Perceval Landon is one of those writers remembered for a single story, the ghost story “Thurnley Abbey.” He was a journalist, a close friend of Rudyard Kipling, and travelled the world as a special correspondent for the Daily Mail and The Times. He accompanied Britain’s 1904 invasion of Tibet and wrote a book called The Opening of Tibet. Otto Penzler in his brief bio of Landon for The Big Book of Ghost Stories calls him “powerfully British in his attitudes and judgments,” which is probably a diplomatic way of calling him an enthusiastic imperialist. If so, his attitudes aren’t obvious in “Thurnley Abbey” beyond the assumption that a stint in India is a normal thing for a gentleman to have in his background.
Landon’s fiction was pretty much limited to a 1908 collection called Raw Edges. Apart from reprints of his one famous story it doesn’t seem to be available anywhere.
Generally I think criticism ought to minimize the time it spends summarizing plots. But sometimes working through a summary is the simplest way to pick apart what a story is doing, so that’s how I’ll organize this post. I’ll try to keep the description-to-analysis ratio within reason.
Like a lot of Jamesian ghost stories “Thurnley Abbey” has a framing narrative. The narrator is on his way to India, waiting for his ship to sail, and the prologue captures the feel of a tedious journey: “We slept after luncheon; we dawdled the afternoon away with yellow-backed novels; sometimes we exchanged platitudes in the smoking-room, and it was there that I met Alastair Colvin.”
Colvin is an obvious gentleman–later he gives his club as a reference–and makes “the usual remarks in the right way” but seems preoccupied. After dinner he makes a strange request: he asks to sleep in the narrator’s cabin on the ship. “And he coloured a little as he said it,” says the narrator. That flash of deeper feeling seems out of place in Landon’s polite, orderly prose. Gentlemen exchange pleasantries and platitudes. This puncturing of reserve–admitting weakness to a stranger–just isn’t done.
Colvin explains. His story begins as leisurely as the narrator’s; it’s not slow, it just doesn’t feel hurried. In India Colvin made a friend named John Broughton, who inherited a large estate and returned to England. Eventually Broughton decides to move into his manor, Thurnley Abbey. It’s rumored to be haunted; supposedly the ghost is an “immured nun.” Further details are thin on the ground.
Broughton thinks a former tenant spread the rumors to scare trespassers; certainly, he was known to enhance them by playing tricks with lights. He and Colvin agree that if one ever did see a ghost, one ought to talk to it. Broughton has workers in, laughing at their nervousness, and fixes the roof and installs electric lighting. He gets married, and Colvin goes back East. When Colvin returns to England Broughton asks him to visit, and do him a favor.
Colvin arrives to find a standard country house party of the sort Hercule Poirot detects murders in. A couple of guests trot out the standard lines about how they wouldn’t live in the Abbey for any amount of money. A woman at dinner goes on for a while about how wit is vulgar and all truly great art is melancholy and tragic. Broughton can’t bring himself to tell Colvin what the favor is–he keeps putting it off until morning. He seems “somehow ashamed of himself,” trying to bring the conversation around to ghosts but changing the subject when Colvin asks directly. The most Broughton can manage is an odd joke as he drifts off to bed: “‘Mind, if you see a ghost, do talk to it; you said you would.’ He stood irresolutely a moment and then turned away.”
Colvin tells the first half of his story lightly but with emotional reserve. The prose maintains a polite distance from the reader. Colvin calls Broughton “a light-hearted soul” but “steady and capable” and steady is high praise. Gentlemen keep their upper lips stiff. They talk in bright pleasantries and banter (“‘Good old nun!’ said Broughton”). They’re undemonstrative, uncomfortable with and embarrassed by strong emotion. Broughton avoids asking Colvin for a favor because the favor is bound up with a shock. Talking about it would break the rules.
So it’s a big moment when Colvin wakes in the night and feels something: “I know that my heart stopped dead, and my throat shut automatically.” And the feeling comes before we learn what the feeling is about. That Colvin feels anything this strongly is more shocking than the shock that caused it. After 4,000 words of calm Englishness, this is the story’s first moment of heightened emotion.
Then another unusual thing happens: just for a moment, we return to the frame story. Everyone else is in bed and the narrator and Colvin stare out over the water into the night. The story decelerates to a moment of absolute stillness. Colvin continues his story, and because Landon wrote this bit extraordinarily well I’ll quote the next paragraph in full:
Leaning over the foot of my bed, looking at me, was a figure swathed in a rotten and tattered veiling. This shroud passed over the head, but left both eyes and the right side of the face bare. It then followed the line of the arm down to where the hand grasped the bed-end. The face was not entirely that of a skull, though the eyes and the flesh of the face were totally gone. There was a thin, dry skin drawn tightly over the features, and there was some skin left on the hand. One wisp of hair crossed the forehead. It was perfectly still. I looked at it, and it looked at me, and my brains turned dry and hot in my head. I had still got the pear of the electric lamp in my hand, and I played idly with it; only I dared not turn the light out again. I shut my eyes, only to open them in a hideous terror the same second. The thing had not moved. My heart was thumping, and the sweat cooled me as it evaporated. Another cinder tinkled in the grate, and a panel creaked in the wall.
