Friday, December 24, 2021

Charles Dickens, "To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt" (1865)

Dickens, Charles. "To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt." All the Year Round, Christmas Number 1865.

For publication history, please visit the story's ISFdb page.
"To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt" at Goodreads.

Rating:     7/10

See credits below.
Published one year after Amelia B. Edwards's "The Phantom Coach," in the next Christmas volume of Dickens's own All the Year Round, this story seems to take as its starting point an idea from its predecessor. Specifically, in this age of reason, a person should not admit to others of having seen an apparition, otherwise they risk a comfortable livelihood. Yet while this idea comes up again half-way through the text, this is not the main focus of the story. Instead, Dickens seems to be more concerned with criticizing England's judicial system.

The nameless narrator, a successful banker, becomes obsessed with a recent murder in England, which leads to a hallucination of one man angrily chasing another outside his apartment in Piccadilly, and a brief visit from the chaser at the narrator's home. The banker is then appointed as a member of the jury trying the case of that same murder, and there continues to witness the apparition of the victim while the murderer is standing trial. An interesting concept, well delivered (it is Dickens, after all), and while we are confident of how the story will resolve, there is nonetheless an excellent final paragraph with a slight twist.

While the existence of a ghost in the story appears straightforward, there are some clues to indicate that the narrator is less than trustworthy (an uncommon trait for a Victorian ghost story protagonist), and that there is no actual ghost. The first clue is in the title: "To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt." While the story was later published under other titles, most famously "The Trial for Murder," but also "The Thirteenth Man" (which, in context of the story, is the creepiest title), Dickens specifically chose a title which has little to do with the story. "Don't believe this banker!" the title seems to be stating. The narrator relates incidents of other characters catching glimpses of a ghostly figure, or sensing something amiss when the apparition is in the room. However, not one of those characters corroborates the narrator, as he is the only teller of this tale. The banker's other insistence that the tale is true is to declare, and tell us to remember this detail as we read, that the identity, name or likeness, of the murderer was never mentioned in the papers during the investigation, so he could not have known the identity in advance. However, the narrator sets down his tale after the verdict was given, thereby writing this confession after the papers no doubt published name and likeness, since the narrator himself describes early on that this was a major murder case that preoccupied the public interest.

In addition, the title "The Trial for Murder" does not work with the narrative as it focuses on one element of the story, essentially negating the early events, which are both important to the plot as they set down the foundation of a haunting at the trial. "The Thirteenth Man," though a strong and creepy title, I think, places emphasis on the victim of the crime, whereas the story is not about the victim, nor really even about the crime, but about our narrator's experience of the court.

Dickens's main interest in this narrative is the judicial system. He seems to be claiming that the British criminal system is a joke, since the judge, jury and nearly everyone involved in the trial must have the ghost of the victim influencing the court so that the correct verdict is reached. Essentially, there is no confidence in the court to uncover the truth. The narrator, selected as foreman of the jury, gives no opinion of his own as to why he believes the man on trial is guilty, but focuses and responds solely to the dead man, whose gestures pantomime his innocence. The other jury members are in turn influenced by the apparition, as is the judge when he reads through his notes on the final day of trial. In a partly comical yet gruesome sequence, the apparition exaggeratedly mimics the cutting of his throat to indicate he could not have committed suicide, that he could not have cut his own throat in the way it had been slashed. This is a straightforward scientific fact not brought up by the prosecution, and yet one that could present the defense's claim of suicide as ludicrous. In addition, the member of the jury who questions only the hard facts and slows the deliberation is one the narrator refers to as an "idiot," and who at one point has at least two other jury members in tow. Dickens is satirizing the jury system, indicating how a randomly selected jury can be influenced by its least intelligent member. In fact, the fate of the man on trial is being debated, albeit indirectly, between an idiot and a ghost.

I won't give away that last line which I like so much, but I need to allude to that ending in order to argue my case (since I can't be pantomiming in your bedroom, office, library or coffee shop). That final quote negates the idea of a ghost, since a ghost is an apparition of a dead person, often in limbo, seen here purportedly by someone sensitive to the dead man's plight. The ending instead points to an act of mesmerism, where the living can have influence on others. Our narrator may be describing a universe where sprits of the dead and mesmerism co-exist, and the ending is certainly effective, but this is highly unlikely. Mesmerism was a fad during the nineteenth century, and like with many pseudo-sciences of the time, Dickens was a serious participant. As a professed rational man during the rise of industrialism and an age of reason, Dickens did not believe in ghosts, yet he subscribed to every other upper-class pseudo-scientific fad, including phrenology, of all things. Dickens uses elements of mesmerism in other stories, like The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and most famously in his brilliant 1866 Christmas tale "The Signal-Man." He uses mesmerism to specific effect, and his ghost stories normally for social commentary, so it is therefore unlikely that he would combine the two without a specific purpose. The purpose of this story is fairly obvious.

