Spooky Words Day 3: Dickens

Victorian_Book_Ghost_StoriesToday, the start of Dickens, “To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt.” Notable because the ghost is nearly omnipresent in the story, which concerns the trial of a murderer. Dickens’ style always seems a bit too cozy to deliver that final shock that a good short story can (Shirley Jackson still is supreme in my book for this), but he’s such fun to read.


I have always noticed a prevalent want of courage, even among persons of superior intelligence and culture, as to imparting their own psychological experiences when those have been of a strange sort. Almost all men are afraid that what they could relate in such wise would find no parallel or response in a listener’s internal life, and might be suspected or laughed at. A truthful traveller who should have seen some extraordinary creature in the likeness of a sea-serpent, would have no fear of mentioning it; but the same traveller having had some singular presentiment, impulse, vagary of thought, vision (so-called), dream, or other remarkable mental impression, would hesitate considerably before he would own to it. To this reticence I attribute much of the obscurity in which such subjects are involved. We do not habitually communicate our experiences of these subjective things, as we do our experiences of objective creation. The consequence is, that the general stock of experience in this regard appears exceptional, and really is so, in respect of being miserably imperfect.

In what I am going to relate I have no intention of setting up, opposing, or supporting, any theory whatever. I know the history of the Bookseller of Berlin, I have studied the case of the wife of a late Astronomer Royal as related by Sir David Brewster, and I have followed the minutest details of a much more remarkable case of Spectral Illusion occurring within my private circle of friends. It may be necessary to state as to this last that the sufferer (a lady) was in no degree, however distant, related to me. A mistaken assumption on that head, might suggest an explanation of a part of my own case – but only a part – which would be wholly without foundation. It cannot be referred to my inheritance of any developed peculiarity, nor had I ever before any at all similar experience, nor have I ever had any at all similar experience since.

It does not signify how many years ago, or how few, a certain Murder was committed in England, which attracted great attention. We hear more than enough of Murderers as they rise in succession to their atrocious eminence, and I would bury the memory of this particular brute, if I could, as his body was buried, in Newgate Jail. I purposely abstain from giving any direct clue to the criminal’s individuality.

When the murder was first discovered, no suspicion fell – or I ought rather to say, for I cannot be too precise in my facts, it was nowhere publicly hinted that any suspicion fell – on the man who was afterwards brought to trial. As no reference was at that time made to him in the newspapers, it is obviously impossible that any description of him can at that time have been given in the newspapers. It is essential that this fact be remembered.

Unfolding at breakfast my morning paper, containing the account of that first discovery, I found it to be deeply interesting, and I read it with close attention. I read it twice, if not three times. The discovery had been made in a bedroom, and, when I laid down the paper, I was aware of a flash – rush – flow – I do not know what to call it – no word I can find is satisfactorily descriptive – in which I seemed to see that bedroom passing through my room, like a picture impossibly painted on a running river. Though almost instantaneous in its passing, it was perfectly clear; so clear that I distinctly, and with a sense of relief, observed the absence of the dead body from the bed.

It was in no romantic place that I had this curious sensation, but in chambers in Piccadilly, very near to the corner of Saint James’s Street. It was entirely new to me. I was in my easy-chair at the moment, and the sensation was accompanied with a peculiar shiver which started the chair from its position.



Commonplace Book: Dickensian Rain

Steady rain for hours in DC now…and brings to mind Bleak House, which I read during a time I had a long subway commute to a tech job in Reston. The novel’s convoluted plot has mostly faded from my memory, but the images stick around. Early in (Chapter II) we get that great Victorian specialty, weather, setting the scene for the gloomy and soggy world of Chesney Wold, which Lady Dedlock haunts:

An arch of the bridge in the park has been sapped and sopped away. The adjacent low-lying ground for half a mile in breadth is a stagnant river with melancholy trees for islands in it and a surface punctured all over, all day long, with falling rain. My Lady Dedlock’s place has been extremely dreary. The weather for many a day and night has been so wet that the trees seem wet through, and the soft loppings and prunings of the woodman’s axe can make no crash or crackle as they fall. The deer, looking soaked, leave quagmires where they pass. The shot of a rifle loses its sharpness in the moist air, and its smoke moves in a tardy little cloud towards the green rise, coppice-topped, that makes a background for the falling rain. The view from my Lady Dedlock’s own windows is alternately a lead-coloured view and a view in Indian ink. The vases on the stone terrace in the foreground catch the rain all day; and the heavy drops fall—drip, drip, drip—upon the broad flagged pavement, called from old time the Ghost’s Walk, all night. On Sundays the little church in the park is mouldy; the oaken pulpit breaks out into a cold sweat; and there is a general smell and taste as of the ancient Dedlocks in their graves. My Lady Dedlock (who is childless), looking out in the early twilight from her boudoir at a keeper’s lodge and seeing the light of a fire upon the latticed panes, and smoke rising from the chimney, and a child, chased by a woman, running out into the rain to meet the shining figure of a wrapped-up man coming through the gate, has been put quite out of temper. My Lady Dedlock says she has been “bored to death.”

You can read the whole book on Project Gutenberg of course.

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Photo by Denny Pewsey

Beautiful Sentences: The TLS

If book reviews are a guilty pleasure of yours, as they are for me, The Times Literary Supplement is a high quality, high value supplier. Beautiful sentences, bracing opinions.

To wit a couple of nice bits from recent issues:

1) a (likely very just) takedown of Tom Wolfe’s latest doorstop:

Back to Blood is certainly vast, and full of generous description of social existence in the “Immigration City” of Miami. Yet it also is largely lacking in artistic merit, empathy and any vestige of beautiful writing.

In the beautiful writing category: check out this lead paragraph from a review of a new novel by Ronald Frame. It’s the reviewer, rather than the novelist, I want to hear more from…

Miss Havisham’s story is well known and briefly told: well known since briefly told by Herbert Pocket to the teenaged Pip in Chapter 22 of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Over their first meal together, between tactful hints to the low-born Pip not to put his knife in his mouth or to use his spoon “over-hand”, Herbert recounts Miss Havisham’s back-story. Resented by her wastrel stepbrother, betrayed and jilted by her con-artist lover before either Herbert or Pip were born, the proud heiress of a brewing empire stalks their imaginations as she does ours: the ageing recluse, shunning daylight, in her rotting wedding gown amid her rotting bridal feast. Miss Havisham has become a byword for trauma: the psychological wounding that compels its victims to tour painfully round and round the scene of the psychic crime, never able to move on, never coming to terms with what Derrida called the “unexperienced experience”. In Dickens, she is a vivid grotesque whose intensity and hypnotic power are in no small measure a function of her absolute pulsating stuckness in a single moment, a single sunless setting. The same is true of the innumerable versions and revisions of the Havisham story, from David Lean’s film Great Expectations (1946) and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), to Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Havisham” (1998) and, most recently, screen performances by Gillian Anderson and Helena Bonham Carter. Few figures in literature or film are so singular, so completely identified with one location, one set of props and costumes, one palette of lighting, one repertoire of gestures, one vengeful desire (“Beggar him”, she tells her ward, Estella). She is a living, livid scar.

Brought to mind a theatrical presentation of GE I was in at my Montessori-lite middle school. All the kids in my year were boys, so a boy played an eye-rolling, somewhat campy, and yet  ever-so-creepy Miss Havisham.