A rictus grin (known in medicine as a risus sardonicus) is a chilling postmortem phenomenon that leaves a corpse with a toothy smile during the early stages of decomposition. This is usually caused by tetanus or a neurotoxin, which cause the facial muscles to sustain a spasm, raising the eyebrows – as if in hilarious astonishment – and drawing the lips and cheeks back in an expression of manic humor. While the eponymous smirk of the following story may have a more supernatural than medical source, it’s almost certain that Crawford was influenced by reports of the rictus (before the proliferation of antibiotics, lockjaw and death from tetanus were far more common in all strata of society).
“The Dead Smile” is one of Crawford’s finest horror stories – one of the Big Five – and remains a frequently anthologized tale. A masterpiece of the gothic, if somewhat sentimental, the story takes its cue from Poe and Hawthorne (particularly Poe’s “Berenice” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Hawthorne’s “The House of the Seven Gables”) who frequently pondered hereditary guilt and the conflict between free will and destiny.
Poe’s “Berenice” follows a manic-depressive man’s morbid obsession with his beautiful cousin’s teeth (famously slow boiling up to a brutal finale scorched by necrophilia, live burial, and dental mutilation), which used the motif of teeth to symbolize the touch-point between physical lust and spiritual adoration. In the following story, Crawford employs the toothy smile as a symbol of carnality, hate, and evil. Hawthorne’s “House of Seven Gables” (itself influenced by Poe’s “Usher,” which – like all four stories – involves a degenerate family plagued by a curse) involves a love story tremendously similar to the one in “The Dead Smile.”
Sir Hugh Ockram is dying, and when he dies he is going to hell. A notorious libertine who ruined women and left misery in his wake, he is laying on his death bed with the smug sneer of an unrepentant sinner on his face. His hundred-year old nurse considers him with horror as she watches him wheezing on the bed, his yellow, parchment-like face contorted in evil. Attending him also are his niece, Evelyn, and his son, Gabriel, who have come to ask for his blessing in their coming nuptials. Bitter and warped to the end, Sir Hugh cynically notes that his blessing doesn’t matter, but that there is a very good reason why they shouldn’t marry – a reason he refuses to reveal. He falls asleep and the lovers go outside to ponder the meaning of Sir Hugh’s secret. Below their feet are the corpses of generations of debauched Ockrams, and Gabriel hopes that he hasn’t inherited their wickedness. He relates the story of one ancestor who was beheaded, and whose head had a way of rolling out of its coffin and being found warped with a smile much like Sir Hugh’s – a smile which has twisted the faces of all dead Ockrams since then.
Inside, as it grows dark, the sleepy nurse thinks that she sees a woman appearing at the window – a woman who looks like Evelyn – with blood smeared on her cold, dead lips. The phantom suddenly bares its fangs and shrieks a blood-curdling wail. The nurse supposes it to be a dream, but when the maid comments that she also saw the figure (and remarks on its similarity to Evelyn), the nurse decides that it was the family banshee and shivers in fear. She goes to Sir Hugh’s bedside and begs him to reveal his secret, in the name of the women he has broken: his shocked mother, his heartbroken wife, and his abandoned mistress.
Unconcerned with his eternal destination, he rebuffs her, smiling dastardly. Suddenly, Evelyn glances outside and sees her bloodied, dead-faced doppelganger and shrieks. Sir Hugh dies with his face contorted in this evil grin, and Evelyn feels a similar smile forming on her own face in spite of her efforts. Terrified by these forebodings of evil, the couple depart the death chamber troubled and afraid. Sir Hugh is carried down to the vault, still stricken with his grin, and the servants who carried him refuse to look at one another: each are sporting an involuntary rictus which doesn’t fade until they have left the vault.
That Christmas Gabriel and Evelyn host a party heralding their approaching wedding, but a strange pall of gloom darkens everything. Then, when the party rise for a toast, gasps and cries ring out through the hall: each person’s face is twisted by a macabre smile which they can’t repress. Their guests panic and leave the couple alone with their smiles, incapable of looking at one another. Both find themselves drawn to the arid vault where they have a deep urge to see Sir Hugh’s face once again.