Therefore, by book-ending his story with two points, the story title and that last line, which contradict the events contained in between, Dickens is subtly alluding to the fact that this narrator is not to be believed. Scattered throughout the story are other clues to indicate as much, and his commentary on the judicial system is clear.

As a ghost story it is not the most accomplished, and Edwards's "The Phantom Coach" works better. Yet as a subtle and darkly comic piece of social criticism, it is really quite good.

Edward G. Dalziel, wood engraving, 13.9 cm x 10.5 cm
From Dickens's Christmas Stories, 1877.
Caption: "While I was speaking to him, I saw it open, and a man look in, who very earnestly and mysteriously beckoned to me."
Scanned by Philip V. Allingham.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Amelia B. Edwards, The Phantom Coach (1864)

The Phantom Coach by Amelia B. Edwards

First published in All the Year Round, ed. Charles Dickens, Christmas 1864
Read in Great Ghost Stories, John Grafton, ed. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1992
For an extensive bibliography, please visit The Phantom Coach's ISFdb page.

Rating:     7/10

Amelia B. Edwards was among the writer acquaintances of Mr. Charles Dickens, and her short prose has appeared in both of Dickens's periodicals: Household Words and All the Year Round. While known primarily as a novelist and non-fiction author, this story is not Edwards's only supernatural tale, but it is her most popular. It was published in the annual Christmas volume of All the Year Round, and has been reprinted continuously since in various anthologies.

The story is narrated by the unnamed protagonist twenty years after the fact. Recently married and visiting the north of England with his wife, our young and confident man is caught out late on the English moors while hunting for grouse. It begins to snow and the temperature falls considerably, so that our narrator speculates on his demise. As luck would have it, he encounters a crotchety man and stubbornly follows him to his house, where our narrator meets an eccentric hermit. This hermit, appalled at the intrusion, grudgingly allows our narrator to stay the night, and eventually warms up to his surprise guest. After dinner he gives the young man a brief account of his life, impressing the narrator by expounding fluidly on numerous topics. He is a man of both science and philosophy, as he defines himself. Once a scientist in the city, he was ridiculed by colleagues for his belief in the supernatural, specifically in apparitions, and resentful of the closed-mindedness of his contemporaries, he decided to isolate himself from society. In this cabin he is able to dedicate himself to work. Our narrator learns of a late mail coach that is expected that night five miles from the house, and hurries to meet it. In so doing, he finds his own  strict rational beliefs challenged, and is essentially converted to the hermit's viewpoint on apparitions.

"The Phantom Coach" holds up well a century and half after its initial publication, yet simultaneously remains embedded in Victorian ghost story conventions (though it does stand out from other standard fare of the time). The narrator is presented as a rational man, confident and resourceful. Off the bat he informs his listener that he is revealing an experience he has shared with only one person, and adamantly states that it happened and that no one can convince him otherwise. He is presented as  trustworthy, and his vivid re-telling of the events of that afternoon imply clarity and sobriety.

The story is broken into three distinct sections: the introductory portion when our narrator finds himself lost, and during which we learn of his character; the second section when we meet the hermit and discover the main idea behind the story, that science and the supernatural can co-exist in our world, and are not mutually exclusive, and finally the third portion, when the narrator heads out on the old mail road and encounters the supernatural.

The narrator's encounter with the hermit is perhaps the most compelling portion of the story. It helps to back up the narrator's claim of ghosts in an ingenious way. Our nameless hermit makes it clear that his successful career was ruined because he was outspoken on his belief in apparitions; he essentially lost everything as a result of being open with his beliefs. We know the narrator is young, just married and prepared to make the best of his new life. Following his experience later that night, he heeds the hermit's cautionary tale and decides to save his future by keeping the experience a secret--he even admits to not having told his wife, not willing to damage his marriage to the woman he loves. As he states in the opening line: "The circumstances I am about to relate to you have truth to recommend them." From his point of view he is not being arrogant, but instead indicates that truth is not just his word, but also his motive, since sharing truth on such experiences is risky.

Interestingly, this is the premise to Dickens's Christmas ghost story "To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt," published in the following year's Christmas edition of All the Year Around. Dickens's narrator begins his tale with these words: "I have always noticed a prevalent want of courage, even among persons of superior intelligence and culture, as to imparting their own psychological experiences when those have been of a strange sort." It is likely Dickens, who edited the journal, was directly influenced by "The Phantom Coach." 

