These were the first stories I’ve read for the Dickens in December event, but I got so caught up in other stories that I didn’t get to write my thoughts on them until now. They are part of The Wordsworth Book of Horror Stories, a magnificent collection that kept me awake until the late hours of the night.
The voice of the narrator draws the reader in as he tells the story of an extraordinary night in the life of his uncle. Described as very jovial person, with a real honest smile upon his face at all times, fond of drink and making merry, the uncle seemed to be a well liked person. One night, as he was going home, he stopped at a waste ground where he saw a number of old, abandoned mail coaches, and being of a curious nature and an admirer of old coaches, went closer to have a look. As the clock struck 2, the whole place came to life, coaches were moving and people were moving about. To his astonishment, he found himself more or less ordered to get into one of the vehicles. Playing along, he did, only to discover that he was sharing the space with two wicked looking men and a very beautiful woman. What happened next astonished him even more, but by the end of the night he’d made the beautiful woman a promise that he kept to the end of his days.
From all 3 stories, this was the least horrific. I was, in the beginning, a little weary of the lengthy description, as Dickens is fond of, saying the same thing again and again in different ways as to make sure he gets his point across. I am in two minds about these paragraphs – on one hand I find them redundant but on the other hand they do serve the purpose of making one more familiar with the story and its characters.
To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt
Told by a first person narrator, this story begins with the news of a murder committed in England “many years ago”, and of a man who was arrested as the criminal, even though he wasn’t publicly suspected as being the author of the gruesome act.
After experiencing a strange vision of two men whose appearance is most unusual, the health of the protagonist is described as “not ill” but “not well”, as to serve as a possible excuse for the event. Not long after that, he and his valet both see a man which is described as “a dead man beckoning”, and whose identity is revealed later, as the narrator is asked to perform jury duty in the very same murder case he was reading about. Visions of the dead man, who – it turns out – was the murdered person, come to the narrator for the whole duration of the trial, as witnesses come and testify.
I enjoyed reading about the “ghost’s’ reaction to some testimonials – my favorite part of the story. The end is weird and it doesn’t really shed light upon the case. Was the man guilty or not, and what about those last words? Intriguing.
This was my favorite story of the three. Not only it was sufficiently mysterious to have me glued to the page, but the end had me truly astonished and also horrified. There are two protagonists – one is the signalman, whose job requires him to stand in a box near a tunnel and direct the incoming trains, and the other a traveler who was visiting the area for a short while. The two become acquainted in a rather abrupt manner, and the signalman ends up by telling his visitor of the strange things he’d been hearing and seeing. This involved the sudden apparition of a man who said the exact same words as the visitor had said when he first saw the signalman. Hours after he first saw the apparition, the signalman told his companion, a great accident took place near the spot where the strange man appeared. Several months later, the apparition came back but no words were spoken this time. The gestures, however, made it clear that this was some sort of warning as well. As the story progressed, I was anticipating some sort of horror but I was not prepared for what happened in the end. That’s what a great story does, it takes you by surprise, and this was definitely one of them.
It is said Dickens’s inspiration for this story came from the Staplehurst train crash which he survived, not before trying to help others and actually witnessing the death of few people, which affected him greatly.
The end comes with a thorough explanation of the facts which doesn’t make it any less easy to accept. A truly brilliant story.
Coming up on the 30th: a wrap up post of “Dickens in December”.