Tuesday, September 17, 2013

"Professor Pownall's Oversight"

"Professor Pownall's Oversight"
from They Return at Evening
by H.R. Wakefield

They Return at Evening is a collection of ghost stories by H.R. Wakefield.  It's his first such collection, published in 1928.  I'll be posting reactions to stories individually.


A man who has long suffered under the conviction that his old school rival has and will always best him, despite the rival's comparative mental inferiority, arranges to humiliate him in a chess tournament.  It doesn't go according to plan.  Instead of proving his superior chess skillz, he makes a mistake and realizes he's going to lose to his opponent when the game is continued the next day-- so naturally, to avoid the inevitable, ignominious defeat, he murders his rival that night, wins the tournament by default, and is sent on to an international competition.  Every game of the new tournament is spoiled, though, when the ghost of his old "friend" stands behind his flesh-and-blood opponent and guides his hand to the one perfect move.  Oh well!  C'est la vie!  What's a fellow to do?   He writes extensively on the matches and his brilliant strategies, arranges to have it all published several years into the future, and "disappears" himself.  The End-- or is it?

My Reaction:
Nothing strikes greater fear into the heart of man than... chess.  Or not?  It's an interesting idea-- an epic battle of wills/minds playing itself out repeatedly through time and space--  but as someone who never learned to play chess (and has absolutely zero interest in it), I found the concept of a ghostly chess opponent somewhat dull-- and maybe more amusing than horrific.  Also, the protagonist was so abhorrent that he made the whole story feel unappealing. 

--  "Chess has been the one great love of my life.  Mankind I detest and despise. ... Women do not exist for me-- they are merely variants from a bad model: but for chess, that superb, cold, infinitely satisfying anodyne to life, I feel the ardour of a lover, the humility of a disciple.  Chess, that greatest of all games, greater than any game!  It is, in my opinion, one of the few supreme products of the human intellect, if, as I often doubt, it is of human origin."

...Chess?  Eh... Well, ok, if you say so.  It seems kind of boring to me-- but then again, I am merely a woman, so I hardly even exist.   (Yeah, yeah, I know some people-- women included-- love chess and that I shouldn't really pass judgement until I've at least learned to play... and I enjoy some games... but... I'm sorry, I think I could-- and likely will-- pass through my entire life without feeling the slightest inclination to learn chess.)

--  "If one avoids all contact with women one can live marvelously cheaply:  I am continuously astounded at men's inability to grasp this great and simple truth."

Hm.  That actually reminds me of a specific person... and he seems like the type who might obsess over things like chess... Mr. Chess-Genius, I suspect most men find that the company of a woman is worth more to them than the possibility of living "marvelously cheaply".  Also, not all women are bottomless pits into which bundles of cash need to be endlessly thrown.  (You disgusting pig.)

--  "I feel no remorse.  My destruction of Morisson was an act of common sense and justice.  All his life he had had the rewards which were rightfully mine... If I had known him to be my intellectual superior I would have accepted him as such, and become reconciled, but to be the greater and always to be branded as the inferior eventually becomes intolerable, and justice demands retribution."

--  "I have just destroyed my chessmen and my board, for no one else shall ever touch them.  Tears came into my eyes as I did so.  I never remember this happening before."

--  Clearly, the protagonist suffers/ed from a variety of delightful psychological maladies-- but I can't bring myself to pity him.  Possibly if he felt like a real person-- a human being-- it would be easier to put yourself in his shoes... But it's only a short story, so why bother?  (I'm feeling lazy.)