Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Dead Valley -- Ralph Adams Cram

Title: "The Dead Valley" (short story in a compilation entitled Black Spirits & White)
Author: Ralph Adams Cram
Publishing Information: Stone & Kimball, 1895, Chicago
Source: Project Gutenberg EBook released September 22, 2008 (#26687)

Short Bio: 
Ralph Adams Cram (December 16, 1863 – September 22, 1942) was an American architect best known for a style called Collegiate Gothic, examples of which can be seen at Princeton University and various other colleges and churches throughout the Northeast USA. In addition to his design work, he also wrote numerous books on architecture, and, as is applicable to this post, a handful of ghost stories collected into a volume entitled Black Spirits & White.

Comments on the Story:
The compilation begins with, and takes its title from, the following quotation by Thomas Middleton, an early 17th century English playwright: "Black spirits and white, red spirits and gray,/ Mingle, mingle, mingle, you that mingle may!" It is an apropos opening for this little collection of short stories based on traditional European supernatural tales, which, as the author explains in a postscript, served as the inspiration for his writings.  Most of the tales center around a brave (or more likely naive) soul (usually American) who, quite often against adamant warnings from the locals, journeys to a haunted or cursed place seeking adventure. Though not unique in literary style, Cram's detailed settings, garnered most likely from his many visits to the continent to study architecture, give the reader an intense sense of place and could easily double for a travelogue.  The tales themselves have a satisfying chill about them but, for the most part, have no more of a lasting effect on the reader than the "boo" factor garnered at the end of a campfire yarn.  All that is except for "The Dead Valley".

Whether by design or not, "The Dead Valley"  is strategically placed as the last installment in a set of six. By the time the reader gets to it, they feel they are comfortable with Cram's style and are ready to dig into yet another vignette told by a traveler to a foreign land -- a snippet of place and time with no apparent relation to the rest of the narrator's life. Instead, they are presented with a tale within a tale, in which the narrator, an American, relates a story told to him by a friend, Olof Ehrenvärd, a Swedish immigrant to the USA, who had taken to the sea as a way to escape the horrors he'd experienced in his homeland.  The story begins with a short description of Olof by the narrator ("...the tall yellow-bearded man with the sad eyes and the voice that gives itself perfectly to plaintive little Swedish songs remembered out of childhood."), of their fierce battles of chess, and particularly of the tales Olof weaves as the night grows darker.  One in particular about a dead valley strikes the narrator so profoundly, he feels he must write it down.  Thus begins the story.

Twelve year old Olof and his friend Nils Sjöberg are best friends.  One day they travel to the market in Engelholm (Ängelholm) where they fall in love with a puppy they find for sale.  Having not brought enough money, they ask that the merchant hold the dog until the next week when they will return with enough money to purchase him. However, a few days later, fearing that the merchant will not keep his promise, they beg their parents to allow them to travel to the merchant's home in Hallsberg to purchase the puppy immediately.  Permission is granted and they make the journey.  If you look at a map, the distance between Hallsberg and Ängelholm is an amazing 250 miles (410 km), so Olof and Nills must have lived somewhere in between, but still it is a long trek by foot, so it is not surprising that on their return trip home the next day, after spending much time playing with the puppy, they find themselves still in the middle of the woods as the sun is setting.

As is the case in the other stories within the collection, just as it draws upon the dead of night, the boys find themselves in an unusual and foreboding setting, however, unlike the other stories, the menace they encounter is not of man but of nature. This in and of itself lends a deeper creepiness to the story in that no matter what, the source of the danger will always be unknown.  It will never be explained or the originating source discovered, as is the case in a number of the previous "ghost" stories.  It has a deeper, primeval feeling of myth about it, something that twinges the seat of primitive fear within us all. And the brave little Olof experiences it not only once, by chance, but a second time when he goes back weeks later to investigate the source, almost losing his life for the effort.

As a collection, I consider Cram's book to be a good read, pleasant and well paced. But "The Dead Valley" -- well, ever since I first read it years ago, it it has stuck with me -- is at the back of my mind whenever I look out of the window into the woods as the sky grows dark, wondering what I'd find if I entered them.  Would I ever come back?  That is a great story.

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