The dining-room bookcase was the only considerable one in the house and held a careless unselected collection to suit all the tastes of the household, together with a few full and obscure old theological books that had been left over form a learned uncle’s library. Cheap red novels, bought on railway stalls by Mrs Corbett, who thought a journey the only time to read, were thrust like pert, undersized intruders among the respectable nineteenth-century works of culture, chastely bound in dark blue or green, which Mr Corbett had considered the right thing to buy during his Oxford days; beside these there swaggered the children’s large gaily bound story-books and collections of Fairy Tales in every colour.(183)
I have quoted at length from the opening of this story because the contents of the bookcase is metonymic of the Corbett family itself: Mr Corbett more concerned by appearances, Mrs Corbett not concerned by anything much at all. The children’s books suggest some life, some energy, and at least one person has a taste for something a little imaginative, Fairy Tale collections being in the plural. With everything stuffed together in the one bookcase like this, it might be seen to represent a very close and happy family. On the other hand, one might also argue that ‘this neat new cloth-bound crowd’ suggests a careful keeping up of appearances; the bookcase is the only one of significance, and it is in the dining room, not the sitting-room. There are no bookcases in the children’s bedrooms, apparently. Reading is not as central as it might at first seem to be.
But why do the theological books remain on the shelf although they are of no direct interest to anyone? On the one hand, it might be that a book is a book, no matter what it might be about and no matter what its condition, and thus deserving of a place on the shelf. Yet everything about these books is bad or wrong: ‘evil-smelling pages’, ‘a musty sepulchre of learning’, ‘moribund survivors’. These books are downright unpleasant, ‘their blank, forbidding backs uplifted above their frivolous surroundings with the air of scorn that belongs to a private and concealed knowledge’ (183). As much as the other books tell us about the Corbetts themselves, these few tell us everything we need to know about the unnamed uncle, the Dean: a high-minded or snobbish man, finding no pleasure in anything, disapproving, a disapproval that perhaps extended to his nephew or niece’s family.
As to why one would want to put these ‘slowly rotting volumes’ on the shelves of an ordinary house, one can only guess. The Corbetts’ own snobbery, perhaps, given the age and appearance of the books? Or perhaps, given what we are to learn in the course of the story, the Dean’s influence has been exerted over the family for some time already and they can’t bring themselves to throw the books away, or, most likely, that carelessness remarked on earlier, that lack of thinking. Whatever has happened, the ‘worm of corruption’ that lurks in these books has already taken over the household. The old books breathe a ‘dank and poisonous breath’; as the story opens, Mr Corbett is suddenly aware of this.
Everything to do with what one might call ‘frivolous’ reading has become sour. Mr Corbett no longer finds Dickens ‘a pleasant, wholesome and robust author’ (184). Clearly, on the one hand the unimaginative Mr Corbett has missed the point entirely of Dickens’ writing; on the other , this sudden new response to Dickens makes no sense either. And it is not just him; his youngest daughter is crying over the horror she perceives in The Rose and the Ring while his son is suddenly appalled by Gulliver’s Travels, and the thought of men being worse than beasts. And Corbett suddenly finds himself reading again, this time to find out why he dislikes it so much, and apparently believing that his failure to find satisfaction in anything marks him out as possessing ‘a mind so great and original he should have achieved greatness’ (185). There is, needless to say, a difference between questioning received opinion and simply dismissing everything in the way Mr Corbett apparently does, and something oddly jejune about the way he does it, not to mention the way it spreads into the rest of his life, like a contagion.
But that is not the only thing that is strange. There is also the matter of the gap on the second shelf, which keeps appearing and disappearing, although no one is apparently removing or replacing books. Only Jean, the youngest, has noticed this. ‘You can take out lots of books from it and when you go back the gap’s always filled up. Haven’t you noticed that? I have’ (185). And Mr Corbett must have noticed, of course, otherwise why work so hard to convince himself that there was no gap.
By now this haunting makes no sense at all, insofar as one can even term it as a haunting to begin with. It’s appeared out of nowhere, it doesn’t seem to have a discernable structure, a linear relationship between cause and effect, none of the conventional trappings of a ghost story. It is a much more organic kind of story. And now it takes another odd turn, as Corbett, having exhausted the contents of the unwholesome bookcase, lights at last on a curious manuscript among the Dean’s effects, written in Latin, and begins to decipher it. Scholarship is a new activity for Corbett, yet something catches his attention. At the same time, there is a strange little vignette, when Corbett, suddenly fearing an onset of influenza, goes in search of medicine and stumbles into the family drawing room, where the rest of the Corbetts are amusing themselves with non-literary activities, a ‘peaceful and cheerful scene’ (187), which Corbett’s appearance disrupts. He is, by this time, distanced from his family by his attitude towards them as well as by a physical distance. This distance will increase as Corbett pursues his interest in the manuscript.
The astute reader will have already realised that he has pronounced a spell which puts him somehow in league with or in debt to the entity lurking behind the manuscript, and this opens up yet another phase of the experience, one in which Corbett is in thrall to a book to which new instructions are constantly added, becoming ever more capricious. If he doesn’t carry them out his wild financial speculations suffer. It is at this point obvious that the demands will escalate and that it is likely that Corbett will find he has a breaking point. From this section we learn too that the reason the books moved around in the bookcase was ‘so that all in turn should come under the influence of that ancient and secret knowledge’ (189), but what that actually means is anyone’s guess.
The story’s final turn is its most logical, and the part that most nearly conforms to the stereotypical ghost story; the rest, though, is a swirling mass of things that half fit together, half don’t, leaving all sorts of alarming possibilities hanging in the air. What about the rest of the Dean’s library? What is happening to the people who bought the volumes? There is ambiguity as to whose views it is we hear articulated by Mr Corbett. The Dean’s own, or were his views contaminated or emphasised by the mysterious entity we know nothing of. Did the Dean resist the siren call of the manuscript? We can never know, and it is that lack of certainty that is intriguing.
And, given that most people reading the story are, of course, dedicated readers themselves, there is that added horror of something that we care about, believe in and invest in being so insidiously undermined. A very nasty story indeed.