Of the incident itself, I won't write much. It is expected, but nonetheless well presented. If we assume the tale is being narrated in 1864, then the events occurred in 1844. The incident, we learn from the crotchety old man, occurred nine years before, therefore if we were to keep up the timeline established above, the incident could have occurred in 1835.

For more of this week's Wednesday short stories, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2021

Landrigan, Linda, editor, Jackie Sherbow, Managing Editor. Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine,  NY: Penny Publications, March/April 2021. Volume 66, Nos. 3 & 4.

AHMM website
The issue over at Goodreads

Overall rating:     7/10

This is the first of the contemporary AHMM magazines I've read since the late 1980s when, a kid, I asked my parents for a subscription for my birthday. Though most frequently my reading of AHMM consisted of back issues from the 1960s and 1970s that I'd picked up for pocket change as a pre-teen in local second-hand bookshops. Receiving this issue in my mailbox was a treat, and excitedly I began to read, wondering how different this issue would be from those I was used to reading. How much more modern and innovative, more complex and dark. Soon I realized that in many the stories are pretty much the same, though the overall quality of the writing has improved. As though we re-visit the same themes and plot outlines, only we spend more time focused on the craft. Like issues of old, this one has a mix of serious drama and humour, along with a dash of the supernatural, which I always appreciated with AHMM.

The mix here is really quite good, with a solid consistency in quality. We have reincarnation, a murderous animal, a sexual affair, the first century Europe, and a dose of humour (which then and now has always been my least favourite sub-genre).

What is most modern about the issue is its relationship with the internet. Though since receiving this issue a few months back I've received old fashioned mail-in subscription renewal offers, there are many complementing items on the AHMM website, which I quite enjoyed.

For my favourite individual stories, I'm picking two: "The Beast of Easedale Tarn," by James Tipton, the one featured on the issue's cover. I also quite enjoyed the Matthew Wilson piece, "Thank You for Your Service."

The Soul of Peg O'Dwyer by Michael Nethercott     7/10

In 1950s New York, a young woman is hypnotized and brought back to her youth, which turns out to be 1880s Ireland. It seems the girl relapses into a former life, and we quickly learn that this incarnation of herself came to a sudden demise as she was walking home. The incident is investigated by recurring character Mr. O'Nelligan, from the O'Nelligan/Plunkett series.

With good build-up and suspense, I was drawn into the story. While I did figure out the mystery, it was quite late in the story. Interestingly, there is discussion of coincidence and their improbabilities, yet the plot relies on one major coincidence in order to be pulled off. I won't give that away, since it can spoil the story.

As a supernatural story, "The Soul of Peg O'Dwyer" earns its very own page in the ISFdb.

Shank's Locked Room by Robert Lopresti     6/10

Over dinner at a mystery writers' convention, a small group discuss the curious case of a stolen hotel room key belonging to one of its members. Curious, since nothing has actually been taken from the victim's room. A quick little conversation story, light in mood and energy.

(For an amusing account by the author on naming characters please visit this article on Trace Evidence.)

The Beast of Easedale Tarn by James Tipton     8/10

Dr. Watson visits Easedale Tarn, near the village of Grasmere, to investigate a "big cat" that is terrorizing the Lake District. There he encounters a diverse cast of characters, evidence of a large feline, an actual puma, and a scandal around poet William Wordsworth.

A highly enjoyable story, with a tight combination of complex mystery, intriguing characters and unforced humour. A pleasure to read.

Friends and Neighbors by John M. Floyd     6/10

Sherriff of Pine Country, Mississippi, Raymond Douglas, visits friend, author, former lawyer and current love interest Jennifer Parker, to gloat about how he has just solved a case. Parker, however has her mind elsewhere, and the two share, each helping to solve the other's mystery.

Quick and enjoyable.

The Girl with the Gibson Girl Look by O'Neil De Noux     7/10

A married man falls for a pretty younger woman, and they begin a calculated affair. As expected, things do become complicated, so much so that a murder must be committed.

As is frequently the case in a story depicting an affair through a husband's point of view, the man is victimized via a stern, cold and unattractive wife. In addition, he is trapped in the marriage since his comfortable lifestyle is a result of his wife's fortune. In this case, the male character is redeemed as his deep devotion to his daughter is tossed, otherwise unnecessarily, into the plot. Despite this sometimes unnerving trope, I liked the depiction of the affair--it was in fact what kept me glued to the story, not caring if a murder was looming ahead. I wanted things to work out for the couple, knowing of course that they wouldn't since I'm reading this in an issue of AHMM.

