Friday, January 14, 2011

The (non) ghost stories of Edith Wharton

As I was reading The New York Stories of Edith Wharton over the weekend, in anticipation of a trip to (a, um, somewhat different) New York, I encountered a couple of passages that made me pause and, figuratively, look around, wondering whether Vincent Price or Christopher Lee might be about to make an appearance.

This one, for example, from "Autres Temps," which finds a disgraced divorcee visiting her newly engaged daughter's country house of the first time. Try reading it with fogs and mystery on the brain, as a cousin tries to keep the mother in her room . . . at all costs!:
"Yes; it's too bad." Miss Suffern's gaze grew vague. "You do look tired, you know," she continued, seating herself at the tea-table and preparing to dispense its delicacies. "You must go straight back to your sofa and let me wait on you. The excitement has told on your more than you think, and you mustn't fight against it any longer. Just stay quietly up here and let yourself go. You'll have Leila to yourself on Monday."

Mrs. Lidcote received the tea-cup which her cousin proffered, but showed no other disposition to obey her injunctions. For a moment she stirred her tea in silence; then she asked: "Is it your idea that I should stay quietly up here until Monday?"

Miss Suffern set down her cup with a gesture so sudden that it endangered an adjacent plate of scones. When she had assured herself of the safety of the scones she looked up with a fluttered laugh. "Perhaps, dear, by to-morrow you'll be feeling differently. The air here, you know--"

"--What was that?!"

"What was what, dear?"
Okay, so I added that last exchange. But it didn't seem out of place, did it?

For these purposes, the next story, "The Long Run," is even better. Here's the key passage, introducing an old friend of the narrator; try not to imagine a rediscovered acquaintance in an M. R. James story as you read this description:
I was glad to see them all . . . but I was most of all glad--as I rather wonderingly found--to set eyes again on Halston Merrick.

He and I had been at Harvard together, for one thing, and had shared there curiosities and ardors a little outside the current tendencies: had, on the whole, been more critical than our comrades and less amenable to the accepted.
The two fell out of touch for an interval, during which Merrick inherited an iron works and was forced to retreat from society:
During that long interval I heard of no new phase in Merrick's evolution, but this did not surprise me, as I had never expected from him actions resonant enough to cross the globe. All I knew--and this did surprise me--was that he had not married, and that he was still in the iron business. All through those years, however, I never ceased to wish, in certain situations and at certain turns of thought, that Merrick were in reach, that I could tell this or that to Merrick. I had never, in the interval, found any one with just his quickness of perception and just his sureness of response.
All that's needed now is an unexpected awkwardness of manner (and perhaps a pallor) on Merrick's part, an invitation to his remote house, and the revelation of some quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore that he's been diligently studying lo these twelve years.

Alas, the only ghosts in these two stories are those spirits of past mistakes and misfortunes that populate so many of her stories. Fortunately for ghost story fans, however, one of the later stories in the collection does end up turning on a ghost, which, were it October rather than snowy January, I just might have decided to interpret as Edith Wharton gently tweaking me . . . . from beyond the grave!

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