One night, troubled to the point of madness, Gabriel creeps down to the vault to look at his six-month’s-dead father. As he walks through halls, down stairs, and into the dark and mustiness of the vault, he represses a smile on his own lips and searches for his father’s coffin, and pulls back his decay-darkened shroud. Horribly decomposed, Sir Hugh’s face is still wrung with a hateful smile, but Gabriel is drawn to something clenched in his rotting fingers: a packet
The packet contains his secret, and it is not so much a confession as a boast: Evelyn’s mother, sister to Sir Hugh’s wife, had been married to one of Sir Hugh’s comrades in the British Army, who died in combat. Sir Hugh invited her to live with him, seduced her, impregnated her, and rejected his wife who died of shame and misery. Shortly after Evelyn was born, he did the same to her mother and raised the child as his niece. His desire was to see his son marry his half-sister in order to torment the two women – his dead wife and sister-in-law – for eternity, and he wrote the account of his actions in hopes that one day the children would learn of their incest, that they would keep it a secret to spare their inbred children, and that their shame would ruin their love.
Learning this, Gabriel is grateful that they have delayed the wedding. He looks up and sees Sir Hugh’s rotten jaw relax and fall open – his smile faded. Suddenly he notices someone behind him: Evelyn had followed him and was reading over his shoulder. For a moment they stare at each other, then they embrace -- sadly but gratefully -- as siblings.
Redolent with gothic tropes and clichés – including banshees, incest, star-crossed lovers, haunted family vaults, hereditary evil, wicked patriarchs, doomed romance, family ghosts, and ancestral secrets – “The Dead Smile” reads very much like a novel by Mrs. Radcliffe or “Monk” Lewis. Its luscious Gothicism presages the lurid Vincent Price movies of Roger Corman (“The House of Usher,” “Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Premature Burial,” etc.), whose plots eagerly indulged in secret identities, family crypts, hereditary curses, ancestral ghosts, forbidden lust and the like. “The Dead Smile” clearly delves into the supernatural without making it unequivocally obvious – a masterful touch – using suggestion to force the reader to interpret the more sensational events.
The banshee, moving skull, standing corpse, haunting grins, and all the coincidences that knit them together in a sinister web seem genuine at face value, but are almost entirely vulnerable to skeptical inquiry: the banshee may be a trick of the moonlight or a reflection, the skull and corpse may be moved around by a prankster, and the grins may be nothing more than the hallucinations of mass hysteria. Or perhaps they are exactly what they seem. When the story ends on a happy note, it is almost as those we shake our heads, rub our eyes, and wonder if all of these gothic eccentricities were caused by suggestion and expectation – visions that fade when the curse is broken.
We might wonder if the two lovers strongly suspected their incestuous relationship and subconsciously cast themselves as doomed players in a gothic melodrama. But when the truth is flashed in their faces, they are forced to accept the truth, and as they exchange carnal lust for familial devotion, the supernatural horrors fade away like mist in the morning sun. While the cheery ending might strike us as contrived or unsatisfying, Crawford was toppling the conventional ending of gothic novels which usually involved some form of incest (sometimes a father lusted for his daughter – usually unaware of their relationship – or a brother desired his sister or a son bedded his mother) which incontrovertibly led to death, suicide, and madness.
By having his lovers survive this traditional ordeal, Crawford was not only bucking the trope, but making a bid for the power of rationality and logic: Sir Gabriel and Evelyn are not struck blind, driven to madness, or pushed into a murder suicide for their innocent indiscretion – they shake it off, roll their shoulders, hug, and move onward. A hereditary flaw can be rejected by willpower; the sins of the father can be absolved by the resolve of the son. Racism, misogyny, homophobia, hate, small-mindedness, and ignorance need not be passed on mindlessly from generation to generation with a shrug of the shoulders and an appeal to predestination – agency is power and determination is destiny.