This week’s bit of weird fiction.
Review: “Kerfol”, Edith Wharton, 1916.
Wharton’s story isn’t scary or suspenseful, and it has few surprises.
It is, however, still interesting.
And it’s got ghost dogs.
The story opens with our narrator, evidently a wealthy sort, going to visit the old manse Kerfol, “the most romantic house in Brittany”. His friend says it’s not only for sale at a cheap price but “just the place for a solitary-minded devil like you”. Loneliness and solitude will be themes in this story right from the first paragraph.
One afternoon, the narrator heads off to Kerfol. The guardian of the house and his daughter are unexpectedly gone, so he can’t go inside, and he just wanders the grounds. It’s there he meets five dogs of various types. They are not menacing – or particularly cheerful. They seem grave and not interested in play.
Back at his friend’s house, his friend’s wife, is very surprised that he saw the dogs. She’s heard of them, of course. They are the ghost dogs of Kerfol.
We then get the back story of those spectral hounds.
It all started with the second wife, in the 16th century, of Yves de Cornault, lord of Kerfol. It started out a happy marriage. The Yves treated Anna de Barrigan well, brought her many expensive gifts. But, when it became clear she wasn’t going to produce a child, he became cold to her and left her to a life of solitude.
And, eventually, Anna was accused, a year to the day after he gives her an expensive dog imported from China, of the Yves’ murder. Through her court testimony, we learn the Yves strangled the dog. Perhaps he suspected infidelity on her part. There wasn’t. More probably, it is because Anna’s beloved dog is an “emblem of fidelity”, fidelity he feels is not paid to him.
Anna gets more dogs, sometimes hiding them or sending them away to be cared for. The Yves strangles every one.
As I said, there are not a lot of surprises in the plot of this tale. Once we hear about the ghost dogs and the wounds on the Yves’ body, we suspect no human killed him.
One surprise is that Anna is not executed for her crimes. Her fantastical claim that her dead dogs killed her husband, gets her locked up the rest of her life as a madwoman. It’s also surprising that the is done by the dogs and not Anna.
Horror writer and critic Ed Bryant once suggested that, in many horror stories, the most interesting part of the story would be what happens after the author concludes their tale. Specifically, how is all this going to be explained to the civil authorities? Here Wharton bases a large part of her tale on such an explanation.
While I said the story isn’t scary, that’s only in regard to the ghost dogs. The Yves is scary in his controlling ways regarding Anna, his insistence – borne out by fact – that he’s always going to find out about the truth of things. It is that domination, the menace conveyed by all those strangled dogs – some put in Anna’s bed — mixed with his doting gifts on her that make him an unsettling character.
There was one thing that surprised me. I thought, with the constant emphasis on the Yves’ piety and respectability and his frequent trips, without Anna, to Morlaix, Quimper, or Rennes, that we’d find him involved in dark magic, hence his remarkable ability to know what Anna’s been up to. But, no, he’s no sorcerer or student of the occult.
Incidentally, there’s an air of anti-romance in the story. On the night of the Yves’ death, Anna secretly meets, for the fourth time, Hervé de Lanrivain. On their first significant meeting, Anna gave him the jeweled collar off her beloved Chinese dog. She lies to the Yves that she lost the necklace. It is after that that she finds the dog dead in her bed, strangled with the necklace.
On the night of the murder, when the Yves wasn’t supposed to be at home, Anna asked to meet Hervé so she can be taken away from her life of solitude and strangled dogs. It is when the Yves discovers that meeting, that he is attacked.
But there’s no happy ending for Anna, and no record exists of what Hervé thought of all this. He led a “grey” death for twenty years before dying.