"Of course I am much better now, but it is a kindness of you to let me sleep in your cabin".On his 'way out to the East' on the steamer Osiris, the narrator of Perceval Landon's story is approached by a solitary fellow passenger, Colvin, who nervously asks his permission to share his cabin on the voyage. It is an unusual request, and when asked for an explanation, Colvin describes a harrowing night he has recently spent at the house of the title.
'Thurnley Abbey' is a traditional ghost story framed in something quite different (more of this later). And as a traditional ghost story it works well enough. Colvin has been invited by friends to the house of the title, an ivy-clad, part medieval, part Jacobean house full of tapestries, shadows and wood panelling, ostensibly to share in a weekend's entertaining. But it soon becomes clear that his friends have ulterior motives for inviting him. They are evasive, distracted. And there are rumours, of course, that the house is haunted. Just by what nobody seems to know, but a ghostly nun is mentioned.
The atmosphere builds nicely, until Colvin, left to his own devices by his hosts, settles down to read in bed, and shortly afterwards falls asleep. What is described in the next page or so is quite terrifying. Landon manages to build up a sense of threat and mounting dread which the reader and Colvin experience together:
'Three hours later I woke up. There was not a breath of wind outside... An owl cried among the silent Spanish chestnuts on the slope... I felt under my pillow for my book with half-shut eyes. Then, growing used to the light, I happened to look down to the foot of my bed'.At this point, the reader is standing beside Colvin's bed, his heart similarly 'stopped dead' and his 'throat shut', his 'life and reason rocked unsteadily on their seats'. The sense of fear in this particular paragraph is exquisitely drawn - in fact it was enough for me to read the whole thing without once drawing breath. The apparition itself, when revealed, is alarming enough, but it is this minutely described terror that raises it above the run-of-the-mill phantom.
Colvin survives his experience. And herein lies the genius of the story. I mentioned that 'Thurnley Abbey' is a traditional ghost story framed in something else. It is this framing that draws the reader into its tense psychology. Colvin, when first encountered by the narrator, is noted as 'a man of middle height, with a resolute, well-cut jaw'. He is not the kind of man to scare easily. When he first approaches the narrator with his odd request, it is clear that he 'must have been sorely put to it' to approach 'a total stranger at a Brindisi hotel'. As he starts his tale it is obvious that he is a man broken by events. So the reader knows the effect of the haunting before it actually takes place. By the time Colvin says to the narrator at the end that 'it is a kindness' to let him share his cabin, it is with the last bit of English understatement and stiff upper lip remaining to him.
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