F. Marion Crawford has probably the most “bang-for-your-buck” of any of the classic horror writers: his entire oeuvre consists of about a dozen stories of which five are well-seasoned masterpieces and two are underrated classics. While Crawford was made rich and famous during his lifetime – not unlike his contemporary Robert W. Chambers – for his cosmopolitan romances, today he is almost solely recollected for this handful of supernatural stories. Included among them are five ghost stories (containing one haunted ship, two vengeful ghosts, one spectral doll, and one vampire), two Poe-esque Gothic mysteries, one precognitive dream, and a trio of fantasy tales (which didn’t make it into this anthology). While his output in the genre was small (bordering on miniscule), his impact has been vast due to the widely popular nature of roughly half of them – a crème-de-la-crème that I will refer to as The Big Five.
These stories have been rabidly reproduced by eager anthologists and editors at a rate inconsistent with his tiny oeuvre. Only perhaps a pair of them have great literary merit (in the same way, say, that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw,” or Poe’s “William Wilson” have been open heartedly adopted by mainstream literati as works of art), but all of them are successful examples of genre writing that use narrative voice, psychological tension, and an expert touch of irony to fixate readers for over a century.
Although Crawford cannot possibly be considered a grandmaster of horror fiction, he certainly has proven his skill at practicing the form, and while he didn’t write as many horror tales as other mainstream writers of literary fiction like Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, or Henry James, Crawford’s ten stories – especially his Big Five – remain lodged in the canon of classic horror without fear of falling. His greatest service to the genre was undoubtedly his willingness to revel in the sort of gruesome details that he encountered in German and Italian folklore – a degree of body horror which only Poe, Hoffmann, and the Brothers Grimm had indulged in. Stoker, de la Mare, Machen, Onions, Lovecraft, James, Benson, and Wakefield all benefited from his lack of self-censorship. Lovecraft and James in particular patterned their highly physical ghouls – offensive to the five senses with clammy skin, decayed flesh, and bony limbs – after his example (both cited him as an influence).
While he is most famous for “The Upper Berth” (a haunted bunk in an ocean liner causes those who sleep in it to commit suicide), the following list may help acquaint you with his lesser known gems. We may wish that Crawford had spent more time on spook tales and less on his forgettable and forgotten Italian romances, but what we are left with are half a dozen masterpieces that will remain in print and imaginations for decades to come – particularly HERE in our annotated and illustrated edition, “The Upper Berth, For the Blood is the Life, and Other Horrors.” So ease back, pour yourself a stiff one, turn out all of your lights beside the one over your shoulder, and enter the palpable world of F. Marion Crawford.
6. THE KING’S MESSENGER
Short and to the point, this philosophical horror story was long forgotten before it was resurrected a few years ago for an anthology of Crawford’s ghost stories. It begins with thirteen people sitting down to dinner (in defiance of the infamous superstition that the first person to rise from a table of thirteen will be dead within a year). The narrator speaks to a young girl beside him – an old acquaintance – who playfully informs him that she is going to elope that night with the missing thirteenth diner. When the fellow finally shows up, the narrator can tell that something about him makes him warry about their planned escape, but he seems to be well bred and situated – he is, he says, after all, a messenger of the King.
5. THE DOLL’S GHOST
A creepy story the revels in the valley of the uncanny, “The Doll’s Ghost” is about exactly what it sounds like. Inspired by one of Crawford’s childhood memories (smashing a girl’s doll), this very personal tale is among the very first to ever address the “haunted doll” trope in literature, and it has a close relationship to the Puppet Master franchise: the protagonist is a kindly (if creepy) German “doll doctor” who “falls in love” with the dolls he mends, convinced that they are just as human as we – not a terribly long shot from Puppet Master’s Andre Toulon. While the reanimated toy in this tale is no Chucky, to be sure, it still has the power to send shivers up the spine.
4. THE SCREAMING SKULL
Inspired by the popular British legend of screaming skulls, this story is perhaps most remarkable for its narrative style: told in real time by the skull’s would-be-victim: the man responsible for its demise. The narrator is very similar to Lovecraft’s hayseed cannibal in “The Picture in the House”: we hear him describe the action, including his guest’s reactions (“You don’t need to look so nervous; it’s only the sound of the tide going out, not a scream. Yes, you can have some more to drink; I’ll pour you a bigger glass to steady your hand – it’s shaking”), which gives the reader an anxious feeling of vertigo. He tells his visitor – on a dark and stormy night – of how he inadvertently gave a friend the idea of killing his wife by pouring lead in her ear. Years later, he inherits the man’s house along with a skull that he suspects may have a grudge out for him – after all, when he shakes it, there’s a rattling sound like a kernel of lead is trapped inside – and those teeth look sharp enough to draw blood.
3. MAN OVERBOARD!
A woefully underrated story (it doesn’t make the Big Five for lack of popularity, not for lack of imagination), this story of a haunted ship is a classic in the tradition of Arthur Conan Doyle, W. W. Jacobs, and William Hope Hodgson. Two twins – one affable, one morose – sign onto a clipper right after one of them becomes engaged. The entire ship are sad when the gloomy twin is washed overboard in a gale, more because of the sudden change in his brother than in the loss of the grim sibling. But there are symptoms of his return throughout the journey – his pipe is found after being thrown overboard, an extra plate is set at every meal, and the cook goes mad before they can reach shore. The narrator thinks this is the end of his terrible experience – until he is invited to the wedding of the surviving brother and makes the mistake of watching the happy couple walk off in the moonlight.
2. THE DEAD SMILE
Admired by Lovecraft, this Poe-esque story of a cursed family draws heavily on Nathaniel Hawthorne – making it an instant classic. Filled with gothic details and gruesome descriptions of decay, it features a young couple who seem doomed as soon as the man’s wicked uncle dies with a smile on his lips – refusing to reveal the dreadful family secret which he assures them will bring misery to their future. The same smile comes, irresistibly, to the two lovers’ mouths at the most inappropriate times, and after they terrify a banquet with their rictus grins, the man storms to the burial ground where his uncle is rotting in a burial shroud. Banshees, headless ghosts, standing corpses, family secrets, and gothic intrigue make this a ghoulish classic worthy of being adapted by Vincent Price.
1. FOR THE BLOOD IS THE LIFE
Today the word “vampire” conjures immediate images of courtly men exuding an aristocratic masculinity – tall, dark, and handsome. Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi, Brad Pitt, Frank Langella. But before Bram Stoker the word “vampire” had an almost universally female connotation: the femme fatale, the lustful seductress. “For the Blood is the Life” tells of an Italian estate where a woman in white is seen to writhe ghoulishly on a grave in the moonlight. The story of her background, death, and return – told as two men witness her shape from afar – makes up the tale. It has become a cult classic, well represented in vampire anthologies. It contributes little to the conversation – essentially rephrasing a good ghost story in terms of a vampire tale – but is well written, compelling, and remarkable for several chilling moments. It remains one of Crawford’s most famous tales, perhaps only bested by “The Upper Berth.”