Horror fiction is a genre with ancient origins and its roots embedded in folk literature. One can usually find supernatural creatures like ghosts or vampires, but also an enchanted castle, a mysterious forest, a haunted house. When talking about the most recent horror fiction, there are stories about psychological horror, where the reader cannot find the difference between what is real and what is not; there are also stories about alien invasions or robots taking over the world. However, to properly talk about horror fiction, one must start at the beginning: Gothic literature.
Horror Fiction 101 will be divided into five different chapters:
The Shadow in the Corner by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley
The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
"The Shadow in the Corner" by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
“The Shadow in the Corner” is a ghost story written by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, who was an actress and a prolific writer, as well as an advocate for female writers. Published in 1879, “The Shadow in the Corner” is the tragic story of a servant girl, Maria, that starts working at Wildheath Grange, ignorant of the terrible event that took place in it decades ago. Poor Maria is not able to deal with this terrible situation and after believing that the mysterious events she witnesses are just a product of her fantasies, she tragically ends her life. Braddon's story is a perfect example to analyse the main aspects of a ghost story and how those elements are commonly used in horror fiction as a tool to comment on and criticise society's rules and constructs.
“The Shadow in the Corner” follows the two main themes vital for any ghost story, either Gothic or contemporary horror: the haunted house and the repetition of events. As explained in the previous article of this 101 series, the haunted house motif is commonly used in Gothic stories as a tool to create an eerie atmosphere that will push the characters in the story to their limits. The haunted house has a curse that will affect the plot of the story; it is in ruins, barely holding itself together, with dark corners and labyrinthic corridors. From the very beginning of the story, the reader encounters explicit references to the haunted character of the house: “it was a house that bore a bad name among the natives of the village of Holcroft” (Braddon, 1879). There are also references in the following paragraphs to a recurrent element in haunted house stories, the house and its owner as mirrors to each other, or the house influencing the owner: “it would not have been difficult to have traced a certain affinity between the dull grey building and the man who lived in it” (Braddon, 1879). However, the most important element present in the narrative, crucial for ghost stories, is the repetition of events, like a ghost that appears every night or, as in this case, a story that inevitably repeats itself.
“The Shadow in the Corner” follows Michael Bascom and the “catastrophe which burdened the declining of his harmless life with an unconquerable remorse” (Braddon, 1879). Michael Bascom is the owner of Wildheath Grange and a retired student, as well as a perfect example for the typical high-class man, immersed in his studies and unaware of his surroundings. The house is in need of a servant, but nobody in the vicinity dares to even come close to the house grounds, for rumours tell that the house is haunted. Therefore, they have to hire an outsider, Maria, a girl in desperate need of a job after the death of her father. The whole story unfolds when the Skeggs, the only servants in the house, decide that the new girl will be sleeping in the attic, in the very same room where Michael Bascom’s great-uncle Anthony Bascom mysteriously died.
After only a week in the house, Mr. Bascom sees a disturbing change in Maria's appearance. She looks pale and tired, and he asks her about it. She explains how every night when she goes to sleep, she feels “weighed down in [her] sleep as if there were some heavy burden laid upon [her] chest” (Braddon, 1879). But then at daybreak when the light starts to come out of the window, she wakes suddenly with the certainty that there was “something dreadful in that room” (Braddon, 1879). She hesitantly continues telling her story: “In the corner, between the fireplace and the wardrobe, I saw a shadow –a dim, shapeless shadow […] This shadow was in the corner –a strange, shapeless mass; or, if it had any shape at all, it seemed […] The shape of a dead body hanging against the wall!” (Braddon, 1879).
Mr. Bascom visibly reacts to Maria’s story as he knows that what she experienced is the exact same thing that happened to his great-uncle. This is the first hint of the repetition pattern that will control the whole unfolding of events in the story. However, Mr. Bascom is a man of science, so he decides to sleep in the room and see if the stories are true. This infuriates the Skeggs, who feel like their master’s treatment towards the new girl was not the appropriate one for a servant. Through Mr. Bascom’s eyes, the reader experiences a night in the room, and his description of the events is disturbingly similar to Maria’s.
With this repetition of events, a clear difference between Mr. Bascom’s experience and Maria’s can be appreciated. Firstly, Mr. Bascom knows the reason behind those disturbing events; despite the feelings the room inflicts upon him, he ultimately knows that those feelings are not his, but somebody else’s (his great-uncle's). Maria does not have that information, so she associates those feelings with her own life. In addition, Mr. Bascom had never experienced something in his life that could be associated with such feelings. In the case of Maria, not only does she assume that the feelings are hers, but she also has her father’s death to associate the feelings with. Thanks to the repetition of events, the reader can see how the same environment affects different people.
