Sunday, 8 April 2018

Cousin Jane (Lafcadio Hearn)

I've been lucky enough to hold a copy of The Life & Letters of Lafcadio Hearn in my hands. Elizabeth Bisland's two volume collection is a remarkable piece of scholarship, and I'd recommend it to anyone with any interest in Hearn. Or even those that don't, because there's plenty here that can be data mined by anyone with an interest in horror.

Lafcadio was born in 1850 to an Irish father and Greek mother. The circumstances of his parents' marriage were straight out of a romance novel. Surgeon-Major 76th Foot Charles Bush Hearn was sent to the island of Cerigo in the late 1840s, where he met Rosa Cerigote. The two fell in love but her family did not approve, particularly since the British were an occupying force. They wanted nothing to do with the oppressors, and one night her brothers ambushed Hearn and stabbed him, leaving him for dead. Rosa found the Surgeon Major and concealed him in a barn, nursing him back to health. When he was well enough the pair eloped, and for a time knew happiness in Greece. Lafcadio, named for the island of his birth, Lefcada, was their second son. The first died soon after birth, and their third, James, was born three years later.

When Britain ceded the Ionian Isles to Greece the family went back to Ireland, but this was fatal to the marriage. Rosa could not abide Ireland, and had no friends there. She became miserable, and after a time believed the Surgeon Major had fallen in love with someone else. The marriage was annulled, and Rosa fled back to Greece.

This disruption broke the family, and Lafcadio was adopted by an aunt, Mrs. Brenane, a staunch Roman Catholic. Lafcadio moved to Wales, and never saw his father or brother again. He grew up with a morbid distrust of attachment, never making friends easily, constantly on the lookout for betrayal.

I'm not going to summarize the book, but I do want to talk about an episode from Lafcadio's early history. It illustrates what I believe to be the one true rule of weird fiction: that the writer must take something that is normal in every respect, and twist it until it becomes unnatural.

Young Hearn had a cheerless life in Mrs. Brenane's household. She was a stern woman, teaching him Roman Catholicism by rote. He understood nothing of religion, but could repeat prayers "only as a parrot might have done." A nervous child, he had been forbidden ghost stories and fairy tales and was under strict injunction not to talk about such things.

One day a visitor arrived, Cousin Jane, a joyless young woman who wanted to become a nun, but did not. "I asked why," says Lafcadio, "I was told I was too young to understand." She seldom smiled, and seemed burdened by some secret grief.

One day she discovered that Lafcadio, though nominally religious, had no real concept of God. This horrified her, and she lectured him with a fervor that says something about the brand of religion she adopted.

I do not remember all the rest of her words; I can recall with distinctness only the following:

"and send you down to Hell to burn alive in fire for ever and ever! Think of it! - always burning, burning, burning! screaming and burning! screaming and burning! never to be saved from that pain of fire! You remember when you burned your finger at the lamp? Think of your whole body burning - always, always, always burning! - for ever and ever!"

I can still see her face as in the instance of that utterance - the horror upon it, and the pain. Then she suddenly burst into tears and left the room.

From that time I detested Cousin Jane, because she had made me unhappy in a new and irreparable way. I did not doubt what she had said; but I hated her for having said it - particularly for the hideous way she said it ... When she left us in the spring, I hoped that she would soon die - so that I might never see her face again. 

But I was fated to meet her again under strange circumstances. I am not sure whether it was in the latter part of the summer that I last saw her, or early in the autumn; I remember only that it was in the evening and that the weather was still pleasantly warm. The sun had set; but there was a clear twilight, full of soft colour; and in that twilight-time I happened to be on the lobby of the third floor - all by myself.

