A look at last week’s subject of weird fiction discussion over at LibraryThing.
Review: “Let Loose”, Mary Cholmondeley, 1890.
The framing narrative of this story is told by a woman, but it’s actually about a man, the opening narrator’s brother-in-law. (We never do get their names.) She doesn’t like him and neither does her sister but her sister still married him.
The woman starts out by talking about the period in her life she was fascinated by architecture, but she learned that it’s not enough to like something in order to devote one’s life to it. However, while she was still infatuated with it then (she eventually becomes a landscape gardener), she toured Holland with her future brother-in-law. He was, by then, already a leading architect.
Though he always is careless in dress and unfashionable, he always wears a high collar. She takes to teasing him about it and asking why he wears it. He never answers until one day, when at leisure to answer, he does and gives us a story.
Ten years back he was looking to present a paper on English frescoes to the Institute of British Architects. His father, also an architect, had some material on the subject, including a sketch from 50 years ago of a fresco on the east wall of the crypt of the parish church in Wet Waste-on-the-Wolds. The architect is intrigued so decides to take a look with his dog Brian.
It’s a small, isolated village on the moorlands of Yorkshire. When he asks the local clergyman for the keys to the crypt, he is refused point blank. The crypt has been closed for 30 years. But the architect rather prides himself on getting his way, so he mentions the paper he plans on writing.
In this somewhat amusing scene touching on the stereotypical reality of many an English clergyman being a frustrated scholar with a sinecure, this gets the architect some sympathy. The clergyman says he’s “not unknown in the paths of literature”. The architect doesn’t have the time to read even celebrated books he says. (The clergyman has been working on translating the Syrian version of the Three Authentic Epistles of Ignatius.)
The clergyman, reminded of his youthful ambition to be a scholar, consents to give the architect the keys. However, there are strict instructions. There are two locked doors into the crypt, and the architect is to lock both at all times, even when in the crypt.
The architect enters the tomb after removing the leaf mould from around the door. He takes Brian the dog with him inside. Skulls and bones are piled up all around him. The fresco makes his hands trouble; its magnificent and from the 15th century. (The fresco turns out to be something of a red herring since it has no significance in the story except to get the architect to the village.)
Brian is a bit agitated, but the architect starts to sketch the fresco. The crypt reminds him of the universality of mortality. All go to the grave. Then he hears “a faint, stealthy, rather unpleasant sound.” He also hears the key rattling, the key he left in the lock. He sees the key vibrating. A skull has also fallen off a pile.
As he opens the outer door of the crypt, something seems to rush past him into the open air.
That night, the architect eats with the family of the landlord of the public-house he’s staying at and bounces a neighbor’s child on his knee. He also entertains them with his drawing ability.
Heading out to the church next morning to get the keys so he can resume his sketching, he hears the girl has died. The architect is a bit of a cold fish and merely notes the child’s death took his appetite away. That aspect of his personality is also present in the next scene when the clergyman asks how the work is going.
The architect says the fresco is magnificent and asks the clergyman if he’s ever seen it. The clergyman did when he first came to the village 40 years ago.
The clergyman then offers some unsolicited advice. Don’t marry when young. That turns the heart from study. Children break ambition. Don’t marry in middle age either when a “woman is seen to be but a woman and her talk weariness”. The architect tells us (and his future sister-in-law) that he thinks a wife should just be to aid his career. You can certainly see in this a feminist perspective.
The clergyman tells the architect the whole area around the town is old. The road leading to the village of Dyke Fens is an old Roman road, and the Reformation never got to that village. There are still Papists there. He takes no heed of their heresies or the local clergyman. All this, including mention of the “Clementine Homilies”, adds some atmosphere and might be used in another story, but it’s somewhat of a misdirection here as we’ll see.
The architect then sketches for a second day. The third day, when he comes back for the keys again, the clergyman absolutely refuses him and says he wishes he have given them to him. His clerk died last night. Marks of strangulation were on his throat just like the girl that died.
The clergyman then tells him a story about an event about 30 years ago, the death of the wicked local lord, Sir Roger Despard. (Thus the weirdness of the story stems from an event in living memory.)
The clergyman visited the dying Despard who was not all at repentant. He claimed the Evil One wass strangling him. He swore that, if he’s went to Hell, he’d leave one of his hands behind to strangle someone and draw blood just as Despard wass being strangled. He then hacked one of his own hands off.
The clergyman thinks Despard’s curse is at work in the death of the two villagers. But, using the argument that the clergyman wouldn’t want to be superstitious, would he, the architect gets the keys again.
That day the crypt seems repugnant to the architect. He can even see Despard’s coffin in a walled off section of the crypt. The architect finishes up and locks the crypt. He’s eager to leave the village, but it’s too late to catch the train, so he writes his paper that afternoon.
That night, the moonlit village makes the architect very despondent. What’s the use, ultimately, of writing the paper or pursuing architecture or anything for else for that matter when, like everyone else, he’s going to die. There is no immorality to be found in art.
He’s asleep when the growling Brian wakes him up.
The dog is moving around furiously, tearing the air with his teeth. Brian then turns on him and goes for his throat. He grabs Brian by the throat, all the while feeling suffocated, and fatally bashes Brian’s head against the bedframe. The architect feels blood running down his throat. He faints and then awakes surrounded by other people.
They are convinced he’s crazy after he killed Brian, but the clergyman nurses him back to health. (The architect seems to have mellowed a bit and comments on how remarkably attentive country people are to the ill).
The clergyman says Brian’s jaw was covered in blood. He developed a sudden case of rabies.
Yet the architect knows that’s not the real explanation. The scars on his throat aren’t from teeth but five fingers.
I can see why, with the local vicar and that climatic scene with an unseen foe in a hotel room, why people would compare this story to M. R. James, but James’ work came later.
While strictly not necessarily to the plot, I also liked the running theme of what it takes to pursue an art and whether, ultimately, it’s worth it.