Thrunley Abbey by Percival Landon from Vol 1 Num 1, 1949
First, the framing device: Our unnamed protagonist is a British gentleman traveling from London to Brindisi, in India. On the train, he meets a man named Colvin, who asks to share his cabin on the ship they’re both taking. This is unusual, so the protagonist asks him to explain. By way of response, Colvin tells the following story:
In India, Colvin used to be friends with an Englishman named Broughton. They both moved back to England, where Broughton settled down, married, and moved into Thurnley Abbey, an ancient manor that was rumored to be haunted. These rumors were fed by the previous owner, who hated people and was caught setting up lamps and stuff to make it look like a ghost was really there. Broughton doesn’t fully believe in the ghost, and even if it exists, he seems unworried. He says, “If a ghost ever does come in one’s way, one ought to speak to it.”
Skip forward six months. Colvin gets a letter from Broughton asking him to come to his house – he needs help. Colvin does, and passes a pleasant evening at a dinner party Broughton hosts. Then it’s time for bed. Once more, Broughton tells him, “Mind, if you do see a ghost, do talk to it; you said you would.” Colvin goes to bed.
Then, of course, Colvin sees a ghost. It’s a skeleton wrapped in in rags, hovering at the foot of his bed. At first, he’s terrified, but it occurs to him that this must be a prank. He punches the skeleton. He goes fucking apeshit on the skeleton. He breaks it up until it’s nothing but scraps of fabric and shards of bone. It’s awesome. Then he busts into Broughton’s room and shouts at him for pulling suck a mean prank, until he realizes that Broughton is so deeply distraught that he cannot have caused it. All he can say is, “You didn’t speak to her.” The three of them (including Broughton’s wife) huddle there until morning, where nothing is left of the ghost but some smears of Colvin’s blood on the floor.
Do those quotes sound a little older than 1949 to you? Well you’re right! This story is a reprint, originally published in 1908. And boy can you tell. It reads, in a lot of places, like a Sherlock Holmes story. The way it’s structured, the prose, the characters – if the Victorian era ended in 1901, nobody had told Landon. Personally, I don’t mind it. I tend to like this style of prose, and God knows I love Sherlock Holmes. It was interesting and unexpected to find a story like this in a magazine from forty years later, and it raises all sorts of interesting questions about reprinting rules before the internet (how hard did they have to work to get permission to print it without email? How far in advance did they have to start this thing?), but none of that effects my enjoyment of the story.
You know what did effect my enjoyment? Colvin punching the ghost. Maybe it’s my own limited experience at work here, but I’ve never read a ghost story where someone punched a ghost! It was probably supposed to be high-tension and action, but I must admit, it made me laugh. I loved it. I’m going to steal it for a story someday. It’s innovative and shows so much about Colvin’s character. I wish there was punching in every ghost story.
The description is solid, especially of the spooky old manor and the ghost itself. Landon builds atmosphere well, with the ivy and the rippling tapestries and the strange guests. The ghost is gory and legitimately scary, with bits or hair and flesh still hanging off of it, which I am all about. There’s maybe a bit too much description, though, given that it’s a short story. The house gets more characterization than either point-of-view character.
Racism-wise, it’s not too bad. I mean, colonialism isn’t questioned, it’s not especially progressive, but erasing the existence of England’s hold on India would come with its own set of problems. There are no mega offensive depictions of Indian people. This is achieved largely by not having any depictions of Indian people of all, bar one. The individual in question is shown to be superstitious (he sees his mother’s ghost), but then, ghosts are real. He’s right.
All that said, this story isn’t going on my “favorites” list. It hits one of my personal pet peeves, which I don’t expect everyone to agree with, but which really stopped me from enjoying this story the way I wanted to. It has that goddamn framing device.
Framing devices like that, which do nothing to change the plot and are barely mentioned at the end, always feel like a waste of time to me. There’s a common piece of writing advice that says to not start your book with a dream sequence, because the reader gets invested in it and then has it snatched away, along with their ability to care about the story. Framing devices like this do the same thing to me. It breaks my immersion immediately. This is a large part of the reason why I can’t stand Frankenstein, and why, when I reread the Sherlock Holmes stories, I skip “A Study in Scarlet.” Then again, Frankenstein is a classic taught to high schoolers everywhere, and “A Study in Scarlet” was popular enough to spawn the rest of the Holmes canon, so I must be alone in this.
Because of this broken immersion, though, I didn’t find the story all that scary. It’s a shame, because like I said, the writing is great. And did I mention the protagonist punches a ghost?
Final Word: Does it hold up? Yes/No/Sorta
If the summary makes it sound like your genre, I think you’ll like it. There isn’t anything especially objectionable about it, and the writing holds up. Check it out!