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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 Taken With a Grain of Salt: A Detailed Summary and a Literary Analysis

Most famous of Dickens’ ghost stories (somewhat undeservingly when compared to the original, weird, and mystifying mainstays “Signal-Man,” “Dusk,” and “Bride”), the following tale is arguably the grand dame of English spook tales. Based loosely on the real-life murder of Lord William Russell, “The Trial for Murder” was once considered the exemplar of a respectable ghost story (largely because of its author) and was included with “The Turn of the Screw,” “The Body-Snatchers,” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in early-to-mid twentieth century anthologies of ghost stories. In our current century, “Trial” loses a great deal of momentum due to its perspective, narration, and delivery, all of which diminish the intrusion of the supernatural, making it eerie and chilly but never really frightening or weird. Until the end. While early anthologists were correct in choosing this tale as a relatively tame and reputable example of the decent ghost story (good lord, what would they have done with Onions, Hodgson, Machen, Blackwood, Wakefield, or God forbid, Lovecraft, Aickman, or De la Mare?), they missed the utterly thrilling implications of its conclusion – that we are all ghosts of something, that our society is crippled and inept, and that justice is not to be expected without the goodly puppeteering of a supernatural overlord, one which – as the secondary title suggests – Dickens sadly writes off.

A legal drama, this follows the adventure of a juror who is visited by the ghost of a murder victim. The waxy-faced phantom exposes his slashed throat, discredits witnesses, and harasses his murderer – all while being invisible to all but the juror. Although the tale is rife with promise (eagerly harvested by Le Fanu and in James in more stories than one), it is largely a cynical satire which suggests that the only way the justice system can be expected to work (in spite of its corruption, stupidity, and foolishness) is through supernatural intervention. The story begins with the narrator reading about the murder in his morning paper. Fascinated by the details, his delight is dampened when he looks up to see a translucent, phantom room -- the identical of the murder room -- passing through his own bed chamber. He is relieved to see that there is no corpse on the bed, but his relief is short lived. Moving to the window, he seems drawn to a man in the crowd: hunched and nervous, he seems to be avoiding a man further behind who is trailing him doggedly. The unshakable stalker has a sickly face with a complexion like raw wax. Both men make eye contact with the narrator before disappearing into the distance. Later that night he is shocked to find the sickly man standing before him -- a vision witnessed by his manservant -- and is hardly surprised to learn that he has been selected to sit on a jury for the murder, the killer having been captured. Unsurprisingly, he recognizes the prisoner as the nervous man, and -- what's more -- he notices the waxy-faced phantom sitting in the gallery. Strangely enough, the accused seems terrified of the narrator and challenges his credibility. Surprised, the judge questions his reasoning, but with no sound rationale, the jury proceeds unaltered. Throughout the trial, the dead man menaces dishonest witnesses, encourages the prosecution, exposes his mangled throat to the narrator's horror, and looms grimly over his killer. At night the jurors sleep in their secluded chamber, but the comical beadle struggles to keep count of them: there always seems to be one extra man amongst the jurors, and the narrator knows who he is. At the trial's conclusion, the ghost faces the narrator solemnly, and disappears like a mist when the killer is declared guilty. Stunned and reeling, the condemned man points to the narrator and declares to the judge: "My Lord, I knew I was a doomed man when [the narrator] came into the box. My Lord, I knew he would never let me off because, before I was taken, he somehow got to my bedside in the night, woke me, and put a rope round my neck."

“To be taken with a grain of salt.” The phrase suggests that the morsel about to be swallowed would not be palatable without some cynicism, humor, or other allowance. It also suggests a farce, a fantasy, or a flight of fancy. And this, I believe, is what Dickens’ original title implied. Like “To be Read at Dusk,” Dickens refers his readership to the optimal condition for understanding the text. In this case, it is to suspend belief, judgment, or critique for a moment, and to enjoy a fantasy. The dream he projects is one in which the universe steps in to correct the mistakes of bumbling clerks, electees, officials, judges, rogues, criminals, idiots, and whole seas of unchecked corruption. It is a cosmos that permits the laws of nature to be suspended – the very definition of supernaturalism – in order that justice and right might be served. The tale is a relative of “The Lawyer and the Ghost” in that it uses a preternatural experience to highlight a foible of natural life. Like the ghost who is more socially mobile after death and the poor wretch who envies him, the specter in the courtroom corrects for the stupidity of the jury, the idiocy of the jurists, and the corruption of the witnesses. And eventually our narrator joins the spirit, appearing himself at the criminal’s bedside. What Dickens suggests here is that we have the ability to do what the ghost does – to rise above our bumbling, mortal situation and interfere with the status quo. After all, not only did his specter divert the course of events, but the living narrator acted in them, too, presaging the criminal’s doom and making intellectual decisions which lead to that turn of events. Otherwise, the only suspect – and the favorite of the papers – would have escaped without paying so much as a fine. But Dickens warns us – take it with a dash of realism, because far too often a situation like this is without guiding spirits, without moral inference, without mindful justice, and without hope. As a brief aside, this tale was a tremendous influence to M. R. James, who adored Dickens (“Count Magnus,” “A Warning to the Curious,” “Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance,” and “Casting the Runes,” include wry nods to the tale, but it is “Martin’s Close” that is its unmistakable descendent) and to Le Fanu, whose “Mr Justice Harbottle” contains more than one clear reference to Dickens’ story.

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