Grim to the brim

Edith Nesbit at her desk

The Power of Darkness: Tales of Terror
by Edith Nesbit,
introduction by David Stuart Davies.
Wordsworth Editions 2006.

‘Very good story,’ he said; ‘but it’s not what I call realism. You don’t tell us half enough, sir. You don’t say when it happened or where, or the time of year, or what colour your aunt’ s second cousin’s hair was. Nor yet you don’t tell us what it was she saw, nor what the room was like where she saw it, nor why she saw it, nor what happened afterwards.’

Edith Nesbit, ‘Number 17’ (1910)

In this selection of Edith Nesbit’s tales of mystery and supernatural occurrences she demonstrates exactly how verisimilitude is a crucial component in ghost stories and their ilk, precisely as the commercial traveller in her short story ‘Number 17’ outlines. But she herself is also an unreliable narrator because with macabre humour she proceeds to break all the rules she puts in the mouth of her commercial traveller: we never discover his name, or of his colleagues, or the location of the inn where the tale takes place; and though we’re given incidental details of how Room 17 is furnished — a coffin-like wardrobe, the red drapes, the framed print on the wall — we end by doubting the reliability of the traveller’s account and thus that of the author.

And here too lie further conumdrums when ghost stories are related: it’s not just the who and what, and the when and where, that go towards their effective reception by reader or listener, it’s how we experience them — the time of day or night, the place, whether orally conveyed or merely seen on the page — and why we choose this genre — our mood or inclination, our desire to be frightened witless — that decide whether such grim tales amuse or bore or chill us.

And, of course, whether the author is the mistress or not of her craft must surely be a deciding factor.

With there being a score (and one more) of ghost stories in this easily available edition it’s not desirable to discuss them all; instead I shall suggest commonalities and highlight what I think are the most and least successful of the tales.

The greater proportion of these pieces are told in the first person which, I think, adds to their effectiveness. Nesbit doesn’t always reveal the dramatis personae immediately, often throwing us into the action or the middle of a conversation, a disconcerting but frequently arresting way of beginning a short story. The protagonist is generally though not necessarily a male, a middle class professional or gentleman, and his belief (or lack of it) in the uncanny is declared early on, inviting us to disbelieve — if we dare — the facts as revealed in the following pages. Commonplace though such fictional devices are it does encourage the reader to go along with what unfolds next, especially when Nesbit disarms us with an opening such as this in ‘The Shadow’:

This is not an artistically rounded off ghost story, and nothing is explained in it, and there seems to be no reason why any of it should have happened. But that is no reason why it should not be told. You must have noticed that all the real ghost stories you have ever come close to, are like this in these respects — no explanation, no logical coherence. Here is the story.

Edith Nesbit, ‘The Shadow’ (1905)

Nesbit knew how important openings were to short stories and therefore runs the gamut of them, from ‘In the Dark’ (“It may have been a form of madness”) through ‘The Pavilion’ (“There was never a moment’s doubt in her own mind”) to ‘The Ebony Frame’ (“To be rich is a luxurious sensation — the more so when you have plumbed the depths of hard-up-ness as a Fleet Street hack, a picker-up of unconsidered parts, a reporter, an unappreciated journalist — all callings utterly inconsistent with one’s family feeling and one’s direct descent from the Dukes of Picardy”). I found these hooks did the job they were designed to do: to draw one in and make one an accomplice to her deception.

The earlier tales, apparently often anthologised, seem to me lesser creatures — ‘Man-size in Marble’ for example, or ‘Uncle Abraham’s Romance’ — which may have been written in conjunction with Edith’s husband Hubert Bland and others. The more she wrote, however, the more developed in terms of a distinctive literary style they became and the more absolute control they exhibited. Her range expands: we have not just works resembling Poe’s, Wilde’s, Stevenson’s or fellow Fabian Society member H G Wells’s speculative pieces (‘The Three Drugs’, ‘The Ebony Frame’, or ‘The Five Senses’) but also humorous touches amongst the horror (‘The Shadow’, say, or ‘The Haunted House’) and shifts from male towards more female perspectives (‘The Shadow’ again, ‘The Letter In Brown Ink’, ‘The Pavilion’).

