Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
This week, we’re reading F. Marion Crawford’s “The Screaming Skull,” first published in the July 11th and 18th, 1908, issues of Collier’s. Spoilers ahead.
“If I were you, I would never tell ugly stories about ingenious ways of killing people, for you never can tell but that some one at the table may be tired of his or her nearest and dearest.”
Captain Charles Braddock, retired, lives in the seaside village of Tredcombe, in the house he inherited from physician cousin Luke Pratt. A childless widower, he lives alone, but on this gale-swept November night he’s fireside with an old seagoing friend. Drinks and reminiscences are the order of the evening, until they’re interrupted by a piercing scream of indeterminate source.
To his startled guest, Braddock explains he’s often heard it, and though he’s not nervous or imaginative, though he’s never believed in ghosts, maybe this screamer is one. It hates Braddock almost as much as it hated Pratt, and so it screams at him.
Braddock cautions against telling “ugly stories about ingenious ways of killing people.” You never can tell who’s eager to learn from them. Mrs. Pratt seemed a sweet-tempered woman, though he’d seen her and Pratt bicker. Once when dinner was ill-cooked, Pratt snapped that his wife was trying to poison him. Seeing she was hurt, Braddock joked about smarter murder methods, including how an Irish woman got away with killing three husbands by drugging them, then pouring molten lead in their ears.
Shortly afterwards, Mrs. Pratt died in her sleep. Luke lived on alone except for her old bulldog Bumble. Poor Luke grew so thin his head looked “like a skull with parchment stretched over it,” and Bumble began to behave strangely. Finally Luke killed the dog, unable to stand how Bumble would sit in Mrs. Pratt’s chair and howl at him. Braddock now believes Bumble’s howling wasn’t the only noise tormenting Luke, but scoffs at fearing the inexplicable. When he doesn’t understand a thing, he just calls it a phenomenon—doesn’t mean it’ll kill him. Nor does he assume Luke killed his wife just because he found a ladle clotted with lead in the best bedroom cupboard. Braddock’s thrown the ladle out to sea. No use keeping it—Luke’s death was troublesome enough.
See, Luke was found dead on the beach. The coroner ruled he’d been killed “by the hands or teeth of some person or animal unknown.” By his head was a jawless skull, beautifully shaped though jawless, the sort of specimen a doctor might keep. Evidently it had rolled from an old bandbox of Mrs. Pratt’s. Perplexed, people put the skull back in the box, the box in a cupboard in the bedroom which Braddock later occupied. For a while.
Braddock’s not afraid of haunts, but it became a nuisance to hear moans from the cupboard, always at 3:17 a.m. He began wondering whether the skull was Mrs. Pratt’s, whether Luke removed her head before burial and hid it—how that Irish woman was convicted, the exhumed skulls of her husbands all contained lead lumps. Something rattles in the cupboard skull, but Braddock won’t shake it out. Better not to know.
Anyhow, exasperated one 3:17, Braddock threw the skull out the window. The skull screamed like a cannon shell as it flew; the screaming continued intermittently, always nearer the house. Towards dawn, Braddock answered a hollow knocking on the front door, and the skull rolled inside against his foot.
He put it back in its box and cupboard, where it likes to be and screams the least. He now sleeps downstairs, and his housekeeper goes home every night. Her husband, the church sexton, helps Braddock with his garden. Digging there, the sexton unearthed a lime-encased jawbone that perfectly matches the cupboard cranium. Braddock’s not nervous, but when he rejoined the bony bits, the skull bit his hand; wait, it only seemed to, right?
Guest wants to see the skull. Braddock fetches it. Another scream sounds on his way downstairs, but not from the box, which proves the sound doesn’t come from the skull. See how Braddock’s sealed it inside with wax? Not that it’s Mrs. Pratt’s, just a medical specimen—
The parlor windows blow open, extinguishing their lamp. After they right matters, Braddock agrees the offending wind did scream like a harpy, more proof the skull’s not to blame for auditory phenomena. He breaks the wax seal to discover the skull’s gone! Could the sexton have stolen it? He’s always seemed to know more about Mrs. Pratt’s death than he’d tell! Wait, what’s fallen out of the box? A lump of lead!
