Sunday, 9 October 2016

The Haunted Doll's House (M.R. James)

I've been asked to contribute to a ghost story evening later this week and for inspiration I've turned to an old favorite: M.R. James' The Haunted Doll's House. It's been one of my favorites for so many years now I can't remember when or where I first read it, but I've read it many times since then.

It's not considered one of James' best. First published in 1923, it was intended as a gift of sorts for Queen Mary, to be added to her magnificent period doll's house built in the early 1920s and exhibited around the country as an example of superlative English craftsmanship. The house included a perfect replica library in 1:12 scale, with each book being an actual book, with a story, in miniature. James later included it in later collections of his work and it's been reprinted since elsewhere.

For me, what gives it juice is its combination of the peculiar with the mundane. There can be nothing so ordinary as a doll's house, yet this particular example is anything but ordinary. To my knowledge nobody's ever tried to replicate the haunted doll's house in fiction, though there are plenty of stories about ghastly toys, including dolls, of one kind or another. It's almost as unique as a story as it is an item.

I notice, as an aside, that more than a few people have built 'haunted doll's houses.' I approve!

There's a line early on that catches me every time, and if you haven't already read the story then I suggest you do so now as I'm about to enter into spoiler territory:

The curtains of the four-poster in the bedroom were closely drawn round all four sides of it, and he put his finger in between them and felt in the bed. He drew the finger back hastily, for it almost seemed to him as if something had – not stirred, perhaps, but yielded – in an odd live way as he pressed it. Then he put back the curtains, which ran on rods in the proper manner, and extracted from the bed a white-haired old gentleman in a long linen night-dress and cap, and laid him down by the rest. The tale was complete.

A lovely bit of sense-horror. There can be few people who haven't had something like that happen at some point in their lives: you reach out a hand, or it might be a foot, and come into contact with something you weren't expecting. In Bermuda, it's usually cockroaches. You might be sat in a chair at night, working on something, only to feel the faintest of touches, almost a brush, at your feet. Or you stretch half-asleep and your hand comes into contact with something furry. Not stirred, perhaps, but yielded - as in giving way, as though you were expecting to find something solid and instead met with something decidedly more fleshy.

There are aspects of that story which hook me yet, but puzzle me too. James repeats a motif again and again, of the clock striking one in the morning just before something dire happens. I don't think he picked that time at random. It can't be pure coincidence; no, James knew some bit of folklore tied to that hour. I don't know what it is and Funk & Wagnall's fails me this time. It may well have something to do with the death's watch beetle or some obscure piece of lore.

The idea of the story repeating itself, again and again, so that others can see it is one that appears in many ghost stories. James plays with it several times, most notably in the Mezzotint, but I've always had a soft spot for the Story of a Disappearance and a Reappearance, in which Punch and Judy play a prominent part. In that instance the repetition is meant as a message for a particular person, but in Doll's House the message, if there is one, is broadcast into the void.

I note that in that story too the one o'clock theme returns. One of these days I really must find out what James meant.

I've discussed hauntings here before, in the context of Trail and Bookhounds. I'm going to quote something from Seabrook's book on Haiti that I feel is relevant:

Obediently, like an animal, he slowly stood erect - and what I saw then, coupled with what I heard previously, or despite it, came as rather a sickening shock. The eyes were the worst. It was not my imagination. They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind, but staring, unfocused, unseeing. The whole face, for that matter, was bad enough. It was vacant, as if there was nothing behind it ... I remembered - and my mind seized the memory as a man sinking in water clutches a solid plank - the face of a dog I had once seen in the histological laboratory in Columbia. Its entire front brain had been removed in an experimental operation weeks before; it moved about, it was alive, but its eyes were like the eyes I now saw staring.

To my mind ghosts of this type are like the zombie, in that they lack anything like a motive force. They exist, and they go on existing, but without an animating will to direct it the ghost knocks about like a bull in a china shop, committing random acts of horror without the slightest redeeming element. In Disappearance the horrific Punch and Judy act is at least intended to warn a relative about the crime that saw his uncle killed. In Doll's House the specter is utterly without target or moral; the punishment, if punishment it is, was dealt with long ago and only the aftershocks remain, like the flash after a roll of titanic thunder.

When I discussed hauntings in Trail before, it was in the context of actual places. Yet this story shows that a Trail haunting could as easily be used with models, or toys. Some very beautiful working models, for example, were built as toys but architects use models too, as proof of concept. This applies to ships just as much as houses; the Queen's House in Greenwich, London, for example, has an excellent collection of period architectural ship models.

With all that in mind:

Doll's House (c.1778)

Strawberry Hill Gothic mansion house with attached chapel, and garden area in separate pull-out storage under the house. Includes period fixtures and fittings, and a dozen models including a man, a woman, a child, two grooms and several horses, among others. Slight damage to the roof and some scuff marks on the interior. No missing pieces. Model includes complete inventory of all fixtures, fittings and dolls, written by the original owner, a relative of General John Burgoyne. Projected value at auction: eighty pounds. 

An extra horse and carriage has been known to appear as part of the set, but only at night. Megapolisomancers often seek out models like these to use in their workings, but the only known attempt in this particular case to use the house as part of a ritual ended with the death of the participant. The last three owners of the house all sold it on at auction shortly after the death, or miscarriage, of a child. Interestingly, the extra horse and carriage has several models, all children, inside the carriage.

That's it for now!

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