Plot builds up nicely, but unfortunately the ending drops in a bit out of nowhere, and is not too satisfactory. I shouldn't be surprised, since there are some other unrelated red herrings in the story, insignificant remarks or moments that are weighted, only to remain insignificant. Despite this, the story is good on its own merits, so that a clever ending is not what I am looking for.

A Night of Lies, Thieves, and Thunder, Long Ago by William Burton McCormick     6/10

It is the year A.D. 28, and in the midst of a raging storm, a retired thief finds that a younger version of himself has found his way inside his home, a fugitive of the law. Here are two thieves and somewhere nearby is some valuable treasure, so tension abounds, heightened by the storm and the soldiers that are searching for the younger man.

The ending should be obvious since it's clearly pointed out in the plot, and might be obvious for a more practiced mystery reader, but I didn't even come close to figuring it out. It works, and has an element of absurdity that I always appreciate.

Thank You For Your Service by Matthew Wilson     8/10

A veteran of two rounds of duty in Iraq, Kyle decides to make YouTube videos of stolen valor: of citizens pretending to be veterans in order to take advantage of veteran benefits.

My favourite story of the issue. It is well constructed and maintains both depth and a good plot. The story focuses primarily on Kyle's struggles, while detailing the story's crime: stolen valor. I learned a lot about the topic and have since viewed some videos on YouTube. The story gives insight on post-war veteran experiences, on the injustices and shocking extent of stolen valor. Beyond this, the story also touches on the desperation of citizens to exploit veteran benefits, and even the desperate attempts of veterans who try to take advantage of the fakers by making a proper livelihood. The situation is presented full circle.

Dead Man’s Hand by Melissa Yi     6/10

As a result of winning a poker tournament, garbage collector Ritchie is invited by the local judge to play a hand of poker at his home. Because we are in the pages of a genre magazine, Ritchie and the group of high society characters are not playing for money, but rather for something more precious.

Overall I enjoyed the story, but felt there were some ambiguities needing clarity, such as why the judge and his friends wanted to play for these specific stakes (the single word tossed out by Ritchie is not enough to convince me). I'm leaving this vague since it is a spoiler.

Saint Paddy’s Day by R. T. Lawton     5/10

Two men are hired to retrieve the corpse of their friend Padraich, which has been stolen the night before the funeral by some old drinking buddies who wanted to take him on one final night of bar hopping. Comedic mysteries are not my thing, and this one falls a little flat for me. My least favourite story of the issue.

Business as Usual by Wayne J. Gardiner     6/10

On her return to New York, a "specialist" is nearly assassinated at LaGuardia Airport. She recently finished a job for a prominent Chicago businessman, but the job, a killing, had some "collateral damage," and her employer likes his jobs taken care of exactly as planned. He is so exacting in his work, that despite the mutual attraction between them, it is likely he wants her dead as a result of the less than perfect hit.

The Thrifty Way by Brendan Dubois     7/10

Former social work student and current thrifty shop employee Maggie is at work when a strikingly good looking stranger comes by looking for a series of books on the history of the US navy in World War II. The shop has four books from the series, but he would very much like to have the set of fifteen. Maggie is both suspicious and intrigued, and finagles an expensive dinner from the nameless stranger in exchange for the identify of the person who dropped off those books.

The plot and resolution are fairly standard, but the story is well constructed, suspenseful with a likeable protagonist and excellent use of backdrop, focusing on thrift, poverty and the contrasting ways in which to make a life. Maggie is essentially a failure at helping others, her degree useless and her work unsatisfying, and despite a deceivingly optimistic outlook, she is borderline depressed. The story's title serves up a nice bit of irony.

There is a minor error in the text. When our stranger first steps up to the counter of the thrift shop, he places one of the books on the counter, mentioning that the shop has four. He then goes back "to get the others," and on his return Maggie states he comes "back with the other four." He should really be coming back with the other three. (p. 159)

What the Doctor Ordered by John H. Dirckx     6/10

Following a board meeting, its senior members stay back to talk about the good old days. A couple of lawyers describe unbearable clients that got off the hook, and then a doctor confesses to murdering some patients.

An entertaining story that ends on a half-decent joke, but a riveting telling and an interesting mystery merge for a good read.

The Dueña by Tom Larsen     6/10

Captain Ernesto Guillén, the once mighty inspector now reduced to working in the tiny Ecuadorian coastal town of Olón, is called to investigate a burglary, and takes a young sergeant with him to the scene of the crime. A fairly standard story, where the captain shows off not only his investigative skills, but also a soft side.

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