The problem with short stories, I sometimes find, is that they don’t always have enough time to lodge themselves in your memory. I read this particular tale, number 5 in my old ghost stories collection, on my lunch break two weeks ago and then I reread the whole thing again just now so that I could write this review. In the intervening period the plot and the characters had vanished right out of my head and I was left with just a vague memory of a house and a bad man and a bit of hunting.
Now that I’ve refreshed my memory I can tell you that this is the tale of Mr Robinson Higgins who moves to a small town where nobody has heard of him and takes up residence in the grandest house he can find. He ingratiates himself with the locals and even marries the daughter of a local squire. In spite of his occasionally reckless behaviour he’s admired by everyone – except wise old spinster Miss Pratt, of course – but the source of his wealth, and the real reasons behind his occasional absences from the town, remain a mystery.
This is my first time reading anything by Elizabeth Gaskell (I know, right?) and I was a little disappointed to find that this particular story hasn’t aged too well. I like the way that Gaskell plays on that age old suspicion of outsiders by showing how a quiet, rural community welcome a stranger into their midst without realising what a monster he really is. It’s a sinister tale. On the other hand, I wonder whether the final reveal just isn’t as shocking today as it would have been a hundred and fifty years ago. Maybe it’s because few of us have quite such a close relationship with our neighbours these days or because murders are old hat; we see real and fictional accounts of them all the time on TV and in the press. Either way, it’s a little sad that Gaskell’s story has lost something of its power to alarm now.
On a slightly more pedantic note, while I appreciate that this is a gothic horror story and may have been fairly creepy to her contemporaries, it doesn’t actually feature a ghost (as far as I noticed, anyway).