The Haunted Man

by John Holbo on December 12, 2010

The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain

Tis the season for posting more original Dickens Christmas story illustrations to Flickr. I just put up a set for “The Haunted Man”, which is, in addition to being a nicely gothic sort of affair – such as suits the season – another nice illustration of Henry’s point that sf has its roots in the ‘condition of England’ novel. “The Haunted Man” is about a mad scientist who finds a way to erase from his own memory all the sorrows and wrongs he has suffered. And: the effect is contagious. Those he touches have their memories erased as well. Of course it turns out to be a terrible idea. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and all. (But a lot more sentimental.) The only one who is immune to the effect is a boy – a feral child. Furthermore, this feral child is, as it were, a morlock rising. A harbinger of a feral race to follow. But there’s a happy ending!

Tell it that way and it sounds like some sort of sf scenario. The mad science-y atmosphere is indeed well conjured:

Who that had seen him in his inner chamber, part library and part laboratory, – for he was, as the world knew, far and wide, a learned man in chemistry, and a teacher on whose lips and hands a crowd of aspiring ears and eyes hung daily, – who that had seen him there, upon a winter night, alone, surrounded by his drugs and instruments and books; the shadow of his shaded lamp a monstrous beetle on the wall, motionless among a crowd of spectral shapes raised there by the flickering of the fire upon the quaint objects around him; some of these phantoms (the reflection of glass vessels that held liquids), trembling at heart like things that knew his power to uncombine them, and to give back their component parts to fire and vapour; – who that had seen him then, his work done, and he pondering in his chair before the rusted grate and red flame, moving his thin mouth as if in speech, but silent as the dead, would not have said that the man seemed haunted and the chamber too?

But, in fact, the memory effect is not due to some Jekyll-and-Hyde drink he concocts but the work of a spirit of sorts – the chemist’s own spirit. He is haunted only by … himself. I’ll just quote the Morlock bit as well:

“You know what I would ask. Why has this child alone been proof against my influence, and why, why, have I detected in its thoughts a terrible companionship with mine?”

“This,” said the Phantom, pointing to the boy, “is the last, completest illustration of a human creature, utterly bereft of such remembrances as you have yielded up. No softening memory of sorrow, wrong, or trouble enters here, because this wretched mortal from his birth has been abandoned to a worse condition than the beasts, and has, within his knowledge, no one contrast, no humanising touch, to make a grain of such a memory spring up in his hardened breast. All within this desolate creature is barren wilderness. All within the man bereft of what you have resigned, is the same barren wilderness. Woe to such a man! Woe, tenfold, to the nation that shall count its monsters such as this, lying here, by hundreds and by thousands!”

Redlaw shrank, appalled, from what he heard.

“There is not,” said the Phantom, “one of these – not one – but sows a harvest that mankind MUST reap. From every seed of evil in this boy, a field of ruin is grown that shall be gathered in, and garnered up, and sown again in many places in the world, until regions are overspread with wickedness enough to raise the waters of another Deluge. Open and unpunished murder in a city’s streets would be less guilty in its daily toleration, than one such spectacle as this.”

It seemed to look down upon the boy in his sleep. Redlaw, too, looked down upon him with a new emotion.

“There is not a father,” said the Phantom, “by whose side in his daily or his nightly walk, these creatures pass; there is not a mother among all the ranks of loving mothers in this land; there is no one risen from the state of childhood, but shall be responsible in his or her degree for this enormity. There is not a country throughout the earth on which it would not bring a curse. There is no religion upon earth that it would not deny; there is no people upon earth it would not put to shame.”

The Chemist clasped his hands, and looked, with trembling fear and pity, from the sleeping boy to the Phantom, standing above him with his finger pointing down.

I can’t say that it’s an unjustly neglected classic. It’s spotty and downright tiresome in places, even if you love Dickens. (Obviously if you can’t take dollops and gobs of sentiment you should stay well away.) But it’s got great bits as well. The descriptions of the chemist, Redlaw, feeling his memory go – the world around him being disenchanted by the ghost’s enchantment – are good. Overall, it’s a good example of a great writer feeling the urge to explore what have become standard sf themes, but not having the stock tools to do it, and trying to make do with a Christmas story instead.



Ebenezer Scrooge 12.12.10 at 6:12 pm

John slanders the Morlocks. They weren’t the slightest bit feral–they maintained an advanced technological civilization. They viewed the Eloi as food animals, although the Eloi themselves had a simple, albeit unproductive civilization.

Are the Morlocks all that different from us?


John Holbo 12.12.10 at 11:19 pm

“Are the Morlocks all that different from us?”

Sorry if it wasn’t clear, but this was sort of the point.


John Holbo 12.12.10 at 11:25 pm

Part of the problem is that the boy in the story – even though he is supposed to be a complete animal – actually isn’t all that feral either. What seems notable is Dickens suggestion that a basically technical, scientific mindset will eventually produce two very different types that are, as it were, two sides of the same coin: a non-suffering overclass, a sort of animal underclass.

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