More winter tales as we head into 2020! I came across “The Moral Opiate” a few years ago, in a collection of supernatural tales from Cornhill Magazine, and it struck me then as an unusual “ghost” story. The story is set in January, and seemed like a great winter tale. Unfortunately, as it was published in 1923, it wasn’t in the public domain when I found it. This finally changed in 2019. The story fits this year’s theme of a “different sort of haunting” quite well, and I’m delighted to share it with you.

La temptation

Birchington Priory isn’t haunted, per se; in fact, the Blue Bedroom of Sir Darcy’s annexe is a cheerful, pleasant room–the very opposite of spooky. But it’s a sinister place nonetheless, and the downfall of several guests at Birchington Priory. The room’s potential next victim: Eric Weir, amateur Egyptologist.

To feel yourself above mankind with their foolish conventions, designed to keep the bolder spirits to their own dead level—to feel that you are infinitely wiser than these sheep who voluntarily follow a moral code that leads through toil and trouble to the grave, and that can, at no time on the journey, offer any real recompense—these are feelings that intoxicate a man and sweep him off his feet.

“The Moral Opiate” is a fable disguised as a ghost story, an allegory about how easily a person can let go of their principles and slide into amorality and unethical behavior if they aren’t careful. In the story the bad influence is supernatural and dramatic; in real life, it can be slow and insidious, and hence, so much more dangerous…

You can read The Moral Opiate here.

I haven’t been able to find out anything about the author, William Bradley. The name is a fairly common one, and though there are several William Bradleys in Wikipedia, none of them seem likely. There are also several Will or William Bradleys in the FictionMags Index, but the folks there have decided that the author of “The Moral Opiate” is distinct from the others, and glancing at the titles of the pieces written by the other W. Bradleys, they’re probably correct. So this seems to be the only story published by this author, at least under this name.

A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.


Featured Image: Source: pxhere

La Temptation, Copyright by Wm. Lee. Lith. F. Heppenheimer & Co (1869) Source: Library of Congress via Picryl

2 thoughts on “The Moral Opiate

  1. Thank you for this. The title is always timely. I think the question is not only how easy it is to slide into amorality, but our tendency to assume the problem is always the property of someone else. To put it differently, how we tend to judge others by what we assume we would do, even if we haven’t been tested in a similar circumstance.

    An alternative question would be in which areas of life we have acted immorally. Another might be that a decision not to take action in moment of moral crisis within society is also a moral failure. Then there are those moral dilemmas involving competing moral values.

    1. One of the things that struck me about this story in particular is the idea that conventional morality/ethics/honest behavior is some type of weakness. Or to put it another way, if I can take what you have, it’s your fault. In the context of the story, it’s clearly wrong, because the idea gets into the heads of its victims all at once, so to speak.

      But (as the author points out), one might slowly come to such an idea, that if bad things happen to someone else, it’s because of something they did, or failed to do, or some weakness of theirs, and therefore it is no longer my responsibility to help them, and it’s even ok to take advantage of them. This is related to your observations about failing to act in moments of moral crisis, or judging others when we haven’t been in their shoes.

      And in the end, a person might find themself espousing ideas that in the past they might have found repellent, like children in cages, or entire factions of a population disenfranchised, or…. As you say, the title is always timely.

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