It's the sixth week of my R.I.P. "Peril of the Short Story" version of Deal Me In Lite, and this week I start reading two stories each week in order to get to the magical number of 13 by the end of October. And this turned out to be a very interesting event. There's already a lot of serendipity built into the Deal Me In method of reading, but when you pick and read two stories together, you can achieve even greater levels of serendipity, as I found out this week.
So for this week I chose the Ace and two of spades from my "Tragic Royalty" deck of cards:
The Ace corresponded to "The Red Room" by H.G. Wells, and the two corresponded to "How Fear Departed From the Long Gallery" by E.F. Benson. Both of these stories are available on the Internet, but I got them from an anthology I have owned for quite some time, Ghosts, edited by Marvin Kaye:
Yes, that is Edward Gorey artwork on the cover. I found an image that shows the entire dust jacket because it's really wonderful and highly appropriate for this book.
Both of these stories involve a person who spends time in a haunted room -- but one spends time there on purpose (because they don't really believe it is haunted) and the other KNOWS the room is haunted and gets trapped there by accident.
In "The Red Room" by H.G. Wells, the narrator proposes to spend the night in a haunted room, the so-called "red room" of Lorraine Castle, in which braver souls than he have spent the night, and died there. The servants, who are elderly and who have lived through the history of the house, do their best to dissuade the narrator from this foolhardy act, but he is determined to do it. As he makes himself comfortable (if that word may be used here) in the room for the night, he tries to dispel the overwhelming gloominess and darkness of the room with candles that he lights and sets up in various nooks and crannies of the room. Then the candles start going out, in various combinations. Is it a draft? Or something more sinister? Eventually the candles all go out at once, and the fire goes out as well, and the narrator is thrown into a terrified panic. He runs around frantically in the dark, trying to find the door of the room, and knocks himself out on a piece of furniture. Not to spoil the story for you (because it's really not much of a story, although very well-written and interesting), the next morning the narrator comes to the conclusion that what really haunts the room is Fear itself.
This leads us to the synchronicity with the second story I read this week, "How Fear Departed From the Long Gallery," by E.F. Benson. Let me just take a moment and make another plug, as I have before, for E.F. Benson as one of the more underrated modern British novelists (modern as in the early 20th century). I have waxed eloquent about the pleasures of his Lucia novels elsewhere on this blog, and in my opinion this gem of a story is another example of his expert way with a tale. I have never read much of his other work besides the Lucia novels, but apparently Benson is also well-regarded for his ghost stories, of which I believe he wrote several. If they are anything like this one, I will have to hunt down the others and read them too.
In Benson's story, the Peveril family lives in a house that they know is haunted; in fact, they co-exist happily with several different family ghosts, and take a kind of pride and pleasure in interacting with their long-dead ancestors in this way. This part of the story is actually pretty humorous, in Benson's typical understated, droll style. However, there is one pair of ghosts that the family fears: the ghosts of twin babies that were brutally murdered by the ruthless Dick Peveril, so he could inherit the estate instead of them. This murder, which involved throwing the babies into a fire, happened in the long gallery, and ever since then, the ghosts of the babies have haunted that room. They appear only once or twice a year, and only in the dead of night, but the family is terrified of seeing them, because everyone who has ever seen their ghosts has died a horrible, gruesome death. So every member of the family simply makes sure to stay out of the long gallery after dark, and they make sure their houseguests know this rule as well.
So this sets the stage for a New Year's Eve party where the family is hosting several guests, including Madge Dalrymple, who unfortunately twists her knee skating on the lake. Madge decides to rest her leg by sitting in front of the fire in the long gallery. She's warned not to forget about being in there after sunset, but of course you know what happens next. Madge falls asleep over her book and wakes up right at dusk. When she realizes what time it is, she becomes terrified, and of course the twin baby ghosts show up soon after. What happens next, though, is an interesting twist on the traditional ghost story, and this ghost story actually turns out to have a happy ending. It's not a sappy, tacked-on happy ending though -- it fits the tone and plot of the story perfectly.
I enjoyed both of these stories and would highly recommend both of them. Look them up and let me know what you think!