Above all, many of these short stories are beautifully written — the pacing works well, the characterisations come through, a sense of place is created; compare these with some of M R James’s ghost stories which all too often seem centred on a male recluse, often a scholar, who strangely doesn’t read the warning signs till too late. As David Stuart Davies points out, many of the tales in this collection feature “the destruction of a strong loving relationship between a man and a woman”, though some also show the successful establishment of that relationship.

If the collection exhibits Nesbit’s strong fascination with the supernatural, a fascination established early on in her life (as recounted in Long Ago When I Was Young) it also underlines her ability to express herself in a way that still feels modern: despite the odd turn of phrase and the occasional unfamiliar term many of these are tales that could have been penned yesterday; though they may hark back to Victorian Gothick sensibilities (a number of mysterious or haunted houses feature) the modern world is evidently manifest, in electric lights, in railways, and in luridly coloured motorcars.

A word about this Wordsworth edition now. We may be very grateful to have the full text of these tales available in a cheap publication, but there will be the unfortunate though not inevitable downsides common to this publisher. First I’m pleased to say I was unaware of major typos (possibly an omitted quotation mark or missing letter), a fault shown by some of their reissued classics because of carelessly edited electronic scanning. Secondly however the contents page shows incorrect pagination entries right from the first story, mistakes later further compounded (the last story appears 20 pages later than indicated). Further confusion comes from one tale, ‘Number 17’, not even being listed in the contents. None of this seems to have been amended in a later, much more recent edition.

Thirdly, readers — not only nerdy ones — will be frustrated by the lack of bibliographic details on the publication page (other than when the edition was published); without specialist knowledge or willingness to research curious readers will have to glean what they can from the few bits of information in the introduction by David Stuart Davies. Not to provide such context is to do the author a great disservice, in my opinion.

* In the absence of publication details for the twenty-one short stories in this edition I felt the need to consult a number of online resources such as Wikisource and the Internet Speculative Fiction Database to get a sense of the time span in which Nesbit wrote these tales. Six of the seven pieces published in Grim Tales (1893) appear here, namely “The Ebony Frame”, “John Charrington’s Wedding”, “Uncle Abraham’s Romance”, “The Mystery of the Semi-detached”, “From the Dead”, and “Man-size in Marble”. Some had been published previously, such as the last named which appeared in 1887.

Of the eight pieces in Something Wrong (summer 1893) just one, “Hurst of Hurstcote”, is included in the present collection; it had previously been published that year in the periodical Temple Bar. Meanwhile Man and Maid (1906) supplied “The Haunted Inheritance”, “The Power of Darkness” and “The House of Silence” in its collection of thirteen stories. “The Haunted Inheritance” had appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1900, “The Power of Darkness” in the Strand Magazine in 1905, and “The House of Silence” in the Windsor Magazine early in 1906.

Three tales in the collection Fear (1910) are included here: “The Five Senses”, “In the Dark” and “The Violet Car”. “In the Dark” (as by E Bland) had first appeared in the Strand in 1908. From the year before she died just one of twenty stories in To the Adventurous (1923) is included here, “The Pavilion”, first published in the Strand in 1915.

“The Letter in Brown Ink” was first published in 1899, in Windsor Magazine, and “The Portent of the Shadow” (alternative title “The Shadow”) in The Index, 1905;
“The Head” (as by Mrs Hubert Bland) appeared in the Strand Magazine in 1907, and “The Third Drug” or, alternatively, “The Three Drugs” in 1908 as by E Bland was also in the Strand Magazine; and “The Haunted House” (also with the byline E Bland) in the same periodical, in 1913. The final story in this selection, “The Detective” appears to have been published around Christmas 1920. “Number 17”, not even listed in the contents, is credited to E Bland and appeared in the Strand in 1910.

This was my read for the current Classics Club Spin, and also another title for my own Library of Brief Narratives meme.

19 thoughts on “Grim to the brim

    1. I don’t think these are as well known as they ought to be, Liz, so I’m pleased to bring them to people’s attention! Though, to be honest, subtitling them as ‘tales of terror’ (as this edition does) is hyperbolic: they’re not equivalent to, I suppose, Stephen King’s tales of suspense, and many of them would stand up well in a collection of contemporary non-genre short stories because of their literary merit.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. JJ Lothin

    You have piqued my interest yet again!

