What is afoot at Perceval Landon’s Thurnley Abbey?

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[The following contains spoilers.]

Perceval Landon’s ghost story “Thurnley Abbey” had first appeared in Raw Edges (1908), his only published volume of fiction, and it was subsequently anthologised to a near blanket extent. If one can compare the typical bumper volume of ghost stories to a society party then there are few that “Thurnley Abbey” has ever missed. Alternatively, if one was minded to liken “the English ghost story” to the High Renaissance, then “Thurnley Abbey” would be its Mona Lisa, in its seemingly infinite reproducibility.

Yet despite this, “Thurnley Abbey” does not appear to have been ever adequately examined by any literary critic. Within the volumes of criticism about ghostly literature on my own bookshelves – those by or edited by Jack Sullivan, S.T. Joshi and Clive Bloom – there is no mention of it. Meanwhile, those enthusing about the story online are usually just describing it and never getting over the threshold. 

This is surprising due to its power as a shocker. It is a story so amazing that it will cause long-desensitised readers of ghost stories to suddenly remember what it had once felt like to be scared by them. M.R. James, one of the most celebrated writers of ghost stories, had chirped that it was “horrid” and “almost too horrid.” The horror writer Ramsey Campbell has called it “that most terrifying of English ghost stories.”

It is also unsurprising because Landon is, as an author, little known and even littler read. Unlike with James, there is no corpus of writing that critics are always elaborately reassessing. Landon had been a friend of Rudyard Kipling and an energetic travel writer. His storybook, Raw Edges, resembles a leisurely, one-off gentlemanly exercise, rather like a weekend’s tiger shooting. And “Thurnley Abbey” has in effect escaped from this book, in that it is the one story of Landon’s that remains in active circulation today. Everything else is largely unobtainable, with the cheapest copy of Raw Edges that I can find online costing a thousand dollars (around eight-hundred pounds). If you are not fussy, then there is another available for two-thousand dollars.

In “Thurnley Abbey” the main character, Alastair Colvin, is staying at a haunted abbey and he is visited in the dead of night by the ghost of a nun. The magic of this story is that only clichés are thrown into the cauldron and yet the final flavour is bafflingly original.

One might initially attribute this to the story’s superb structuring. For a long time the reader is being patient with a stiffly hackneyed narrative and they will be resigned, with a weary expectation, to a humdrum thrill. Thurnley Abbey would have been right on the button as the title of a Gothic novel in the eighteenth century. And when one groans at the nun, it is unlikely to be a groan of dread. In advancing such an exquisite cliché, Landon has located the exact point where the English ghost story traditionally crosses into silliness or even kitsch.

By convention, the phantom nun is the mildest of all known ghosts. She is a stately rather than a sprightly figure and the legends that accompany her are always painfully repetitive and unimaginative. She has multiplied across the landscape of the UK more thickly than “Thurnley Abbey” has itself overrun anthologies of ghost stories. There are phantom nuns based at Covent Garden, Croydon, Harrow, Hedon in East Yorkshire, Marham in Norfolk, Ballycastle in County Antrim, Hinchingbrooke House in Huntingdon and, perhaps most famously of all, Borley Rectory in Essex. Borley’s nun was partially the handiwork of the media-savvy “psychic detective” Harry Price, who had also had a fine genius for generating silliness and kitsch.

Even so, the reader of “Thurnley Abbey” might not realise it but somewhere underneath this story’s clichéd framing and its cumbersome narrative development they will have gotten very subtly hooked. The story begins with a nameless narrator – who might as well be Landon himself – riding on a mail boat to India. Colvin, a fellow passenger, approaches him with a startling request. “Will you let me sleep in your cabin…?”

In ghostly fiction, the haunted man who is desperate not to be left alone is by now a quite customary figure – another cliché, one could say. For instance, this device appears in J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “The Familiar” (1872), where the protagonist’s valet “was never to suffer him to be alone.” In James’ own stories, where being haunted and hunted are often much the same thing, ghosts will desire a private audience with the victim as a necessary precondition for the comeuppance. Yet Landon inflates the fear of being alone to absurd and dizzying heights. Now the haunted man is begging total strangers on public transport for their company. We will be enthralled by such an embarrassing spectacle and, as the story drifts on back into familiarity, this embarrassment will be the hook that keeps us attached.

In “Thurnley Abbey” an entirely unremarkable narrative about a haunted abbey and a phantom nun only comes alive once the nun has entered. Eerily, this mirrors the way in which the materialist’s understanding of reality is conventionally supposed to be overturned by seeing a ghost. It is rather as if “Thurnley Abbey” is here forcing the ghost story to remember its own meaning.

