"The Diary of Mr. Poynter"
from A Thin Ghost and Others
by M. R. James
This short collection of ghost stories was published in 1919. I'm blogging about them "as I go".
A fabric sample fallen out of an old diary seems like "just the thing" for some new curtains and inspires a man to have the pattern reproduced-- but there's something sinister in those sinuous lines... A.k.a. "The Legend of the Pernicious Print"-- or "The Tale of the Creepy Curtains"-- or "How Old Is Cousin Itt, Anyway?" ;o)
It's not one of my favorite ghost stories by this author, but not at all bad. However, I did find the creepy moment perhaps a little too brief to justify the long build-up. Also, the "explanation" didn't explain much-- but I'm used to that.
-- "It may be a disappointment to you to learn that Rendcomb Manor was new; that I cannot help." Yes, a great disappointment. What kind of ghost story takes place in a new house, darnit?!
-- "I am glad to say that all that was most valuable in it [the burnt house] had been saved, and that it was fully insured." I suppose we, the Readers, are supposed to be antiquarians, ourselves, and therefore very concerned about any valuable antiques that might have been destroyed in the fire. The mention of insurance is also a nice touch. This will clearly be a completely logical, everyday sort of ghost story. There will be nothing bizarre, like a hair-ghost that is carried through the medium of a fabric pattern design. Nope. No siree!
-- Mr. Denton's aunt, upon seeing his "new old" books-- the very ones that he bid on when he was supposed to be researching chintzes (the nerve!): "Disgusting. What did you give for them, I should like to know? Over Ten Pounds? James, it is really sinful. Well, if you have money to throw away on this kind of thing, there can be no reason why you should not subscribe-- and subscribe handsomely-- to my anti-Vivisection League."
-- The comic-relief tradesman who agrees to reproduce the printed fabric for the curtains: "I quite understand your wish to keep it exclusive: lends it a catchit, does it not, to the suite?"
-- And then the artist's suggestion that there's something sinister about the design... (What? You mean that perfectly harmless design that is reminiscent of human hair may not be good and wholesome? Shame on you, sir! There's nothing creepy about it-- at all!)-- The creepiest moment of them all: "Then he dozed, and then he woke, and bethought himself that his brown spaniel, which ordinarily slept in his room, had not come
upstairs with him. Then he thought he was mistaken: for happening to
move his hand which hung down over the arm of the chair within a few
inches of the floor, he felt on the back of it just the slightest touch
of a surface of hair, and stretching it out in that direction he stroked
and patted a rounded something. But the feel of it, and still more the
fact that instead of a responsive movement, absolute stillness greeted
his touch, made him look over the arm. What he had been touching rose to
meet him. It was in the attitude of one that had crept along the floor on its belly, and it was, so far as could be collected, a human figure. But of the face which was now rising to within a few inches of his own no feature was discernible, only hair. Shapeless as it was, there was about it so horrible an air of menace that as he bounded from his chair and rushed from the room he heard himself moaning with fear: and doubtless he did right to fly."
-- The door in the middle of the "long passage"--
intended to cut down on noise and a draught-- is perhaps
unintentionally creepy. In and of itself, I mean. Obviously it's meant
to hold Denton up long enough for the hair-ghost to catch up to him and touch his back, which is certainly shudder-worthy. But even the door itself, in such an odd place, is unsettling. I don't know why, exactly, but if a long corridor is a little
creepy, a long corridor bisected with a door seems even creepier.
-- I happened upon an interesting blog review of the story that reminded me that while hair seems like an odd choice for an apparition, by Western standards, it's not quite so rare in Asia. Think back to the use/importance of hair in some of the recent remakes of Asian horror films-- The Grudge and Dark Water, for instance. Of course, the West has contributed Cousin Itt...