The Striding Place by Gertrude Atherton, 1896
The magic trick:
Putting the story’s central ideas into a section in the middle about a remembered friend whose body, soul, and mind separated
Call it metaphor. Call if foreshadowing. Call it a spoiler. Whatever, the section in the middle of this story where the protagonist reflects on a dead friend, who had been senile for three years before finally dying, is the key. The section prompts in Weigall the memory of a discussion about the nature of body and soul. This, we recognize straight off, is the story’s core meaning. The rest of the text is just going to scare us as a reference back to these ideas.
And scare us it does.
And that’s quite a trick on Atherton’s part.
“I cherish the theory,” Gifford had said, “that the soul sometimes lingers in the body after death. During madness, of course, it is an impotent prisoner, albeit a conscious one.
Fancy its agony, and its horror! What more natural than that, when the life-spark goes out, the tortured soul should take possession of the vacant skull and triumph once more for a few hours while old friends look their last? It has had time to repent while compelled to crouch and behold the result of its work, and it has shrived itself into a state of comparative purity.
If I had my way, I should stay inside my bones until the coffin had gone into its niche, that I might obviate for my poor old comrade the tragic impersonality of death. And I should like to see justice done to it, as it were—to see it lowered among its ancestors with the ceremony and solemnity that are its due. I am afraid that if I dissevered myself too quickly, I should yield to curiosity and hasten to investigate the mysteries of space.”
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