This week’s weird fiction to be discussed over at LibraryThing was nominated by me after coming across a John Keir Cross story in Scottish Stories of Fantasy and Horror which is in the large pile of books to be reviewed here.
I was impressed enough by it that I nominated this story which was published first in Cross’ seminal 1944 collection The Other Passenger which is quite good. This story, original and interesting as it is, is actually one of the lesser stories. But that I plan to discuss some other time.
As usual with these weekly postings about a piece of weird fiction, plenty of spoilers are ahead. That’s particularly relevant to Cross who seems to structure so many of his tales with a surprise ending.
Review: “The Glass Eye”¸ John Keir Cross, 1944.
This has been referred to as the greatest horror story ever about a ventriloquist dummy.
I don’t know about that. It certainly has a unique spin, a complete reversal, on the usual direction such stories take. It also depends on what you mean by horror.
Our narrator opens the tale with a couple of items and a statement:
There are things that are funny so that you laugh at them, and there are things that are funny but you don’t laugh at them at all—at least, if you do, you aren’t laughing because they amuse you: you are doing what Bergson says you do when you laugh—you are snarling. You are up against something you don’t understand—or something you understand too well, but don’t want to give in to.
Our first item is a description of the narrator’s friend Julia, an ungainly woman of ungainly statements, possessor of a unique talent for stating the wrong things. Julia is a “lost, mad girl”. Her sexual initiation occurred at 18 from a man she never saw again. There’s a broken engagement in her past. Her love is bestowed on an unresponsive, crippled nephew she sees once a year.
Our second item is a parable about a philosopher and a beggar. The beggar continually bothers the philosopher for money. The philosopher finally consents to give him some if he can guess which of his eyes is glass. The beggar correctly says the right eye because it’s the one with the “compassionate look”. In other words, emotion and human feeling and appearance can be faked through artifice
Julia lives in a dingy apartment, less nice than the one she’ll end up in five years later after the main events of the story take place.
One night, when her nephew has come for his annual stay, she takes him out to see a show. And there she first sees the very handsome Max Collodi, a ventriloquist, and his dummy George.
Julia is smitten by the voice and looks of Collodi. Cross does a nice job depicting her romantic obsession with Collodi. She goes to see his shows. She picks up copies of The Stage, a show biz paper to see where he’ll perform next. She quits her job and uses her savings to see him perform in shows outside of London.
She even sends him letters asking to meet him. He replies with thanks but states he doesn’t meet with fans.
But she persists and, eventually, she gets a letter from Collodi. He will meet her. For five minutes, in a dim room. Julia is actually kind of happy about that. She has misrepresented herself in her letters with a flattering picture from years ago.
Collodi is sitting at a table in that room, George the dummy with the “huge tow head and painted smile” is next to him.
It is then that years of no human contact and no reciprocated love cause a “a terrible, overwhelming desire . . . the desire to touch” Collodi to sweep over Julia. Thirty-seven years of craving love overcome her.
She gets up and touches Collodi – who topples from the chair to the floor, his “fixed professional smile still on his face”.
A scream sounds. But it’s not Max Collodi, or, at least, not the Max Collodi she expected. It’s George. He’s the real ventriloquist in the act, the real human.
Understandably, Julia gets hysterical and, laughing, she stomps on the beautiful face she loved, its glass eyes rolling out. On the way out, she picks one up.
Years later, it’s on the mantelpiece in her better apartment, a “terrible relic” of her experience.
The narrator tells us that the ventriloquist Max Collodi no longer performs.
At story’s end, he relates a curious story he heard from a friend about a year ago. A dwarf by the name of Maximillian and possessing a beautiful voice has been sighted in a traveling circus in Scotland. When he walks about villages – but not in his act, he wears an eye patch. The narrator doesn’t know if it’s on his left or right eye.
What are we to make of the end?
Why is Julia living in better circumstances five years later after learning the truth about Collodi? She certainly, given what her friend, the narrator, says about her not any wiser. Is it a reminder of the possibility of love and affection misdirected by artifice, artifice of a different sort than that that led to her seduction at 18 and a broken engagement?
And about that dwarf Maximillian (note the variant of Max)? Why wonder about which eye he covers? Is the narrator wondering about how compassionate, how human George was to perpetrate such a scam (though it would seem he has few options available to make a living and struck on a clever solution)? Is he presenting an inhuman gaze to the world or real feeling? It’s rather cryptic.
Still, Cross has a knack for simulating the wandering and pacing of an overheard tale, much better than many authors who are passing off their story as coming from the lips of a character. He also has knack for noting human foolishness and sentimentality and yet still being sympathetic to Julia.