Considering it is Women in Horror Recognition month, I thought it would be apt to celebrate a great American novelist and lady of letters, who wrote during a time when serious writing was considered “too inky for ladies”. Though Edith Wharton is renowned for her novels about American society and their sensibilities, such as The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, she is less known for her supernatural short stories. ‘Afterward’ which was originally published in Tales of Men and Ghosts (1910) is a great example of her talent with this form, and though her story is certainly driven by the men and ghosts of the anthology’s title, it is actually the female character of the story who takes centre stage.
It begins in many ways as a typical haunted house story. An American couple – the Boynes, infatuated with English history and architecture – are keen to buy their own country pile in the Dorsetshire countryside. Their friend Alida Stair suggests a property she knows called Lyng but insists they will not be interested because of its “remoteness from a station, its lack of electric light, hot-water pipes, and other vulgar necessities”. But for these “two romantic Americans” it is just such qualities that make it appealing. The one feature on the top of their wish list however is for the house to possess a suitably archaic ghost. Like Joe Hill’s protagonist in Heart-Shaped Box they are eager to purchase a ghost, one that will conform to the genius loci of their English country house.
Alida, laughing, declares that there are plenty of ghosts in Dorsetshire but Ned Boyne insists that he wants his own: “I don’t want to have to drive ten miles to see somebody else’s ghost. I want one of my own on the premises.” Though the reader may be cautioning be careful what you wish for, Alida, like an estate agent keen to make a sale, confirms that there is already a ghost in residence. Though she adds “you’ll never know it.” Boyne understandably asks, “But what in the world constitutes a ghost except the fact of it being known as one?” and Alida explains that though there is a ghost, you won’t be aware of it “not till long, long afterward.” It’s not the response the Boynes want, but a ghost slow to make an appearance is better than no ghost at all, so they snap the place up and three months later are settled into their new life.
Life at Lyng passes reasonably peacefully and they soon forget all about the tardy ghost, busy with taking long luncheons and hikes across the Dorsetshire countryside. Part of Lyng’s appeal is its remoteness and its capacity for solitude. But Mary, often alone in the old house while her husband writes or takes walks across the downs, soon becomes aware of it having been a “deep dim reservoir of life” and realises that “these backwaters of existence, sometimes breed, in their sluggish depths, strange acuities of emotion.” Mary suspects that the house is a depository for negative energy and senses her own feelings surging up in response.
With the main theme of the text being time, Mary spends the next part of the story trying to remember when she first felt uneasy. She recalls a day in October, when “like a novel heroine” she uncovered a secret panel, which led up a spiral staircase to a flat ledge of roof. She had called Ned and they had gone out onto the ledge to marvel at the view. Except that they had spied a man dressed in grey walking towards the house and Ned, seeming to recognise him, rushed downstairs. Mary remembers that when she caught up with Ned he had explained that the figure had disappeared. Interestingly, when Mary considers this episode she wonders if the supernatural disquiet she feels might not be the result of a ghost, but by the ability of the house to produce “the ghost-seeing faculty”. Considered in this way, it is significant that Mary and Ned were topographically at the summit of Lyng, looking down at what the house could show them, or perhaps at what it wanted them to see.
At the time the house had been full of trades people and Mary hadn’t thought anymore about it. But reviewing this memory more closely, Mary realises that Ned had seemed rather nervous and she identifies this episode as the source of her own anxiety. Wharton very deliberately delivers this section in retrospect to reinforce the fact that it is only afterward when you spend sufficient time scrutinising the past that you become aware of its significance.
Likewise we also learn of one of the central plot developments after it has happened. Mary receives a newspaper clipping from a friend that a man called Elwell is filing suit against her husband for a dispute over business interests. But Ned assures her that it has been resolved and is nothing more than “ancient history”. The immediate impact of this threat to their marital happiness has been delayed, at least for Mary and the reader, by the post. Ned’s decision not to confide in his wife about this issue speaks volumes about the social mores of this period, when women were often excluded from their husband’s affairs, though they provided the “material foundation” on which their lives were built. Mary reproaches herself for leaving so much in the care of her husband, but when a figure in grey arrives a few days later she thinks nothing of directing him to Ned, not thinking to enquire as to the nature of his business.
By this simple act, Mary condemns her husband. Ned and the man in grey are seen leaving the house by a servant but are never seen again. Mary waits days and months for Ned’s return, until she finally accepts he is gone, knowing that the house, the “mute accomplice, the incorruptible custodian” will keep the secret of what happened that day, along with all the rest, buried deep within it. It is only much, much later that Mary finds out about Elwell’s death. He’d attempted suicide the day she and Ned had stood on the roof of Lyng looking down, but he’d lingered on for two more months, finally dying the day before her husband’s disappearance. Mary, finally understanding the strange events of the past (with the help of Elwell’s portrait) realises that the figure in grey she saw from the summit of Lyng that day, was the same man she had shown through to Ned’s library the day of his disappearance.
There is only one conclusion to make. Elwell had tried to visit them in a spectral form the day he had attempted suicide, but like everything else in the story even his death is protracted. “He tried to come then” Mary declares, “but he wasn’t dead enough.” He had to wait another two months before he could finally get revenge. And Lyng (maybe a play on ‘long’ or ‘linger’) is a place where the dead can come and wait until they are ready to move on. Ned’s flippant utterance at the beginning of the story that “life is too short for a ghost that can only be enjoyed in retrospect” seems to ring with irony. Lyng finally has the ghost he craved, albeit briefly, though it led to his own premature demise.
Wharton’s tale is a subtle horror that cleverly explores time and chronology and is poignantly littered with clues and allusions for a discerning reader. But it is only afterward that you fully appreciate what a skilfully constructed story it is. Perhaps like Lyng, though very firmly rooted in the past, it summons and confronts more contemporary horrors, such as women’s roles within society and marriage. Without the reliance on their husbands, Elwell’s widow has to appeal for financial aid and Mary is left to live alone, haunting the old house and waiting in a limbo-like state for Ned to return. It is from a privileged and egalitarian vantage, like the summit of Lyng that we, as modern readers can look back at the fiction that came before and consider why stories like ‘Afterward’ deserve to stand the test of time.
Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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