Magnificent Horror Moments (No. 1)
IMAGINE a cobwebbed farmhouse in Wales, home of a notorious miser on his deathbed, watched over by his grasping daughter. Imagine a devious undertaker with whom the old man has feuded now calling on the man, one stormy night, intent on fleecing him as fully as he possibly can.
Such a story could, you might perhaps think, be set fair for a moment of magnificent horror… and you would not be wrong. We recommend that you read the story in its entirety, but here, for now, is our inaugural
MAGNIFICENT HORROR MOMENT
‘THE LAST WILL’ – a short story by GLYN JONES
Selected by Matthew G. Rees
The relatively little-known Welshman Glyn Jones (1905-1995) is an author worthy of wider acclaim.
Some of his more lyrical writing might not appeal to modern audiences (the style of which, one suspects, might be felt a little cloying). When it comes to his supernatural stories – ‘Jordan’ is one of his best-known – he seems to set aside his more over-blown descriptive writing in favour of the powerfully succinct (while still conjuring memorable images and eerie – and convincing – atmospheres).
In his short story ‘The Last Will’ (encountered by me in a first edition of The Water Music and Other Stories, 1944), a village’s roguish undertaker – Dafydd Penry – makes a visit to a notorious and (so he believes) dying miser, allegedly to charitably help the old skinflint make his final will.
The mission is a delicate one for the devious Penry: the two men have long feuded over a past transaction involving a roll of fence wire (with William Nantygors believing himself to have been defrauded by Penry).
Even so Penry cannot help but scheme to swindle his ‘client’. He does so in cahoots with the old man’s daughter, Lwisa, steadily advancing her claim for an ever-greater share of the miser’s estate against the claims of her absent siblings.
Old William inhabits a dark and tumbledown farmstead, thick with cobwebs, brilliantly described by Jones. He is so mean that he sits in his bed wearing an old flour sack for a nightshirt.
Penry’s kickback – via the greedy Lwisa – is to be six pounds in cash taken from a hoard hidden in a black woollen stocking under the old man’s mattress.
In the final pages of the story William dies (or seems to). His daughter begins the task of tying up her father’s (slack) jaw with a piece of pudding cloth. Dafydd Penry meanwhile emerges into the candlelight wearing a pair of new trousers (seemingly those of the dead man).
Suddenly a huge crash of thunder rocks the house. An ancient grandfather clock begins striking. And William Nantygors – if he ever really was dead – comes back to life. Soon he is pulling his boots on with his skeletal claws of hands.
By now Dafydd Penry is fleeing in terror in the pouring rain, on a night ‘black as a bull’s belly’.
With him is Penry’s young (and innocent) grandson, who Penry took to the farmstead, and through whose eyes – and memories – the story is later recounted.
Arguably the finest passage of the story comes near its end as the undertaker and his grandson make to escape, hurrying… splashing, through the storm.
‘… we reached the stone stile. There, just as we were crossing over, we saw Willam Nantygors by a flash of lightninig, standing outside the house on the edge of the bog in his boots and his boiled night-bag. He was tall and narrow, like a long legged scarecrow in the pouring rain, with his thin head and his skinny arms showing out of the corners of his black nightgown. In his hand was the long stocking and by the next flash of lightning we saw it sailing out over the bog, the golden coins from it in a shower in the lightning as they scattered flashing over the muddy land.’
One can’t help think of Judas Iscariot and his pieces of silver; also, perhaps, the writing of Nathaniel Hawthorne. (The story is set in a chapel-going community. Penry proclaims his good neighbourliness in going to call on William. But money is the true object of Penry’s worship. None of the story’s three main adult players have any saving graces. Penry, notably, shuns services at the chapel. Fleeing the farm he hears a neighbour – returning from chapel – whistling a hymn. But Penry cannot see him for the dark.)
The storm’s burial of the miser’s farm, under a sea of mud (reported in the story’s final line), echoes the fate of Poe’s House of Usher.
*Glyn Jones was a short story writer, novelist, poet and literary historian. Born at Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, he was a friend of Dylan Thomas, Caradoc Evans and Gwyn Jones.