By Jessica Hood @ECBlade
I love a good ghost story.
I love the sensation of fear, that frisson of dread that tingles up my spine when I’m reading something that will cause me to glance about the room, inspecting shadows for any untoward shapes. Being a child of the seventies, I remember clearly, reading Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, firmly buried beneath my covers, flashlight in hand. I read a lot of books this way. I also slept with the lights on for a month.
I remember, too, camping with my family, deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains, on vacation because with our limited resources, it was what we could afford. Every night, by the light of the Coleman Lantern, my father would read from a worn, dog-eared copy of short stories, all ghost stories. My father had a powerful voice, deep, melodic and it lent a certain gravitas to the stories, making credible the supernatural, and there was something so matter-of-fact in his style, in his tone, that suddenly, the idea of ghosts, vampires, werewolves and other creatures became plausible. I was brave in the cozy confines of our ancient camper.
There were after all, my parents and brothers there, and all of us ensconced in cozy sleeping bags. I maintained that bravado, too, until about two o’clock in the morning, when I would need to visit the toilets which were at least a hundred yards from our campsite.
I remember waiting until the last possible moment, when I was certain that it was either pee in my sleeping bag, or make the dangerous journey. Because I was no fan of wetting the bed, or the sleeping bag, I would gather my courage, explode from my bunk, out the door and race to the toilets with my wavering flashlight, certain that the night terrors were on my heels, just out of sight, nipping at my senses. In that mad dash, in the black, starless night in the mountains, as the campground had no additional lighting, I would hurry, pee, usually stub a toe, and scuttle back to the camper quick as I could before I could be pursued and overtaken by beasts waiting to get me. When I would dash back into the camper, slamming the thin door behind me, my family would mutter and curse and tell me to be quiet. I didn’t mind. I was triumphant. I’d lived to pee another night.
And, frightened as I was, I loved the rush of returning safely, of foiling the plans of the supernatural creatures I was certain existed.
I am no longer afraid of the dark, but I still revel in a good ghost story, and my favorite is a well-crafted Gothic. If you are not familiar with what that means, I would suggest that you probably know what a Gothic is, even if you can’t define it. Consider Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Bram Stoker’s Dracula—each a classic example. If you’ve read Edgar Allen Poe, you’ve read a Gothic. Elements are easily identified in the works of Charles Dickens, the Brontës, and even Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.
A Gothic tale incorporates some common elements: a gloomy atmosphere, a romantic, usually mentally stressed protagonist who can be seen to exhibit a state of hyper-awareness. The geography, and the fact that most of the action takes place in the deep, quiet night lend a certain romanticism to the story. I suppose some will find them a bit melodramatic, but for me, a good Gothic heightens my level of discomfort by taking ordinary circumstances and shifting them in such a way as to bring the main character to a level of dread that threatens madness.
Consider, then, Algernon Blackwoood, a master of the genre. A prolific writer, Blackwood was born in 1869 and died in 1951. More information about his life and links to his work can be found here. Readers may also want to visit this site to read a sampling of his work, because depending on your location, the Blackwood lexicon is in the public domain.
The story I’ll review today is “Keeping his Promise.” It’s a story included in the collection entitled The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories. Published in 1916, this story is set in Edinburgh and centers on the events surrounding an overworked fourth-year University student, Marriott. To set the tone, we are told that it is a dark, rainy night. Our narrator lets us know that he’s been forced by exams to spend every waking moment in study. He lives in a rented room, at the top of a narrow, spiral staircase and, while not given to a nervous disposition, he’s been overworked to the point of exhaustion.
The Gothic tone is set.
Presently, as we are settled as readers with our Narrator, we are both disturbed by the clanging of the door bell. Who could be calling at this time of night? Surely it cannot be anyone mistaken, for they must be coming on serious business at this hour. Because his “old cat” of a landlady refuses to be disturbed late at night, the narrator answers the bell, awaiting the entrance of whatever visitor may be there. And he waits, and we wait, and just as he is about to give up on anyone appearing at all—he sees his old friend Field, slowly mounting the steps.
