Just a quick post today. I finished the Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, and I still want to write something about the witch-trials that Scott describes, when I have more time. Today, I’ll just share a story with you from Letter 10.
This letter is about allegedly true ghost stories that are demonstrably non-ghost stories. I like this story because it takes an ordinary and “plausible” ghost story (plausible, if one admits the existence of ghosts, I mean), and gives it an utterly contrived sounding explanation.
“The Spectre Skeleton” by George Cruikshank. Illustration for The Letters
This is directly from Letter 10, slightly re-formatted.
A club of persons connected with science and literature was formed at [Plymouth]. During the summer months the society met in a cave by the seashore; during those of autumn and winter they convened within the premises of a tavern, but, for the sake of privacy, had their meeting in a summer-house situated in the garden, at a distance from the main building. Some of the members to whom the position of their own dwellings rendered this convenient, had a pass-key to the garden-door, by which they could enter the garden and reach the summer-house without the publicity or trouble of passing through the open tavern.
It was the rule of this club that its members presided alternately. On one occasion, in the winter, the president of the evening chanced to be very ill; indeed, was reported to be on his death-bed. The club met as usual, and, from a sentiment of respect, left vacant the chair which ought to have been occupied by him if in his usual health; for the same reason, the conversation turned upon the absent gentleman’s talents, and the loss expected to the society by his death.
While they were upon this melancholy theme, the door suddenly opened, and the appearance of the president entered the room. He wore a white wrapper, a nightcap round his brow, the appearance of which was that of death itself. He stalked into the room with unusual gravity, took the vacant place of ceremony, lifted the empty glass which stood before him, bowed around, and put it to his lips; then replaced it on the table, and stalked out of the room as silent as he had entered it.
The company remained deeply appalled; at length, after many observations on the strangeness of what they had seen, they resolved to dispatch two of their number as ambassadors, to see how it fared with the president, who had thus strangely appeared among them. They went, and returned with the frightful intelligence that the friend after whom they had enquired was that evening deceased.
That’s a classic ghost story. I like the detail about the club members sitting in the room staring at each other for a bit, saying “Well. That was certainly odd,” before it occurred to them that someone ought to go and check on their president. In fact, why didn’t anyone follow him out of the room?
Being the skeptical and educated company that they were, they of course didn’t tell anyone what happened. They didn’t believe that they’d had a ghostly visitation, but they couldn’t explain what they had seen, either.
Many years later, one of the club members, a doctor, went to attend an old woman who had been the nurse of the club’s late president The nurse told her doctor that on the night the president had died, she had been keeping watch on him, but had dozed off. When she woke, she found his bed empty, and him nowhere in the house. Alarmed, she dashed out to look for him, and ran into him just as he returned home. She got him back into bed, where he died just before two members of the club came to ask after him.
The explanation, then, is that the president, delirious with illness, had some memory that he was on duty at the club that night. So he got up to to fulfill his office. He had a pass-key to the garden door, so he was able to take the garden short-cut from his house to the meeting, and back again. The two club members who went to ask after him took the longer route, on the road, so the president was able to make if back home in plenty of time to die before the other two reached his front door.
The philosophical witnesses of this strange scene were now as anxious to spread the story as they had formerly been to conceal it, since it showed in what a remarkable manner men’s eyes might turn traitors to them, and impress them with ideas far different from the truth.
As a narrative, I find the real explanation somewhat less satisfying than the supernatural explanation. Doesn’t it sound like the kind of convoluted solution that comes at the end of a drawing-room murder mystery, or a Columbo episode? I like Colombo, and I enjoy the occasional Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers novel — but that style of story is decidedly non-realistic.
I’m sure the members of the philosophical club were relieved to find a naturalistic explanation of what they’d witnessed. Still, I think on Christmas Eve (or Halloween), sitting around the fireplace with a glass of sherry and my friends, the supernatural version would make a better story.