Episode 4: Bewitched by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton, nee Jones, (born New York 1862, died aged 75 in France) was a famous American novelist. Her nickname interestingly was Pussy Jones. She was very high society and was a debutante and socialite. She was also a very good writer.

Wharton wrote best-sellers such as The Age of Innocence, which won the 1921 Pulitzer prize, and Ethan Frome. She also wrote short stories, and among those short stories were several ghost stories.

I think the first scene shows Wharton’s mastery of her art. She introduces the three ordinary, taciturn men who are summoned without knowing why to the house of stern mrs Rutledge. She sets the scene: it’s an isolated, rural area with primitive customs. Even more isolated at this time of the year because of the snow. Then she introduces the issue of her husband dilly-dallying with a revenant to much consternation and anger. The first scene ends with the dramatic entry of Mr Rutledge, who has precious little to say for himself. The characters are so well drawn and we end with a promise.

The themes of rural isolation and old customs held by primitive folk is echoed throughout the later weird literature with Lovecraft making judicious use of it in the same New England, and then the Folk Horror films of the 1970s do the same in rural Old England (and Scotland for The Wicker Man). We see the same theme of rurality and superstitious ancient customs in this year’s folk horror movie Midsommar, set in Sweden.

And then the party breaks up. By chance they go to the scene of the haunting earlier than planned. There, Brand shoots someone in the ruined house (another trope). They’ve seen footprints on the snow both too light to be human and the snow too cold to be borne by a living person, so that seems to set up the ghost as real. But who does Brand shoot?

Then the ghost’s sister dies. Did Brand shoot his own daughter? If he did, then this is no ghost story, but presumably the Rutledge’s knew the difference between the dead and living daughter? Unless old Saul Rutledge is just an old dog and knows fine well that the flesh he’s enjoying is warm and alive but it suits him to portray it as a haunting…

I don’t know. After the funeral, Mrs Rutledge’s plain ordinary words seal the community as a coming back to their plan old ordinary ways, the “forbidden things” as the Deacon repeats, put away (but not forgotten)

Next week, I think I’m going to do Lovecraft’s Dagon, though I am being pulled towards Le Fanu’s Carmilla, which is quite long and would need a couple of episodes.

We shall see.

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