It’s been a while since my last column, sorry about that – various personal issues and horrors of my own. But here’s a new one, this time looking at ‘The Dancing Partner’ by Jerome K Jerome. You can read it here first to avoid spoilers.
Jerome is probably best known for his comic novel Three Men in a Boat, but he wrote a few ghost stories too. There’s no ghost in this one but rather a sense of the uncanny via an automaton something akin to the one in Hoffman’s superb ‘The Sandman’ or Poe’s ‘The Man That Was Used Up’. However, whereas Hoffman’s and Poe’s tales built towards their clockwork revelations, Jerome’s makes it clear quite early that the dancing partner is a manmade construction. Instead of the dancer’s mechanical identity providing the conclusion, it is the fate of poor Annette that gives us the story’s horrific finale.
The tale begins in something of a traditional way, with named narrator MacShaugnassy telling the story to us as if it were an oral narrative, providing an element of distance reinforced by a foreign setting. He tells us about Nicholaus Geibel whose “business was the making of mechanical toys” and so from as early as the third sentence we have some idea as to where this story is going to go. Indeed, his list of accomplishments builds to suggest the likely outcome, moving from “rabbits that would emerge from the heart of a cabbage” to “cats that would wash their faces, and mew so naturally that dogs would mistake them for real cats”, increasingly more convincing regarding life-like detail until we have “dolls with phonographs concealed within them” making them capable of a kind of speech. This human element is reinforced by the reference to the “skeleton that, supported by an upright iron bar, would dance” which foreshadows the story’s eventual climax.
These references to Geibel’s abilities are not without humour; “a gentleman with a hollow inside who could…drink more lager than any three average German students put together, which is saying much” provides a light touch to offset the later horror of the story. We are prepared for this horror though, with the line “one day he made a man who did too much, and it came about this way”, which effectively builds tension and provokes the reader to wonder how this “too much” might occur, and what it might entail.
The young women complaining about their dance partners provide the main clue. “All I ask is that he shall hold me firmly, take me round steadily, and not get tired before I do” one of them notes, using a triadic list of wishes that has both rhetorical impact and is typical of the fairy tale format (and we know those are stories with a good dose of horror – see my discussion on Angela Carter’s ‘The Snow Child’ in a previous This Is Horror column, for example). Jerome’s tale also illustrates that popular horror story warning of ‘be careful what you wish for’, making the reply of one of the girls, “a clockwork figure would be the thing for you”, seem somewhat ominous…
Geibel is listening “with both his ears” to this conversation, which not only shows he is granting the conversation his full attention but also, I think, provides more Jerome humour – how else would he listen, after all? There is something funny as well in the way he “hurriedly hid himself” behind his newspaper when it looked as though one of the girls might notice his attention. Indeed, it is with no sinister intention that he approaches the task of building such a dance partner for them, “chuckling” as he works, building this mechanical man with a “quiet low laugh as if enjoying a joke”, the simile highlighting his good intentions. In fact, “his jolly face” is “red with excitement and suppressed laughter” when he finally presents his creation, he’s so pleased with it. However, while the girls gave a lot of attention to the things they wished a partner would not do, like “never kick you, or tread on your toes…or tear your dress…or get out of step… or get giddy and lean on you” and “never want to mop his face with his handkerchief” or “spend the whole evening in the supper-room”, a list made to seem all the more extensive in being spread over several exchanges of dialogue, they fail to consider the things he might do instead. The reader, though, is at least a little prepared, thanks to previous hints at an unpleasant ending.
These indications mount up in quick succession from this point of the story. When the dancing partner bows, the action is accompanied by “a harsh clicking noise in his throat, unpleasantly suggestive of a death-rattle”, a very telling simile (although it is poor Annette who is to die). Despite Geibel’s assurance that “he keeps perfect time; he never gets tired; he won’t kick you” etcetera, a list that repeats what the girls themselves have noted in complaint, “none of the girls seemed inclined to dance” and we suppose there is something off-putting about this automaton, especially considering the way they “looked askance at his waxen face, with its staring eyes and fixed smile”, modifiers “waxen”, “staring” and “fixed” emphasising the machine’s inhuman qualities. It’s no wonder, then, that the girls “shuddered”.
Annette, however, is convinced to dance. It is perhaps apt that she is to become the thing’s victim, for she meets the requirements typical of the horror genre in being “a bright, saucy little girl, fond of a frolic” which certainly aren’t ‘final girl’ qualities. Our misgivings mount as the thing’s right arm is “screwed round her waist” so she is “held firmly” in what is later described as an “unyielding embrace”, while its left hand “fasten[ed] upon her right”, verbs and adverbs creating a sense of entrapment (a woman’s fate in many a horror story). That said, she is granted a sense of empowerment in being shown “how to regulate its speed, and how to stop it, and release herself”. The power to control this man, it seems, is entirely hers, and yet when she cries “I could go on dancing with him all my life” we feel a sense of dread that Jerome probably intended – she does indeed dance with this machine all her life, she’s simply unaware of how little of it is left by this point.
To a certain extent, her fatal end is her own fault – not in any kind of punishment for being “a bright, saucy little girl, fond of a frolic” kind of way (though maybe there is an element of that) but because she “loosened the screw regulating her partner’s rate of progress”. It’s the ‘careful what you wish for’ warning reiterated (or more cynically it’s a warning against women trying to control men) and as they move “swifter and swifter” and the waltz becomes “madder and madder”, repetition builds us towards an inevitable conclusion.
Someone tries to stop the dancing partner but “its impetus threw him down on to the floor, where its steel-cased feet laid bare his cheek”, a violent and bloody image that prepares us for worse. The next attempt to rescue Annette from the thing has the dancing partner crashing against the wall and “a stream of blood showed itself down the girl’s white frock”, the metaphorical “stream” emphasising the seriousness of her wound, especially as there’s so much blood that it “followed her along the floor”. It’s a horrible affair that may have been avoided, Jerome adding a poignant element of ‘what if?’ prior to this with comments like “had anyone retained a cool head, the figure… might easily have been stopped” and “two or three men acting in concert might have lifted it bodily off the floor”, the modal verb “might” providing a sense of inevitable tragedy. The urgency of the situation is heightened by the frantic repetition of “find Geibel – fetch Geibel” together with the delay in locating him. Meanwhile, those who fled the dance hall are forced to hear “the dull thud as every now and again it dashed itself and its burden against some opposing object and ricocheted in a new direction”.
Here, Jerome increases the impact of his story’s horror in following the ‘less is more’ approach, namely in not describing the full extent of the bloody scene once the violence is over. Geibel’s face “was ghastly white” as a result of what he saw and while his command “get the women away as quickly as you can” protects the characters from the horror, it also allows Jerome to deny the reader any passive involvement in the scene – we are forced, instead, to take an active role and imagine the worst for ourselves.
Annette’s fate is a horrible one, and Geibel imposes a punishment on himself in confining his future activities to the mechanical rabbits and cats noted earlier in the story. As an “artist” to whom such endeavours were a “passion”, denying himself the pleasure of more advanced constructions is no doubt quite a harsh but fitting punishment. Geibel made these things “for the pure love of making them”, so focussed on the fact that he could that he never really questioned whether he should. In this sense ‘The Dancing Partner’ can perhaps be viewed not only as an effective horror story but also as a cautionary tale regarding the advances of science as well. Either way, it’s a powerful story that amuses, horrifies, and makes us think.
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