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Saturday
Sep032011

The Dead Hand

We may not recall the first ghost story we heard as children, but we will certainly remember the first time we realized a fear more complex than hunger, darkness, or separation from our parents (mine was at the age of seven or so, when I learned the word "dusk" in a story about, bizarrely, a train station and the ghost of a werewolf).  And what form this fear will assume predicates what we might have come to understand.  Do children comprehend death?  Regret and atonement?  The immortality of the human soul?  Considering that a large percentage of adults reflect little on such subjects, the answer must probably be no.  But a subtler answer would claim that children understand the everlasting soul as a natural extension of a near-endless terrestrial existence, because to a child life never seems quite complete.  Some children, however, do not have the luxury of sustained curiosity and innocence, which brings us to this famous tale.

Disliking a protagonist may detract from a story's enjoyment as much as overidentifying with him, and we cannot confess to liking Arthur Holliday.  Arthur is one of those lucky fellows who have nothing to say of any profundity because they have always floated atop the lapsing waves under the approval of the almighty sun.  They are rich, comely, and carefree, which makes them ideal for indulging in most of what our earth may offer:

Thus far, his life had been the common, trifling, prosaic surface-life of a prosperous young man, with no troubles to conquer, and no trials to face.  He had lost no relation whom he loved, no friend whom he treasured.  Till this night, what share he had of the immortal inheritance that is divided amongst us all, had lain dormant with him.  Till this night, Death and he had not once met, even in thought.

Over time, of course, these types are confronted with decrepitude and stare back only to find that their corpses look remarkably like all the wizened blighters they have spent their lives walking quickly past, not inspecting them too closely out of guilt.  Right now, however, Holliday is more concerned with the annual horse race in Doncaster.  He arrives in this small town and finds, to no one's surprise except his, not a single available room for the night.  Yet he is far from discouraged:

To a young fellow of Arthur's temperament, the novelty of being turned away into the street like a penniless vagabond, at every house where he asked for a lodging, presented itself in the light of a new and highly amusing piece of experience.  He went on with his carpet-bag in his hand, applying for a bed at every place of entertainment for travellers that he could find in Doncaster, until he wandered into the outskirts of the town. 

Holliday's spirits will soon decline.  But for the time being, he is content with his incognito gandering through a rustic province, since such experiences are usually alloyed with fictional details to make them even more appealing to his dinner party commensals (Holliday remains, by nature, a smarmy raconteur who adjusts his lies to his audience).  After losing more hope than he could reasonably be expected to nurture in his narrow breast, he comes upon a large sign in the shape of a hand and follows its index finger to an inn where one customer just so happens to be checking out in no small haste.  Why that man wishes to vacate such a precious berth on such a stormy night will not be discussed here.  Suffice it to say that Arthur overpays a conniving innkeeper for a shared room and does not bother to ask himself the question in our last sentence.  Surely, as an old French film terribly tells us, everyone has his reasons, with the implication being it is neither ours to know or to understand even if we did. 

Ghost stories have often functioned as a warning to children and young adults who may not take the consequences of their actions as seriously as they should – but these tales, with very few exceptions, now appear woefully pedantic.  As we have become more liberal in print, so have modern spooks engaged in far too much bloodletting to be considered nothing if not disgusting.  Somewhere in between these extremes lie the wonderful compositions of James, Lovecraft, Blackwood, Machen, and Doyle – atmospheric, elegant, and yet ghastly in their own wicked way.  Unlike subsequent horror writers, Collins did not possess a fascination with the macabre as much an incomparable eye for human frailty.  As such, the pleasure of reading him cannot be understated: his is a subtle craft made enthralling by an inborn ability to extricate intrigue from the mildest of subjects.  That he was once the most popular writer in England shows good taste occasionally even runs in whole countries.  We may think we understand the twists in his tales; but then it turns out that his twists have twists, and his tales have tails.  The secret he knows we are instinctively looking for is often mentioned very early on, almost as an aside.  Yet when we come to it at last it is revealed to have been a simple plot detail made somewhat more significant by the fact that what we thought would happen did indeed.  Ghost stories, after all, may not necessarily be explained by earthly logic.  And you may ask yourself why there can be no better name for our lonely inn than The Two Robins.

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