I do not know why I had gone up there alone; perhaps I was looking for some toy. At all events I was standing in the lobby, close to the head of the stairs, when I noticed that the door of Cousin Jane's room seemed to be ajar. Then I saw it slowly opening. The fact surprised me because that door - the farthest one of three opening on the lobby - was usually locked. Almost at the same moment Cousin Jane herself, robed in her familiar black dress, came out of the room, and advanced towards me - but with her head turned upwards and sideways, as if she were looking for something on the lobby-wall, close to the ceiling. I cried out in astonishment, "Cousin Jane!" - but she did not seem to hear. She approached slowly, still with her head so thrown back that I could see nothing of her face above the chin: then she walked directly past me into the room nearest the stairway - a bedroom of which the door was always left open by day. Even as she passed I did not see her face - only her white throat and chin, and the gathered mass of her beautiful hair. Into the bedroom I ran after her, calling out, "Cousin Jane! Cousin Jane!" I saw her pass round the foot of a great four-pillared bed, as if to approach the window beyond it; and I followed her to that other side of the bed. Then, as if first aware of my presence, she turned; and I looked up, expecting to meet her smile ... She had no face. There was only a pale blur instead of a face. And even as I stared, the figure vanished. It did not fade; it simply ceased to be - like the shape of a flame blown out.

Cousin Jane returned to the house at the beginning of the cold season. In the first few hours she made much of Lafcadio, buying him toys and good things to eat.

I ought to have been grateful, if not happy. But the generous shame that her caresses had awakened was already gone; and that memory of which I could speak to no one - least of all to her - again darkened my thoughts. This Cousin Jane who was buying me toys, and smiling, and chatting, was only, perhaps, the husk of another Cousin Jane that had no face ... Before the brilliant shops, among the crowds of happy people, I had nothing to fear. But afterwards - after dark - might not the Inner disengage herself from the other, and leave her room, and glide to mine with chin upturned, as if staring at the ceiling?

Cousin Jane took a turn for the worse the very next day, and did not come down to breakfast. She died of consumption soon after.

I understood only that I had seen; and because I had seen I was afraid. And the memory of that seeing disturbed me more than ever, after the coffin of Cousin Jane had been carried away. The knowledge of her death had filled me, not with sorrow, but with terror. Once I had wished that she were dead. And that wish had been fulfilled - but the punishment was yet to come. Dim thoughts, dim fears - enormously older than the creed of Cousin Jane - awakened within me, as from some prenatal sleep - especially a horror of the dead as evil beings, hating mankind ... such horror exists in savage minds, accompanied by the vague notion that character is totally transformed or stripped by death - that those departed, who once caressed and smiled and loved, now menace and gibber and hate ... what power, I asked myself in dismay, could protect me from her visits? I had not yet ceased to believe in the God of Cousin Jane; but I doubted whether he would or could do anything for me. Moreover my creed had been greatly shaken by the suspicion that Cousin Jane had always lied. How often had she not assured me that I could not see ghosts or evil spirits! Yet the Thing that I had seen was assuredly her inside-self - the ghost of the goblin of her - and utterly evil. Evidently she hated me: she had lured me in a lonesome room for the sole purpose of making me hideously afraid ... And why had she hated me thus before she died? - was it because she knew that I hated her - that I wished her to die? Yet how did she know? - could the ghost of her see, through blood and flesh and bone, into the miserable little ghost of myself?

Anyhow, she had lied ... perhaps everyone else had lied. Were all the people that I knew - the warm people, who walked and laughed in the light - so much afraid of the Things of the Night that they dared not tell the truth? To none of these questions I could find a reply. And there began for me a second period of black faith - a faith of unutterable horror, mingled with unutterable doubt. 

Those who knew her history are dust ... How often have I tried to reproach myself for hating her. But even now in my heart a voice cries bitterly to the ghost of her: "Woe! woe! - thou didst destroy it - the beautiful world!"

When I first decided to post this I thought I would use the story as the kernel for something of my own, perhaps a discussion about ghosts. I find I do not have the stomach for it.

The child was just shy of six when this happened. Imagine living with that pressure cooker of a mind, stuffed full of gunpowder and set alight by a hysterical would-be nun, frightened out of your wits and nobody to talk to. I would not want Lafcadio's early life if you offered it me with a fortune in gold, and fame by the truckload. 

Lafcadio's work has a long, long shadow. If you've played The Mountain Witch RPG, you've been playing in his world. If you've seen Kwaidan, you saw his stories. 

I urge you to seek him out.

No comments:

Post a Comment