This was last week’s short story being discussed over at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones group.
Review: “Mrs Midnight”, Reggie Oliver, 2011.
As seems to often be the case in the few Oliver stories I’ve read, this story is about showbiz.
Our narrator is the host of the tv show I Can Make You A Star, and the story is propelled by a woman, Jill Warburton, whom our narrator, Danny, fancies. He does not find her exceptionally beautiful, but he likes her personality.
To be close to her, he agrees to help her on a restoration of the Old Essex Music Hall, a dump of a building in London that has a bad reputation and, says Danny, has only survived because “some nutter slapped a preservation order on it.”
A lot of the story is Danny’s asides on various characters and his own life rising from humble beginnings. It opens with Danny going, for the first time, to the Old Essex with Crispin de Hartong and Jill. Danny does not like Crispin because he’s clearly putting the moves on Jill even though he admits Crispin is much closer to Jill’s age. Crispin is an architectural expert and hosts a minor house hunting show called Premises, Premises . . . .
The Old Essex is on Alie Street in the Whitechapel district. It was partly destroyed in a fire after the last Ripper murder in the area and has been a hangout for junkies and bikers for years. It’s a much larger building than Danny expects.
First venturing inside, he hears a voice in his head, a voice from his past, a line he heard when he was a comic in Northern clubs: “Get off! We want the bingo, not you, yer boring boogger!”
While the three wait for the camera crew to shop up (a documentary about the restoration process is planned), Crispin says he thinks the building was designed by Frank Matcham, a great architect of theatres in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The Old Essex was renovated in 1877 by the firm of Jethro T. Robinson. He was Matcham’s father-in-law.
Danny finds a sheaf of old handbills for acts that played at the theatre. The final one advertises the titular “Mrs. Midnight And her Animal Comedians”. Danny is intrigued. Mrs. Midnight is a good name for an act. And what are animal comedians?
He sees a figure sitting behind the proscenium arch. It’s a bulky old woman with a shawl over her head. The figure is leaning forward slightly and has an obscured face. Playing his flashlight about the dark building (the only light is sunlight streaming in from the delipidated roof), he sees it’s just a tarpaulin over some junk. Still, he’s riled.
Jill notices the handbills and is quite excited by them. She thinks they would be great for the planned documentary. What Jill wants, Danny is happy to try and provide, so he promises to research them.
In some old newspapers, he finds the Old Essex burned on Dec. 1st, 1888. An account says the theatre fire was but “further evidence of the extreme unrest among the denizens of Whitechapel”.
In another paper, he finds a description of Mrs. Midnight’s act. It included a pig that did elementary math and an ape who rescued a bulldog from a miniature castle. However, disturbed by the angry crowd that night, the ape bit the head off the dog. That incited the crowd to a full riot which led to the fire.
Mrs. Midnight turns out to have been a female impersonator, an ex-medical doctor named Graham. At one time, he was also suspected of being the Ripper. Graham was injured in the fire, and all his animals died.
Another common element of the Oliver stories I’ve read is bibliomania. Here that shows up a bit with Danny’s friend Bill Beaseley, a crime reporter and drunk. He’s also obsessed with Jack the Ripper and a collector of Ripper related books and articles.
On the steps of Beaseley’s apartment, Danny sees “some old gypsy tramp woman” hanging out and holding her hand out. Inside, he asks Beasley about her and is told that he knows nothing about her and hasn’t seen her. Looking out the window, Danny finds her gone.
Beaseley confirms that Graham was known as a suspect to Ripperologists. Graham was struck off the medical rolls for bizarre theories, in particular “zoophagy” which involved patients being fed organs from still live animals. He also wrote a book on “Brain Food”. He became Mrs. Midnight and appeared at some of the locations of the Ripper murder. He’s thought to have died in an insane asylum in 1889 or 1890, and Beaseley suggests a couple of books for Danny to check out on the matter.
He also asks Danny why he’s involved with the Old Essex. It has a bad reputation. Beaseley’s father wouldn’t go near the place though he lived in the neighborhood.
Still harboring romantic notions about Jill, Danny takes her to dinner and tells her the result of his researches. He expects her to be horrified, but she thinks it will add interest to the documentary. She jokes with him, but Danny knows it isn’t the teasing of a friend or lover but of a favorite uncle. She confesses that, using the metaphor of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Danny is pride though Jill doesn’t consider him a Darcy.
She also tells him she’s engaged to Crispin. Danny blurts out that she can’t marry him, “he’s a pretentious pillock.” After realizing he’s annoyed her, he says he hopes he’s more than a father to her. She asks him what that means. Danny’s shut down again.
Returning home, he sees someone hanging out on his doorstep, a motionless figure, a squat black figure. She’s revealed to be a bulky old woman. He even gets a look at her face since she seems to be looking at him. She holds her hand out for money, and he’s about to give her some, but, before he can put the money in her hand, she grips his wrist tightly. It’s a cold, strong hand. He screams and passes out.
Danny is now a driven man. He looks up Quacks and Charlatans mentioning Graham and Graham’s own A Treatise on Brain Food. He finds Graham’s idea was that ingesting organs, especially the brain, from live animals was very conducive to good health. Giving lectures about this he would often wear female dress for whatever reason. Graham’s treatise suggested that criminals – either sentenced to death or jail – could have their brains eaten to prolong “the health and sanity of our finest men (and women) of genius”. Graham’s third book (uncredited to him) was Mother Midnight’s Chatechism: Zoophagy Explained to the Young, and it has several rhymes about eating live animals and humans.
