The next four stories in The Weird – F. Marion Crawford’s ‘The Screaming Skull’, Algernon Blackwood’s ‘The Willows’, Saki’s ‘Sredni Vashtar, and M.R. James’ ‘Casting the Runes’, all of which I am already familiar with – form a group which I have in the past mentally tagged as ‘ghost stories’, by which I meant that they contained something identifiably supernatural, though in the case of ‘Sredni Vashtar’ even that is debateable.
Of the four stories, ‘The Screaming Skull’ is perhaps the closest in form to a traditional ghost story, in that a murder has been committed, and some sort of supernatural force seeks both recognition of that fact and also, perhaps, retribution. Indeed, the story even employs the traditional format of the first-person narrator, the witness testifying to the haunting, and to the unravelling of the story. But there the similarity ends. Instead of a straightforward account of events, taken in chronological order, culminating in either an act of discovery or of restitution, the reader becomes privy to the inner turmoil of the narrator, Captain Charles Braddock, as his worldview is comprehensively destabilised.
The set-up is quite simple. Braddock has inherited a house from his cousin, Luke Pratt, after Pratt, a country doctor, was found dead on the seashore in unusual circumstances, having been apparently bitten on the throat by some unknown creature. With his body was discovered a box containing a skull. The skull was returned to the house and, since then, has been kept in a cupboard in the main bedroom. Prior to Pratt’s death, his wife had died mysteriously, although there was no evidence of foul play. The Pratts’ son had been killed in South Africa – one assumes in the Boer War – and hence the house had come to Braddock as the nearest living relation.
The story opens quite unambiguously: ‘I have often heard it scream,’ a statement promptly disarmed by Braddock’s assurance to the listener, whose identify the reader has briefly assumed, that ‘I am not nervous, I am not imaginative, and I have never believed in ghosts, unless that thing is one.’ Thus, one element of Braddock’s dilemma is sketched in a few words. He is a rational man who does not believe in the supernatural, yet he is assailed by something for which he cannot otherwise account unless he admits the existence of the supernatural.
Does he hear something screaming? According to his account he does, and to judge from the way he notes the responses of his listener, others hear it too. Except, of course, the reader has been placed in the position of listener, and hears nothing, relying on the first-person narrator. The reader has to decide whether to participate in Braddock’s narration, and accept the supposed reliability of it, based on Braddock’s listener being an old sailing friend. But as Braddock also notes later, the sound seems to be inside his own head as well; even if he sleeps on his good ear, he can still ‘hear’ it with his deaf ear. He attempts to account for the noise – the wind blowing, a dog whining, the sound of the tide as it turns – but returns always to the fact that something unidentifiable screams from time to time within the house. Is it a psychological noise or a supernatural noise?
According to Braddock, others, such as the servants, can also hear it, but when they are nervous about the house, are they reacting to a noise or to Braddock ‘hearing’ a noise. The psychological explanation is tempting, not least because Braddock carries a great burden of guilt. He has gradually come to the conclusion that Pratt murdered his wife, and that Braddock inadvertently provided him with the modus operandi for doing so, when, in an ill-gauged attempt to gloss over a difficult situation at dinner, he tells a story about a woman who murdered three husbands by pouring molten lead into their ears.
A series of incidents and discoveries has forced Braddock to conclude that this is what Pratt then did to his wife. Or rather, Braddock seems to try his very best to refuse the evidence he finds, such as the ladle in the bedroom cupboard, with cooled lead in its bowl. ‘That proves nothing,’ he says, and he’s right; it doesn’t. On the other hand, it is undeniably persuasive, as is the fact that the skull that Pratt was carrying when he died, now back in the bedroom, rattles when picked up. Braddock knows that the other murderer was convicted when pieces of lead were found in the skulls of her late husbands, and fears the worst. Yet, his rational approach obliges him to refuse the explanation that lies before his eyes, even when nothing else will fit.
One of the things that is so attractive about this story is the stream-of-consciousness monologue as Braddock circles the issues of Mrs Pratt’s death, the skull, and the haunting, testing them, trying to find explanations, trying to justify his refusal to admit the possibility of supernatural, even when he throws the skull out of the house and it rolls back to the doorstep. On top of this is Braddock’s conviction that the haunting, assuming it is a haunting, is directed specifically at him because he gave Pratt the idea for murdering his wife. We have no way of knowing if this is true, or whether Braddock is still trying to construct a story that explains the fact of the ‘haunting’ happening in the first place.
In fact, given the traditional structure of a ghost story, one suspects, if one accepts the existence of the supernatural, that Mrs Pratt is infuriated with Braddock because he won’tplay his part in the narrative, despite having a set of artefacts that point very clearly to murder. Braddock’s passivity points up how active a traditional ghost story is, in terms of the impetus generated to find an explanation, to solve a mystery, right a wrong. As many commentators have noted, the traditional ghost story is a very moral narrative form. In ‘The Screaming Skull’ that demand for right to be done is constantly rebuffed by Braddock’s refusal to embrace the irrational in order to find justice.