Thursday, May 07, 2020

"Thirteen at Table" (1916)

Here is Lord Dunsany doing a ghost story—a pretty good one, typically very short and things out of whack. The usual absurd cruelties work to turn this one into a kind of situation comedy. Never mind about the frame story. On the last day of hunting season the last fox leads the last hunter (and the narrator of this story) on a merry chase all day long and into the gloaming, literally over hill and dale. He never gets it either. Now it's so late he's not going to make it home before dark. He and his assistant and horses must find shelter for the night. Fortunately, their last glimpse of the fox leads them to a strange mansion: "no avenue led up to it or even a path nor were there signs of wheel-marks anywhere." But there's a light in the window so the hunter approaches and knocks. A shabby butler announces him to Sir Richard Arlen, who declines to put him up. The hunter blusters and demands accommodation. Sir Richard politely changes his mind and announces dinner is served at 7:30, in 30 minutes. It's a gloomy scene at the dinner table, "quite in keeping with Sir Richard's first remark to me after he entered the room: 'I must tell you, sir, that I have led a wicked life. O, a very wicked life.'" The dining room is drafty but that's actually ghosts arriving, each one greeted by name by Sir Richard. The hunter decides he must be insane. As dinner is served, it's thus the hunter, Sir Richard, and the ghosts of a group of apparently quarrelsome women seated at table. After the second glass of champagne the hunter decides to humor Sir Richard and pretends to have conversations with the ghosts, who appear to him at best only as shadowy patches of smoky darkness. Eventually he's drunk and raving about the fox he hunted that day. "I was pleased to be able to make the party go off well by means of my conversation, and besides that the lady to whom I was speaking was extremely pretty: I do not mean in a flesh and blood kind of way but there were little shadowy lines about the chair beside me that hinted at an unusually graceful figure when Miss Rosalind Smith was alive." This mostly goes toward convincing us he is drunk, as well as placating his host, but we also know it's a horror story, or at least a ghost story, so these things could be real. Eventually the hunter feels comfortable enough to joke with them, and eventually he somehow insults them all, and they leave the table in a huff. The result is that Sir Richard is freed from his curse and very grateful. The story is neatly done all the way up to and including the Last Supper connotations.

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