    I haven’t read any E Nesbit since ‘Five children and It’ etc many many moons ago … perhaps a few years before I was chilled to the bone by a ‘Tales of Mystery & the Imagination’ TV adaptation of ‘The Tractate Middoth’ (M R James) …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope you get round to these some time! The only TV adaptation of a James story I’ve seen is Jonathan Miller’s eerie Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad back in the 1960s. Then there was The Night of the Demon, a wonderfully atmospheric black and white 1950s film version of James’s ‘Casting the Runes’ — spoiled for me and many others by the producer’s insistence a stop motion devil be included at the climax instead of being suggested by the actor’s reactions.

      At some stage I shall finish my copy of the collected James tales: I found reading three or four in close succession diminished their effectiveness so stopped.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. jjlothin

        I think I must have seen the Jonathan Miller myself, though not Night of the Demon.

        It seems the ‘Mystery & Imagination’ series was mid-60s ( As well as The Tractate Middoth, their rendering of MR James’s Lost Hearts and Room 13 were also memorably terrifying – to a girl in her early teens, at least!

        Kindle sample of the Nesbit downloaded: if I get on with it, I’ll then get hold of the proper (i.e. paper!) version.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I don’t remember any of those programmes — though I do admit to being a near contemporary of yours! — but perhaps I may have a shufti through YouTube to see if any of the broadcasts have survived there…

          God luck with the Nesbit — I particularly liked tales like ‘The Head’, ‘The Shadow’, ‘The Detective’, ‘Number 17’ and ‘The Violet Car’, a mix of Gothick, psychological and lyrical pieces.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. jjlothin

            I had a quick flick through YouTube myself but unfortunately they only seem to have survived in audio-only versions. Perhaps it’s better that way: my memories can be left intact!

            And thanks for the particular recommendations: I’ll definitely check those out …


  2. I’ve only read one Nesbit story, I think, which appeared in a recent BL anthology – Man-size in Marble – which I thought was OK but not brilliant. Interested to hear that you feel she developed her style as she went along – I may seek out one or two of her later stories when I start my horror reading again in the autumn.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, ‘Man-size in Marble’ is classic Victorian Gothick but to me doesn’t match up to her later work or even scream ‘Edith Nesbit’ to me! Ditto one or two others in this collection, but luckily most of them go from lyrical to psychological, humorous to grotesque, all very accomplished. Most if not all are available on free online sites if that’s how you like reading — myself I prefer print books.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I used to read a lot of horror online but the last few years I’ve been mostly reading them in anthologies, and the success of them depends very much on whether the editor and I are in tune.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Horror isn’t generally my thing except at this sort of level, mostly cerebral and hardly ever cruel or sadistic; if there’s a touch of humour that helps. Like all genres it’s down to personal taste I suppose!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. buriedinprint

    I’ve only read one of her creepy tales (in one of those ’60s-ish anthologies that were a mainstay in libraries) and I remember being struck by how adept she was with building atmosphere and drawing me into the story, which surprised me, as it was a world apart from the children’s books of hers I’d read. Do you know the American fantasy books of Edward Eager; I think it’s in Half-Magic that the kids read Nesbit aloud, while walking home from the library. Love that scene.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve had Eager recommended to me a couple of times though reading a sample or two hasn’t yet convinced me — but if he liked Nesbit… 😁 I agree that in her adult writing she’s good at building atmosphere: that’s very evident in these pieces, but she does it in very different ways. Do look them out!


      1. buriedinprint

        *nods* I can see that. The library parts are the only parts of the story that I thoroughly enjoyed rereading as an adult. (As I recall, they continue to read the Nesbit books…and that appealed to my love of series as well as the library. And, as an only child, the idea of all the sibs of all ages reading together warmed me too.) The next time I dip into that bookshelf, I’ll try to remember to pull this one off and share those passages (and there’s at least one illustration) with you!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Quest Log the Third

      1. I have her collected works on Kindle, so I would imagine I have her ghost stories, too. It’s just that I’m only a few books into the collection. It’s supposed to be everything she wrote.

        Liked by 1 person

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