Like so many of the great American horror writers of the nineteenth century, Francis Marion Crawford had a transatlantic education: he was born in Italy – a country which would be to him what France was to Robert W. Chambers, England to Washington Irving, and the Continental spa resorts to Henry James – educated in Cambridge, Heidelberg, and Rome, and lived in India for years. What it is about the transatlantic experience that caused American expatriates to delve into supernaturalism – in a way that few American writers who had never left the States ever did – is a topic that I will later address, but it is perhaps sufficient to say, for the time, that Crawford remains popular to this day (or more accurately, around half a dozen of his horror stories) because he successfully blended the optimistic innocence of his young country with the world-weary cynicism of the Old World.
He was a well-bred product of a wealthy and artistic American family: his father was a renowned sculptor (most famous for his contributions to the United States Capitol), his aunt was the poet Julia Ward Howe (best known for penning “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” after a dream), and his sister, Mary Crawford Fraser, would earn a literary reputation of her own right as a writer of historical fiction and memoirs. Later his son, H. Marion Crawford, would add to the family resume by becoming an actor, most remembered for portraying Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson as a clear-headed, big-hearted, brawny combat veteran in a 1950s television show (foiling Nigel Bruce’s rendition as a bumbling oaf).
Patriotically named after the Revolutionary War cavalry master, Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion – and with his father and aunt’s contributions to American culture hovering over him – never forgot his fatherland, but was primarily inspired by the country of his birth: Italy. And like Henry James who wrote mostly of the continental spa resorts and English gardens that occupied his social life, Crawford became wealthy and famous for giving Americans and Britons a sample of Italian life. He would spend most of his life in his adoptive country, dying in Sorrento in 1909.
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 a handful of supernatural stories – again, like Robert W. Chambers. While Chambers’ oeuvre of speculative fiction was somewhat prolific – spanning fantasy, horror, mystery, the supernatural, the weird, the macabre, and the ghostly – Crawford contributed two novels (“Khaled,” the story of a soulless genie seeking redemption through the love of a woman (“Beauty and the Beast” meets “I Dream of Jennie”), and “The Witch of Prague,” yet another cosmopolitan romance – with a vaguely sinister “Bewitched” element to it) and around nine stories of horror and the macabre. 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).
Whie 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.
The most famous of the Big Five – the Big One, if you will – is “The Upper Berth.” M. R. James and H. P. Lovecraft were both tremendously impressed by this story, mentioning it by name as an influence and an exemplar of the form. Telling the story of a haunted bed in an ocean liner – one which causes the suicides of those who sleep in it – the tale is one of the most anthologized ghost stories of the 19th century. The second most anthologized of his stories is “For the Blood is the Life,” a vampire story told in the tradition of Coleridge’s “Christabel,” Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” and Machen’s “The Great God Pan.” In no particular order, the remaining three tales in the Big Five are “The Dead Smile” (a family is haunted by a curse that manifests in a rictus grin), “The Screaming Skull” (the bleached skull of a murdered woman is kept in a hatbox by the man who inadvertently gave her husband the idea of killing her), and “The Doll’s Ghost” (“Child’s Play” and “Puppet Master” both owe a debt to this tale: one of the first stories about a haunted – albeit benevolent – doll).
His stories have the imagination and ingenuity of an American, but contain the worldliness and dismay of a European – and he was not the only American writer to harbor these twin instincts. The German Shakespeare, Johann W. von Goethe began his career as a wild romantic, and his poems – particularly “The Bride of Corinth” (a vampire ghost story), “The Erlking” (the story of a pedophilic goblin), and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (famously adapted by Walt Disney) – frequently featured supernatural content, fantasy, and elements of horror. As he aged, he became disillusioned with romanticism, was drawn to classicalism, and longed to return to the era of the Enlightenment. One of the last poems he ever wrote “Amerika, Du Hasst es Besser” pondered the differences between romantic, ghoul-haunted Europe, and the fresh, unpolluted plains of the Americas:
America, you are better off / Than our ancient continent. / You have no tumbledown castles / And no basalt deposits. / Your inner lives are not disturbed by / Useless memories and vain strife. / Use your time with confidence! / And if your children write poetry, / May a kindly fate guard them from writing / Stories of knights, robbers and ghosts.
Americans did not mind his words, however, and it seems that the merest contact with Europe infected the imaginations of any American writer who lingered on the continent. As Washington Irving – the first of these expatriates – would write in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” —
It is remarkable that the visionary propensity I have mentioned is not confined to the native inhabitants of the valley, but is unconsciously imbibed by every one who resides there for a time. However wide awake they may have been before they entered that sleepy region, they are sure, in a little time, to inhale the witching influence of the air, and begin to grow imaginative, to dream dreams, and see apparitions.
Irving himself lived in Europe for nearly thirty years, passing time in Spain, Germany, Britain, France, and Italy, and his many ghost stories – “Sleepy Hollow,” “Rip Van Winkle,” “Golden Dreams,” “Dolph Heyliger,” “Guests from Gibbet Island,” and more – brought the goblins and imps of Europe to American landscapes. Nathaniel Hawthorne was the next major American writer to dabble in the supernatural, and while he began his speculative writing before he was appointed to a diplomatic post in Britain by his school chum, President Pierce, his mind seemed to constantly be torn between the wooded wilds of New England and the craggy coasts of Old England. Poe, likewise, spent a period of time in England which caused him to associate closely with the decaying aristocracy of the British, a theme which resonated in such foreign-set tales as “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “William Wilson.”
