Ghost stories go so well with cold, dreary nights. There’s nothing that hits the spot on such an occasion like a classic ghost story. Sorry kids, a story written twenty years ago is hardly a classic. I’m referring to chilling tales that were penned more than a hundred years ago. Yes, these are the classics that we must allow into our warm dens on cold nights, for something about their ancient age prepares our immediate atmosphere for the immortal existence of the very ghosts that we seek to summons from the page.
This post will hopefully be the beginning of a series. On many occasions I have read and written about haunted house story collections. These would be single books that feature several ghost stories from various authors from across the ages. Too often I have reviewed these compilations as a whole while neglecting its most brilliant components – the individual stories themselves. Oh sure, I had singled out a story here and there, but in doing so I also left behind many great works that shared the same binding. Alas, in a single review, one cannot dive into the depths of each story that a compilation offers.. So here’s to some of the great stories I left behind, no longer to be lost at sea, roaring with the waves that push toward the shore to penetrate your awareness. So prepare yourselves for another post in the future with the same title format:
Classics: (story title) – A Chilling Ghost Story for a Chilly Night.
Elsewhere in this blog, I make a case for Christmas Ghosts and Haunted House stories. It is true: traditionally, ghost stories were often spoken on Christmas Eve evenings. Ah, but one needs not the festivities of the Xmas holidays to bring in the ghosts; any old cold night will do. Outside your warm abode it is cold. Winds crack like death’s whip against your windows. The ethereal light of the night seeps through whatever gaps of transparency your house allows; its scattered and slivering presence reminding you of the formidable darkness that has allowed for these glowing inklings to exist. But you are inside, perhaps feeling the warmth of a fire or heater. Soft is the chair you sit in, snug is your blanket.
Warm tea by your side, maybe with a hint of Brandy. And..there is your book. A captivating tale of a haunted house written in the nights of yore. In the earlier days, some of the best ghost stories were short ones.Short stories or novellas, to be read in one or two sittings. Perfect for such a night, to reach a conclusion, a completion. End the day, end the story, end the night. Sweet dreams.
The first in this series is The Beckoning Fair One by Oliver Onions. This story was first published in 1911 in the Widdershins. I came across it in a compilation entitled Inhabited: Classic Haunted House Stories, which also features stories from Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Henry James, and several others. It is my intention not so much to review these stories as it is to walk through them much like a fearful visitor might walk through a haunted house. Hopefully I can capture the atmosphere without giving too much away. But while on the walk, there will be time for analysis here and there and room for stray thoughts that creep about like watchful specters.
So, let’s get to it! The Beckoning Fair One by Oliver Onions. It beckons and we abide.
The “To-Let” boards hanging lopsided on a wooden fence tell all. The paling surrounds the old red brick building that somehow stands at a distance from the town square, even though through any of the house’s windows the town and its life can be easily taken in. But no one lives in any of the building’s flats. This sets the eerie scene and Paul Oleron stumbles into it, unwittingly casting himself as the soon-to-be-troubled protagonist – the renter of one of these flats.
Oleron is an author, approaching middle age. Never has he reached great success in his writings. He rents a small place to write, another to sleep, and yet another to store furniture inherited from his grandmother. It’s time, he feels, to consolidate. Bring everything together, layout his life and spread it across the rooms of one of these flats in the red building. Reflection time.What can possibly go wrong?
For those readers that appreciate a descriptive setting, you’ve come to the right place. The house will grab you, just as it grabs Oleron, with its pictorial focal points at various intersections of walls and doorways, with the way his furnishings blend into the makeup of the place, with the overall mood set by the moonlight that creeps into the windows, or the flickering light of the candles. Or by the shadows. Shadows. All in all, it’s a most appropriate place to cast (project?) one’s shadows and watch them brood.
Projection, in psychology “is a form of defense in which unwanted feelings are displaced onto another person, where they then appear as a threat from the external world.” (from Britannica.com )
In my musings of haunted houses of literature, I often expand on the projection theory to include the inanimate as the target of such displacement. This would be the house, which paradoxically, becomes eerily animated in its own way. The occupant, the protagonist, casts the dark shadows of his soul onto the house, and in return, the house haunts him back.
However Oleron does not see the house as a threat. Quite the opposite. Likewise, he does not understand that his own inner-workings will be his undoing. His friend sees this quite well. Her name is Elise Bengough. But he will not listen to her. Oh what in heavens is going on?
Paul Oleron has written fifteen chapters of his up and coming novel “Romilly.” Elise is certain that her friend’s novel will be a masterpiece. It is sentimental, it is worldly, the character Romilly, she embodies romance; Romilly is Elise herself! But Oleron is not like this, nor does he want to be partnered with a woman of these qualities, not in his work (the novel), not in his life (a prospective romantic relationship with Elise). No, “Romilly” is all wrong, and he will start anew, rework those fifteen chapters, recreate Romilly into a more fitting character, much to the dismay of Elise. She begs him not to do this. But Oleron sees things differently.
