This week’s weird fiction selection.
Review: “Professor Pownall’s Oversight”, H. R. Wakefield, 1928.
Wakefield’s story is a startling and memorable mix of a ghost story, shadow identities, and a doppelganger of sorts. The locus of the weirdness and menace, its symbol of awful knowledge, is not an old magical tome or religious relic or a place. It’s something quite mundane: the game of chess.
Professor Pownall is a man of “virulent and brutal wit” and a man with no friends. So Dr. Cary, the man who presents us this tale, tells us.
Pownall was a patient of his a few times, so, being the nearest to a friend, he entrusts a story to Cary. The instructions are to wait 15 years to print it and not to bother looking for him since he’ll be disappearing.
Pownall tells us his life began at age 12 when he met Hubert Morisson at Flamborough College.
Right at first we have the element of a sort of doppelganger or, if you want to get Jungian, a shadow shelf because Pownall’s and Morisson’s fates will be linked for the rest of the story. Rather like Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson”, Morisson will be the force that constantly thwarts Pownall.
They are not physically similar. Morisson is tall with a face of “great dignity and beauty”. Pownall is short with an angular and sallow face that’s “a perfect index to his character”.
Pownall is a man who has a firm distaste for men and no time for women. Morisson has charm and social graces.
That charm, thinks Pownall, is the key to the constant drubbing he gets in school from Morisson. It is always Morisson who beats Pownall out for top academic honors even though it’s Pownall whose told he has the better brains. But he’s also told that Morisson will always best him anyway.
Pownall thinks Morisson beats him because of his charm and says its “a gift from the gods, no doubt”.
There is one area that Pownall dominates Morisson at college: chess.
When Pownall talks about his love of the game, there is one key line:
It is, in my opinion, one of the few supreme products of the human intellect, if, as I often doubt, it is of human origin.
Both men become professors of Moral Philosophy. Naturally, Morisson teaches at a better school.
Pownall claims not to like or hate Morisson, just to be fascinated by his success. But he admits to “short and violent paroxysms of jealousy” towards the man.
On impulse – and, as we’ll see – Pownall can be a man of impulse, Pownall visits Morisson, and Pownall talks his acquaintance into entering the British Championship for chess.
In the six months leading up to the tournament, Pownall studies chess. He even invites Morisson to stay with him the fortnight before the event. Pownall says he has to have Morisson near him even though he feels those “paroxysms of jealousy”.
Taking the idea that Pownall and Morisson are some kind of shadows of each other, Pownall thinks Morisson likes to be around him because his brutality attracts Morisson.
At the Championship, Pownall and Morisson are to face each other in the final round, and the winner of the Championship goes to Budapesth.
Pownall is besting Morisson in that game until the 16th movement when Morisson gives him a look: a “curious smile on his face, half superior, half admiring, which he had given me so often before”.
Pownall’s mind then starts to get foggy, his concentration goes, he has trouble thinking.
The game is suspended for the day, and Pownall knows that only a miracle will save him from losing. He decides quite suddenly (though he argues that his subconscious, his “sub-surface” as he calls it, has already decided to do so and that manifests in his bouts of jealousy) that he has to kill Morisson. The plan itself is well executed and involves drugs and gas, and Pownall escapes blame.
On the night Morisson is murdered, he tells Pownall a strange story of going to a fortune teller (at his wife’s insistence – unlike Pownall, Morisson has no trouble with women). The clairvoyant tells him enigmatically, “It was always destined that he should do it.”. Thus, the idea that Morisson and Pownall are inextricably linked is further reinforced.
Given that that he’s now the highest ranking player out of the Championship, Pownall gets to go to Budapesth.
In the four months before the tournament, Pownall devotes himself entirely to chess and claims he became the greatest player in the world. There is one odd incident as he rehearses his games. He leaves his residence and comes back to find one piece moved – and in the “one perfect way” that answers his gambit.
In the tournament in Budaspeth, trouble starts from the beginning. Pownall tries out his gambits, but, somewhere during the course of the game when his opponent is having trouble, Pownall sees the figure of Morisson walk behind the player and guide his hand to the one move that counters Pownall. After his opponents best him, they walk away dazed.
After the first day, Pownall wonders if he’s hallucinating and maybe telepathically transmitting to his opponents’ effective countermoves. Pownall loses every game in the tournament. All his opponents, after a certain point, say they have no memories of the games and suffer “depression and malaise”. Pownall comes to be regarded with “awe and suspicion”.
