Tuesday, October 16, 2012

These Stories Aren't for Children

Remember E. Nesbit? I might have mentioned her before on this blog once or twice -- okay, I might be a little obsessed, but she's one of my favorite children's authors. Recently I discovered that she also wrote horror stories. 

 (A collection of stories from 1910. Also a command: fear E. Nesbit!)

I shouldn't have been surprised, because some of her children's novels have wonderfully creepy touches. When I was a child, I loved the scariness of the statues that come to life in The Enchanted Castle. Also in that book are the nightmare creatures that terrified me: the Ugly-Wuglies, animate things made of old clothes and painted paper masks. Like the statues, they almost look human.

 (Look at their faces: AHHHHHHH!)

In her scary stories for adults, E. Nesbit is still the master of the uncanny valley. One of her best stories, "Man-Size in Marble," scares you with statues that get up and walk in the night. And then there is Edward in "The Power of Darkness," who was scared as a child when he met a white statue unexpectedly in a dark room, and who has been scared of the dark ever since. Of course he ends up finding something more terrifying than marble statues, and that is an entire wax museum filled with figures of dead and dismembered bodies. It's like the Ugly-Wuglies, if they starred in the Saw movies.

I recommend E. Nesbit's short story collection Grim Tales, which includes "Man-Size in Marble" and six other stories. You can also find a couple of her horror stories, "The Power of Darkness" and "In the Dark," here
 (Grim Tales, 1893 edition.)

All of these stories are like dark versions of E. Nesbit's children's novels. There is a charming cottage with roses over the door, like the one in the Railway Children -- except that this one is visited by evil spirits. There are artist couples living in country estates, as in the Wouldbegoods -- except that they practice black magic or die and come back to haunt each other. You even get a vegetarian "all-wooler," like Mr. Sandal in the New Treasure-Seekers -- except that this one possesses evil psychic powers.

 (From the Enchanted Castle, 1907, illustrated by H.R. Millars. It's easy to shift a castle like this from fairytale charm to Gothic horror.)

The scariest things in Grim Tales are: 1. ghosts, 2. statues (and other artwork) possessed by ghosts, 3. marriage. I count one bad marriage, four happy marriages that end badly, and one sad case of a marriage that never happens. And then there is "John Charrington's Wedding," which features the creepiest marriage ever. Love is terrifying in these stories. But I still want to be part of one of E. Nesbit's artistic couples, living their happy bohemian lives in beautiful Arts-and-Crafts-style rooms. I mean, eventually the ghosts attack or everyone dies from a mystic curse or something, but until then it's like this passage from "Hurst of Hurstcote:"

"They had one tower completely repaired, and in its queer, eight-sided rooms we lived, when we were not out among the marshes, or by the blue sea at Pevensey.

Mrs. Hurst had made the rooms quaintly charming by a medley of Liberty fabrics and Wardour Street furniture. The grassy space within the castle walls, with its underground passages, its crumbling heaps of masonry, overgrown with lush creepers, was better than any garden. There we met the fresh morning; there we lounged through lazy noons; there the grey evenings found us."

(I imagine all E. Nesbit houses, even the castles, as looking a little like William Morris' Red House.)

Eight-sided tower rooms in a castle by the sea! Sigh. Almost worth it.

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