Oleron questions his life. His career as an author has not made him happy. And though his seemingly only friend, Elise Bengough, is devoted to him like no other, he questions his relationship with her. There has to be a better pairing, a better life.
His new house is a step in the right direction. Here he is “paired” with something that is “right”. Elise disagrees. She hates the place, and Paul loves it and courts it as if were a welcoming lover, possessed with the kind of feminine spirit which he desires. The house in turn seems to despise Elise. It stabs her with nails where no nails should be. It captures her foot on the stairway, the sturdy board of the step sinking in as she puts her weight on it.
Ah but our Oleron, he’s so smitten by the place that he even appreciates its audible idiosyncrasies, like the dripping of the faucet. Drip, drip, drip! He even creates a tune to this rhythm of drips. But it isn’t a tune of his creation. He later learns that the little ditty that crept out of his head was an old song of which he had never heard. It is called “The Beckoning Fair One.” Oh he is being beckoned alright, and he takes other sounds that the house will offer him, causing him to muse that the “whole house (is) talking to him had he but known its language.” (quote taken directly from the novella)
Maybe this is the beginning of the haunting. It’s hard to tell, because the haunting creeps up on him subtly, like a gentle breeze. There are no outright “boos!” in this story and isn’t it better this way? Isn’t it more fitting that we, like Olderon, are lulled into such a haunting and slowly wrap ourselves in its clutches, mistaking its trappings for a false warmth? I think so.
The way Oleron blends so willingly into the house and its hauntings makes him think that, perhaps, he is like a ghost. From the novella:
“his own body stood in friendly relation to his soul, so, by an extension and an attenuation, his habitation might fantastically be supposed to stand in some relation to himself. He even amused himself with the far-fetched fancy that he might so identify himself with the place that some future tenant, taking possession, might regard it as in a sense haunted. It would be rather a joke if he, a perfectly harmless author, with nothing on his mind worse than a novel he had discovered he must begin again, should turn out to be laying the foundation of a future ghost!”
Ah but there is another ghost! Maybe. Perhaps.
“Formerly, Oleron had smiled at the fantastic thought that, by a merging and interplay of identities between himself and his beautiful room, he might be preparing a ghost for the future; it had not occurred to him that there might have been a similar merging and coalescence in the past. Yet with this staggering impossibility he was now face to face. Something did persist in the house; it had a tenant other than himself.”
The ghost of the story, if there is one, is feminine, a female. But she will not express herself in the form of a traipsing phantom. At her most literal she will be the “other occupant” of the house, whose presence is mostly felt and not seen. “She” is at her strongest whenever Paul rethinks his feelings about both the original Romilly and Elise Bengough and begins to accept them. “She” will put an end to this nonsense with her beckoning.
When is “she” the most transparent, the most objective, plainly existing outside of Oleron’s head? Perhaps it’s when she manipulates the comb. At first this hair-combing phenomenon occurs via a phantom sound only. It’s electric, static producing, and steady. Later he will see evidence of this phenomenon. A lesser story might go about this by showing a ghostly feminine figure tooling with her ethereal hair. A better but even still lesser story would omit the visual apparition and offer only the sight of a phantom comb going up and down in the air. But Paul Oleron, living inside a more patiently profound tale, will witness only the reflected candlelight upon the comb through the reflection of the glass that holds his dear grandmother’s face inside a picture frame. It is this light that bobs in the darkened room. And the crackling sound does its thing.
A dilemma is before him. What is the meaning of this occurrence? The novella expresses it this way:
Granted that he had not the place to himself; granted that the old house had inexpressibly caught and engaged his spirit; granted that, by virtue of the common denominator of the place, this unknown co-tenant stood in some relation to himself: what next? Clearly, the nature of the other numerator must be ascertained
Oleron would go on to obsess over this dilemma. And over Romilly. And over Elise. He would come to despise the latter two. (In Romilly’s case, it would be the woman of his original creation. The new Romilly? Would that ever come to be?). But he will become infatuated with the mystery tenant to the point that he would wait for her to express herself night after night after night at all costs. Many nights, there would be no expressions, leaving him heartbroken, alone.
I think we have gone far enough into this story, far enough into Oleron’s strange abode with the mysterious female occupant , assuming she does in fact exist. You, reader, are always welcome to venture further, then you will find out what happens to the endlessly devoted Elise, and you will then also know whether or not Oleron finishes his novel. Will you solve the mystery concurring the strange occupant? This is a novella crammed with many possible interpretations. For a medium-sized story it is filled to the brim.
So the next chilly night when you’re in mood for a ghost story to encapsulate your restful sitting, The Beckoning Fair One is there, Beckoning you. Go for it.