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Thursday
Sep252014

Number 13

Admirers of Germanic Scandinavia – I am fortunate enough to count myself among their numbers – will all concur that what distinguishes this miraculous swath of civilization from the rest of our globe is something we may term secularity, but what is better understood as modernity. Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and my beloved Denmark have all endured enormous changes when one considers at what juncture of development these countries lay just a century ago (as depicted, for example, in this film). Yet peace and prosperity, both of which have been showered on Scandinavia for almost seventy years, have that funny tendency of making the beneficiaries forget about basic values. Scandinavians have dammed that slippery slope by the sanest hybrid of capitalism and social welfare the world has ever seen, and while a few are frightfully rich, far fewer can be deemed frightfully poor. Such is the point of government: help the weak, allow the strong to flourish only when they simultaneously aid society, and allow everyone the same opportunities. The results, of course, will necessarily not be the same. There will be still be arrogant peeves over materialism, individual freedoms, and the separation of Church and state, and there is little we can do for people so devoid of imagination that they need their neuroses ballasted in law. Which brings us to this old tale.

We find ourselves in this town, somewhere between the Great Wars, but definitely far out of the reach of current events. Our protagonist is a certain Mr. Anderson, a Church scholar and linguist particularly enamored with the migration of faiths through these Northern lands. His current journey is justified by the news that "in the Rigsarkiv [National Archive] of Viborg there were papers, saved from the fire [of 1726], relating to the last days of Roman Catholicism in the country." Of course, there is no such thing as the "last days of Roman Catholicism," simply the first days of another, closely related system of beliefs – but let us be more precise. What should be understood here is that the original formations of faith are never swept away by novelty, however long novelty has been around; they invariably persist in some form or another. Hence the omission of room 13 from circulation at our destination, the Viborg lodge the Golden Lion, something "which Anderson had already noticed half a dozen times in his experience of Danish hotels." Anderson wishes himself a larger room, and gets it: room twelve, "fairly high and unusually long" with three windows on its side. Very satisfied with this arrangement, he plans his long workdays with that mirth unique to scholars. And since he first entered his quarters during daytime, it is only at night that he remarks the anomalies:

It was not difficult for him to find his way back to his own door. So, at least, he thought; but when he arrived there, and turned the handle, the door entirely refused to open, and he caught the sound of a hasty movement towards it from within. He had tried the wrong door, of course. Was his own room to the right or to the left? He glanced at the number: it was 13 .... [Later] it occur[red] to him that, whereas on the blackboard of the hotel there had been no Number 13, there was undoubtedly a room numbered 13 in the hotel. He felt rather sorry he had not chosen it for his own. Perhaps he might have done the landlord a little service by occupying it, and given him the chance of saying that a well-born English gentleman had lived in it for three weeks and liked it very much. But probably it was used as a servant's room or something of the kind. After all, it was most likely not so large or good a room as his own. And he looked drowsily about the room, which was fairly perceptible in the half-light from the street-lamp. It was a curious effect, he thought. Rooms usually look larger in a dim light than a full one, but this seemed to have contracted in length and grown proportionately higher.

Nowadays, of course, Danes couldn't care less whether an Englishman – well-born or otherwise – stayed in a hotel or, for that matter, did anything at all. Our scholar betakes himself to the National Archive the next day and represses this oddity.

What happens subsequently is, for the most part, what one can expect to happen in a story by James, that is, fantastic eloquence striped with utter dread. As is also common in his work, the tale is related by someone who did not experience it – the very hallmark of ghost stories who nourish themselves on the amplifications of word-of-mouth. In this case, the narrator is Anderson's cousin who later reveals that he possesses a tome whose frontispiece ("representing a number of sages seated around a table") was made by this infamous engraver. Strange things begin to occur in their habitual fashion and yet the anxious reader may become puzzled that Anderson, as someone clearly with a sideways interest in the occult, would not detect the hints. One in particular that perhaps should remain undetected:

The light was behind him, and he could see his own shadow clearly cast on the wall opposite .... Also the shadow of the occupant of Number 13 on the right ... Number 13 was, like himself, leaning on his elbows on the window-sill looking out into the street. He seemed to be a tall thin man or was it by any chance a woman? at least, it was someone who covered his or her head with some kind of drapery before going to bed, and, he thought, must be possessed of a red lamp-shade and the lamp must be flickering much. There was a distinct playing up and down of a dull red light on the opposite wall. He craned out a little to see if he could make out any more of the figure, but beyond a fold of some light, perhaps white, material on the window-sill he could see nothing.

Should we add that the Golden Lion is "one of the very few houses that were not destroyed in the great fire of 1726"? It was right around that time that a hideous pact was completed between a future scholar at this university and, well, the being you would normally associate with hideous pacts. But we – and Anderson – still cannot account for that one night when he hears a song.  

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