Although it might seem that the nun has somehow gate-crashed a party that she is meant to be holding, she is never the ultimate source of the disruption. For a long time Colvin is petrified and spellbound and then all at once he has a brainwave. It occurs to him that this suspiciously silent apparition is a “hoax,” or a model that has been arranged in his sleeping quarters as a practical joke. With this he snaps back into action. The reader’s jaw will drop like the blade of a guillotine as Colvin proceeds to beat the living daylights out of the ghost, smashing its skull to smithereens, snapping its thigh-bones across his knee and so on. Next he is off to confront his hosts.

The dismay of his hosts, though, causes him to have second thoughts. And now the nun is pattering after him, apparently in the process of reassembling herself and retrieving her scattered fragments. She makes a better fist of it than Dumpty-Humpty does. Once she has left, Colvin and his hosts huddle together stupefied until the morning.

Many readers might feel that “Thurnley Abbey” has captured an unprecedentedly photographic picture of how people would behave during an encounter with the supernatural. In his shock, Colvin invades a couple’s private rooms and afterwards, dazed, they continue to act as if this is a normal night that they can sleep through. This psychological landscape might strike us as being greatly more lifelike than that in all of the previous ghost stories that we have read. It might make all previous ghost stories seem stilted and theatrical.

Given that Landon had worked as a war correspondent, the innovation of “Thurnley Abbey” could be that it has channelled genuine emotions from the battlefield into its ghost-story cosiness. In this roundabout way, “Thurnley Abbey” could be thus a souvenir of the Boer War. That Colvin desecrates a corpse, and that this is never flagged up in the story as a problem, could connect with the exhilaration or relief that soldiers experience whenever they are out of danger. With a guilty awareness of our own suburban inadequacy, we might not be able to find it within ourselves to condemn the desecration, any more than we could sit in judgement over some hideous war crime, because we are too far removed from the mindset on the ground.

Even so, this violence is especially shocking because it is always floating on nothing, or balancing on logical absurdities that have been discreetly crowbarred into the story’s structure. If the haunting is so traumatic, then how is it that Colvin’s hosts, John and Vivien Broughton, are continuing to live at the abbey? These are, after all, wealthy people and like any wealthy people they are free to live anywhere. In ghost-story cliché, the owners of a haunted house will put up with the nuisance of a ghost and, as the Broughtons do, try to find a way of making it leave. This cliché perishes over the course of “Thurnley Abbey” because it is obviously impossible to be ever under the same roof as the phantom nun.

“Thurnley Abbey” is an exemplary modernist artefact – even a perfect one – due to the radical fluidity of the options that are open to anybody who is trying to interpret it. Wherever you try to pin it down, it won’t hold firm. In struggling to understand why the Broughtons are holding out at the abbey, we might stampede back towards the conclusion that the ghost really is a “hoax.” Upon consideration, we might essentially fire Colvin as our guide to this story and dismiss him as a dupe.

We might even begin to think that we can see how the magic trick was pulled off. The flimsiness of the mannequin was just a decoy and this had disarmed Colvin and left him unprepared for the real meat of the hoax, namely the Broughtons’ superb acting when they are confronted. The servant Chapman, “a discreet man,” has been planted nearby, allowing him to readily pose as the rustling entrant to the bedroom. Chapman could sneak in once the Broughtons have manipulated Colvin into burying his face in a pillow. 

Retrospectively, we might decide that this theory has certain things going for it. The abbey’s prior owner, Clarke, had been known to play spooky practical jokes on his neighbours. Maybe the Broughtons are keeping his workshop going. If we had previously assumed that the Broughtons were holding a gigantic party prior to Colvin’s arrival because they were desperate not to be left alone at the abbey, we might perceive now that these partygoers had been all the time in on the ghost. When, during the dinner-table conversation, one guest maintains that “the dearest wish of her life was to be in some awful and soul-freezing situation of horror,” it sounds like Colvin is being primed for his later encounter.

Except that when you try to pin the story down here, it doesn’t hold firm. Since Colvin is never confronted and taunted with his own credulity, it is a practical joke with no punchline, or else one perpetrated solely for the obscure, private satisfaction of the hoaxers. In continuing to relate what he has experienced, it seems that Colvin is being hoaxed all the way to India. There are also solid counter-explanations for some of the identifiable groundwork for the hoax. Clarke might not have been hoaxing exactly, given that the “salt” that he deploys in his “buffooneries” is likewise a folk method for deterring spirits. And the mass of people who are at the abbey when Colvin arrives might simply confirm that the Broughtons are desperate not be left alone there.

More broadly, the practical-joke explanation is only ever intellectually available and nothing more. Maybe it is just that we have been blinded by the story’s emotional pyrotechnics or that we are unwilling to acknowledge the hoaxers’ cruelty towards Colvin. But there are nonetheless deeper layers waiting below a reading of this story as a hoax.