Outside, another scream, and a hollow knocking. When Braddock opens the door, the skull blows in and rolls toward the guest, who snatches it up and throws it into the bandbox. Braddock scolds him for roughness, then sees the skull’s bitten guest’s hand bloody. Or guest has torn his hand on its teeth, yes, of course. Funny how the jawbone’s clamped vise-tight. Must be the dampness. And it must be the devout sexton took the skull, meaning to bury it in the churchyard, but he temporarily hid it in the bushes, and the screaming gale blew it against the door, then inside, yes. Watch Braddock reseal the box, please, then lock it back in its preferred place. Then they’ll go to bed safely downstairs—may they not dream about the skull!
So ends Braddock’s narrative. An excerpt from the local newspaper follows, headlined “Mysterious Death of a Retired Sea Captain.” Braddock’s been found in his bed, windpipe crushed by the jaws of a human assailant. Police suspect an escaped lunatic of considerable strength, though the examining surgeon claims from teeth marks that the assailant was a small woman….
What’s Cyclopean: Braddock’s old sailors’ cadence is pitch perfect.
The Degenerate Dutch: Narrator’s Cornish servants have no great opinion of any Southern bogey. “Isn’t it amusing, the idea that Scotland has a monopoly of the supernatural? Odd sort of national pride, I call that, don’t you?”
Mythos Making: Just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s dangerous or supernatural. It’s just a phenomenon. Lovecraft might have something to say about the potential dangers of natural phenomena…
Libronomicon: Narrator mentions that Captain Lecky wrote about a submarine earthquake in “Wrinkles.” He also quotes Tennyson’s “Sweet and Low,” which his wife was fond of.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Our narrator is not nervous. You can tell, because he says so, often. And after all, he can still do sums—when a man is going crazy, it’s the mechanical part of his mind that gets out of order.
You may think it’s harmless to keep the peace with your problematic relatives, laughing diplomatically and gently deflecting when they say horrible things. But take a lesson from Captain Charles Braddock; it may be a lot better for your long-term health to call them out at the dinner table.
The Weird describes “The Screaming Skull” as “an outstanding early example of modern monologue, and it is indeed an excellent monologue. Better than a monologue, really, because Crawford builds in negative space where you can almost hear Braddock’s guest, almost see what he’s doing. It reminds me a bit of radio plays, the whole scene sketched out by insinuation from the narrator’s descriptions. And not only the current scene, but Braddock and his guest’s shared past. Just two old sailors talking over old times and current troubles, and it’s no hardship to sit quietly in the corner and listen to them yak.
Crawford’s fond of old sailors’ stories, of course. Our previous visit, with “The Upper Berth,” was a safer sort of story—told without the clammy dead roommate present, for a start, safe long afterwards by a warm fire. But there are commonalities still: solid haunts in place of diaphanous ones, scariness focused on a single sense (sound here, touch there). And one more commonality: Crawford’s narrators face scary things, but they don’t face them alone. There’s no talk of whether anyone could ever be induced to believe them: friends and co-witnesses are at hand. Upper Berth’s narrator has the captain’s steady hand, and Braddock has a ready listener who can hear not only his tale, but the skull itself. It’s a bit of reassurance in the midst of fear, and a mercy that not all authors would provide.
Getting back to the problematic relatives, Luke’s a hell of a cousin—but a very believable villain. If your uncle/cousin/grandmother who says nasty things at Thanksgiving hasn’t killed anyone yet, maybe it’s just that you haven’t told the wrong story at the wrong time. Horror is full of hauntings and revenges and confessions for horrific crimes; Braddock’s failure is subtler.
And you can’t really blame Mrs. Pratt for holding it against him. It’s not only that he told the story, but that he knew how Luke was treating her and never did anything about it. And there he is, living in the house he gained by putting up with Luke’s BS for so long… And for all that, she seems a homely sort of haunt, most of the time. She wants to be in her cupboard, in the house where she’s comfortable even if it’s also the house she shared for too long with her horror of a husband. It’s only when taken out, tossed over fences, or otherwise disturbed that she gets truly aggressive. But that scream… the same one she gave in the moment she thought her child had been shot. She’s not having a happy afterlife, and it seems only natural for her to share a hint of that distress with the men who caused it.
The thing about Braddock’s failure, though, is that it’s one you can probably imagine committing. You may never bury a tell-tale heart beneath your floorboards—but say the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time? Spend too long denying that the fraying marriage on the other side of the table has degenerated into abuse? Those are mistakes to wake you in terror at 2am, whether or not there’s a screaming skull to provide a reminder.
