Two short ones this week: LP Hartley’s “A Visit from Down Under” and Saki’s “Laura”. They’re good, but also both very much the kind of story you see in anthologies of the Classic British Ghost Story sort.
Hartley is probably most famous as the guy who said a thing, which in this case is the quote “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” See? You have heard of him before! “A Visit From Down Under” starts on a rainy London bus with a strange man all bundled up and sitting on the upper deck in the rain. He’s very peculiar. In particular he is cold to the touch. The ticket collector wants nothing to do with him and only reluctantly goes to tell him when they have reached his stop. Only when he goes to tell the man, the ticket collector discovers that the man has disappeared. FLASHBACK to five hours earlier and a Mr. Rumbold has arrived at his hotel (which is on the street where the strange passenger wanted to stop) after being away so long in Australia. He sets about drinking and making himself comfortable, exchanging some bantering talk with one of the hotel servants about murder. Then he dozes off while listening to a children’s show on the radio. The show takes on ominous overtones becoming increasingly more creepy the longer it goes on, until finally it triggers a panic attack in Rumbold who flees to his room. Later the strange passenger from the opening scene arrives and soon enough Mr. Rumbold is murdered with no trace left but for an icicle melting on the mantle piece.
All told this story exists entirely on the surface with inference made to Rumbold’s crimes. but nothing explicit is revealed. While the end is pretty basic with some wronged ghost coming back to have revenge on the person responsible for their death, the execution is quite good. The bit with the children’s radio show is great, genuinely creepy, as Rumbold can’t keep himself from getting caught up and eventually menaced by its whimsy. Kids’ shows are creepy! Track this story down and read it for that scene alone.
If Hartley’s story was all exteriority without much in the way of introspection, Saki’s “Laura” goes even further. Here the scenes are nearly all dialogue with people saying things that push the story along. We have Laura, a dying woman, Amanda, her friend, and Egbert, Amanda’s husband. Laura jokes about how after her death she’ll return as an otter or some creature, and to be frank she’d looking forward to it, especially if she can be an otter that kills all of Egbert’s chickens. When this comes to pass, Amanda tries to save the otter, but Egbert hunts it down. This results in Amanda having an episode, so Egbert takes her to Egypt to recover, where he is plagued again by another of Laura’s incarnations, and now Amanda is seriously ill. The End.
It’s light all the way through, maybe too much so, as I doubt I’ll remember it a month from now. Yet… well, I have to admire a story that’s all polished surface and light as cotton candy. The skill and craftsmanship on display in such a story are appealing no matter how light they seem. And it’s PG Wodehouse and Oscar Wilde territory, except with higher polish. So don’t be surprised if someday I own one of his story collections.
Next week… Anonymous and Graham Greene!