter with the eccentric who lives there is a nicely done set piece of atmosphere. It's not hard to see where it's going but it's still a bit jarring when we get there. Bowen, who is perfectly genteel—the story is really more of a cozy—strikes the creepy note late, with intimations of "that smell," leaving us with a distinct if fleeting sense of the clammy and unpleasant in that mansion. But one reason a Christmas setting can be so effective is that things like "that smell" can just be left to lie there, as the spirit of the gaudy cheerful season presses all forward, jingle bells ringing. It's the contrast, at Christmas. Bowen doesn't even need to mention things like extremes of darkness. Even in 1933 she knows we bring all our own baggage to the story one way or another at this time of year. Merry Christmas all!

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)
Read story online.

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