"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

On "Man-size in Marble" by Edith Nesbit (1886)

In the moments detailed below Nesbit gives us the heights of excruciating suspense as the story moves from thickening* to revel**.

This procedure recalls a point made by Jack Sullivan in his superb study Elegant Nightmares, that "terror and suspense grow not out of shock and surprise, but out of thickening inevitability."

I strolled out of the front door, leaving it unlatched. What a night it was! The jagged masses of heavy dark cloud were rolling at intervals from horizon to horizon, and thin white wreaths covered the stars. Through all the rush of the cloud river, the moon swam, breasting the waves and disappearing again in the darkness. When now and again her light reached the woodlands they seemed to be slowly and noiselessly waving in time to the swing of the clouds above them. There was a strange grey light over all the earth; the fields had that shadowy bloom over them which only comes from the marriage of dew and moonshine, or frost and starlight.

I walked up and down, drinking in the beauty of the quiet earth and the changing sky. The night was absolutely silent. Nothing seemed to be abroad. There was no skurrying of rabbits, or twitter of the half-asleep birds. And though the clouds went sailing across the sky, the wind that drove them never came low enough to rustle the dead leaves in the woodland paths. Across the meadows I could see the church tower standing out black and grey against the sky. I walked there thinking over our three months of happiness--and of my wife, her dear eyes, her loving ways. Oh, my little girl! my own little girl; what a vision came then of a long, glad life for you and me together!

I heard a bell-beat from the church. Eleven already! I turned to go in, but the night held me. I could not go back into our little warm rooms yet. I would go up to the church. I felt vaguely that it would be good to carry my love and thankfulness to the sanctuary whither so many loads of sorrow and gladness had been borne by the men and women of the dead years.

I looked in at the low window as I went by. Laura was half lying on her chair in front of the fire. I could not see her face, only her little head showed dark against the pale blue wall. She was quite still. Asleep, no doubt. My heart reached out to her, as I went on. There must be a God, I thought, and a God who was good. How otherwise could anything so sweet and dear as she have ever been imagined?

I walked slowly along the edge of the wood. A sound broke the stillness of the night, it was a rustling in the wood. I stopped and listened. The sound stopped too. I went on, and now distinctly heard another step than mine answer mine like an echo. It was a poacher or a wood-stealer, most likely, for these were not unknown in our Arcadian neighbourhood. But whoever it was, he was a fool not to step more lightly. I turned into the wood, and now the footstep seemed to come from the path I had just left. It must be an echo, I thought. The wood looked perfect in the moonlight. The large dying ferns and the brushwood showed where through thinning foliage the pale light came down. The tree trunks stood up like Gothic columns all around me. They reminded me of the church, and I turned into the bier-balk, and passed through the corpse-gate between the graves to the low porch. I paused for a moment on the stone seat where Laura and I had watched the fading landscape. Then I noticed that the door of the church was open, and I blamed myself for having left it unlatched the other night. We were the only people who ever cared to come to the church except on Sundays, and I was vexed to think that through our carelessness the damp autumn airs had had a chance of getting in and injuring the old fabric. I went in. It will seem strange, perhaps, that I should have gone half-way up the aisle before I remembered--with a sudden chill, followed by as sudden a rush of self-contempt--that this was the very day and hour when, according to tradition, the "shapes drawed out man-size in marble" began to walk.

Having thus remembered the legend, and remembered it with a shiver, of which I was ashamed, I could not do otherwise than walk up towards the altar, just to look at the figures--as I said to myself; really what I wanted was to assure myself, first, that I did not believe the legend, and, secondly, that it was not true. I was rather glad that I had come. I thought now I could tell Mrs. Dorman how vain her fancies were, and how peacefully the marble figures slept on through the ghastly hour. With my hands in my pockets I passed up the aisle. In the grey dim light the eastern end of the church looked larger than usual, and the arches above the two tombs looked larger too. The moon came out and showed me the reason. I stopped short, my heart gave a leap that nearly choked me, and then sank sickeningly.

The "bodies drawed out man-size" were gone, and their marble slabs lay wide and bare in the vague moonlight that slanted through the east window.

"Man-size in Marble" by Edith Nesbit

*     *     *


Thickening begins after the uncanny afflatus of SIGHTING begins to fade, and the future adumbrated in the terrorizing flash of Sighting begins to come true. In the prescriptive four-seasons model of the narrative structure of HORROR which governs most of the entries in this lexicon, THICKENING comes second: the full model comprises Sighting, Thickening, REVEL and AFTERMATH ; the moment of Sighting may be conveyed in a sentence, but the process of Thickening normally occupies most of any text being considered. Thickening, taken alone, can of course be thought of as simply another way of pointing to the kind of plot-complicating common to much fiction; but even here, if Thickening is focused on deeply, an effect similar to that of Horror - unresolved Horror - may be felt: the greatest novel focused on Thickening alone may be Samuel Richardson's Clarissa; Or, the History of a Young Lady: Comprehending the Most Important Concerns of Private Life (1748), a tale of extraordinary and suffocating intensity (but whose subtitle marks it off from Horror as understood here).

Stay, John Clute P. 231

**REVEL Revel is both a noun and a verb. As a noun it describes a formal event bound in time and place, an event in which the field of the world is reversed: good becomes evil; parody becomes jurisprudence; the jester is king; Hyde lives; autumn is the growing season. As a verb, Revel refers to actions which create and animate such an event, actions of telling which catch revelation on the wing; it also points to the subversive nature of story itself: because, as it is being told , every story about the world threatens to transport us out of our previous understanding of the world. In this lexicon, therefore, Revel as noun and verb represents the third of four successive stages - SIGHTING, THICKENING, Revel and AFTERMATH - that describe those works of HORROR which seem most completely to exhaust the potentials of the form. Revel comes after the thickening rind of appearances is peeled away at last, when the truth of things glares through the peeled MASQUE or DANSE MACABRE ; and resolves into the exhausted latency of AFTERMATH.

Stay, John Clute. P. 222

Terminology from The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror by John Clute. I am using the version in Clute's 2014 ebook collection Stay.


31 March 2021

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