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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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Charles Dickens' To Be Read at Dusk: A Detailed Summary and a Literary Analysis

Often underrated and under-anthologized, the following story – or more accurately, two stories couched within a frame narrative (we will comment on both, individually) – is perhaps one of Dickens’ most complex and thematically dark tales. Often misunderstood and typically criticized for its plot, “To be Read at Dusk” is an intricate study in dualism, repression, fate, and psychological influences on personal identity. Dickens uses the frame narrative – which is disarming in spite of its truly unsettling nature – to commence a conversation on the nature of reality, the source of identity, and the pull of the unconscious – those shadowy things which we avoid or try to deny – on the conscious – the (ostensible) basis of human identity. In the three stories which he twines and threads, Dickens will attempt to cause you to question the power of nurture over nature, of will over fate, and of self over psychology. And then he will turn the tables again.

By far his most mysterious ghost story, it may be his greatest although the going may be tough. “To Be Read at Dusk” requires intense attention and a mind for interpreting literature. It is, in some respects, a semiotic riddle which focuses on the definition of a ghost, and decides that the definition is not clean cut. Deeply psychological, it ponders the relationship between the conscious and unconscious, and posits that those things which are not seen (or said, or done, or shown) are no less real than those which are apparent – a very haunting concept for the repressed, idealistic Victorians who strove to discipline themselves into goodness.

The tale is a framework settled around two stories: a group of envoys meet at an Alpine lodge under the shadow of a mountain whose snows are known to cover dozens of bodies. An eavesdropper listens to them talk of ghosts and of things which are not quite ghosts: of a refined lady who nightmares of a dark stranger who will take her from her loving husband, and of the moment when the husband befriends a man identical to the abductor in her dream, and of her disturbing disappearance; they tell also of two twins who agree to appear to each other at the moment of death, and of a shocking reverse in their expectations. But it is the eavesdropper himself, perhaps, who will have a ghost story to tell by the time he turns around when the speaking suddenly stops.

One of the greatest essays on this story was written by Kimberly Jackson, who points out the subversively evil nature of the snowy Alpine setting as one of Dickens' grisliest literary symbols: 'The description of the setting comes next. It is a ghastly landscape “on the summit of the Great St. Bernard in Switzerland,” with “remote heights, stained by the setting sun, as if a mighty quantity of red wine had been broached upon the mountain top, and had not yet had time to sink into the snow.”

'But, “This is not my simile.” This is the only sentence up to this point in the narrative spoken in the present tense. It is as if another voice comes in here, one not part of the scene, to disclaim ownership of the simile (and perhaps the narrative itself), to disavow the likeness. This present tense voice, speaking as it does from outside the time of the narrative, could only be the author’s. While this particular simile seems harmless enough - the likeness between the setting sun on the snow and spilt wine - it thinly veils a much more sinister one, in which the setting sun is like spilt blood. The author disavows the likeness that is explicitly stated in order to shield himself from the implicit one. If the implied simile does not immediately strike the reader, a more obvious clue follows: “looking at the reddened snow, and at the lonely shed hard by, where the bodies of belated travelers, dug out of it, slowly wither away, knowing no corruption in that cold region.” So whether the sun on the snow looks like wine or not, at this point the reader knows that under the snow there most certainly is blood. The danger in the figure lies in the fact that the seemingly innocent simile (sun like wine) hides within it the more sinister one (wine like blood), like the snow hides dead bodies, and we begin to sense that the story itself is built on just such a surface.'

The first story could easily be referred to as "The Stolen Bride" or "Abducted by the Shadow Man," and it remains a classic of psychological horror. This tale is a classic example of the Demon Lover genre – the story of a fated supernatural abduction; it was employed earlier by J. W. von Goethe in “The Erlking” and by Fitz-James O’Brien in “The Demon of the Gibbet.” Le Fanu would use the theme in “Schalken the Painter” and “Ultor de Lacy,” and this very story would later serve to inspire the classic supernatural works of Rhoda Broughton (“The Man with the Nose”) and E. F. Benson (“The Face”). This story is one of split identity – light and darkness, transparency and shadow, Super-Ego and Id – the impossibility of maintaining their separation, and the potentially violent coup that one can have when repressed by the other.

