The general way that these stories are structured is as follows: a heinous murder, a tragic death, or an unexpected demise causes someone to be buried unceremoniously or in conditions against their wishes. Over time, shocking screams are heard from the vicinity of the grave, leading to its exhumation and study. Some fool decides to take the skull home with him, and while the community is spared the ordeal, his trial is just about to begin. The Bettiscombe subject is explicitly what inspired Crawford to write this story – a story which was loosely adapted into an eponymous film in 1958. This skull, still in possession of the house, was said to be the capo of a 17th century Afro-Caribbean slave who died unexpectedly while his master was visiting England. He warned the old boy not to leave him in foreign soil, but – as you can imagine – the Englishman scoffed at the idea of packing the corpse in salt and shipping it back to Jamaica.
Piercing screams soon emanated from the grave, and the skeletal remains were eventually exhumed. For some reason they were simply brought to the Englishman’s manor house (without attempting to repatriate them). Eventually all the bones had disappeared (taken as objects of curiosity), except for the skull, which was put on morbid display. Legend claims that the bleached remnant still raises a roucus in the middle of the night – protesting his continued bondage. Unfortunately for romantics, scientists in the 1960s determined that the skull belonged to a 20-something white woman (although – and especially after reading this story – that raises a whole budget of additional questions and sinister implications: “Oh that skull on the mantle? Yes, that belonged to my black slave who is not legally a full person and who wasn’t even a Christian – NOT my missing flirt of a wife who is said to have run off with my bastard of a brother… Quaint i’n’t it?”). Crawford’s rendition of the legend follows a very similar program, and has been – as I mentioned – adapted to screen once as a feature film, several times as shorts, and frequently as a radio drama.
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 -- a retired sea captain with a piratical vibe -- 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. The old captain tells his visitor – on a dark and stormy night – of how he inadvertently gave a friend the idea of killing his wife (a miserable woman who had lost two teeth from her lower jaw) 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.
In a plot that closely resembles "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Fall of the House of Usher," our eccentric protagonist leads us through a story of bitterness, deceit, and rage, as a storm rages outside and the fire snaps before him and his curiously quiet guest. The two men spend the tempestuous night drinking heavily and unraveling the story of the host's wife's disappearance, the discovery of a skull which had been buried outside, and the bizarre events surrounding its restoration to the house. When the lights are snuffed by the crashing storm, the two men find themselves terrorized by a shrieking skull with a long-repressed bloodlust. His terrified friend -- in classic "House of Usher" style -- flees the brutal lovers' quarrel, and ends the story with a newspaper clipping which describes how the captain was later found with his throat torn out. The tooth marks, medical men queasily confirm, belong to a human being -- with two teeth missing from the lower jaw.
Like “The Upper Berth,” “The Screaming Skull” is not revolutionary in its plot (Crawford owns to it openly enough with his unnecessary – even anticlimactic – note which refers back to the Bettiscombe skull). What it does do – like “The Upper Berth” – that has rendered it an immediate and long-lasting classic is generate a slow boil of dread and tension that peaks and troughs throughout the story, building in terror much like the rising tide that Braddock refers his companion to time and time again. The story is an absolute work of art: its attention to realism and dialogue set it apart from many lesser tales of horror, and the direct nature of the first-person narrative (which absorbs the readers as a character) reminds me of some of the most effective modern horror stories I have ever read. In particular – there is no question of this in my mind – H. P. Lovecraft seems to have adopted this intense and powerful voice in stories like “From Beyond” and “The Picture in the House” (both published in 1920) where we are sucked into a tense narrative driven by an unhinged old man whose dialogue (rather than his companion’s observations) tells the story, leaving us feeling exposed and powerless.
This is the writer’s version of filming a scene from the perspective of a character: we yearn for the camera to leave their perspective, to step outside of it, to give us a glimpse behind them, to give us liberty to be omniscient as we are so used to. But Crawford deprives us of the oh so useful perspective of Braddock’s companion, only suggesting his impressions based on Braddock’s comments. Already an unreliable narrator, we must even venture further to wonder if Braddock is even talking to a living person at all (other than the skull biting the listener and drawing blood, there are few proofs that Braddock isn’t lost in a delirium, chattering to a hallucination of a friend who drowned at sea – or his ghost). We might even ask whether we are intended to believe that Braddock was bit to death on the night of the story, after going to bed, and if so, where is the listener? Did he flee the house (like in Lovecraft’s “Picture in the House” or Poe’s “House of Usher”), was he also dispatched by the aggressive skull, or was he not a living being at all? Placing the responsibility for narration in the hands of an unreliable narrator – one who is the sole object of the prose (there are no asides, no breaks in his dialogue, no information made available through alternative sources) was a stroke of genius that has kept this story in print and in horror anthologies for 110 years and on.