Field is unusual. He doesn’t speak. It is hard to imagine anyone could be in worse shape, but because they’d once been the closest of friends, Marriott, our narrator, immediately takes him in, gives him supper and his best, albeit meager, hospitality because of their past connection. Keeping up a one-sided, almost desperate conversation, our narrator continues to ply Field with food and drink, until he finally puts his guest in his own bed and returns to his studies.
Ah, and then the delicious, true sense of the Gothic story emerges. In the very simple, almost mundane details, we see a picture emerge of an old, rekindled friendship. We have questions about why Field should appear at such an hour, and while we’re comforted by the sound of his breathing in the next room, we can’t help but share our narrator’s concern that there is something not quite right about this whole night. Small details, such as Field’s shoulders being dry, though the night was pouring rain and he appeared with neither coat nor hat…his silence in the face of Marriott’s nervous prattle. Had he spoken? Was there even a word? Still there is his even breathing next door.
And in the following scenes, Blackwood shows his skill as a writer of suspense. He increases the reader’s anxiety with each detail. As Marriott grows desperate, we share with him that heightened, hyper-awareness and fear that despite all evidence to the contrary, there’s something lurking just outside the limits of our conscious understanding.
And, as with most ghost stories, I was prepared for the climax to come at the dead of night, at the height of the dreaded suspense, but this is where Blackwood takes another masterful turn. The introduction of a third party, someone wholly unconnected to events of the previous evening, gives the reader a much needed respite. This character, a fellow student, returns a sense of reasonable observation and logical explanation to the story. However, when events unfold that confound him as well, and Marriott shares his final understanding, only remembering the promises of the past as the memories shake the dust off themselves in his own mind, the reader is transported to the horrible truth and the end does, indeed, come…but in the light of day, when these incomprehensible things usually disappear with the first rays of the sun.
This is what sets Blackwood apart from other writers and even writers of the modern age. By keeping the reader focused on the progression of events, he’s able to instill that feeling of relief, once the long night has ended. The end comes with the expected result. Any fan of horror writing knows very well what occurs when an old friend appears on your doorstep, behaves in inexplicable ways, and disappears by morning. You can count on these conventions, because they form the intricate steps of the dance between reader and author. However, just because you can guess something close to how this will end, it in no way lessons the impact when the story climaxes, because of the simplicity, the reader easily replaces Marriott with himself, and the cycle is complete. The story has achieved it’s intention.
And it manages it without blood, or perhaps just a single drop. In fact, it’s bloodless terror because sometimes the forgettable promises of youth return to us all at an unexpected time, with unexpected consequences. That’s what makes the story relatable, and brings it as easily into the present as it remains nestled in the early twentieth century.
I’m no great fan of “gornography” as it is sometimes called these days. I’m not frightened by the overt blood-lust of slasher movies like Saw, or Hostel. Those only fill my brain with images of graphic violence that may, at times, sicken me, but it fills me with a sense of revulsion, not fear. Not dread.
I prefer a more cerebral scare. I prefer a story that can transport me back to that time of my own youth when I would dash across an open field in the black night, afraid of the specters snapping at my heels. I have no fear of the night now. When I camp with my own children, I stroll at a leisurely pace to the toilets, never once outrunning the circle of light thrown by my little lantern. And, when I lay in my own bed at night, it is by habit that I snap the light out and embrace the comforting dark that helps me to sleep.
Still, when you lay down tonight, as I will, and you hear the sound of your own breathing…perhaps you will take a moment, as I will, to match that breathing with the rise and fall of your own chest. Of course it is, you will say to yourself, even as I will. But, if you have read the story I’m writing about here, you’ll question it.
And with good reason.
The Internet Archive has two versions of The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories. The reader can download the Project Gutenberg full text here or the reader can read online or download the Open Library version here.
The reader can also read The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories online or download it at Project Gutenberg.
The reader can also download a copy of The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories at Feedbooks.
The reader can find an audio book version of “Keeping His Promise” at LibreVox. “Keeping His Promise” is the fifth story in this collection.