Henry James – the consummate realist – and Robert W. Chambers – a devoted decadent – each spent formative portions of their lives in Europe (James’ dalliance never ended, and he eventually became a British citizen), and these two figures became two of the greatest American supernaturalists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: James wrote psychological ghost stories from a realist point of view (“The Turn of the Screw,” “The Jolly Corner,” “The Ghostly Rental”) and Chambers wove a series of weird romances – some sentimental, some positively Lovecraftian – and is most remembered for his collection, “The King in Yellow.”
Edith Wharton and Willa Cather – two women who are best known for their luscious realism – lived cosmopolitan lives that rivalled James and Chambers, and are stilled remembered for their powerful ghost stories (which also rival James and Chambers). Other than Ambrose Bierce, Charles Brockden Brown, and a handful of New England writers, the vast majority of American supernaturalists – before the advent of Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard – were those who had one foot planted in pragmatic American soil and one in wistful European dust. Francis Marion Crawford – his miniscule oeuvre notwithstanding – arose from and excelled in just such a tradition.
It is easiest to see the influences of Irving and Poe, Hawthorne and James in Crawford’s ten tales of the macabre: Poe’s themes of predestination and his juxtaposition of the physical and psychical, the mental and the material, blaze from stories like “By the Waters of Paradise” and “The King’s Messenger,” while Hawthorne’s obsession with fate, genetic curses, morality, and corruption simmer deeply in “The Dead Smile” (really a melding of his own “The House of the Seven Gables” and Poe’s “House of Usher”), “Man Overboard!”, “The Screaming Skull,” and “Waters of Paradise” – all of which are unmistakably Hawthornesque. Henry James – like Edith Wharton and W. W. Jacobs – was best known for his urbane, ambiguous ghost stories written with a heavy dose of psychology and a strain of allegory, and while none of Crawford’s stories could be truly called Jamesian (all fling themselves wholeheartedly off of the cliff of romanticism), they share James’ cosmopolitanism, his cynicism, and his dedication to realism – even in a Gothic ghost story.
What makes Crawford unique among this crowd, however – what makes him a grandsire of H. P. Lovecraft, M. R. James, H. R. Wakefield, and E. F. Benson – is his unusual indulgence in gruesome sensationalism. Very few Victorian writers embraced body horror the way that Crawford did; ghosts in early- and mid-19th century literature were usually – almost always – indistinguishable from living mortals, with only a few tells: they were usually pale and sometimes had a fixed, dead stare; if drowned they might be wet; if murdered they might show the scars of their ordeal (slashed throats and dark welts on the head were common), though these were never described in detail. Crawford was one of the first to make his ghosts walking, corporeal corpses.
“The Upper Berth” features the milky-eyed, slimy-skinned revenant of a drowned man; “Man Overboard!” ends with the appearance of a dead sailor – a skeleton in moldy oilskins – marching his murderer to the sea; the eponymous “Screaming Skull” snaps at men when it is handled – its teeth stained in their blood; “The Dead Smile” revels in its climactic description of the rictus creasing the dehydrated face of a decayed corpse (whose burial garments bear the brown stains of putrefaction); even the “Doll’s Ghost” displays a spectral, glowing fissure where her china face had been broken and glued back together.
This revelry in gore was undoubtedly picked up during his European travels (German and Italian folklore and ghost stories were stepped in squeamish details – only ask the Brothers Grimm), and while Crawford’s output of horror was tiny at ten stories, it made a powerful impact on the next generation of horror writers. Lovecraft, James, Wakefield, Benson, de la Mare, Onions, and Jacobs all owe a debt to Crawford – if for no other reason, then for “The Upper Berth” which single-handedly would shape the future of horror fiction. In “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” Lovecraft has this to say of Crawford: “F. Marion Crawford produced several weird tales of varying quality, now collected in a volume entitled Wandering Ghosts. “For the Blood Is the Life” touches powerfully on a case of moon-cursed vampirism near an ancient tower on the rocks of the lonely South Italian sea-coast.
“The Dead Smile” treats of family horrors in an old house and an ancestral vault in Ireland, and introduces the banshee with considerable force. “The Upper Berth”, however, is Crawford’s weird masterpiece; and is one of the most tremendous horror-stories in all literature. In this tale of a suicide-haunted stateroom such things as the spectral salt-water dampness, the strangely open porthole, and the nightmare struggle with the nameless object are handled with incomparable dexterity.” Glowing praise from the normally hard-to-impress American master.
M. R. James had high regard for Crawford as well, recalling with relish “his horrid story of ‘The Upper Berth’, which (with The Screaming Skull’ some distance behind) is the best in his collection of Uncanny Tales, and stands high among ghost stories in general.” “The Upper Berth” – written before James began his career – indeed has a close kinship to some of James’ masterpieces: the haunted bed of “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” the slimy, embracing apparition of “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,” and the insidious materialization of “Number 13.”
The story’s theme of a misanthropic loner falling into bad company after spurning the fellowship of his neighbors is such a common theme in James’ stories that “The Upper Berth” has frequently been misidentified as James-influenced tale (whereas it predates James’ first ghost story by exactly ten years). I might step in to point out that – in my opinion – “Man Overboard!” is just as big of an influence on James as these other two stories: in fact, I consider it (along with W. W. Jacobs’ masterful “The Well”) the genesis of “A School Story,” which also ends with a petrified corpse found in the embrace of a much further decayed skeleton.
While 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 benefitted from his lack of censorship, and what his stories suggested to 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.
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. 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.