September 26, 2011

Kerfol/The House of the Dead Hand by Edith Wharton: Short Story Review

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Edith Wharton takes us to foreign lands in Kerfol and The House of the Dead Hand.

In Kerfol (1916), a man is interested in buying a house (how many of her stories start out like that?) in France. Friends tell him about an ancient estate, Kerfol, so he sets off to look at the place. When he gets there, he finds the place empty, not even the caretaker there to greet him. He decides to do some trespassing. While he's looking around, dogs start showing up and follow him. They aren't behaving like normal dogs and it freaks him out. 

After he returns to his friends' house, he tells them of his experience. They in turn tell him of Anne de Barrigan, a woman in the 1600s accused of killing her husband, Yves de Cornault. It's a well documented story of cruelty and revenge.

Kefol is interesting to me since Wharton creates a piece of historical fiction within the ghost story. It also shows how under the thumb of men women could be at that time. Anne is mentally tortured by her husband by acts of animal cruelty and she can do nothing about it. He completely wears her down. The guy gets what's coming to him though.

The House of the Dead Hand (1904) takes us to Italy and introduces another travelling visitor. Mr Wyant is not looking for a house. This time it's a painting. A friend wishes him to have a look at a rare Leonardo hanging in the house of an acquaintance. The house, with a bizarre sculpture of a woman's dead hand over the door, is owned by a pretentious doctor described in a way that reminded me of Mr Burns from The Simpsons. He is completely obsessed with the painting and only allows a select few to put their eyeball prints on it. He passes off the painting as his daughter's since he used her inheritance to buy it. The girl seems to hate the painting even though she knows a lot about it. Later, Wyant learns that as long as the doctor has his claws on that painting, the girl cannot marry the man she loves.

The House of the Dead Hand is such a subtle ghost story. In fact, it's more psychological than supernatural, reminding me of Shirley Jackson's work. It left me wondering about the girl's state of mind. There's some heavy handed (ha!) symbolism in the dead hand above the door of a house of a woman doomed.

I read both stories not knowing what either was about. It seems serendipitous that both involve a woman trapped by a man who has her in his power. I know Wharton's marriage wasn't happy and her husband admitted to embezzling her trust fund in 1909. She must have had plenty of fuel for these stories. Both stories also end with her usual fatalism. Even death can't free these women.

Of the two stories, I thought The House of the Dead Hand was the better. It is the kind of story that sneaks up on you. Both are more creepy than scary so skittish readers would enjoy them.



10 comments :

  1. Sounds like Wharton spent some time fantasizing about her husband's demise -- I'd have been worried if I were him :)

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  2. Ooo, I love a good ghost story. It's been a minute since I've read anything by Wharton too.

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  3. I haven't read any ghost stories by Wharton. I've seen a lot of commentary popping up about them for RIP, and I think I'm missing out! Will give some of these a whirl.

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  4. Sounds like a couple of good ones. Creepy I enjoy, truly scary - not so much.

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  5. I'm going to try and find Kerfol online-- sounds good!

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  6. I haven't read either of these. I will have to rectify that!

    I finally read The Doll by Daphne du Maurier and linked to your review: http://teddyrose.blogspot.com/2011/09/doll-by-daphne-du-maurier.html

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  7. I read and reviewed a supernatural story by Wharton called Afterward. Here's the link if you're interested http://kafkatokindergarten.blogspot.com/2011/09/short-stories-on-wednesday-edith.html
    Its also about a couple moving into a new house and the husband in the story doesn't come out looking too good either. I guess spooky houses and lousy husbands are a recurrent theme with her :)
    New follower.

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  9. Col- It sure seems that way!

    Amy & Andi- They're really short (20 pgs or so). Less than an afternoon to read them.

    Carol- I've heard a lot of people say that so I thought I'd mention it.

    John- Enjoy!

    Teddy- I'll go check it out.

    CHE- I just read that one too. I'll have to check out your thoughts on it.

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  10. he he love your Heavy Handed pun. I haven't read either of these but I am looking forward to more ghost-y stories!

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