Have You Read: Thurnley Abbey
Let's look at existentialist horror
First an admission…
The first time I read this famous story, Thurnley Abbey, I hated it. Perceval Landon, the author, uses that Victorian technique of “putting a porch” on the story. That is, giving us a ton of context up front. We have to watch the narrator travel along and meet the person who eventually tells the tale. Then maddeningly, the meat of the story is told in quotations with occasional cuts back to the context of the telling (aboard a ship at night) in order to elapse time.
Basically our narrator is a foil, a “feed” to stand in for the reader. In the same way as Dr. Watson is the reader’s proxy in the Sherlock Holmes books. Sherlock can’t talk to us directly—he’d seem obnoxious and condescending—so we need to see him filtered through apostolic fiction. The way Nick filters Gatsby for us.
Consider that there’s a creepy sexual vibe—a stolid man begs to sleep in the same ship’s cabin as another stolid type. But looming larger is the horror of existence. In effect, what becomes of us if we’re shown undeniable proof of the spiritual world? Do we retreat into denial? In effect, that never happened, and I shall double down on my denial and drink myself to death… Or, shown proof of the afterlife, do we live a different, changed life?
In Thurnley Abbey we see a man who’s yet to decide what to do with his new revelation. He’s still simply afraid. A nice place to end, because it allows the reader to wrestle with the ultimate question of immortality. This was the secret in my story The Nightmare Box, the idea that people who looked into the box at the right moment were shown proof of the immortal soul, and thus found their physical lives negated and laughable. In Thurnley Abbey, here’s the self-assured man of business whom Soren Kierkegaard wrote about, who makes appointments and busies himself—but whose confident worldview is suddenly and permanently destroyed.
In a way it’s a clever flipped script on stories such as Stephen King’s The Body. In the King story we see young people sure of life, suddenly discovering mortality. But in the Landon story we see people sure of the physical world realizing there is no death. We see this same existentialist crisis explored in the film Flatliners.
Here the tale is told well. It’s not Minimalism so expect some summary and vagueness, but once the action begins it’s paced perfectly. We see the effect the experience has had on the teller of the tale. Yet we don’t see the effect or any reaction on the part of the listener, the foil, who’s recounting the story to us.
How would you manage this shift from narrator to narrator? Instead of blacking out on a quote, would you end on a gesture? The scar on the hand is a nice detail that ties the past to the present. Could you bring that back in closing, in a gesture that would burst the story open? And the scar is a nice stand-in for the psychic scar the man is suffering.
Or is the whole thing a creepy, queer stalker with a morbid imagination? How could you add a third act to this and bust it open on another level?
For now, give it a listen. I’ve grown very fond of it. Sometimes the idea of immortality is more terrifying than the idea of death. How would you explore this fear?