There are certain stories that are inextricably linked to when I first read them, especially for horror stories. For example, in H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Hound’ two men find that, after disturbing an ancient grave, they hear the baying of a phantom hound wherever they go. This is not, in retrospect, a story to listen to on audio book at four in the morning when suffering from insomnia.
Neither is today’s story. So, why did I find it so effective in the small hours of the morning?
The way it’s told is designed to be immersive. The story is given in a one-sided conversation, with the retired sea-captain Braddock making all of those little stop-starts and digressions you get in stream-of-consciousness dialogue. Its haphazard nature makes you feel like you’re actually listening to someone rambling amiably along while sat by the fire, after-dinner drink in hand.
Now, by itself this doesn’t sound too edifying. What makes it work is the story he’s trying to tell. His rambling style means the story is teased out of him, stray detail by detail. Every so often he’ll let slip some new facet in an off-handed way that makes you go Aha! before he confirms and elaborates on this facet a few paragraphs later.
For example, the story starts with the protagonist talking about the Pratts, the couple who lived in the house before he did and who did not like each other much. He digresses with a tale of a wife murdering three husbands by pouring hot lead into their ears; and a few paragraphs later reveals that Mrs Pratt died suddenly. Yet it takes another couple of pages, as the discord between the Pratts is illustrated by anecdotes, until he admits to having found a ladle:
“I never told anybody about that, and it made me start when I found it in the cupboard in the bedroom. It was new too – a little tinned iron ladle that had not been in the fire more than once or twice, and there was some lead in it that had been melted, and stuck to the bottom of the bowl, all grey, with hardened dross on it. But that proves nothing. A country doctor is generally a handy man, who does everything for himself, and [Mr Pratt] may have had a dozen reasons for melting a little lead in a ladle. He was fond of sea-fishing, for instance, and he might have cast a sinker for a night-line; perhaps it was a weight for the hall clock, or something like that. All the same, when I found it I had rather a queer sensation, because it looked so much like the thing I had described when I told them the story. Do you understand? It affected me unpleasantly, and I threw it away; it’s at the bottom of the sea a mile from the Spit, and it will be jolly well rusted beyond recognizing if it’s ever washed up by the tide.”
Little by little the horror mounts with pleasantly excruciating slowness. A while ago he found a human skull while digging in the garden with something that rattles inside it; Mr Pratt was found dead with tooth-marks around his neck; the protagonist wishes he could get rid of the skull, but, “it doesn’t like that. It wants to be there in its place, in Mrs Pratt’s bandbox in the cupboard in the best bedroom. It’s not happy anywhere else. How do I know that? Because I’ve tried it. You don’t suppose that I’ve not tried, do you? As long as it’s there it only screams now and then, generally at this time of year, but if I put it out of the house it goes on all night…”
And so it continues. The one-sided monologue encourages the feeling that you’re in that room with him, and even though by this point you’re practically shouting at Braddock to take it seriously, he seems to regard it as little more than an inconvenience that scares away good servants. In fact, he proposes, why doesn’t he demonstrate the skull’s strange properties, and go and fetch the skull, so that you can hear the rattle and hear the screaming when he takes it outside?
The Screaming Skull by F. Marion Crawford
Availability: free online (out of copyright), print, audio-book
First published: Collier’s, July 11-18 1908
Where to find it: Available on Gutenberg here as part of Crawford’s collection ‘Wandering Ghosts’
Great Tales of the Supernatural, edited by Stephanie Dowrick, 1992, Everyman’s Library
Uncanny Tales, collection, 1999, Tartarus Press
The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, edited by Jeff VanderMeer & Ann VanderMeer, 2012, Tor
Audio available free on LibriVox here