Friday, May 5, 2017

Classics #8

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017.

The Thousand and One Ghosts – Alexandre Dumas (1849)

This collection of short scary stories uses the seen-before device of guests at a dinner party in a country manse relating eerie stories. In this case, the guests have been thrown together by a murder in the village of Fontenay-aux-Roses. The killer confesses that after beheading his wife with a sword – for a reason he refuses to divulge - he went to grab the head and she bit him on the hand and wouldn’t let go. When the head finally let go she said, “You wretch! I was innocent!”

The gruesome happening, understandably enough, puts the village worthies in an odd unsettled mood, motivating them to tell stories that they’ve never told anybody before.

The story that got under my skin involves heads severed by the guillotine that stay alive to move by themselves and express unhappiness. In another, a Carpathian vampire tries to have his way with a virgin from Poland, whose unhappy encounter leaves her pale and enervated (but somehow ravishing, of course). In yet another, an executed crook comes back to hang the hangman that executed him for the state. The content of the stories may not strike us as especially weird and uncanny after all the horrifying things we witnessed in the year 2016. However, even after scores of terrifying times seeing the presidential pie-hole contorted to look like a Cheerio, we quail and quiver at Dumas'  plain homely details.

Like: disinterred French kings dragging a worthy citizen into quicklime.

Like: during the Revolution they were slicing off heads to the extent that an eight-year-old slips, falls and drowns in a trough of blood at the execution ground.  

I know – yuck.

But isn’t that why we search out horror? Even though we wonder how a severed bean could talk considering the damage to the vocal cords would make that impossible. But to hell with logic, with skepticism, with reasonable. We wanna be scared witless, beyond rationalism.

Readers into Gothic tales may find this fun. Another point for their stories is their pathos – they’re all sad, about lost love, dashed hopes, dreams betrayed. Severed heads are mercifully out of the usual run of daily life. Sad is always relatable.

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