30 Stories, Day 25: The Ghosts

If I haven’t yet said so in twenty-five days of reading, I’ll say it now: as much can be learned from bad writing as from good. (I will also say this: if you only read my “observations” one day, read them today. I made myself laugh.)

I am not saying that “The Ghosts” is a bad story. In fact, I found it in an anthology titled 50 Great Short Stories. Therefore, by default, it is “great”.

…But there are things I would change. See observations in bold below.

The Ghosts” by Lord Dunsany

Suddenly a herd of black creatures larger than bloodhounds came galloping in; they had large pendulous ears, their noses were to the ground sniffing, they went up to the lords and ladies of long ago and fawned about their disgustingly. Their eyes were horribly bright, and ran down to great depths. When I looked into them I knew suddenly what these creatures were and I was afraid. They were the sins, the filthy, immortal sins of those courtly men and women.      

Synopsis

A man visits his brother in a house called Oneleigh. Oneleigh is a solitary manor out in the forest, and is so old and has stood through so many periods and events that it seems as old as time itself, if not older. Within the place are relics of these other times: armor, tapestries, old furniture. There is no electricity.

The man argues with his brother about ghosts. His brother, he tells us, thinks that a second-hand account—that is, someone else claiming they’ve seen one—is tantamount to proof that ghosts exist. As such, he believes in them. The narrator argues that even if other people have seen ghosts, that is still no proof they exist: delirious men (sailors?) have seen red rats, but nobody believes in their existence.

If he saw a ghost, our narrator concludes, he would thus continue to argue against their existence.

That night, when his brother goes to bed, our narrator sits before the fireplace a while. The room is old, full of ancient furniture and tapestries, and cast in shadow (remember, there is no electricity). If ever he might imagine seeing a ghost, this is just the sort of place he would do it, he thinks.

Midnight passes without event. The narrator lingers, almost daring his imagination to play tricks on him, and just when he has given up of seeing anything ghostly there comes a sound: the rustle of silk dresses.

Into the great hall walk, two by two, high-born ladies and their gentlemen in exquisite Jacobean dress. They are faint, like shadows, and come to fill the room and its vacant old chairs. The narrator, blithely accepting that he has now seen these “ghosts,” rises from his chair to retire for the night.

But before he can do so there comes the sound of padded feet upon the floor. He looks around: now enter these massive black creatures like dogs with deep eyes and sniffing noses. They jostle about, crowding the men and women.

Sins, he realizes.

He looks more closely: not a single person there seems to be without one. One sits with an old man with a grandson on his knee; another licks a child’s face; one wanders between two people while another noses its way under a woman’s hand. Even the demure lady beside him has a sin at her feet, a thing with red eyes glowing murder.

Suddenly one of them lifts its head and calls, a terrifying sound: it has picked up the scent of a living person. All the other monsters gather to it and begin sniffing; too late the narrator makes to leave, for swiftly they track and attack him en masse, mauling him with their great weight.

The narrator begins to have wicked, wretched thoughts. He begins to think of killing his brother, who sleeps upstairs. Where the revolver is. How easy it would be put flour on the brother’s face, make it look like he had dressed himself as a ghost, and jumped out and surprised him. The servants had heard them arguing about ghosts: surely he could get away with it. It is a beautiful, wondrous idea.

But as the creatures drag him down, the narrator makes a concerted mental effort. He remembers: “If two straight lines cut another, the opposite angles are equal. Let AB, CD, cut one another at E, then the angles CEA, CEB equal two right angles…”

He goes to get the revolver; the beasts rise up and howl. “But the angle CEA is common, therefore AED equals CEB. In the same way, CEA equals DEB. Q.E.D.

And just like that, he talks himself through it: logic and reason are reestablished, the room and chairs are empty, and killing his brother seems a most terrible, repulsive idea.

Observations

There were some bumps in the beginning of this story; a lot of superfluous description crowded the meat of it, or where the action started. Frontloading a story with information and backstory is something my own writing professors most always railed against, and in this story—though the piece in its entirety was relatively brief—my attention began to wander.

Perhaps early monotony could have been broken with dialogue; even a single, hooking line of it. Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” had only one spoken line in all the story, but it was used, and used well. But then again, perhaps after reading Robinson Crusoe I am biased against narrative of any great length that is all summary, summary, summary, and never broken by the action of spoken word. Great premise, but weak delivery. Grace save me, that book was drier than a camel’s bald spot.

My big issue with this story, however, is the content of the ending. I appreciate the concept: the narrator is a man of reason and, as just as he said he would, he uses his reason to save himself from doing something crazy.

But let’s be honest: there are ghosts and monsters in this story. They are brilliant. They are fresh. They are in turns fascinating and terrifying. And then, when the darkness attacks and possesses our narrator, he just suddenly pulls back and magics (er, logics) himself out o’ there by reciting a few geometrical theorems??

JULIE DOESN’T BUY IT.

The ending comes up short in my book for two reasons:

  1. Eerie house! Ghosts and monsters! He GOT UP to go get the revolver, for Chrissakes! A little redemptive math is hugely anticlimactic.
  2. I just couldn’t take the ending seriously. It was like Stephen King’s “The Mangler,” which is about an industrial laundry press that comes to life and kills people in grisly and terrifying ways. I couldn’t take that story seriously because all I could picture was somebody running down a lamp-lit street at night and a laundry machine bumbling menacingly after them.  

When all is said and done, my lesson is this: a great beginning and middle must have an equally great, or greater end.

Vocab

venerable: accorded great respect due to age, wisdom, character, status, etc.

wainscot: wood paneling on the lower part of the walls of a room

pendulous: hanging down loosely

Q.E.D. quod erat demonstrandum: translates as “which was to be demonstrated,” and is a formal way of ending a mathematical, logical or physical proof.

Más cuentos seguir. Hasta mañana.

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