“It’s only a noise after all, and a noise never hurt anybody yet.”
So says the narrator of F. Marion Crawford’s classic ghost story The Screaming Skull regarding the strange screams that sometimes sound in the night around his house on the Cornish coast. Screams that may be the wind, but are not quite that kind of sound.
On a storm-tossed November night, a retired sea captain chats with his unnamed guest and former sailing companion about the odd phenomenon of the house. He’s reluctant to call it a ghost, since it’s actually a solid object: a clean, white skull that he keeps in a hatbox in the best bedroom. He has ideas of whom the skull belonged to, but refuses to commit definitely or to perform any conclusive investigations. At least, so he claims, but it becomes clear fairly early on that his doubts as to the skull’s identity are a self-defensive pose.
The house, you see, used to belong to a doctor, a cousin of the narrator’s, and whose wife died suddenly, ostensibly of heart trouble. Only, the tragedy happened to come about not long after the narrator had related a story of how a certain Irish woman had polished off three husbands with a simple, but grizzly trick. He therefore doesn’t want to know whether the skull is just a medical curio belonging to the doctor or something more sinister, and he certainly doesn’t want to investigate just what it is that rattles inside the skull when you shake it.
The story is told entirely in first-person dialogue: no dialogue from the second party, nor any prose at all, save a small epilogue (this admittedly results in liberal use of the “what’s that you say?” mode of dialogue, but that’s a concession to the form). Our Host chats with an assumed nonchalance about the skull and the screams it makes on certain nights; usually only one per night, unless it’s offended somehow. But he knows well that “It hates me.”
Like many of the best ghost stories, this one gets a lot of its power by generally keeping things just the other side of natural. The sound could be nothing but the wind and a guilty conscience, but it is curious that the skull came to roll upwards….
The narrator helps to set the mood by declaiming the idea of ghosts. He simply calls it a phenomenon: something he doesn’t understand, but which he’s sure has some explanation or other, like tidal wives. There’s surely some way the skull could have gotten back to the door after he’d thrown it out the window, he just doesn’t quite know how. Maybe it’s a ghost, maybe not. But it screams, especially when you try to take it out of the hatbox where it likes to be.
There’s also a good deal of suggestion, allowing the audience’s imagination to work out the grim details of what may or may not have happened, say, when the doctor acquired his wife’s skull (assuming it is her skull) and how he disguised the, ah, theft.
Like in the best ghost stories, the tone and pace builds marvelously throughout the story, from a ‘curious incident’ and suggestive circumstances to more and more definite phenomena, to a revelation and climax. But always without being too explicit as to just what is happening and how. A ghost story is not supposed to be about answers so much as questions.
I don’t believe I’ve read any of the author’s other works, but he excels at having the narrator say one thing (e.g. that he’s decided he doesn’t believe in the thing after all) while conveying the opposite to us. In fact, I almost wonder whether he over does it and that one or two fewer instances of the narrator declaiming the obvious might have been called for. But that’s about the only quibble I can find for the story. It is a gorgeously atmospheric tale, just exactly the kind of straight-forward ghost story that goes down perfectly on a dark October night. It’s a short, but a decent-sized short; say a good twenty-minutes – half-hour read, and the conversational style makes one almost feel like it’s being told verbally rather than in writing. It’s in the public domain and can be found online with a little effort (e.g. here), or can be picked up as part of an anthology such as this one:
Fans of Mst3k will recognize title from the season nine episode featuring a very loose adaptation of the story, amounting mostly to the basic premise of a screaming skull and a few individual moments (e.g. the “knocking on the door” scene). Though the film is so slow and dull that it kills any atmosphere or suspense that it might have had (“Remember folks, if you die of boredom you do not get a free coffin. Sorry.”). In any case, apart from being well worth reading for its own sake, the original also serves as an entertaining companion piece to the episode, showing both the origins of the some of the film’s story beats and revealing just how badly they wasted a good foundation.