“What?..It’s gone, man, the skull is gone!!”
Image: Project Gutenberg
I have often heard it scream. No, I am not nervous, I am not imaginative, and I never believed in ghosts, unless that thing is one. Whatever it is, it hates me almost as much as it hated Luke Pratt, and it screams at me.
That’s the opening of F. Marion Crawford’s “The Screaming Skull,” from his 1911 collection Wandering Ghosts — and a great opening it is, too. The narrator of “The Screaming Skull” is a retired sea captain, living in a cottage on the Cornish coast that he inherited from his cousin, Luke Pratt. Sailors encounter many gruesome things on their travels, which they sometimes share with friends and family back home. Did one of our narrator’s stories give Luke Pratt the idea of how to kill his wife? And where did Pratt get the skull that was found on the beach, next to his mutilated body?
The story is told entirely in monologue, as one half of a conversation that the narrator is having with a visiting friend, another retired sailor. We hear how the narrator might accidentally have caused Mrs. Pratt’s murder one chilly November, we hear about Pratt’s mysterious death several years later. We learn about the skull that was found next to Pratt’s body, and that now sits on the cupboard in the Pratts’ former bedroom. Every so often — especially in November — the skull screams. The narrator tries to get rid of the thing, but the skull always comes back….
Crawford writes that the inspiration for this story was the legend of the screaming skull of Bettiscombe Manor; you can read a short account here, along with stories of other haunted skulls. Crawford’s version has a different narrative from the Bettiscombe Manor story, and includes a lot of very convincing maritime detail and discussion. I don’t know if Crawford ever was a sailor (there’s no mention of it in his Wikipedia biography), but he must have spent a lot of time in their company, to get the tone of an old sea captain down so well.
The monologue device works well, and the passage at the end of the story where the narrator and his friend go upstairs to fetch the skull had me chewing my fingernails. It’s a nice mystery/ghost story, creepy but not gory. The murder itself is fairly gruesome, but handled in an understated way. The “clues” are handed out at just the right pace to keep the story going. Crawford’s style is similar to the M.R. James school of ghost story, and in fact James liked Crawford’s ghost stories; his favorite Crawford tale was “The Haunted Berth,” with “The Screaming Skull” a trailing second.
If you like understated, Jamesian style ghost stories, give “The Screaming Skull” a try. You can find the story in the anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories — or you can find in on Project Gutenberg, here.
This review is part of my Peril of the Short Story, for the Readers Imbibing Peril (R.I.P) VII reading event.