Thursday, December 17, 2020

"Horror: A True Tale" (1861)

The title and date of publication make it clear this Christmassy horror story by John Berwick Harwood will lean toward the antiquated. Super-popular Charles Dickens in many ways was responsible for yoking together Christmas and spooky stories, not just with the much beloved A Christmas Carol but in many other stories and in his novels as well. Harwood chips in a classic with this one. He published it and many of his ghost stories as by "Anonymous," and it is still often published that way, presumably to make it more convincing as true, which it is not of course, and likely also because of the enduring disreputability of horror. As with much of Dickens (I understand), it may be best enjoyed by listening to someone read it aloud. But you'd better make sure you've got an hour because it does take its time getting to its points, proceeding with the slow-burn approach of ratcheting tension. You have a feeling you know where you are headed and it is also agony getting there. Yes, this story is often overdone, sometimes in comical ways, but it's certainly good for spooky story time around Christmas if anyone is still doing that and has the patience for 19th-century rhythms—indeed, the tradition is part of this story just as the story is part of it. It's a young woman's story told by her as an old woman, recalling the experience that changed her life. It is heavy with setup, foreshadowing, and angst, but eventually pays off well. She was 19. It turned her hair white overnight and made her old and withered. Hair turning white from a bad scare is a detail I remember well from being told ghost stories myself when I was a kid. The story takes place in a mansion, on Christmas Eve, in a house crowded with guests, on a stormy night. There's a family matriarch, the narrator's godmother, whom they want to please. She has had some longstanding grudge against the young woman's family, over something that happened at the narrator's christening. It was the last anyone in the family had seen of her until this Christmas Eve. She also might have paranormal powers but she's more inscrutable than anything. After an evening spent swapping ghost stories, the narrator is exiled off to an isolated chamber next to the lumber room for the night as part of making accommodations for all the guests, and then, well, ghost. And/or possibly an escaped lunatic—this proposed rational explanation actually seems more unlikely than a ghost, but either way the young woman turns 75 overnight. I take it as a ghost, one of those corporeal types, which reliably get right to me, and this is a good version, presented as a kind of silent ravening beast and predator. If I were her, I would have taken her sisters up on their invitation to bunk with them for the night. Now look what's happened. And listen to her story. At Christmastime.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Chillers for Christmas, ed. Richard Dalby (out of print)
Listen to story online (note: I'm not convinced this is a good reading but I'm also not a connoisseur of spoken-word recording).

No comments:

Post a Comment