As a child I’d read quite a few of E. Nesbit’s children’s books, and growing up I was always vaguely aware of her. What I did not know was that she had also written horror. Then a couple of years ago I came across The Shadow in a horror anthology and fell completely in love.
Horror stories from the nineteenth century frequently feature frame narratives. The story will open in a club or similar setting, with a bunch of men sitting around discussing the supernatural. Someone will volunteer to tell the rest about some strange story/experience, and only then does the main horror story begin. Nesbit’s story is a bit of a variation on this formula – a group of young women are staying on after a dance at a country house. One of the girls, who fainted during the dancing, has been put to bed. The three remaining (one of whom is the narrator) decide to tell each other ghost stories, and when Miss Eastwich, companion to the narrator’s aunt, comes to see what they’re doing, they coax a story out of her as well.
Miss Eastwich’s story concerns a visit made many years ago to friends of hers, a married couple. It is implied that she was/is in love with the husband. The wife, Mabel, is ill, and after she has gone to bed the husband tells his old friend that he believes there is something strange about the house, and that this must be hidden from Mabel at all cost. The “something” is a shadow that seems to come from one particular cupboard and moves all over the house. It’s always behind them, and even though it never really does anything, this section of the story is incredibly eerie. And then, one day, the shadow enters Mabel’s room.
If none of this seems particularly original, that’s because it isn’t. Because the (actually quite effective) horror is only a minor aspect of what makes The Shadow great. What really makes it work is how Nesbit fleshes out the frame narrative. There is so much going on in that room where the narrator is. There’s the narrator’s own awkwardness, her guilt at never having thought enough about Miss Eastwich before, her jealousy over the older woman’s responsiveness to “the youngest of us”. “The youngest of us” is open and welcoming and frequently tactless or naïve (though the narrator may very well be exaggerating those instances). She’s also “the heiress of a rich tallow-chandler,” so that the narrator can at least claim social superiority over her . Between the narrator, Miss Eastwich and the youngest girl (“the third girl… was really of no account”), there’s enough attraction and repulsion and yearning and guilt, so as to create a love triangle quite as tragic as the more explicit one in Miss Eastwich’s story. “It was I who caught up the candle – it dripped all over my trembling hand – and was dragged by Miss Eastwich to the girl who had fainted during the second extra. But it was the youngest of all whose lean arms were around the housekeeper when we turned away…”
The Shadow is fascinating partly because it messes with the traditional structure of the stories upon which it is based. It makes the frame for the story more engaging than the story and, at the end, removes the distinction between frame and story altogether. But beyond this clever playing around with structure, it’s a quiet, sad story about people and relationships. It’s outstanding.
Aishwarya blog’s is http://bluelullaby.blogspot.com/