In the play Hamlet, Hamlet’s father’s ghost tells the young prince “But that I am forbid/To tell the secrets of my prison-house,/I could a tale unfold whose lightest word/Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,/Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres,/Thy knotted and combined locks to part,/And each particular hair to stand an end,/Like quills upon the fearful porpentine.” This is, of course, what every good Halloween story tries to do, and so today I’m going to put before you, readers, a supposititious summary of a tale and see if you think you might like to read it. If so, then I can tell you where to find it. Here goes:
Picture a tale in which the characters range from extreme youth to old age, and in which a highly imaginative and susceptible child is sometimes treated like a mere encumbrance and even worse, locked up in fearsome places by itself without food or water, where a ghost is thought to roam. Feature strange lights coming and going in this place, which the child cannot translate into any portion of its known experience. Imagine next that this child tries to escape this punishing system, only to be put in another wherein children are treated as a matter of course in somewhat the same way by some adults, receiving random kindnesses from other adults, but with no asssurance that this kindness will be available when most necessary, due to the interference of more powerful adults who are mean and petty. Next, figure to yourself (as the French say) that the child’s best friend dies of a lingering and contagious illness, and that many of the other children around are stricken with another illness due to bad sanitation and poor victuals. But if the central child of the tale died at this point, the story couldn’t continue, so you must allow in your imagination for the child’s survival.
Say that we are given some improvements to the main character’s state to up the ante, and then the character begins again to experience more mysterious events, such as hearing dragging sounds, animals snarls, and strange unholy laughter in the nighttime as she is trying to sleep. The child is now a young adult, and is sharing an old and seemingly haunted manor house with another child, servants who are friendly but keep close-mouthed about the nighttime disturbances, and a saturnine, ironical, and equally mysterious male owner, who deceives her about the sum total of the house’s occupants.
Think next about what the main character experiences when the male owner seems to be responsible for a frightening fire in the middle of the night, and when bedroom doors must be locked at night to prevent strange and unknown dangers from approaching. And of course we have a seemingly happy interlude to take us off our guard: guests come to the house, there is festivity and enjoyment, and we unwisely relax and think things are improving. But then, an ancient and gnarled Gypsy woman appears, who, though she predicts eventual happiness for the central character, is not equally as generous in her predictions towards all the party. And that very same night, there are blood-curdling screams in the night, animal growls, and one of the guests is stabbed; it would seem to be time for the house’s owner, something like an animal himself in some particulars of appearance, to be more forthcoming with the protagonist, yet his responses to what has happened are still dark and quizzical, and he only is able to satisfy her fears and curiosity in part.
Now participate in the vision of the protagonist agreeing to marry the owner, only to find at the inception of her new relationship that her own clothes have been vandalized by a hideous vision who wakes her in the night, having somehow gained entrance to her sleeping chamber. The owner tells her that she must have imagined it, or that it is a servant, and yet this only temporarily solves the manifold problems, one of which is that for some time past, all the frightening incidents in the night and mysteries in the day have caused the main character to have nightmares about crying infants whom it’s impossible to soothe. With short surcease for joy, the prospective marital pair approach the altar, where the ceremony is stopped and the protagonist finds out that a madwoman locked in the attic of the old manor is not only the source of all the chaos in the house, but that the lunatic is also the homicidal first wife of the erstwhile bridegroom, and is still living!
Is this sounding strangely familiar? By now it should–it’s the story, re-told with a slight emphasis on its fantastical and seemingly supernatural side, of Charlotte Brontë’s famous novel Jane Eyre. The rest of the novel focuses, as you may already know, on the year Jane spends apart from her male lead, Mr. Rochester, her receipt of another proposal from someone she cannot bring herself to love, and her eventual return to the old manor house, Thornfield, when she learns that the mad wife is dead, having burned the house to the ground and incidentally maimed Mr. Rochester in the process. There is only one real supernatural feature of this portion of the novel, and that occurs just before Jane returns, when she is thinking about whether or not to marry “the other guy,” and has a sort of auditory hallucination of Mr. Rochester calling out to her in grief and misery. It is later when she sees him again that she hears from his own lips that he was in fact calling out to her that very night at that time. And then, of course, we have our requisite moderately happy ending, charming and no doubt satisfying to Charlotte Brontë in its moral aspects (which I have largely suppressed in order to make the point that this novel resembles a standard Gothic in many of its characteristics).
So there you have it: a good, suspenseful read for Halloween, which neither neglects the necessary chill in the blood nor disallows that a woman may love a man whom both the more squeamish moralist and the self-appointed judge of male beauty might scorn, a sort of precursor to the love of “monsters” in contemporary horror cult classics. Why did I deceive you and say “picture this tale”? Because this novel first reached me (when I was nine or ten) in the Classics Illustrated comic book edition, my generation’s version of the graphic novel. This post represents my third time through the “real thing.” Now, it’s your turn to have another look at this “bootiful” novel.