The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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October 31, 2010

R.I.P. V: 'Afterward'

'Oh, there is one, of course, but you'll never know it.'
This is the opening line of 'Afterward,' a short story -- a ghost story -- by Edith Wharton, first published in 1910, one that I found about from reading Elaine's blog, Random Notes of a Book and Opera Lover.  Ned and Mary Boyne, an American couple who have just come into money from a mining venture, are entranced by England and are looking for a country house ... preferably one, in their glee, that will offer 'remoteness from a station, ...lack of electric light, hot water pipes and other vulgar necessities,' and the requisite ghost. 

They purchase Lyng, an older Tudor house in Dorsetshire, but in the fall, as they settle in, Mary begins to sense that something is worrying her husband ('It was only within the last week that he had felt in him the undefinable change which made her restless in his presence, and as tongue-tied in his presence as though it were she who had a secret to keep from him!'), and she suddenly remembers that the house is haunted.

'Not till long afterward,' Alida Starr had said. Well, supposing Ned had seen one when they first came, and had known only within the last week what had happened to him? More and more under the spell of the hour, shew threw back her thoughts to the early days of their tenancy, but at first only to recall a lively confusion of unpacking, settling, arranging of books, and calling to each other from remote corners of the house, as treasure after treasure, it revealed itself to them.  It was in this particular connection that she presently recalled a certain soft afternoon of the previous October, when, passing from the first rapturous  flurry of exploration to a detailed inspection of the old house, she had pressed (like a novel heroine) a panel that opened on a flight of corkscrew leading to a flat ledge of the roof -- the roof which, from below, seemed to slope away on all sides too abruptly for any but practiced feet to scale.

The view from this hidden coign was enchanting, and she had flown down to snatch Ned from his papers and give him the freedom of her discovery. She remembered still how, standing at her side, he had passed is arm about her while their gaze flew to the long tossed horizon line of the downs, and then dropped contentedly back to trace the arabesque of yew hedges about the fish pond, and the shadow of the cedar on the lawn.

'And now the other way,' he had said, turning her about within his arm, and closely pressed to him, she had absorbed, like some long satisfying draught, the picture of the grey-walled court, the squat lions on the gates, and the lime avenue reaching up to the highroad under the downs.

It was just then, while they gazed and held each other, that she had felt his arm relax, and heard a sharp 'Hullo!' that made her turn to glance at him.
Ned rushes downstairs to go after the man 'in loose greyish clothes...who was sauntering down the lime avenue to the court with the doubtful gait of a stranger who seeks his way,' leaving Mary, who suffers from 'a slight tendency to dizziness,' to follow slowly. In a slightly eerie scene, she finds the front door open and Ned in his library, looking less anxious and careworn and dismissing the figure as a tradesman he wanted to speak to about some blocked drains.

What happens next is worth seeking out this story for, but suffice it to say that Mary learns in a letter that Ned is facing a lawsuit, a young man comes to call on him, and then Mary finds that Ned has gone out, just before luncheon, without leaving word.

There are many of Edith Wharton's 'signatures' in this story -- houses, gardens, new money, less than solid foundations, a shift in social rank or circumstances. I noticed, when I read another of her ghost stories , that their power to surprise and frighten us, for me at least, comes from the plausibleness of  what happens. You can easily suspend your disbelief when there's a zombie, or a vampire, or a headless horseman, but it's harder when all there is a 'youngish slightly built man' who doesn't leave his name, and a not-very-sinister country house.

For the R.I.P. challenge, which ends today, I read one contemporary mystery (with a ghost), two classic ghost stories that I hadn't read before (one that didn't frighten me at all, and another which was too delicious to be frightening), and these two stories. I'm not drawn to horror films and gory stories, but I have a new appreciation for Edith Wharton'a short stories, with or without ghosts, and I'm looking forward now to reading more of them.

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Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I have only read one Edith Wharton novel thus far -- The House of Mirth, which I absolutely LOVED. I will have to check this one out as well!

Vintage Reading said...

I like the sound of this. I've only read Wharton's novels and not her short stories. Adding to tbr!

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