What distinguishes us from animals if not morality? Perhaps we are more evolved because we can kill any other species with our traps and technologies – man is the ultimate apex predator – but it is precisely our restraint that ennobles us. When we exercise our mercy, when compassion outyells easy victory, only then are we truly human, making those who hunt animals for pleasure (not, say, for survival) all the more akin to the quadrapeds they stalk. Yet we would be hard-pressed to exhibit the dignity that these creatures display as our quarries. They flee or fight, but they do not cringe in terror perhaps because they do not have a sense of the beyond, or that our beyond may be simply an endless, distorted repetition of our here and now. If we take no quarter with these beasts, how then should we presume amnesty for ourselves? An old and delicate question, and one that brings us to this fine tale.
As is typical in stories featuring Dr. Martin Hesselius, there will obtain a narrational conceit of a few degrees of separation. An unidentified editor presents a translation of Hesselius's German text containing the observations of a certain Reverend Herbert about yet a fourth man, Sir James Barton. The strategy of such estrangement is twofold. Firstly, we commence already at the fifth degree from the truth, and the second language, so what occurred in reality may differ significantly from what finally reached our inspection. Secondly, no story of purported supernatural events is really effective first-hand: ghost stories and other tales of terror require apostles and word-of-mouth expansion (as one critic mentions in a cinematic context, heroes of ghost stories tend to revel in the personal appearance of these apparitions as a sign of their own, that is, the heroes' significance). When we are then informed that Barton was "from the deliberate conviction of years, an utter disbeliever in what are usually termed preternatural agencies," we know we have the perfect candidate for a bit of spooking. In his early forties but fit and able, our Barton seems a fine chap. Yet he is also, we are warned, readily given over to the vacillations of mood found with frequency in the emotionally unripe. A closer inspection reveals much more:
In his personal habits Mr. Barton was unexpensive. He occupied lodgings in one of the then-fashionable streets in the south side of the town – kept but one horse and one servant – and though a reputed free-thinker, yet lived an orderly and moral life – indulging neither in gaming, drinking, nor any other vicious pursuit – living very much to himself, without forming intimacies, or choosing any companions, and appearing to mix in gay society rather for the sake of its bustle and distraction, than for any opportunities it offered of interchanging thought or feeling with its votaries. Barton was, therefore, pronounced a saving, prudent, unsocial sort of fellow, who bid fair to maintain his celibacy alike against stratagem and assault, and was likely to live to a good old age, die rich, and leave his money to an hospital.
A free-thinker who may be a mason, or simply someone who has shunned the conventions of Christianity for easy living and easy virtues – how someone so attached to the material world can be construed as free is not ours to worry. In the Victorian view, it is people of Barton's stripe – sane, plain and urbane – who could not possibly be afflicted by neurosis or paranoia. Indeed, those who wish to explain the world as a creation of some divine spirit would greatly value the reflections of someone like our dandy because he would make an impeachable witness.
Witness to what, you ask? Well, that question may be harder to answer, despite the clearly definable moments of Barton's unease. At some point in his careful, conventionally pleasant existence, he begins to hear footsteps. The night on which these footsteps first emerge is described as succeeding an evening of conversation with friends which had "degenerated [into a discussion] on the supernatural and the marvelous." Thereupon follow letters of admonishment signed, "The Watcher," and an uncomfortable encounter with a man "short in stature, [who] looked like a foreigner, and wore a kind of fur travelling-cap." Why this wiry homunculus could so perturb our famously imperturbable captain will be explained in the way all good ghost stories are explained: by half-swallowed hints and allegations, and, for our sake, little more. How then to ponder Barton's bedeviled query to a physician, one of the experts he consults on his ills:
Well, then, Doctor, here is the last of my questions. You will, probably, laugh at it; but it must out nevertheless. Is there any disease, in all the range of human maladies, which would have the effect of perceptibly contracting the stature and the whole frame – causing the man to shrink in all his proportions, and yet to preserve his exact resemblance to himself in every particular – with the one exception, his height and bulk; any disease, mark – no matter how rare – how little believed in, generally – which could possibly result in producing such an effect?
The doctor has, of course, no answer. Neither does the clergyman on whom Barton imposes his own vision of fire and brimstone, although it is probably important that while the father confessor boasts myriad appellations ("the divine," "the clergyman," "the man of folios," "the ecclesiastic," "the Doctor," "the churchman," "the student"), our secular seaman is referred to only by his surname. As if he, earthbound misfit that he is, were facing a multitude of realities – and we have said more than enough.
The accomplishments of Le Fanu have been mostly forgotten by younger generations who cannot abide older, more talented masters – and we say, too bad for them. Le Fanu worked in similar fashion to this contemporary, that is, he combined peerless literary style with a sense for human vulnerabilities. While Poe more than occasionally pandered to morose delectation, making a Roman holiday of far too many of his characters (I still shudder at the fate of one in particular in this tale), Le Fanu seems oddly removed from the events. His lush prose, replete with just enough Gallicisms to draw attention to itself, cascades around the subject matter with the remove and suspicion commonly incident to parody. Yet Le Fanu, perhaps more than any other author of the macabre, is absolutely serious. He may not necessarily believe that the cause of the unfortunate events he depicts is supernatural, but he knows them to have happened, either in our reality or in the entrapped prism of an afflicted mind. In either case, we should not laugh but wince. And our captain's predicament cannot but remind us of a famous little poem:
Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today;
I wish, I wish he’d go away...
When I came home last night at three,
The man was waiting there for me.
But when I looked around the hall,
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door... (slam!)
Last night I saw upon the stair,
A little man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today;
Oh, how I wish he’d go away.
We are happy to report that, in the end, that squirrelly little fellow does indeed go away. It is to where he disappears that should concern us. And, of course, poor Barton.