Monday, October 12, 2009

An inner sanctum of sorts

I'm nearly finished with the first volume of the new Library of America collection American Fantastic Tales, and thus far my favorite story is "The Little Room" (1895) by Madeline Yale Wynne. Though according to the biographical note for Wynne the story is frequently anthologized, I find only a handful of listings in The Supernatural Index*

Which makes it all the more pleasant that it might as well have been written for me, combining as it does the two characteristics I love most in spooky stories, a delicate touch and a refusal to explain. In that regard, the story it most reminds me of is Robert M. Coates's "The Hour after Westerly" (1947)**. Both stories begin with minor twists on common phenomena: in "Westerly," it is a combination of deja vu and the sense one sometimes gets that a vague hour or two has passed entirely unnoticed and unmarked; in "The Little Room," it's a moment largely encountered in dreams, of unexpectedly finding a previously unseen room in a long-familiar house. Both stories edge right up to the point of making their supernatural underpinnings explicit, but ultimately shy away from anything resembling an explanation; their restraint is admirable.

However, whereas "Westerly" is an extremely good story, well worth seeking out, "The Little Room" is more effective, because Wynne tiptoes closer to an explanation--or, in a roundabout way that leaves nearly everything unsaid, several possible explanations. The tale opens with a pair of newlyweds on a train, off to visit the bride's maiden great-aunts in rural Vermont. On the train, the bride breathlessly tells her husband something strange about the aunts' house: it contains a door, behind which is sometimes a homey room and at other times is a china closet. The bride's mother told her of spending time in the room when she lived with the aunts for a while as a girl, but then being unable to find it--or even interest her aunts in the question of its absence--on her return with her husband. The bride, too, had seen the room as a girl, spending time there when visiting the aunts with her then-widowed mother, who, despite having long before written off the room's existence to childhood fancy, finds that on this visit it has returned, though the aunts continue to claim that nothing has ever changed about the house.

I won't go further than that, but you're probably already beginning to see the symbolic richness of the story, which only becomes more effective when you learn that the couch in the little room is covered with chintz that was rumored to have been the gift of a sea captain who had wooed one of the aunts, then left her unwed. The later visit to the house of a younger cousin and her friend, who from our vantage can only be imagined as partners in what then would have been known as a "Boston marriage," as well as the equivocal role played by men in the story, only compounds the mysterious aura of sex, virginity, and feminine secrets implied by the elusive room. Wynne's story offers the best sort of symbolism--not the heavy-handed one-to-one allegory of high school study questions, but the suggestive, multi-valent, organic one that has, it seems safe to presume, animated uncanny stories since the first campfires.

From the biographical note I learned that Wynne--an heir to the Yale lock fortune--published but one book, The Little Room and Other Stories. It appears to have only been printed once, in 1895, and been out of print thereafter--but Google Books came through.*** I quickly understood why the book had sunk into obscurity. Aside from "The Little Room," its six supernatural stories are mostly forgettable--not bad, but far from memorable, smoothly written for the most part but carrying nary a whiff of the truly uncanny. Most surprising, the second story is "The Sequel to the Little Room"! I began reading it with trepidation, fearing it would present answers to the many questions its predecessor had left so deliberately, intriguingly open. Instead, it failed on its own merits: whereas the dialogue in "The Little Room" is written in a light, conversational tone that felt modern, even postwar, Wynne's sequel is told largely in an awkward New England dialect that reads like a hokey facsimile of Sarah Orne Jewett that it's hard to imagine didn't seem dated even in 1895. The story offers a bit of insight into the lives of the aunts, and it flatly refuses to dispel the central mysteries of "The Little Room," but at the same time it has none of the ease and grace of that story, nothing like its jeweled strangeness.

Still, to create one perfect story is a real achievement; to have it still spooking readers more than a century later ought to satisfy any writer. Mrs. Wynne's ghost ought to rest comfortably--unless, that is, it simply prefers the pleasures of the haunt.

1 comment:

  1. My husband and I own a house that once belonged to Madeline Yale Wynne's aunt and uncle. Before we bought the house we were given a tour by the real estate agent. When we went upstairs to see the bedrooms he pointed out that it was unusual for a Victorian house to have been built with original closets. He took us into the first bedroom at the top of the stairs, showed us the view out the double window and pointed out the closet. At the second bedroom he pointed out an identical double window and an identical closet. He followed the same routine in the third bedroom. The fourth and apparently last bedroom was full of furniture so we stayed behind as he squeezed around the foot of the bed to point to yet another double window and another closet but, as we were turning to leave the room, we found ourselves alone. A second later here was a faint "Are you coming?" from inside the closet. In the back of that closet was a doorway leading into another room with blue wallpaper that has no entrance from the hall. I read somewhere that Madeline Yale Wynne was probably inspired to write "The Little Room" by her home in Massachusetts but I don't believe that.