Monday, October 22, 2007

Deep, dark well

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Yesterday, following a very pleasant marathon on a beautiful autumn day, I was throwing a frisbee with my father, brother, and nephew in my brother's backyard when I stumbled over a cracked slab of concrete. It was about a two feet long and a foot wide, and though my brother had mowed around it for a couple of years, he'd never looked under it. My father, however, is not the sort to leave an inexplicable slab of concrete uninvestigated, so he started prying it up.

He quickly dislodged the concrete to reveal a narrow well, edged in poorly laid brick and strung across with cobwebs. As he and my brother leaned over to drop a stone into its depths, my mind immediately started running to ghost stories, to the thought of what might have been secreted away in that well, restrained under the slab, and now unwittingly freed to do mischief.

The well was far from ancient, no more than sixty years old--but in our fast-moving culture anything undisturbed for decades begins to seem a likely repository for the ghostly or malefic. What might that well have conjured up for M. R. James, whose characters so often suffer horrible fates simply because of their curiosity about the old and unexplained? I thought of James's story, "A Warning to the Curious," which features a cursed Anglo-Saxon crown, dug up in the dead of night, that must later be reburied at the same fell hour. The man who must rebury it seems possessed:
I never saw anything like the dash with which he flung himself at a particular spot in the side of the mound, and tore at it, so that in a very few minutes the greater part of his body was out of sight. We stood holding the coat and the bundle of handkerchiefs, and looking, very fearfully, I must admit, about us. There was nothing to be seen. . . . Yet, in all this quiet, an acute, an acrid consciousness of a restrained hostility very near us, like a dog on a leash, that might be let go at any moment.
The crown is reburied, but the damage has already been done--despite his furious efforts to rectify his error, the man is ultimately hounded to his death by the spirits he disturbed. What is done can never fully be undone. And as my brother and dad replaced the concrete slab--having, it seems, angered no spirits--I thought of John Bellairs, whose frightening young adult novels so often feature artifacts whose dangers are not immediately apparent; instead, they bide their time before unleashing their deadly powers of fascination. As we left the yard, I warned my brother to beware at least until Hallowe'en, to be sure to fight with all his will against any late-night urge, however innocuous-seeming, to go check out the well.

I don't actually believe any of this. I know that there's nothing in that well aside from spiders and mud. But so much of the fun of stories is a willful succumbing, and so much of what's fun about reading at this time of year is giving in to the idea that maybe we're wrong: maybe our rationality is just a way of closing off possibilities that are too horrifying to think about--a way of setting boundaries to the universe so that we can pretend to be its masters.

I'm reminded of a passage from the introduction to Michael E. Bell's study of New England vampire folklore, Food for the Dead (2001). Bell writes about a course in his first year of graduate school at UCLA taught by folklore scholar Wayland Hand:
My epiphany came the day Wayland told us about the disappearance of giants from Europe. This was not a rapid, catastrophic event like the extinction of the dinosaurs. It was, rather, a more lengthy demise with the final death blow administered by the Industrial Revolution. As Wayland talked about the giants, I noticed that he stopped lookin at us, and his eyes seemed to focus somewhere beyond the windowless walls of our Bunche Hall classroom. His voice, naturally soft, grew softer. He spoke about how Christians stigmatized the giants as devils, in league with Satan. He described how industry's widening circle of smoke and clamor finally pushed the giants from their homes. His voice dropped to a near whisper, and I'm sure I saw tears well up, as he described how the giants shrank, deeper and deeper into the forests and caves. Demonized, and no longer able to find refuge, the giants vanished. When Wayland concluded, It dawned on me that he wasn't talking only about giants no longer appearing in the folklore record. He was describing the extinction of a species. I thought, this is incredible: Wayland Hand, a meticulous, reasoning scholar--a professional folklorist--actually believes in giants.

Of course Hand didn't actually believe in giants--but he did believe, strongly, in stories, which generate their power in part by being just convincing enough that we're temporarily willing to reject reality in favor of their slightly different explanation of the way the world works. As D. J. Enright notes Dr. Johnson saying,
It is wonderful that five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it.

And as the wind whips past my windows, kicking up a rustle of leaves in the cemetery next door, I'm willing--for the length of one story, one novel, one October night--to think that maybe there's something to those hoary old tales. There may not have been anything in the well yesterday, but maybe we were just lucky. In a different story, on a different day . . .

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