Thursday, June 10, 2021

"A Case of Eavesdropping" (1900)

Here's another good ghost story by Algernon Blackwood, an early one. I'm starting to think I like his ghost stories even more than the ineffable weird stuff like "The Willows," which is the usual story designated to represent him in anthologies. With the ghost story so much is already given yet there are so many variations and Blackwood was canny about working them. This is more like a haunted house tale, set in an empty rooming-house in exotic New York City. Note that traveling Englishman Blackwood is good at many things but a New York dialect does not seem to be among them. Or maybe that's really how flinty Yankee landladies talked at the turn of the 20th century. It's bizarre. The rooming-house is empty because it's haunted but our man, Jim Shorthouse, doesn't know that when he takes the room. He's an itinerant ne'er-do-well working the nightshift as a reporter. Think Weegee even if Weegee is a later era. Shorthouse, by the way, would be seen contending with another haunted house in another Blackwood story six years later, "The Empty House." What's particularly good in this one are the special effects, even though even then they were likely well-known: heavy footsteps on the stairs, pounding on the door, voices heard from another room in tense exchange. All this is in the middle of the night, of course, which is approximately when you should be reading it. Simple things like footsteps stopping outside the door just completely give me the willies here. Blackwood holds it there for several beats before the knocking starts. Scary! It's not actually our man's door, as it turns out, but the door of an adjoining room with a flimsy partition between. This is what enables Shorthouse to overhear the strange, confusing, and terrible exchange between a father and son. Another nice effect, later, toward the end, is when Shorthouse feels himself sickening in his bed and weakening, unable to move, as he hears the voices next door speaking quite clearly. The landlady knows the place is haunted and she's used to it. She just wishes these tenants passing through would get used to it too and stay. Somehow she makes it all worse—maybe it's the alien dialect too but she is a wonderful element. Staying is not in the cards for Shorthouse, however. He is bound to bug out, if he can, shortly after the impressive crescendo scene. Great ghost story—it works on me every time.

Read story online.

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