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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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F. Marion Crawford's The Upper Berth: A Detailed Summary and a Literary Analysis

Crawford’s masterpiece – the story which he is best known for, horror or otherwise – remains comfortably ensconced in the canon of supernatural classics. Frequently anthologized, it pairs well with the masterpieces of other Edwardian writers who are overwhelmingly associated with a single tale: W. W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw,” Oliver Onions’ “The Beckoning Fair One,” Ralph Adams Cram’s “The Dead Valley,” Perceval Landon’s “Thurnley Abbey,” and so on. While Crawford is also lauded for “The Screaming Skull” and “For the Blood is the Life,” it is chiefly for “The Upper Berth” that he remains remembered. The story serves as a prototype for the tales of M. R. James (who frequently wrote of fusty, curmudgeonly misanthropes whose loner tendencies cause them to stray from communal safety and into the welcoming arms of a gruesomely tangible apparition). The story shares many properties with “Man Overboard!” – a nautical setting, a slow boil, a mind-blasting reveal, and a revenant which wants to cling to its victims rather than spook them away with a misty appearance and an echoing moan. This slimy goblin protrudes aggressively into human affairs, making a sudden and powerful acquaintance with the business-minded gentlemen distracted enough to come within reach.

James was famous for his clingy, invasive specters who are all the more repulsive for their gregariousness (especially to the introverted victims who find themselves caught in an unwanted, bony bear hug), and his stories have frequently been read with a sexual subtext that seems to hint at the discomfort felt by confirmed old bachelors at the subject of sexuality. James’ “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” seems to have been overwhelmingly influenced by this story, as were “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” and “A School Story” (also deeply influenced by Crawford’s “Man Overboard!”). But “The Upper Berth” stands by itself – M. R. James aside – as a powerful masterwork of horror. It has been accused of being overly simplistic – of being less like Henry James and more like R. L. Stine – and of being formulaic. Indeed, it has no pretensions to the complexities of Dickensian horror or the originality of Lovecraft: it is a straight forward bogey tale, but one which readers never forget. I often hear of “the one with the haunted bunk” when I discuss classic horror with readers; sometimes they remember the name, sometimes not, but everyone who has read “The Upper Berth” remembers the slow boil, the dread, the smells, textures, and sights, the looming danger, the grisly discovery, the lasting mystery. It is a brilliant story – an instant classic – and it remains one of the greatest ghost stories in the English language.

The primal power of “The Upper Berth” lies in its psychology. The best ghost stories know how to connect their horror (disgusting shock factors – the general ickiness) to a philosophical core of terror (fearful anxiety caused by the suspension of the unknown). The story will on the surface be spooky or chilling, but something about what you read or heard will linger – will bother you and follow you. In short, it will prove personal and convicting. Dickens’ “The Signal Man,” Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw,” and Stevenson’s “The Body Snatcher” have all become masterpieces of literary fiction (external from the horror genre) because of this ability. Something about is not merely icky, but also philosophically or psychologically distressing.

Paving the way for M. R. James, Crawford introduces us to a persnickety misanthrope who spends as much time avoiding people and complaining about accomodations as he can. His attitude – the opposite of the big-chested, attractive doctor (who calls to mind the savvy, spirited colonel in James’ “Oh Whistle”) – alienates him, bringing him into close contact with his “roommate” and resulting in the very thing he had hoped to avoid: intimacy with other men. Now, it must be said off the bat that a homoerotic interpretation of this story, while valid, is speculative. Such commentaries have long plagued James’ similarly themed stories, and it is hardly surprising that stories like “Berth” and “Oh Whistle” which involve loner bachelors finding themselves shacking up with grabby, aggressive male ghosts attract a bit of attention from queer theorists. It has been alternatively argued that Gen-Xer and millennial readers are merely projecting 21st century attitudes about sexuality onto Victorian social patterns. True or not, it is very difficult to argue that there is not a very deep strain of psychological anxiety in this story. It might be anxiety about being alone with your inner demons, about the pros and cons of introversion, about fear of intimacy with anyone of any gender, about fear of sleeping in a public bed which has undoubtedly been the resting place of many unsavory types and a few very disagreeable sorts.

Whatever it is rings true – perhaps not for the reader individually, but certainly coming from Brisbane. He seems literally small minded (with that tiny head and thick trunk) and – while frequently drawn to comment on the attractive appearances and personalities of his male companions – eagerly rejects them whenever they offer company or friendship. How long before this spiteful attitude finds him marooned far from help, alone with the sorts of freaks who inhabit the lonely periphery of human society. The ghost – if such it is – quickly gives Brisbane a double portion of human companionship – aggressively overpowering him, embracing him (as if in a forceful kiss), dragging him to the flooring, and “thrust[ing]” itself upon him. Whether this story is about homophobia, latent homosexuality, or repressed sexual aggression, or whether it is simply a story, there is little sidestepping the rapacious behavior of this monster, or its overtly sexual attitude. It caused the suicide of three (possibly four) men by virtue of manifesting in their bunk (a bunk for one), on top of them, moaning, dripping wet. We never learn what it is like to wake up in bed with this monster, but we know what the consequences have been for those who experienced it.

This returns us to the fact that Crawford prefers terror (suggestion) over horror (exposure), and that while we have clues, we are never fully satisfied by the description of this creature as a “ghost.” Nor is Brisbane: all he can confirm is that it was “dead anyway.” So is this the ghost of the first man – the lunatic? Is it his reanimated corpse? Is it his undead body – clinging to the keel by day and slithering to his bunk at night? Is it the “lunatic’s” supernatural familiar (like the tentacled demon in “Count Magnus”)? Or perhaps he was less mad and more mad scientist, and after a horribly failed experiment, he has killed himself leaving behind the elemental, alien, or demon which his experiments summoned? We have no way of fully knowing, and Crawford likes it that way: this isn’t a ghost story meant to be neatly tied in a moral with a fully fledged explanation, but a psychological impression of a very specific anxiety – one which doesn’t require the plot to be completely exposed in order to function.

Whatever it was that lunged out at Brisbane – pulling its cold, decaying arms around him, dragging him to the floor – it represented something primitive, vulnerable, and psychic. It might mean something different to Brisbane than it does to me, or to you, or to your friends – fear of loneliness, fear of strangers, fear of intimacy, fear of who-slept-in-this-bed-before-me, etc. – but we all feel that electric, primal anxiety humming behind the closed curtain of the upper berth.

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