Skulls. Why does it so often have to be skulls, or their meatier version, severed heads variably fresh? Howard gave us a fine collection in the museum of “The Hound’s” necrophiliac aesthetes. Clark Ashton Smith installed the head of his returned sorcerer in a cupboard. Given Crawford also places his skull in a cupboard, this must be the ideal storage area: dry, dark, out of sight if not always out of mind—or ear. Crawford adds an ironic touch in the bandbox, normally a hat repository. No jaunty millinery confection here, though, only its former wearer.
Memento mori, anyone? The human skull’s always been a capital symbol for the inevitability of death. Walk in any burial ground featuring Puritan-era graves. Sip your favorite tipple every time you spot a skull-embellished headstone. You’ll soon be staggering drunk. Before you achieve escape intoxication, though, notice how time has worn down many carvings until they’re barely recognizable. Hah, with strange aeons, even death may die!
That’s comforting. Nevertheless, I remember watching Dark Shadows episodes in which someone suffered from the infamous dream-curse. Its victims had a recurring nightmare about opening doors to find not egress but one horror after another. Behind the first door was a—floating skull! With living eyes! I couldn’t stand it. I’d cover my eyes and peek between my fingers to ascertain whether the skull was as awful as remembered. It always was, even when I could see the stick on which it “levitated.” Dark Shadows didn’t have the highest special effects budget, but the skull still freaked me out.
So does Crawford’s skull. Mrs. Pratt’s, I mean, not that F. Marion’s couldn’t scare you silly too, if it rolled about screaming at the top of its lungs. Except it doesn’t have lungs, so where does it get breath to scream? It’s a legitimate quibble because animated skulls are in themselves perfectly natural phenomena, only they ought to keep quiet apart from incidental bumping or scraping. Whimpering, moaning, screaming, all bad skull form. I wonder if Mrs. Pratt didn’t shriek a lot while alive, when there was no one to hear but her not-so-loving husband.
I wonder a lot about this story. The opening reminds me of Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart,” which begins, “True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?…Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.” Captain Braddock seemingly takes the opposite tack by denying he’s nervous, or imaginative, or a believer in ghosts, but he too insists he isn’t mad. He too struggles to appear calm, a cheerfully garrulous raconteur. The reader doesn’t believe him for a paragraph: This guy is jumpy as hell and only too capable of imagining things like ghosts, specifically pissed-off ghosts.
By continually protesting that there’s nothing supernatural or vindictive about the skull, while as continually speculating about the whys and wherefores of its supernatural vindictiveness, Braddock shows himself to be a deliciously unreliable narrator—which should we buy, Captain, the skull’s a malevolent ghost or the skull’s a skull and there are other “phenomena” that explain the inconvenient screaming? My further question is: How much does Braddock deserve Mrs. Pratt’s fury?
He says he feels guilty about her death because he told Luke Pratt about the lead-pouring Irishwoman. You’re being too fine, man, I thought. You were simply being your rambling self, with no notion that Luke harbored murderous animosity towards his wife, no idea he’d seize on the Irishwoman as an exemplar for homicide. Or—were you aware of serious domestic dysfunction between the Pratts? You admit to witnessing bickering, to knowing Luke always had anger control issues. You hint Mrs. Pratt might not have been so very meek—hadn’t you seen her go red and bite her lips to keep her temper? There’s a contradiction inherent in first claiming you didn’t know the couple weren’t on good terms, then listing reasons why you should have known it.
Take it darker. Does Braddock only speculate on how Luke murdered his wife and covered up the crime—or does he know how Luke did it? Braddock presents damning evidence against Luke, like the lead-encrusted ladle, then tries to dismiss the evidence as circumstantial. Does he just want to believe Luke couldn’t have been so evil, Mrs. Pratt couldn’t have reason for vengeance-haunting? Or does he “imagine” what happened so cogently because he knows what happened? Because Luke confessed his crime? Because Braddock was somehow Luke’s conspirator?
But Braddock can’t reveal the true extent of his guilt. If there is an extent to it worthy of osseous wrath. Animate skulls don’t always make fine distinctions between those who deserve to have their windpipes crushed and those who don’t. In which way they resemble skulls that still have a brain in them, and fleshly coverings, and living bodies attached.
Moral: Don’t trust skulls in any condition? Or, minimally, don’t keep them in your cupboard. Come on, does that skull really spark joy?
Next week, for a slightly belated Halloween, what could be more appropriate than Poe? No, not that pesky heart, but something a bit more… celebratory: “The Masque of the Red Death.”
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is now available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.