Thursday, October 25, 2012

James-A-Day: An Evening's Entertainment

The Cerne Abbas Giant (Victorianly expurgated edition)
This story does not feature an actual ghost or creature; instead it's just about people engaging in some sort of pagan rituals--particularly ugly ones evidently.  And it has an unusual little frame around the story.

I quite like the frame, about how in the old days granny would tell terrifying stories by the fire, and the mid-Victorians came up with books especially "aimed at extinguishing by substituting for Error and Superstition the light of Utility and Truth."  I think I have one of these books on my tablet; it's by Charles Kingsley, called Madam How and Lady Why.  There is this funny little mock conversation between a father and son, such as you would find in one of these books, and that never ever happened in any real household:
Charles: I think, papa, that 1 now understand the properties of the lever, which you so kindly explained to me on Saturday; but I have been very much puzzled since then in thinking about the pendulum, and have wondered why it is that, when you stop it, the clock does not go on any more.

Papa: (You young sinner, have you been meddling with the clock in the hall? Come here to me! No, this must be a gloss that has somehow crept into the text.) Well, my boy, though I do not wholly approve of your conducting without my supervision experiments which may possibly impair the usefulness of a valuable scientific instrument, I will do my best to explain the principles of the pendulum to you. Fetch me a piece of stout whipcord from the drawer in my study, and ask cook to be so good as to lend you one of the weights which she uses in her kitchen.
Anyway, we're going to find out what it's like "in a household to which the beams of Science have not yet penetrated," and hear the story Grandmother tells.

The actual story is quite difficult to piece together and I'm not sure we're supposed to be able to do it at all.  Grandmother, after all, is telling a tale that she heard in her childhood and adding in bits and pieces she heard from her father, and no one seems to have figured out what was going on back then, either.  There are hints of witchcraft in the area, other hints of sun-worship or some other kind of paganism--maybe a group?--and then a reference to outright devil-worship.

Mr. Davis and his young companion were certainly up to something, but what that something was is quite murky.  They liked to camp out at an "old figure cut in the hill-side," which seems to be a fictional version of something like the Cerne Abbas Giant.  They were interested in getting some of that old-time religion.  And they were both found dead in horrible ways; for generations afterward, something evil lingered in the area.  That's all we really know!

What do you think they were getting up to?

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