I’ve rarely come across a fantasy or horror story that better depicts a certain kind of fear or shock, the kind where time seems to stop for a moment while your brain processes what’s happening. “Thurnley Abbey” has been anthologized a lot, and some editors call it one of the most frightening ghost stories in the English language. If so, it’s not because the events of the story are particularly frightening (the same plot could just as easily be turned to comedy). It’s just particularly good at convincing us its narrator is afraid.
This paragraph is, again, very still. Colvin’s description is precise and clinical, and the slow cataloguing of detail reads like one of those moments when absolute shock slows time to a crawl. His playing with the dangling lamp-switch is perfect, the kind of thing people do when their minds haven’t caught up to their situation. And again there’s a new intensity to his reactions, a previously unsuspected emotional range: “my brains turned dry and hot in my head,” “My heart was thumping, and the sweat cooled me as it evaporated.” These are palpably physical states the reader might have been in, or can at least imagine, and they’re more vivid for the contrast between this scene and the story’s earlier reserve. The emotional contrast and Landon’s masterful control of pacing make Colvin’s awakening feel like a night terror or fever dream on paper.
Then, from a dead stop, “Thurnley Abbey” floors the gas pedal. Colvin decides the figure is a dummy set up as a practical joke. Like a switch his utter terror flips to white-hot rage. He leaps forward and punches it in the face. When it doesn’t resist he pulverizes it, pulling it apart, stomping the skeleton, leaving not a single bone in one piece. It’s sheer mindless frenzy.
Colvin grabs a skull fragment and bursts into Broughton’s bedroom, screaming something-or-other, but Broughton doesn’t react as Colvin expects. Broughton is too terrified to speak, only shrieking when he sees the bone. He grabs it, makes for the door, but trips and drops it. Everyone hears shuffling footsteps coming down the hall.
Here the story takes another unexpected emotional turn. Broughton and his wife hide their faces in the bedclothes and after a moment Colvin joins them. This is awe, in the old-fashioned sense. What you’d feel if a god descended from the sky. It’s not just that no one wants to see the Nun, it’s like they’re not even worthy to gaze upon her. She comes softly into the room and gently picks up her bone. Then she just leaves. “At the end of the corridor I thought I saw something that moved away. A moment later the passage was empty. I stood with my forehead against the jamb of the door almost physically sick.”
These emotions feel vivid partly because of the contrast with the story’s first half. Another reason is that “Thurnley Abbey” pays attention to the fallout. A common ghost story strategy is to stage the climax, then get out while the reader is still reeling, but “Thurnley Abbey” covers the next few hours of Colvin’s life. He and the Broughtons are explicitly traumatized–in modern terms, they may have actual PTSD. They sit up together until dawn, barely speaking; “we all three knew that our reason had gone very near to ruin that night.” They have to negotiate what to do in the morning because no one can stand to be alone. Eventually Mrs. Broughton thinks she might be all right alone for five minutes, with the windows open, while Broughton and Colvin check Colvin’s room. They do, and apart from some blood where Colvin cut his hand there’s no sign of the mess. Broughton only says “half as a question, half as a reproach, ‘You didn’t speak to her.’”
It’s an intense story. On my first reading it didn’t even occur to me to wonder: why has Broughton never spoken to her? Living with her as he does, he must have noticed the Nun is benign. At no point does she do anything but watch and endure. There’s no sign that she’s even offended at being torn apart, which, given the speed at which she reassembles herself, has got to be a minor inconvenience. She’s quiet, curious, and patient, and Broughton and Colvin’s reactions seem to have almost nothing to do with her. She seems to unconsciously carry an aura of terror, harmless in herself but a catalyst for loss of emotional control in the living.
I’m not a strict death-of-the-author adherent, but writers often really do write more than they intend. I don’t know Landon’s intentions; probably he just wanted to write a scary story. But it feels like something deeper is going on here. People don’t run from the Nun, they hide their faces. “Thurnley Abbey” feels suffused with shame.
Maybe it has to do with those “powerfully British” attitudes. Remember, Broughton came back from soldiering in India to accept his inheritance. Colvin still travels back and forth and reads himself to sleep with a volume of Kipling. So maybe it’s significant that Broughton has taken possession of the Abbey, become its master, and rebuilt it to his liking… but the place has a prior inhabitant. One he can’t subordinate, kill, or move along. No matter what, she endures, an undeniable fact he has to confront. Is it any wonder he can’t bear to speak to her?
Then again, maybe it’s about the destruction of Colvin’s self-image. Colvin thinks of himself as a gentleman. He belongs to the right club, knows the right things to say and to do. He’s cool and steady; his honor and dignity are unimpeachable. He’s above everything. Until he encounters something he thinks is mocking him, at which point he discovers his reserve and honorable deportment are a thin veneer masking his chaotic, animalistic, rage-filled true self. In the Nun’s presence, he’s no gentleman. What’s worse, his tantrum doesn’t even accomplish anything. His rage is impotent. The victim of his violence can’t actually be harmed, and won’t go away; she pieces herself together and reproachfully continues to exist.
Either way, the Nun is a mirror. Colvin and Broughton can’t look at her because she shows them things they’re ashamed to recognize in themselves—most importantly that the world, and their own lives and selves, aren’t as much under their control as they like to think.
“Of course I am much better now,” says Colvin, “but it is a kindness of you to let me sleep in your cabin.” Now that Colvin knows himself, it’s hard to sleep soundly.