Returning to London, he plays at the City Chess Club, only to have Morisson show up again.
Pownall decides to kill himself.
In the three months between that final game and writing his account, Pownall annotates his games and says that
every one of my opponents played an absolutely flawless game, that their combinations had been of a profundity and complexity unique in the history of chess. Their play had been literally superhuman.
Pownall pronounces himself the greatest chess player ever and says none of his Budaspeth games lasted less than 54 moves.
He expresses no remorse at killing Morisson, an act of “common sense and pride”. There are echoes of Poe again here, specifically the opening of his “The Casque of Amontillado”, when Pownall says,
If I had known him to be my intellectual superior I would have accepted him as such, and become reconciled, but to be greater and always to be branded as the inferior eventually became intolerable, and justice demands retribution.”
Winding up his account, Pownall says he saw Morisson in his bedroom last night and is “terribly tired of him”. He tearfully destroys his chessmen and board.
Pownall’s account ends “Morisson has just come in — “. But the story gets weirder.
Dr. Cary shows Pownall’s account to a patient of his, Serge, who is a philosopher, mathematician, and “a famous Polish Master” of chess. He also gives him Pownall’s annotations of those Budaspeth gavems.
Serge surprisingly reveals that nobody named Pownall ever competed in a British Chess Championship, and there was no tournament at Budaspeth in the stated year. At first, Serge thought Pownall was just a lunatic until he looked at the games. They reveal “one of the few supreme triumphs of the human mind”. He can barely believe they were played by men.
Furthermore, he states that Pownall’s losses must be because “his Opponent was not of this world”. He wonders if the murder and the suicide ever happened.
Serge wonders if those who engage in abstract pursuits like mathematics, philosophy, and chess have haunted minds. Perhaps heir subject possesses them. He thinks Pownall went into a “dim borderland” of otherworldly abstraction.
Serge’s first letter concludes that, after studying Pownall’s games, he is going to a Master’s Tournament in Lodz.
In a second letter, he reports seeing the figure of Morisson just as Pownall did. But Serge feels possessed and makes an unintended move countered, by Morisson operating through his opponent, by the perfect countermove. Serge tells his opponent they should both withdraw from the game.
That night Serge burns Pownall’s notes. They burn for hours. And the memory of those games leaves his mind, and he prays he will not play them again in his dreams.
So, we have a story of, perhaps, two spirits: a conventional ghost in Morisson and the haunting spirit of the abstract spirit of chess.
How to explain no record of Pownall playing? (An obvious question, not explicitly answered in the story, is whether Morisson existed.)
Did Pownall slip over into that “dim borderland” through his maniacal chess studies? Was he especially susceptible because of his forsaking all human attachments?
If Morisson doesn’t exist is he some kind of “double” for Pownall, Pownall’s better self? The idea of that is planted when Pownall tells us his life began when he met Morisson.
What are we to make of Morisson’s charm? An unfair gift of the gods (thereby hinting earlier at Morisson’s association with the supernatural) granted by the universe (assuming Morisson existed) just to foil Pownall?
Morisson exists in some form since Serge sees him. But is he a manifestation of a being from those “dim borderlands” there to foil human presumption at trying to play the perfect game, to attain perfection? Does Serge see him because Serge, by studying Pownall’s games and trying to imitate them, can’t be allowed to prevail by whatever force Morisson represents? Or, if Morisson existed, does he simply haunt chess games where Pownall’s spirit is, so to speak, in play?
Does Morisson, whether he existed or not, represent the universe foiling Pownall in every effort, a personal universal malevolence?
Is Wakefield casting his net wider and speculating that abstract pursuits can render people insane?
Is Wakefield doing some kind of rumination on the importance of unquantifiable charisma? Pownall wants to beat Morisson at chess because he thinks it’s the one realm unaffected by social skill. But, even there, charms plays a role in thwarting Pownall. (Wakefield also associates Morisson’s charm, in the chess games, with sort of a befuddlement of other people’s senses.) Is Morisson a symbol of how the universe’s gifts are handed out to people unfairly, that merit is bested by intangibles?
If the success of a weird story is measured by all it can suggests but doesn’t confirm, this story is quite successful given that combines the mystery with something genuinely unnatural.