Peril of the Short Story: Instalment the Second.

For this year's R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril Challenge I have a list of eighteen short stories to read over the next six weeks. Last week was The Ghost of Dorothy Dingley by Daniel Defoe, Mary Burnet by James Hogg, and The Tapestried Chamber by Walter Scott. This week:
  • The Mysterious Mansion by Honoré de Balzac (1831).
  • The Queen of Spades by Alexander Pushkin (1833).
  • Edward Randolph's Portrait by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1837).

𝔗𝔥𝔢 𝔐𝔶𝔰𝔱𝔢𝔯𝔦𝔬𝔲𝔰 𝔐𝔞𝔫𝔰𝔦𝔬𝔫 𝔟𝔶 ℌ𝔬𝔫𝔬𝔯é 𝔡𝔢 𝔅𝔞𝔩𝔷𝔞𝔠.

The Mysterious Mansion (La Grande Bretèche) is a short story by Balzac and part of his La Comédie humaine series and is set near the town of Vendôme. A doctor, Horace Bianchon (who also appears in Le Père Goriot and other novels in the series) has discovered an abandoned mansion. The story begins,
On the banks of the Loire (said M. Bianchon), there stood an old ruinous-looking mansion in a garden overgrown with weeds. There was no other house near, and its appearance was one of utter desolation, and suggested the idea that it had been the scene of some great crime which had called down the vengeance of Heaven upon it. I frequently stopped to look at it, and imagined a host of crimes which had led to its present forlorn condition. One day I got over the hedge which enclosed the garden in order to examine the house more closely; and the same evening I had just finished my supper when the landlady came in, and, in a mysterious manner, informed me that M. Regnault wished to speak to me.
M. Regnault has come to warn his to cease trespassing on the land, and he goes on to tell him why: the previous owner, Madame de Merret, forbid anyone to enter the house after her death. Many years ago Regnault explains she had a lover and one day was confronted by her husband when he returned home unexpectedly. He forces her to swear on a crucifix that she has no lover and she does so, and, to double check as it were, he orders the closet (where the lover is hiding) to be walled up leaving Madame de Merret's lover trapped inside...

It's a tense and truly unnerving tale. My rating: 👻👻👻👻👻

𝔗𝔥𝔢 𝔔𝔲𝔢𝔢𝔫 𝔬𝔣 𝔖𝔭𝔞𝔡𝔢𝔰 𝔟𝔶 𝔄𝔩𝔢𝔵𝔞𝔫𝔡𝔢𝔯 𝔓𝔲𝔰𝔥𝔨𝔦𝔫.

The Queen of Spades (Пиковая дама) tells the story of a countess (based on Princess Natalya Petrovna Galitzine) who, one night, lost a great deal gambling. She is aided by the Count of St. Germain, an historical figure who Voltaire once referred to as "The Wonderman", who tells her the secret of winning, involving three cards. Hermann, an officer, becomes obsessed with learning the secret, trying to seduce the countess' maid Lizavyeta Ivanovna so that he may gain access to her home. Once he does, he confronts the countess, threatening her with a gun. The countess, now in her late 80s, dies of fright. He attends her funeral and is sure when he stands over her coffin she opens her eyes and looks right at him. Later she appears to Hermann and tells him her secret. He goes and plays cards, at first winning, then on the third night he loses everything: he was sure he played an ace, but in fact it turns out to be the queen of spades, who bears an uncanny resemblence to the late countess. Hermann, ultimately, goes insane.

A wonderful tale of greed and ghosts that was later turned into an opera by Tchaikovsky (listen to the overture here). My rating: 👻👻👻

𝔈𝔡𝔴𝔞𝔯𝔡 ℜ𝔞𝔫𝔡𝔬𝔩𝔭𝔥'𝔰 𝔓𝔬𝔯𝔱𝔯𝔞𝔦𝔱 𝔟𝔶 𝔑𝔞𝔱𝔥𝔞𝔫𝔦𝔢𝔩 ℌ𝔞𝔴𝔱𝔥𝔬𝔯𝔫𝔢

The final tale of the week, Edward Randolph's Portrait (first published in Twice Told Tales in 1837 as the second part of the Legends of the Province-House stories), begins,
The old  legendary guest of the Province-House abode in my remembrance from mid-summer till January. One idle evening, last winter, confident that he would be found in the snuggest corner of the bar-room, I resolved to pay him another visit, hoping to deserve well of my country by snatching from oblivion some else unheard-of fact of history. The night was chill and raw, and rendered boisterous by almost a gale of wind, which whistled along Washington street, causing the gas-lights to flare and flicker within the lamps. As I hurried onward, my fancy was busy with a comparison between the present aspect of the street, and that which it probably wore when the British Governors inhabited the mansion whither I was now going. Brick edifices in those times were few, till a succession of destructive fires had swept, and swept again, the wooden dwellings and ware-houses from the most populous quarters of the town. The buildings stood insulated and independent, not, as now, merging their separate existences into connected ranges, with a front of tiresome identity,--but each possessing features of its own, as if the owner's individual taste had shaped it,--and the whole presenting a picturesque irregularity, the absence of which is hardly compensated by any beauties of our modern architecture. Such a scene, dimly vanishing from the eye by tile ray of here and there a tallow candle, glimmering through the small panes of scattered windows, would form a sombre contrast to the street, as I beheld it, with the gas-lights blazing from corner to corner, flaming within the shops, and throwing a noon-day brightness through the huge plates of glass.
The narrator meets his friend and they, and the others in the barroom, talk of the story of the curse of Edward Randolph,
"Our annals tell us," continued the Captain of Castle William, "that the curse of the people followed this Randolph wherever he went, and wrought evil in all the subsequent events of his life, and that its effect was seen likewise in the manner of his death. They say, too, that the inward misery of that curse worked itself outward, and was visible on the wretched man's countenance, making it too horrible to be looked upon. If so, and if this picture tnuly represented his aspect, it was in mercy that the cloud of blackness has gathered over it."
They then speak of the portrait itself, which is apparently possessed by a ghost:
Within the antique frame, which so recently had enclosed a sable waste of canvass, now appeared a visible picture, still dark, indeed, in its hues and shadings, but thrown forward in strong relief. It was a half-length figure of a gentleman in a rich, but very old-fashioned dress of embroidered velvet, with a broad cuff and a beard, and wearing a hat, the brim of which overshadowed his forehead. Beneath this cloud the eyes had a peculiar glare, which was almost life-like. The whole portrait started so distinctly out of the back-ground, that it had the effect of a person looking down from the wall at the astonished and awe-stricken spectators. The expression of the face, if any words can convey an idea of it, was that of a wretch detected in some hideous guilt, and exposed to the bitter hatred, and laughter, and withering scorn, of a vast surrounding multitude. There was the struggle of defiance, beaten down and overwhelmed by the crushing weight of ignominy. The torture of the soul had come forth upon the countenance. It seemed as if the picture, while hidden behind the cloud of immemorial years, had been all the time acquiring an intenser depth and darkness of expression, till now it gloomed forth again, and threw its evil omen over the present hour. Such, if the wild legend may be credited, was the portrait of Edward Randolph, as he appeared when a people's curse had wrought its influence upon his nature.
Very atmospheric indeed, yet somehow not as frightening as I would have hoped. My rating: 👻👻

Next week, three more tales: The Traveller's Story of a Terribly Strange Bed and The Lady of Glenwith Grange by Wilkie Collins, and The Squire's Story by Elizabeth Gaskell.


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