Leaving the British Museum where he read the books, Danny gets a call from Beaseley. It’s a short conversation. Beaseley just says he’s found “something which may . . . I’ll send you a “, and then the phone goes dead.
Still trying to impress Jill, Danny calls her up asks if she and Crispin want to watch the recording of I Can Make You a Star’s season’s finale. She accepts the invite.
The next day, Danny gets a package from Beaseley. It’s the book The Complete Ripper Letters which has a note addressed to Inspector Frederick Abberline of Scotland Yard and was received on October 3, 1888. At he time, it was dismissed as a fake, its writer saying he has “eaten some of the lights out of them girlies as you will see.”
Danny does his show that night. Crispin is bored and snotty, and Danny is happy to see him and Jill apparently argue.
The next day a policeman shows up asking Danny’s whereabouts at the time one Bill Beaseley was murdered. Taping the show, Danny has an airtight alibi of course. Bill died, it seems, from having his skull split with a cleaver. Weirdly, someone seems to have eaten part of his brain.
With an unexplained confidence, Danny puts a story in the press next day stating he may have solved the Ripper murders. He doesn’t acknowledge Beaseley’s contribution. Jill is pleased about the publicity connecting the Ripper and the Old Essex. Maybe, she concedes, Danny really is a star. She teasingly refers to him now as “Mr. Darcy.” Danny says he’s arranged for a documentary crew to tell his Ripper story, and they will be doing some filming at the Old Essex. He asks her to accompany him. He even asks for Crispin to come along.
At the Old Essex, Danny appraises Crispin. He grudgingly acknowledges he’s not a bad looking man though his looks won’t last. Crispin blurts out that Danny is a “little shit”. He knows Danny has been putting the moves on Jill. Their argument is interrupted when Crispin sees something. By the proscenium arch is a figure, a bulky old woman in a shawl.
Crispin runs after her to tell her she can’t be in the building. Danny warns him about the crumbling stage as Crispin steps on it, and the woman keeps ahead of them as they give chase backstage. As she climbs some steps in flight, Danny can hear her singing some old music hall song. On the staircase, the woman turns to face them, and they see the face clearly. One half is a mangled mess. Mrs. Midnight (that’s how Danny identifies her though he certainly links Graham and Mrs. Midnight together) holds a candle to her face and then throws it at them.
A fire starts. The liquid they notice on the floor seems to be flammable. Danny tries to put out Crispin’s burning clothes and then carries him off. But, crossing that crumbling stage, the two fall through it. In the dark, Danny makes an emergency call with his cellphone. After they are rescued, he’s told that they fell into a cellar with “a large number of dead cats in various stages of decomposition”, some with injuries to their skulls as if someone had surgically taken out part of their brains.
Danny breaks several bones, and Crispin’s looks are destroyed by the fire. Danny says he feels genuinely bad about that.
Jill visits him in the hospital. He wants to say something to her but is inhibited. He again hears, in his head, the heckling crowd from his days as a comedian.
And, in the penultimate paragraph, we find out that Mrs. Midnight crouches by his bed, taking the brains out of a kitten with a teaspoon.
The story’s final line is “’This is your brain food,’ says Mrs Midnight. ‘Eat up!’”.
The story’s main charm is the narration by Danny, an interesting character. But it’s also, with Mrs. Midnight, a clever Ripper story. It turns out that Graham’s theories on zoophagy are right. You can seemingly live longer eating brains.
But what are we to make of the end? Has Graham/Mrs. Midnight really been able to infiltrate the hospital and crouch at Danny’s bedside? Is Mrs. Midnight partly a real figure capable of actual murders and killings but also a spirit that haunts Danny now? Is it his guilty conscious over Crispin’s injuries that creates Mrs. Midnight at bedside? Why else state he feels guilty about Crispin’s disfigurement, Crispin, his romantic rival?
I think Mrs. Midnight is partly a real figure and partly the hallucination of an insecure man, Danny. He has been married twice and desperately wants Jill as a lover but loses to a younger man. He says Crispin won’t maintain his looks when he’s as old as Danny. Danny tells us he’s kept in shape. He assures us he is well read, and he is. But he also steals credit from Beaseley in his Ripper revelation. He seems a man who has succeeded in life, but, in the depths of the Old Essex and in the presence of Jill, he seems haunted by his old past as well as pursued by Mrs. Midnight.
And, after all, why does Mrs. Midnight fixate on Danny? Is it their shared – albeit over more than a 100 years – showbiz background? Mrs. Midnight may be in danger of losing her home in the Old Essex (and that’s a sort of haunting), but why follow Danny? He’s hardly the leader of any renovation that will displace Mrs. Midnight. Maybe, like Graham after that fire at the Old Essex, we are to infer Danny is washed up now too.
I’ve liked the few Oliver stories I’ve read. They are erudite. The songs of Mrs. Midnight are creepy and well-done. He even illustrated the story for the collection it appeared in. And Oliver the actor’s depiction’s of showbiz are interesting.