However, in the end, it is not the influence of the room and the terrifying shadow that ends Maria’s life, but the society’s behaviour represented in the other characters that forces her to take the only way out, suicide. Maria is first introduced as the daughter of a tradesman at Yarmouth who “had educated her above her station, like a fool he was” (Braddon, 1879). Her education is seen by the master and the servants as a disadvantage, always referring to it as an inconvenience for “education, it seems, is fine for the master, but neither man wants the chairwoman to entertain such lofty pursuits” (Lynch, 2000, p. 251). After learning about her experience in the room, the master and the servants scorn her, they use her education as an excuse to justify her wild imagination; even though they know how true her story really is.
Braddon used ghost stories to expose the social inequalities that took place in the comfort of the home between masters and servants. The house becomes the physical manifestation of the difference between what could be considered as “our reality” (that of the masters) and the “other side,” which constituted the part of the house that was hidden, separated, only to be used by the servants. In order to expose these inequalities, Braddon uses characters from the lower classes and situates them next to the apparition haunting the house: “Like the ghost, the servant was in the home but not of it, occupying a position tied to the workings of the house itself, isolated from the free bonds of communication and felicity of the family” (Lynch, 2000, p. 237). This is clearly shown in “The Shadow in the Corner,” Maria is relegated to the “other side” of the house and works cleaning up Mr. Bascom’s house out of his sight. Like the shadow she wakes up in the early hours of the morning, and right after dawn, she vanishes to the “other side” of the house in broad daylight to start working (Lynch, 2000, p. 250).
Maria’s connection with the shadow is made explicit in the text. There are several allusions to Maria sitting down “quietly in her corner by the kitchen fire” (Braddon, 1879) after spending several nights in the room. It seems like the shadow and/or the room are slowly gaining more and more influence over her. In fact, the use of repetition appears again in Maria’s last night before the catastrophe. Like Anthony Bascom, she ate hardly anything that day and was very silent. When morning comes, Maria is nowhere to be seen and Mr. Skegg has to go to the attic to call her. He finds the same scene that Anthony Bascom’s housekeeper found that day, the door was looked on the inside and there was no response from the other side. He cannot open the door, so he uses an iron bar to open it, “which was the same lock the carter had broken with his strong fist seventy years before” (Braddon, 1879). As expected, Maria is hanging from a hook in the corner of the room.
The cycle is finally closed. Maria hanged herself, just like Anthony Bascom did before her. After a week of sleeping in that room, the influence of the room had finally won over her. Unlike Mr. Bascom, she did not know the origin of that shadow and was not able to fight back. As Lynch puts it, Braddon uses this story to expose “the laissez-faire individualism and complacency that allowed the wealthy and the middle classes to desert the poor and dependent women in the prosperous mid-century” (Lynch, 2000). The high-class of the time, represented by Mr. Bascom, spent their lives immersed in their studies, enjoying the comfort of their homes unaware of, or without caring for, the situation of the servants that lived in their own houses. Maria’s life could have been spared if only Michael Bascom had cared enough to intervene. Not even after Maria’s death were they willing to say anything about the room. When the doctor arrived at the house to see the corpse, “there was no one who could say what sudden access of terror had impelled her to the desperate act” (Braddon, 1879). And her suicide was labelled as “temporary insanity,” which was a very common (and wrong) diagnosis for “hysterical” women at the time.
Braddon used the ghost narrative as a frame to criticise certain aspects of society at the time. Maria’s character represents the situation that many low-class women had to go through; she is a victim of the laissez-faire of the high-class that refuses to do anything to help her and the misogynist behaviour of men that see her education as an obstacle. This last aspect was especially remarkable for the time when the story was written because Braddon is sharply exposing the ambivalence about educating young girls whose prospects remain tied to domestic labour after the establishment of compulsory education (Lynch, 2000, p. 251). The element of repetition in ghost stories is also conveniently used here as a tool to show how the same experience can have different consequences. Having Mr. Bascom and Maria suffering the influence of the room shows the inequalities between men and women. Mr. Bascom is situated in a privileged position where he holds power not only because of his class and money but also because he has the advantage of the knowledge that allows him to fight back against the room and the shadow. Maria, however, lacks all of that. She is punished for her education but regarded as ignorant at the same time. Through the main elements in a ghost story, the haunted house and the repetition of events, Braddon criticises the society that allows women like Maria to fall prey to the shadow in the corner.
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Lynch, E. M. (2000). Spectral Politics: M. E. Braddon and the Spirits of Social Reform. In Beyond Sensation: Mary Elizabeth Braddon in Context. Ed.: Marlene Tromp, Pamela K. Gilbert and Aeron Haynie. State University of New York Press. pp. 235-253.
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