“Blow Up with the Brig!”
When we think of hauntings, we think first of the supernatural, but sometimes the things that haunt us have their roots in the actions of man. Here is William Wilkie Collins telling us a tale of horror and madness for this week’s…
The Ghost in the Cupboard Room
by William Wilkie Collins
This story was first published in the 1859 Christmas issue of Charles Dickens’ periodical All The Year Round. The conceit of the issue was that a group of people were gathered together in a haunted house, telling each other ghost stories. It is the turn of Mr Beaver to tell his tale, but the ghost which haunts him takes a strange form indeed…
The fact of the matter is – and I give you leave, ladies and gentlemen, to laugh at it as much as you please – that the ghost which haunted me last night, which has haunted me on and off for many years past, and which will go on haunting me till I am a ghost myself (and consequently spirit-proof in all respects), is, nothing more or less than – a bedroom candlestick.
Many years earlier, Mr Beaver had been a seaman, in the days when the Spanish South American colonies were in revolt. He was serving on an old merchant ship, The Good Intent, heading for the Spanish Main with a cargo of gunpowder, which was intended for the leader of the revolutionaries, General Bolivar.
In consideration of the nature of our cargo, we were harassed with new regulations which we didn’t at all like, relative to smoking our pipes and lighting our lanterns; and, as usual in such cases, the captain who made the regulations preached what he didn’t practise. Not a man of us was allowed to have a bit of lighted candle in his hand when he went below…
…but the captain ignored his own rule and kept a candle burning in his cabin. On arrival at their destination, they expected to see a light shining to show them all was safe, but instead two men rowed out to meet them. Spanish ships were on the prowl, so the General had sent a message that they should go to another part of the coast, and one of the men, a native pilot, would stay on board to show them the way.
This same pilot was about as ill-looking a vagabond as I ever saw; a skinny, cowardly, quarrelsome mongrel, who swore at the men, in the vilest broken English, till they were every one of them ready to pitch him overboard.
Catching the pilot making to go below with a lit pipe, our narrator stopped him. It turned into a scuffle and the pilot pulled a knife.
I snatched it out of his hand, slapped his murderous face for him, and threw his weapon overboard. He gave me one ugly look, and walked aft. I didn’t think much of the look then; but I remembered it a little too well afterwards.
That night, while Mr Beaver slept, the Spanish quietly boarded the ship and murdered all the crew – all except Mr Beaver. It seemed that, in return for betraying the ship, the Spaniards had agreed to allow the pilot to have his revenge. The Spaniards took Mr Beaver, bound and gagged, to the hold and lashed him to the floor so that he couldn’t move. Before they left, taking most of the cargo but leaving some barrels of gunpowder behind, the pilot began his revenge. He laid a fuse of cotton and gunpowder running from one of the barrels, then put a lighted candle in the captain’s candlestick and placed it where our narrator couldn’t help but see it…
…the next thing he did was to carry the free end of his long, lean, black, frightful slow-match to the lighted candle alongside my face, and to tie it, in several folds, round the tallow dip, about a third of the distance down… then he put his face down close to mine; and whispered in my ear, “Blow up with the brig!”
Lying for hours, watching the candle slowly, slowly burn down towards the start of the slow-match, afraid at every moment that a stray spark might land on the gunpowder, Mr Beaver is left a prey to the horrors of anticipation, which gradually turn to hallucinations of terror…
…nothing but the pilot’s face, shining red hot, like a sun, in the fiery mist; turning upside down in the fiery mist; running backward and forward along the slow-match, in the fiery mist; spinning millions of miles in a minute, in the fiery mist – spinning itself smaller and smaller into one tiny point, and that point darting on a sudden straight into my head – and then, all fire and all mist – no hearing, no seeing, no thinking, no feeling…
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If you would like to read how it ends, here’s a link.
The ending is the teensiest bit anti-climactic, to be honest, and the story highlights nicely my recurring problem with first person narrations – it’s pretty obvious the narrator survives, which reduces the tension somewhat! But there’s some great writing, building up the horror brilliantly, as we see poor Mr Beaver descend into a madness of terror. At least half the story takes place during the few hours when the candle is burning down, and yet rather than flagging it gradually works up to a truly spine-shivering crescendo. It was apparently also published later under the much more appropriate title of “Blow Up with the Brig!” Great stuff!
Fretful porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯
Overall story rating: 😀 😀 😀 😀