Home » Magnificent Horror Moments – ‘The Withered Arm’ by Thomas Hardy – Chosen by Clare Ramsey

Magnificent Horror Moments (No. 2)

 

HORROR and the supernatural are genres of fiction that, sadly, some who like to think of themselves as literary  – poor, deluded lambs – have a tendency to look down on. If Horla was to list the fine writers who’ve turned their pens to these subjects we’d probably be here not only until this Hallowe’en, but the one after it, also. Instead, we’ll just cite as ‘Exhibit A’ Thomas Hardy and rest our case.

Here Horla contributor Clare Ramsey argues why Hardy is more than worthy of inclusion in Horla’s hall of fame for a magnificent horror moment in a Wessex tale from long ago.

MAGNIFICENT HORROR MOMENT

from

‘THE WITHERED ARM’ – a short story by THOMAS HARDY

Selected by Clare Ramsey

THE mauling Jane Austen seems to have undergone in recent years in screen treatments large and small is something that Thomas Hardy has by and large been spared (perhaps surprisingly when one considers the size of his catalogue).

It’s true that TV ‘adaptations’ have forced on us some suspiciously lavish sideburns (The Mayor of Casterbridge seems a favourite). And there’ve been some reasonable films. The 1967 cinema version of Far From The Madding Crowd certainly had a stellar cast: Julie Christie, Terence Stamp and Alan Bates to name but three. Polanksi’s Tess (1979) has been described as ‘an outstanding piece of work’ (Philip French, The Guardian) but is perhaps destined to be best remembered for its use of France as Wessex (Roman Polanski was a fugitive from U.S. judicial proceedings having jumped bail while on a charge of raping a 13 year-old girl) and also the difficulty some observers had in accepting Natassja Kinski (whose later numbers included Cat People, 1982) in the title role as a young woman of the English West Country. (The same novel had the Hollywood treatment a couple of years ago, with a version that seems to have slipped away fairly peacefully.)

Which brings me to Hardy’s short stories – I believe there are forty-nine – and, most famously, The Wessex Tales.

In the 1970s the BBC produced a number of films of supernatural stories by classic authors. Dickens featured (‘The Signalman’, starring Denholm Elliott) as did big-hitters in the genre such as M.R. James. (Wouldn’t it be a breath of fresh air – or perhaps we should ask for sinister mist or sulphurous fog – to  have material of this kind – perhaps by contemporary practitioners – done well once again on TV? The market is surely out there!) 

The BBC adapted six of Hardy’s stories. Footage I’ve seen has been perfectly watchable in production terms. However, as always, our hope is that (while not dismissing films and, very possibly, enjoying them) that you’ll make your way to the original text.

It’s in one of these stories, ‘The Withered Arm’, that you’ll discover a magnificent horror moment. First published in 1888, it’s one of Hardy’s best-known tales.

Hardy (1840-1928) grew up in the largely rural county of Dorset, in south-west England, and learned superstitions and legends of country lore from his mother and grandmother. ‘The Withered Arm’ is arguably where, in his large literary output, his fascination with this knowledge is deployed to most telling effect.

As Susan Hill, academic and author (The Woman in Black, The Mist in the Mirror), has commented, the story is one of his most gripping.

‘It has typical elements of the macabre and grotesque and he builds up these with deadly effect in scene after scene.’

Farmer Lodge, a prosperous yeoman, sets up with a pretty young wife, Gertrude, having some while earlier discarded  (at least romantically) Rhoda, a milkwoman (who nonetheless continues to work in his dairy, where some think her a witch). After Gertrude’s arrival at the farm the young bride suffers an affliction to her arm. Eventually she turns to lore in her desperation to heal it.

Hardy’s inclusion in Horla’s hall of fame comes not for the story’s rather melodramatic ending, which, let it be said, is more than a little telegraphed.

The story’s really stunning moment comes much earlier, with the episode that marks the start of Gertrude’s strange decline.

Known as the incubus dream (Hardy calls the chapter ‘The Vision’), this is the passage in which Rhoda, having contemplated Gertrude so intently, finds herself visited in a nightmare by the woman who has supplanted her. And not as a pretty young woman either, but as a taunting crone, who climbs on Rhoda in her bed.

Hardy writes:

‘… with features shockingly distorted, and wrinkled as by age… sitting upon her chest as she lay. The presure of Mrs Lodge’s person grew heavier; the blue eyes peered cruelly into her face; and the figure thrust forward its left hand mockingly, so as to make the wedding-ring it wore glitter in Rhoda’s eyes. Maddened mentally, and nearly suffocated by pressure, the sleeper struggled; the incubus, still regarding her, withdrew to the foot of the bed, only, however to come forward by degrees, resume her seat, and flash her left hand as before.

‘Gasping for breath, Rhoda, in a last desperate effort, swung out her right hand, seized the confronting spectre by its obtrusive left arm, and whirled it backward to the floor, starting up herself as she did so with a low cry.

‘O, merciful heaven!’ she cried, sitting on the edge of the bed in a cold sweat; ‘that was not a dream – she was here!

‘She could feel her antagonist’s arm within her grasp even now – the very flesh and bone of it, as it seemed. She looked on the floor whither she had whirled the spectre, but there was nothing to be seen.’

In the BBC film of the story the moment occupies a minute of reel, if that. The adaptation is reasonable enough.

However, the real power is incontestably with the written passage. Here there is a genuine sense of Rhoda being in extremis (‘maddened’ , ‘suffocated’) and also a much more effective conveyance of the spirit’s persistence: it withdraws but only to come again, by degrees, until Rhoda finally throws it off, having grasped its arm.         

Note, incidentally, how Hardy uses language that might have been written by an author today: ‘gasping for breath’, ‘cold sweat’ and ‘a last desperate effort’.

Susan Hill, in her introduction to the Hardy collection The Distracted Preacher and Other Tales, Penguin, 1981), which includes ‘The Withered Arm’, makes the point that Hardy’s stories are ‘eminently readable and delightfully accessible’, adding that one of Hardy’s great strengths was his  depiction of women: ‘… he understands them intuitively and reveals most convincingly their inner natures and psychological subtleties…’

Regardless of its slightly overcooked ending there is much to celebrate in this story, not least what Hill describes as Hardy’s spare but exacting use of language: at the farm the morning after her nightmare the milk that Rhoda drew ‘quivered’ into the pail, writes Hardy: ‘her hand had not calmed even yet’.

Without specifying, Hill hails some of Hardy’s stories ‘masterpieces’. The flaunting of the wedding ring by the incubus of Gertrude Lodge is certainly a moment of magnificent horror. A hell of a moment, in fact.

 

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