There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

If the monstrous can paralyse, it also can affront: The Doll by Algernon Blackwood

"The Doll" originally published in
The Doll and One Other (1946, Arkham House).

"The Doll" by Algernon Blackwood begins thus:

Some nights are merely dark, others are dark in a suggestive way as though something ominous, mysterious, is going to happen. In certain remote outlying suburbs, at any rate, this seems true, where great spaces between the lamps go dead at night, where little happens, where a ring at the door is a summons almost, and people cry "Let's go to town!" In the villa gardens the mangy cedars sigh in the wind, but the hedges stiffen, there is a muffling of spontaneous activity....

And ends thus:

....Thus in the suburbs, where great spaces between the lamps go dead at night, where the moist wind comes whispering through the mournful branches of the silver pines, where nothing happens and people cry "Let's go to town!" there are occasional stirrings among the dead dry bones that hide behind villa walls. . .

And in between? A bald recitation of the plot of this colonial revenge drama would make it sound ridiculous. But it's the telling, not the tale, that counts in this story; Blackwood's organizational skills are working at their peak here.

As with "The Trog," testimonies of servants are at the heart of the mystery. A package arrives at the home of Colonel Hymber Masters. The cook accepts it, reports the incident to the maid before she speaks to the Colonel. The Colonel wants nothing to do with the package; when the servants discover it contains a child's doll, it ends up in the hands of the Colonel's daughter.

The Colonel himself is a cold and threatening presence to his servants.

....He's afraid of something — ever since I been here I've known that. And that's wot it was. He done somebody wrong in India long ago and that lanky nigger brought wot's coming to him, and that's why I says I put it on the stove — see?" She dropped her voice. "It was a bloody idol," she whispered, "that's wot it was, that parcel, and he — why, he's a bloody secret worshipper." And she crossed herself. "That's why I said I put on the stove — see?"

....a "disappointed" man, a man whose fate forced him to live in surroundings he detested, disappointed in his career probably, possibly in love as well, Monica a love-child doubtless, and limited by his pension to face daily conditions that he loathed....

The Colonel's love for his young, lonely daughter is the only reason the servants remain.

Monica's governess, the indomitable Madame Jodzka, is the first to notice something amiss.

"....The child's talking to herself in sleep," she whispered firmly, "and that's all it is, Mrs. O'Reilly. She's just talking in her sleep," she repeated with emphasis to the woman crowding against her shoulder as though in need of support.

"Can't you hear it," she added loudly, half angrily, "isn't it the same voice always? Listen carefully and you'll see I'm right."

She listened herself more closely than before.

"Listen! Hark . . . !" she repeated in a breathless whisper, concentrating her mind upon the curious sound, "isn't that the same voice — answering itself?"

....A child with her doll, reflected Madame Jodzka, is an epitome of nature's remorseless and unconquerable passion, of her dominant purpose — the survival of the race. . . .

....After staring for some seconds, she then saw that it was not merely an "object," since it had a living outline, nor was it rolling mechanically, or sliding, as she had first imagined. It was horribly taking steps, small but quite deliberate steps as though alive. It had a tiny, dreadful face, it had an expressionless tiny face, and the face had eyes — small, brightly shining eyes, and the eyes looked straight at Madame Jodzka.

Madame Jodzka retreats from the house, then returns. She admires the Colonel and loves his daughter.

....Once again, this effect of a mere child's toy, aping the life of some awful monstrosity with purpose and passion in its hideous tiny outline, brought collapse to the plucky Polish governess. The rush of blood without control drained her heart, and a moment of unconsciousness supervened so that everything, as it were, turned black.

The Colonel finally comes to grips with the doll; only he understands its significance.

....Colonel Masters seemed to stiffen; his breath caught oddly. "You say Monica has it? Plays with it? You've seen movement and heard sounds like syllables?" He asked the questions in a low voice, almost as though talking to himself. You've — listened?" he whispered.

"....It's what I've always feared — I knew it must come some day — yet not like this. Not this way."

"I must go in, go in," he was mumbling to himself. "I must go in and face it." Her intuition was justified: the danger was not for Monica but for himself. Her sudden protective maternal instinct found its explanation too. The lethal power concentrated in that hideous puppet was aimed at him. He began to edge impetuously past her.

....Never before in [Madame Jodzka's] whole life had she admired a man more than in this instant when she saw him moving towards what she knew to be physical and spiritual danger — never before, and never again, was such a hideous and dreadful sight....

Colonel Masters pays the price for whatever colonial crime he committed in India.

The strength of the story's characters,  Madame Jodzka and Colonel Masters, is nothing compared to the strength of the spine Blackwood gives this tale. This sums it up his method very well:

....That so strange a case should come to us at second hand is, admittedly, a pity; that so much of the information should reach us largely through a cook and housemaid and through a foreigner of questionable validity, is equally unfortunate. Where precisely the reported facts creep across the feathery frontier into the incredible and thence into the fantastic would need the spider's thread of the big telescopes to define. With the eye to the telescope, the thread of that New Zealand spider seems thick as a rope; but with the eye examining second-hand reports the thread becomes elusive gossamer....

11 March 2018

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