Edith Nesbit's The Mystery of the Semi-Detached: A Two-Minute Summary and Analysis
Nesbit mastered the late Victorian clairvoyant tale, and this very short sketch – almost flash fiction – is an underappreciated jewel of her work. Her stories featured calamity reaching out of the invisible world, afflicting completely innocent persons. Most Victorian tales of this genre – the clairvoyant dream – result in prevention and avoidance (Riddell’s “Forewarned, Forearmed” is a fine example). While the vision is partially avoided, it proves fateful, challenging Victorians’ optimism and trust in the power of will and industry. Apparently based on Rhoda Broughton’s dreary, pessimistic (and horrendously gory) clairvoyant story, “Behold, it was a Dream!,” it offers a glimpse into a misanthropic and incomprehensible cosmos – hostile and cruelly indifferent to the efforts of human diligence. This report is called “The Mystery of the Semi-Detached,” and it is no misnomer because unanswered questions and unoffered explanation fuel the heat of the revulsion this sketch engenders. Grim, cynical, and inexplicable, the vision of the semi-detached is perhaps more atrocious to the unwitting, helpless seer than to its slaughtered victim.
The story starts like this: 'He was waiting for her, he had been waiting an hour and a half in a dusty suburban lane, with a row of big elms on one side and some eligible building sites on the other-and far away to the south-west the twinkling yellow lights of the Crystal Palace. It was not quite like a country lane, for it had a pavement and lamp-posts, but it was not a bad place for a meeting all the same: and farther up, towards the cemetery, it was really quite rural, and almost pretty, especially in twilight But twilight had long deepened into the night, and still he waited. He loved her, and he was engaged to be married to her, with the complete disapproval of every reasonable person who had been consulted. And this half-clandestine meeting was tonight to take the place of the grudgingly sanctioned weekly interview-because a certain rich uncle was visiting at her house, and her mother was not the woman to acknowledge to a moneyed uncle, who might "go off" any day, a match so deeply ineligible as hers with him.'
So our young lover is loitering in the ghostly London fog, waiting for her to return, presumably for a Victorian booty call. He is perplexed when she fails to arrive, but decides to head home as twilight deepens around him. In the gloom of dusk, he walks past her semi-detached apartment, and wonders if she's still at home. The lights are out, the windows dark, and -- he suddenly realizes with concern -- the door is wide open. Now starting to grow concerned, he enters the dark, cavernous hallway and looks around the rooms: there's no sign of life. He climbs the stairs and checks her bedroom (with some air of familiarity), and strikes a match to break through the thickening murk: "Even as he did so he felt that he was not alone. And he was prepared to see something but for what he saw he was not prepared. For what he saw lay on the bed, in a white loose gown-and it was his sweetheart, and its throat was cut from ear to ear. He doesn't know what happened then, nor how he got downstairs and into the street; but he got out somehow, and the policeman found him in a fit, under the lamp-post at the corner of the street He couldn't speak when they picked him up, and he passed the night in the police cells, because the policeman had seen plenty of drunken men before, but never one in a fit."
The copper follows the hysterical man into the house and up the stairs. Shining his bulls-eye lantern around, they see no sign of blood or a ravished body, and the policeman laughs him off as either a drunk, a prankster, or a lunatic. In fact, the next morning he finds her safe and sound, if somewhat confused by his nervousness. He hides the details of what he saw from her, but explains enough that he is capable of convincing her and her mother to move out of the semi-detached -- which he can only think of with horror now. The only detail of his vision that he can't quite make out is the date on an almanac that he briefly saw in her room: even though it was a May night, the almanac read "October 21." Thoroughly shaken by his experience, and reformed by his concern for her safety, he marries her like a respectable gent, and the two settle into a snug, quiet suburb miles away from the hateful apartment of his vision.
Not long after he asks around to see if the apartment has been let, and when he learns that a stockbroker with a family has taken it, he looks the man up and begs him to reconsider. The rich man laughs at his concern and shoos him away, but the young newlywed is persecuted by nightmares and anxieties surrounding the gloomy building. Some months later, on the morning of October 22, his wife found him sitting in a trembling stupor, reading the morning paper. She tries to get him to speak, but he is too shocked: he can only direct her to an article about the murder of the stockbroker's pretty, young daughter, who was found that morning with her throat sliced open in the dusky bedroom of the semi-detached.
A brief sketch in horror (terror takes the back seat in this nightmarish episode), Nesbit’s story begins with an emotional atmosphere in an unlikely setting. Bourgeois, posh, and refined, the neighborhood is nonetheless crawling with unease. The policeman’s brusque salute, the fog-polluted avenues, and the protagonist’s brooding mind introduce us to an impressionistic landscape of doom. Little time passes before the young man casually enters the gaping door and stumbles on the gore-drenched vision. The mechanics of the vision are never explained: who was the murderer, why did the vision appear to the young fellow, and why was the butchery and inevitability? Nesbit is not concerned with explaining the supernatural engineering to her story, but with the emotional trauma of the young man and the cruel unflappability of fate. Powerless to prevent the murder – one with definite overtones of sexual violence – he is deflated from a reckless playboy to a shaken phantom of his former self. Formerly engaged in a sexually scandalous relationship (familiar with his lover’s bedroom and resistant to the “complete disapproval of every reasonable person who had been consulted”) the protagonist is shocked into adopting a safe and settled lifestyle of cautious marriage. The power of a single episode of horror to utterly transform a man’s spirit is the heart of Nesbit’s cynical meditation.
You can read the original story HERE!
And you can find our annotated and illustrated collection of Nesbit's best horror stories HERE!