Saturday, June 8, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 46: Edith Wharton, Kerfol (#12)

Edith Wharton, "Kerfol" (1916) from Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1911–1937:

I've been looking forward to re-reading this story since I started this life-destroying project over a month ago. "Kerfol" might be the first Story-of-the-Week that I read, as the capsule description hit a sweet spot for me. What can I say, I'm a sucker for ghost-dog stories. (Ghost-dog stories might actually be a significant subgenre of the ghost story. Anyone got any ideas of other ghost animals in stories?)

The last time I read an Edith Wharton story, I noted how closely it resembled a 1950s episode of Suspense! or other similar radio show. This story is an out-and-out ghost story that could easily fit into Weird Tales of the 1930s or a radio show of the 1950s or even an Amazing Stories tv show of the 1980s.

Like many a turn-of-the-century ghost story, there's a frame: the narrator is a visitor to Brittany who goes to see the old manor of Kerfol, where he discovers many silent dogs; after that initial moment of weirdness, his human host smacks his forehead because he forgot that today was the day the ghost dogs come back and to explain the story, the host gives the narrator a big book that explains the story. Only after that frame (see lots of M. R. James and Henry James and even H. G. Wells) we get the main ghost story from the 1600s about a lonely wife whose older husband strangles all her dogs, who then return in ghost form to protect her and kill him.

For personal and argumentative reasons, I love when writers like Wharton get into what's today considered "genre," but was in her time, more-or-less, considered "writing." Hawthorne, Melville, James--all your favorite dead white men wrote stories of ghosts, supernatural events, or unexplainable weirdnesses. And it's even better when these writers do so well, as if they've read and understood works that might not get taught in today's classrooms. Unsurprisingly, Wharton turns in a great strange ghost story. (I say "unsurprisingly" because she's just generally a great author.)

First, as in many of the best ghost stories, the frame carries some thematic weight: while the host tells the visitor that Kerfol would be perfect for such a wanna-be hermit, the narrator protests that, really, "under my unsociable exterior I have always had secret yearnings for domesticity." That question of sociability and domesticity are the cruxes of the husband/wife relationship, which seems domestic, but may actually be pretty unsociable, with the husband not allowing the wife any friends.

The story is shot through with that idea of control--of ownership--of the fungibility between human-animal and animal-animal relationships. (That is, whenever we hear that killing dogs isn't a big deal, the narrator reminds us that some nobles in the 1600s would kill their peasants just as easily.) So the fact that the husband gives gifts to the wife is shown as part of his kindness; but when the same gift is used to strangle a dog, we see how dangerous a gift can be.

Wharton also knows how to build an atmosphere of slight dread, starting from the confused description of the trees leading to Kerfol--"I know most trees by name, but I haven't to this day been able to decide what those trees were"--and building to the strange but non-threatening appearance of the silent dogs in the depopulated manor, who keep coming and coming and doing nothing but watch her. It's a perfect example of taking something familiar and having it act in a non-familiar way to build unease.

And, in the grand tradition of the ambiguous ghost story, we're left with some serious questions here. Not whether or not the ghost dogs were real or just a psychological hiccup, as in James's Turn of the Screw, I think. There's really nothing in the text to make us doubt the dog ghosts haunt Kerfol. What remains ambiguous are the timing and nature of the ghosts. Everyone acts as if there's one day the ghosts come back, but it's unclear what that one day is--the day they killed the husband seems likely, but it's unclear (and there are many other important dates in the story). And, perhaps more important, why do the dogs keep coming back? They've gotten their revenge, their beloved owner is no longer around, so why come back? And why don't the humans in this story come back?

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