BW BC 08: Haunted Before the Fact
We have two classic stories of the ghost’s appearance heralds an approaching death sort: Charles Dickens’s “The Signalman” and Pedro Antonia de Alarcon’s “The Tall Woman”. Both also employ the tried and true “let me tell you a story” and the “f*** you and your explanations” techniques.
“The Signalman”… wandering narrator wanders to some remote spot and sees a lonesome signalman beside the train tracks. At first the Signalman is spooked by the sight of the narrator, but after some time he calms down and the two start a conversation.
Dickens in the early portion really digs into the atmosphere and paints the landscape around the tracks in hellish shades. You’d think you were walking into Dante’s Inferno and not some lonesome railway cutting in the English countryside beside a tunnel. Then when the Signalman starts to explain why he was so startled by the narrator we get his story about the strange apparitions he’s seen at the mouth of the tunnel, the appearance of which have always heralded some train-related death. Now a third apparition has appeared, and the Signalman’s in a bind because he knows a third death approaches, but can’t warn anyone without them thinking he’s mad. The narrator urges him to go see a doctor, and the Signalman agrees to do this, except fate intervenes and things reach their inevitable conclusion.
“The Tall Woman”… English readers might not be familiar with de Alarcon. I wasn’t. And Manguel in his introductory blurb doesn’t really sell him as a writer to track down, saying he’s most famous for writing the book someone else made a famous opera from. Elsewhere online, however, someone has called “The Tall Woman” the quintessential Spanish ghost story. I don’t quite know what to make of that, but as a story goes it’s creepy.
A bunch of guys go on a picnic. One of them tells a story about a deceased friend who told him a story about how he (the now dead guy) lived in terror all his life of meeting a woman alone at night. He knows the fear is illogical, but can’t help feeling it, and some strange things have happened that to his mind make the fear justified. You see on certain occasions, usually when he’s in some bad straits, he’s encountered this woman who has stalked him through the streets. The woman as described is something straight out of Goya’s Black Paintings: a gigantic toothless crone dressed in the ill-fitting costume of a much younger woman. It’s not so much a ghost as some demonic entity. Each time the man encounters her some tragedy befalls him, and he feels justifiable fear that she will appear again.
Of course she does, and once again the inevitable happens.
De Alarcon goes deep into classic creepypasta territory. We are in “there’s a knife wielding maniac right behind you, so close their hair is practically touching your collar, but they won’t kill you unless you turn around” territory. What’s spookier is the fact that the guy is haunted without cause. There’s no curse or past crime that he must atone for; there’s just this thing he’s been told to fear. The specter’s a sort of meme that can only haunt people who know about it. And now that the story has been told to an audience, the same creature will now haunt them too.
On a side note, what do you think would be the quintessential English-language ghost story? Not simply folklore ghost story, but written and published ghost story that everyone either knows or should know?
Leave your answers in the comments below.