The Broughtons might remain at the abbey because they have accepted that there is no escaping from the nun. In other words, if they are going to be haunted then they might as well keep the big house. It is implied that the nun is a routine visitor and possibly even a nightly one. One theory behind her haunting might go a little like this. After moving into the abbey, John Broughton had had an encounter with the nun that had ended much as Colvin’s had, with her body being rent and smashed. Perhaps Broughton had cut his hand as well and blood is the stipulated means of sealing the deal for a haunting. The only way for Broughton to be rid of the nun (or so he imagines) is to ensure that somebody else goes through the same experience and draws the curse down upon themselves.

In this light, Colvin’s visit would be a win-win for Broughton. Colvin is an imperial hero who is so used to real-world exploits and adventures that Kipling’s The Jungle Book literally sends him to sleep. If he is brave enough to talk to the nun, then maybe this will break the spell. Alternatively, if he is brave enough to attack the nun, then this will lift the curse from Broughton. The only hitch comes when Colvin carries off a piece of the nun to Broughton’s bedroom. Broughton’s terror upon seeing this morsel might in fact betray his desperation not to get caught in the crossfire of a curse that he has been otherwise intending for Colvin. Hence his impromptu attempt to knock himself unconscious by banging his head on the fender of his fireplace.

This new picture of the nun is of a deliberate infection. “Thurnley Abbey” contains a liberal amount of bedroom hopping for a Victorian story, or at least enough to challenge modern ideas about the period’s supposed staidness. The nun is interpretable here as an allegory of syphilis; maybe the true inspiration for her haunting is the sexually-transmitted diseases that an imperial adventurer such as Colvin will have doubtlessly heard of. According to the historian Dr Erica Wald, throughout the nineteenth century “roughly 25%” of “European troops” in India “were in hospital, with some form of what were known as ‘vice’-related illnesses.” But the ghost’s symbolism could equally weave in wider injustices that are out in the Empire.

I have been calling the ghost a “nun,” without any meaningful corroboration within the story. This is because it allows an easy narrative to be cast over her – or else its – featurelessness and impassivity. A nun is by definition a virgin. Often the English ghost stories about nuns involve them trying to scamper off with a lover, getting caught and being walled up alive, in tombs that come to suggest a strenuously renewed and extra-fortified celibacy. We might fancy that the nun at Thurnley wants human love, companionship or even just to be talked to. Her fate, though, is to be killed over and over again, to become the victim of acts of violence in which it is assumed that she is not even a person but a worthless, contrived object. The poor lady is presumably conscious whilst she is being dismembered, snapped, crushed and stamped into the floor.

She is still ineradicable. With this, the reader’s mind might turn to the “natives” who will have featured in the “small emergencies” that Colvin had dealt with when in India. Peoples who are traduced, plundered, massacred and yet whose essence can be never entirely wiped from the Earth.

The nun’s curse could be simply the sheer embarrassment that Colvin will be put through, in having to constantly beg strangers to let him sleep with them. This colonial action-hero has been therefore emasculated by the nun and an aspersion of homosexuality has been cast over his derring-do. He is partially telling his story to reassure the narrator that he has no improper motivation for invading his bedroom. Then again, it could be that Colvin is conspiring to foist the nun upon the narrator, just as Broughton has infected himself. The story ends with the narrator signalling that Colvin is being welcomed over the threshold, into his own berth. Note that on this boat to India, we get to observe yet another invasion of a peaceful, unsuspecting interior. 

Thinking this all through shows “Thurnley Abbey” to be at heart a fable about the need for deep and imaginative reading. So powerful is this story’s shock and so shocking is its violence that, on a first reading, we are likely to overlook a danger that is lurking, albeit only theoretically, beneath its surface. Even the person who is narrating the story appears to have missed it. It is lucky for today’s readers that they are constantly bumping into “Thurnley Abbey,” in anthology after anthology of ghost stories, and that they get multiple chances to contemplate it more properly.

But so efficient is this story’s modernism that wherever you try to pin it down, it doesn’t hold firm. The narrator recalls that there have been “some recent thefts on board English liners.” Following his careful broadcasting of respectability (“’I am a member of White’s”), and a story explosive enough to disable the narrator’s critical faculties, Colvin has successfully squirreled himself into the sealed cabin. Maybe the final section of this story is an anticlimactic one and it has been omitted to spare the narrator’s embarrassment. Maybe the long voyage of this mystery swings in the end into the wrong port. Maybe Colvin, the ghost, and the narrator’s watch and travellers cheques all disappear together and nothing can be reassembled.    

[Previously on Tychy: “Short Story Review: Man-Size In Marble.”]