Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Short Story Review: Midnight on Beauchamp Row by Anna Katharine Green

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1895

Genre: "Horror." Kinda.

Topics: trust, marriage, unintended consequences


Letty Chivers is a young bride vaguely dissatisfied with her life, whose husband has some sort of job that requires him to carry large amounts of money around. Whenever the money's in the house, Letty gets nervous, but Ned never leaves her alone with it. Then one night he comes home and says he HAS to do something for work and won't be home until after midnight. In the meantime, he needs to leave the money with her.

Letty wants to go to her friends' house to wait for him, but Ned won't let her because he doesn't like her friends. So, with a "Tata, Little Woman!" Ned rides off into the night. It is then that Letty faces the true horror of her imagination: an uninvited guest.

Most of the time I would stop my summary there, but you guys HAVE to know what happens at the end of Midnight on Beauchamp Row. If you don't want to be spoiled, go here, read the story, then come back. I'll wait.

Are you back? Did you ever leave? It's okay, I'll catch you up.

Lettie's uninvited guest is a vagrant, whom she is SURE wants to steal her husband's money. So, to keep him from getting it, she throws it outside. Fiscal responsibility, folks! Then she feeds him dinner because that's only polite. All the while, though, she's thinking, "Why didn't I poison him? I could have grabbed some arsenic in the kitchen!" At some point she remembers there's a gun in the house and plans to shoot him, but it turns out Ned took the gun when he left. Meanwhile, the crude vagrant who offends all her delicate feminine sensibilities offers to do the dishes, which is pretty damn decent of him.

While he's doing the dishes, ANOTHER vagrant bursts into the house! Except this one is black, so he's extra-dangerous. Vagrant #2 is all, "Where's the money?" and goes straight to the cabinet where Letty put it, except naturally it's not there anymore. Then vagrant #1 comes in from the kitchen and whacks vagrant #2 upside the head. Vagrant #2 goes splat and vagrant #1 observes that he's dead--he knows, since he's killed men before. But it's all good, cuz he was saving Letty from the colored person.

They're going to dump the body outside, but Letty wants to make sure he's dead first (so she can whack him again if he isn't?). It's then that she notices vagrant #2 is not actually black--instead, it's her husband in black face!

David Tennant what

I'm sorry, but... WHAT?! Of all the things I hoped would happen during the course of this story--Letty plotting to steal the money from her hubby and running away, her and the vagrant falling in love and running off together, etc.--her husband stealing the money from her while in black face was noooowhere on the list. Zomg, race should not be the big reveal/plot twist. No no no no no.

Of course, Letty's not terribly upset by this (although more upset than when it was just a homeless person), because she wasn't that happy with her marriage to begin with. She doesn't know why, but I do: her husband's a controlling dick who treats her like she's ten years old. In the brief period of time he's on the page, he calls her "little" twice. AND he leaves her home alone at night all the time. No wonder she's so nice to vagrants, eh? It's the only action she gets in that house!

This is a pretty odd story. Not just the actual events that happen during the course of the tale, but the tone itself is odd. For one, the way Letty is treated is very The Doll's House-ish. Is Anna Katharine Green making a negative comment on how patronizing and controlling Ned is? I don't know. At most points in the story, it seems like this is taken as acceptable, normal behavior. But then he dies, and no one feels bad about it because he's a jerk, so that means... it's bad. Right? And Letty isn't fulfilled in the marriage, so I think Green is saying, "Yo, we have needs and desires, too, boys." But that message isn't terribly clear.

Also, the events of the story have a very comedy-of-errors feeling to them, but the tone of the writing is weirdly dire, so it all comes off as a little stilted. Then the ending is put forward so matter-of-factly and you're like, "Denouement, plz!" I'm still rooting for Letty and vagrant #1 to get married and have fourteen children.

Anna Katharine Green is the first woman to write a mystery novel, which I haven't read. But judging by this short story, I would definitely be interested in seeing what that's all about--because if it's anything like this story, it's some serious wtf.