This was last week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.
Ralph Adams Cram, incidentally, was a very noted American architect who dabbled in fiction. I frequently pass by one of his churches in the Gothic Revival style.
Review: “No. 252 Rue M. le Prince”, Ralph Adams Cram, 1895.
I get the impression that there were many American “ghost stories” in the late 19th century that involved rich Americans in France, and this is one of them.
It’s also one of those weird fiction stories where a great deal is left unexplained. Sometimes, that can seem the writer failing to transmit an affecting vision. Other times, though, it works to create a memorable account of an odd incident. After all, what is weirder than us brushing against forces and events we cannot explain?
The story is told rather jauntily from the first-person perspective.
The narrator’s friend, d’Ardeche, has inherited a house in Paris from his aunt, Mle. De Tartas.
While said friend dabbles in the occult (which, to Western eyes, includes Buddhism at this time), his aunt seems to have seriously been involved in it. The house was the reputed site of black rites, and the neighborhood regarded it with suspicion. The only time it had a large number of visitors was on Walpurgisnacht, and the neighbors, their houses sharing walls with the titular address, hear the sounds of strange music and dark rites.
There is also the strange matter of the aunt’s regular visitor: the “King of the Sorcerers”, Sar Torrevieja, described as a Gypsy. He is willed all the contents of the house but not the house. The suspicious neighbors frequently saw him enter the house when Tartas was alive. They never, despite closely monitoring the house, saw him leave.
D’Ardeche is having trouble renting the place. Previous tenants have wound up in the hospital. The neighbors all think the place is haunted, but no one can explain “how it is haunted”. The property taxes on the house are oppressive, so d’Ardeche really needs to get some money coming in.
He invites a couple of medical student friends of his as well as the narrator to try and solve the mystery.
Cram, of course, gives us a description of the house, and we hear about three very strange rooms and a rather plain one.
One room is covered, everywhere, in very shiny black lacquer.
One room is circular, its dome and walls blue with golden stars. In the middle of that room is a large figure of a nude woman, her proportions grotesquely distorted, covered in red lacquer.
One room is covered completely in rather brass though its now tarnished with age.
The four men each take a room for the night.
In the plain room, the narrator can’t keep awake nor can he keep the lamp or his pipe lit. He feels oppressed by a growing blackness. Two large and strange eyes appear in the darkness. Then he is kissed by “a wet, icy mouth, like that of a dead cuttle-fish, shapeless, jelly-like”. He feels his life slipping away and feels cold, encompassed by jelly. He thinks he is dying, his life taken by a “hellish succubus”.
Then he wakes up in the hospital. It seems that none of the other three men, despite being in much odder appearing rooms, saw anything unusual. It was only after realizing he wasn’t answering their calls, they break into the room (whose door has strangely become locked from the inside).
the floor and walls to the height of about six feet were running with stagnant water, thick, glutinous, sickening.
The air is musky. They whisk the narrator to the hospital, fearing for his life since he is unconscious.
The house burns down in their absence.
The reader of this story has a lot of thwarted expectations. We don’t get to see the “King of the Sorcerers” nor any black rites.
There are a lot of unexplained things besides the entity that almost kills the narrator. What did Torrevieja get out of the house? What rites took place in it? Why is Torrevieja only seen by the neighbors entering the house but never leaving? Why did the house burn down?
But Cram makes it work as a memorable story, and, perhaps, it is a consideration on evil hiding in the most innocent appearing places.