Saturday, May 5, 2012
THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #16: A review of "Thirteen at Table" by Lord Dunsany
Once more, we have an example of a great writer falling short of the mark. This is not Dunsany’s best. It’s even kind of a hard slog at first, as he’s a card-carrying member of the Machen/Blackwood school of overdoing the setting of a scene.
This is the story of an unnamed narrator going on a fox hunting trip, hounds and all. When it seems that the fox is getting the better of him, and it’s getting too late, the narrator decides to stop by a nearby manor to spend the night (leaving his servant and dogs outside, of course). The owner of the place, Sir Richard, seems a bit off. He’s as much of a hermit as a man can be while still employing a butler. He very reluctantly allows the narrator to stay the night and even invites him to dinner.
That’s when things get weird. There are fourteen places set for just two people. Then, the door starts opening on its own, and Sir Richard starts introducing the narrator to women who clearly aren’t there. The narrator wants to be a gracious guest, so he decides to play along with Sir Richard’s lunacy to the point of actually having conversations with the invisible ladies. However, as he gets drunker and drunker, he starts imagining that these women are actually there.
The main problem with this story is that it takes sooooooo long to get to the point, and since it’s one of the shorter tales in this book, that’s a bad sign. Dunsany loses himself in describing the fox hunt so much that it’s like he has to remind himself to get on to the horror part of this horror story.
However, once we get to Sir Richard’s manor, things stick together. By the point we meet the women who aren’t there, we’re hooked. It’s just such a wonderfully bizarre situation, one can’t help but be interested in finding out why this is happening.
But Dunsany leaves one string dangling, and it’s almost irritating enough to make this a bad story. Sir Richard tells us that he has wronged each and every one of these women, but he never explains why. Imagine the tale that lurks between those lines!
SPOILER ALERT: Here’s where Dunsany fumbles again. He makes it explicitly clear that these really are ghosts and not figments of Sir Richard’s imagination. The narrator, drunk and in full swing of the dinner party, tells an off-color joke, and the room just turns against him. It’s so bad that the ghostly ladies get up to leave. He tries desperately to apologize (because he’s too much of a gentleman to have intended to be a bad guest), but he’s so drunk he collapses. The next thing he knows, he’s waking up in bed. He goes down to apologize to Sir Richard at lunch (or, in the narrator’s case, breakfast) only to be told that an apology wasn’t necessary. Sir Richard is glad that they’re gone. “We have been thirteen at table for thirty years and I never dared to insult them because I had wronged them all, and now you have done it and I know they will never dine here again.”
That’s another problem. The stakes weren’t very high in this story. There is no danger to anyone. In a horror tale, there has to be some element of risk. Otherwise, why are you afraid for the characters? A prime example of danger is “The Spider.” There is nothing here in “Thirteen at Table.” END OF SPOILERS.
This is not the weakest of the book, but it’s pretty watered down. Is it worth reading? For the dinner party scene alone, yes. Absolutely. But don’t expect much more out of it.
[This story first appeared in TALES OF WONDER and can be read here.]