The Old Nurse's Story by Elizabeth Gaskell
A phantom child roams the Northumberland moors, while a host of fairytale characters gone to seed gather in the dark, dark woods in these two surprising tales of the uncanny from the great Victorian novelist.
Victorian gothic is everything. It almost always sits within an old house haunted by something who had wrongs done unto them in the past; almost always involves a child, a dark and gloomy night, a family secret. It's almost always exactly the same, but I will embrace Victorian gothic like an old friend each and every time.
I'd never heard of Gaskell before reading this (thank you once more, Little Black Classics range), but I'm very glad I have. Her style is simple, yet captivating, in the sense that she spins us into a normal, dull world, only to release the most terrifying of phantoms upon us. Dead little girls banging on the windows at night - that kind of terrifying.
The Old Nurse's Story was my favourite of the two, told in direct first-person narrative to a group of children. The nurse speaks of her passion for her first little charge when she was a young woman and the girl a small child, her unrest at both being shipped off to live with distant relatives, and her fright when the ultimate supernatural goings on finally occur. She feels real, her words are trustworthy, and I think I loved her a little bit. The story is cast out slowly, and she takes her time to build the suspense, the character, and the world around her. It's truly frightening, and although I have no idea why she was telling this story to children, I'm grateful to have read it.
I wasn't quite so engaged with Curious, If True. The narrator this time was a wealthy male, not nearly as likeable as the nurse. He gets lost one evening and stumbles into a house party of people who seem to have been expecting him. Each of them stinks of fairytale nuances, and it all seemed a bit awkward, if not pointless. It was as though the entire Disney back catalogue of characters had met up for a reunion in a French mansion. All that was missing was the final sentence of, "and it was all just a dream" to underline its futility. This one couldn't even hold me, and I had to keep forcing myself to go back to it.
The nurse alone has driven me to find some more of Gaskell's work and frighten myself once more. I'll hear little girls banging on my window while I sleep for some nights yet.