Concerning this, the most famous section of the tale, Jackson muses: 'The tale of the English bride is told by the Genoese courier, who claims that he worked for her husband and witnessed the events. The English bride, Clara, has a dream about a dark man three times before her wedding and becomes convinced that she will find the “likeness” of the man and something terrible will happen. The simile is apparently an awful thing for the English bride, a horror that she fears, but she has only encountered half of it. First, there is only the dream, with no corresponding simile: “Not a face she ever saw, or at all like a face she ever saw” (236). Then, the bride and her party arrive at the old Genoese palace that her husband has rented for the summer.

'The palace, too, as Glancy notes, is a reference to the outside of the story, to the author himself, who wanted to rent such a castle, but it was rejected by the servant he sent to investigate it for being too old and rundown. It could be said that Dickens’ disappointment at not being able to stay in the palace appears in his story as a form of wish-fulfillment, but the description of the place within the courier’s tale suggests otherwise. The courier describes it as being “like a tomb.” The entombing nature of the simile is once again revealed, and thus the palace becomes a harbinger of a dark duplicity. The bride knows enough to be frightened of the palace and what it might contain: “Mistress secretly had great fear of meeting with the likeness of that face – we all had; but there was no such thing” (237). Eventually, the likeness presents itself as a guest at the palace. The dark man’s name is Dellombra (of/from the shadow), and indeed he is a shadow of the bride, whose name, appropriately, is Clara. She is the light part of the simile, while he is the dark and deadly implicit side. When faced with this materialization, “her face changed,” she “was nearly terrified to death,” and “wandered in her mind about her dream, all night.” Her husband dismisses her fears and tells her “that it rested with herself to be herself.”

'The problem is, of course, not the dark man, not the simile, but rather the implicit simile, that she cannot be herself, that the shadow represents her own dark side, one whose power over her is overwhelming: “She would cast down her eyes and droop her head, before the Signor Dellombra, or would look at him with a terrified and fascinated glance, as if his presence had some evil influence or power over her” (238). Clara’s dark man corresponds with that of a real lady, Madame de la Rue, with whom Dickens’ spent many hours, from 1844-5, mesmerizing her in an attempt to rid her of her haunting shadow (Glancy 41-4). It is not surprising that such an internal demon would manifest itself as a character all its own in Dickens’ fictional representation of it. One need only think of Frankenstein’s monster or the later Edward Hyde. Indeed, Dellombra is very much like Frankenstein’s monster, as he, too, is the male demon of a female character, like the monster is ultimately to Mary Shelley.'

The second tale, concerning the telepathic twins, is a classic story of doomed doubles. Tales of twins are common throughout literature, and are well-represented in horror, especially by the Doppelgänger, an apparition that – whether physical or psychical – represents the split nature of humanity. Algernon Blackwood (“The Terror of the Twins”), Poe (“William Wilson,” “…House of Usher”), and Robert Louis Stevenson (“…Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”) are just a few of the writers who have employed this motif. The story that follows, while not nearly as elegant as the previous, is perhaps more structurally complicated; it concerns the nature of identity – is it material or is it spiritual? – and the messy, unclear borderlands between Self and Other, between Haunter and Haunted.

Fate and identity, Dickens suggests, are under the sway of the unconscious, and regardless of our breeding, our higher aspirations, or our conscious desires, reality cannot be altered to fit the needs of the conscience or society. A woman of noble virtue cannot banish the dark impulses of a schizophrenic moral identity; a man whose physical self is shared nebulously with his twin brother cannot rationally expect his psychical self to be neatly split between them; a mountain which is, in reality, bathed in the blood of its victims, cannot be compared to spilled wine without suggesting its true nature; and a party of story tellers bent on arriving at a satisfactory understanding of what is things – ghosts and yet not ghosts – which inhabit the spaces between the natural and the supernatural may not be able to avoid calling attention to their own ambiguous supernaturality. As in “The Signalman” and “The Trial by Murder,” Dickens uses the ghost story as a vehicle for illuminating the shadowy territories between unconscious knowledge and conscious denial.

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