Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Surrounding Gloom

The Empty House

This week we'll look at that old standard of horror, the haunted house.

Algernon Blackwood wrote "The Empty House" in 1906. By this date, spending time within a "domicile of dread" was featured in countless ghost stories. For instance, J. Sheridan LeFanu's "An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street" was published in 1853 and was considered such an exemplar of the type that Bram Stoker used it as direct inspiration for his story, "The Judge's House", in 1891. Even last week's subject, M.R. James, tried his hand at this well-worn trope in "Lost Hearts", written in 1895, albeit with his signature antiquarian twists.

So, what makes "The Empty House" worthy of our consideration? First, it is an excellent read. Second, it is the iconic "It'll be a Thrill" haunted house story, in which the characters who experience the haunting are neither unknowingly residing in the accursed place nor are they conducting a "scientific" study. They are there purely for the thrilling experience. As such, it is the antecedent to many of our contemporary "ghost stories" in which we watch, via night vision cameras, some silly people freak out in a "haunted" location for our entertainment.

Third, in most haunted house stories prior to "The Empty House", the haunting is about a location in which a ghost resides. Consider other monster types and their lairs. In fairy tales, a bridge may have a troll lurking beneath it or a cave may house a dragon. Neither the bridge nor the cave are inherently terrible; it is the monster associated with them that makes the location baneful. And so it is with the haunted house. But "The Empty House" alters the paradigm. Yes, there are ghosts present in the house, but their malevolent and unnatural presence has tainted the essence of the location. Whether or not the ghosts are present, the House itself is a monster.

Algernon Blackwood

Consider this passage:

Stealthily, walking on tip-toe and shading the candle lest it should betray their presence through the shutterless windows, they went first into the big dining-room. There was not a stick of furniture to be seen. Bare walls, ugly mantel-pieces and empty grates stared at them. Everything, they felt, resented their intrusion, watching them, as it were, with veiled eyes; whispers followed them; shadows flitted noiselessly to right and left; something seemed ever at their back, watching, waiting an opportunity to do them injury. There was the inevitable sense that operations which went on when the room was empty had been temporarily suspended till they were well out of the way again. The whole dark interior of the old building seemed to become a malignant Presence that rose up, warning them to desist and mind their own business; every moment the strain on the nerves increased.

The influence of this approach to the haunted house narrative became the most prominent style within the 20th century, most notably in Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House". In fact, this paradigm is so strong that we don't need spectral manifestations to establish a "haunted" feel within a narrative. Check out this vid:

Creepy but effective at establishing the proper "feel". All we require to posit a haunted setting within a narrative is architectural deterioration and clues of the uncanny. In this vid, the sound effects serve as audio clues.

Blackwood provides the ghosts, but his keen attention to the details of the setting and his ability to create within the mind of the reader a coherent and malignant architectural space makes them superfluous to the sensation of horror. And that's why the "Empty House" is a classic ghost story.

Here's a link to "The Empty House" at Wikisource.

And here's Algernon Blackwood's Wikipedia page.


No comments:

Post a Comment