Monday, October 1, 2007

“The Empty House” (Algernon Blackwood, 1906)

Despite the fact that this tale was first published in 1906, it’s a wonderfully cinematic examination of a notoriously haunted house. Blackwood wastes no time, jumping in immediately with a paragraph that defines what a haunted house is and describes the effect it has on anyone brave, ignorant, or foolish enough to enter it.

“And, perhaps, with houses the same principle is operative, and it is the aroma of evil deeds committed under a particular roof, long after the actual doers have passed away, that makes the gooseflesh come and the hair rise. Something of the original passion of the evil-doer, and of the horror felt by his victim, enters the heart of the innocent watcher, and he becomes suddenly conscious of tingling nerves, creeping skin, and a chilling of the blood. He is terror-stricken without apparent cause.”

That, to coin a phrase, says it all.

In the story, Jim Shorthouse receives what appears to be a semi-urgent request from his Aunt Julia that he come to visit her at once. She’s acquired the keys to an infamously haunted house on the other side of town and she wants Shorthouse to accompany her while she goes exploring. She makes him promise that he will not leave her side even for a minute because “persons who had spent some time in the house, knowing nothing of the facts, had declared positively that certain rooms were so disagreeable they would rather die than enter them again.”

As the two ghosthunters enter the old house, Aunt Julia relates a brief history of the brutal crime that initiated the haunting.“’It has to do with a murder committed by a jealous stableman who had some affair with a servant in the house. One night he managed to secrete himself in the cellar, and when everyone was asleep, he crept upstairs to the servants' quarters, chased the girl down to the next landing, and before anyone could come to the rescue threw her bodily over the banisters into the hall below.’"

’And the stableman—?’

"’Was caught, I believe, and hanged for murder.’”

Blackwood then takes us on a regulated tour of the house, first downstairs and then up. He is an absolute master at describing everyday items in such a way that they assume personalities, and none too pleasant ones at that. He evokes that feeling that things change as soon as you look away from them—“There was the inevitable sense that operations which went on when the room was empty had been temporarily suspended till they were well out of the way again.”

The tension continues to build as Shorthouse and Julia are certain they hear a man sneeze next to them. Shadows are cast when there is nothing there to cast a shadow. Every time they turn a corner or move from one room to another, you wonder what they are about to encounter. Shorthouse “felt as if his spine had suddenly become hollow and someone had filled it with particles of ice.” The aptness of the simile is dazzling.

Then it happens, with a sudden jolt as powerful as the one that accompanies the first appearance of the old woman in “House on Haunted Hill,” a movie moment which may very well have been inspired by this story.“Facing them, directly in their way between the doorposts, stood the figure of a woman. She had dishevelled hair and wildly staring eyes, and her face was terrified and white as death.

“She stood there motionless for the space of a single second. Then the candle flickered and she was gone—gone utterly— and the door framed nothing but empty darkness.”

This is one of the most effective old school haunted house stories you will ever read. Take a look at it here -- http://www.litgothic.com/Authors/authors.html -- and you’ll know why Algernon Blackwood was one of H.P. Lovecraft’s favorite writers.

1 comment:

Sandi- ArtsyCrafteryStudio said...

I finished it, and was disappointed at the end, as I am sometimes with short stories. Guess I want it to go on into a novel, lol. So they simply experienced a ghostly reenactment, or recurrence really, of the attack and murder? And in the end, left the house and went home? That was it? :( But I don't deny that the story was spine-tingling and startling; skillfully-written too. But that is the reason that the ending was such a letdown. Anticlimactic. I have the whole book, The Empty House & Other Stories, downloaded from Gutenberg, Free Books or something, so will be reading the others.