THE DEAD SMILE by F. Marion Crawford
This has a Gothic and melodramatic feel, often florid and overblown, with evil stained into every word, but such drawbacks do not obviate the sheer terror and eventual suspense of seeking out its core secret, a terror that has haunted me all these years, to the extent that I once sought secondhand bookshops for more books by F. Marion Crawford, many of them tedious and long since ditched…
Indeed, I think the central idea embodied in the title — “the dead smile that would not die”— is so ingenious by the contiguity of the title’s constituent words, I felt, even while I actually re-read it today, what ‘they’ actually felt within the story itself: “— they felt the dead smile crawling along their own lips.”
And the fact that the family’s corpses could not keep lying down when laid to rest! — and the fact they defiantly stood up drying in their tombs was a mote I could not remove from my mind’s eye, for they stood up again in desiccation and desecration even when they were re-laid to rest.
Let me take you through it, but please beware spoilers – or worse!
“Nurse Macdonald, who was a hundred years old, said that when Sir Hugh smiled he saw the faces of two women in hell — two dead women he had betrayed. The smile widened.”
That somehow gives the ending away – straight from the start. But it fooled me again, and the suspense grew and grew, until, at the final elbow-moment of revelation shown later below, it was relieved by knowing what the secret was. Not half so bad as I expected, and I wondered if the two ‘cousins’, Gabriel and Evelyn, were going to indulge in incest!
And the dead smile and the yearning for the secret of that very smile are like L.P. Hartley’s autonomous THOUGHT that I encountered HERE, fortuitously, only a few days ago. In the FMC, it is called ‘the master thought’!
“It was like a bad dream, for he tried not to smile and smiled the more.”
“The smile was like the shadow of death and the seal of damnation upon her pure, young face.
“‘If he dies with it,’ answered Gabriel, ‘let it be on his own head!’”
“‘On his head!’ echoed the dim hall. It was a strange echo. Some were frightened by it, for they said that if it were a real echo it should repeat everything and not give back a phrase here and there — now speaking, now silent. Nurse Macdonald said that the great hall would never echo a prayer when an Ockram was to die, though it would give back curses ten for one.”
“They say an Ockram will not lie in a coffin.”
“And their faces, that were so strangely alike, met and touched. Gabriel knew that the kiss had a marvelous savor of evil. Evelyn’s lips were like the cool breath of a sweet and mortal fear that neither of them understood, for they were innocent and young. Yet she drew him to her by her lightest touch, as a sensitive plant shivers, waves its thin leaves, and bends and closes softly upon what it wants. He let himself be drawn to her willingly — as he would even if her touch had been deadly and poisonous — for he strangely loved that half voluptuous breath of fear, and he passionately desired the nameless evil something that lurked in her maiden lips.”
“‘It is as if we loved in a strange dream,’ she said.”
“‘I fear the waking,’ he murmured. ‘We shall not wake, dear. When the dream is over it will have already turned into death, so softly that we shall not know it. But until then…’”
Nurse Macdonald’s “thumbs grown longer than the fingers with age.”
“His writhing lips began to smile across his yellow teeth, and his toadlike eyes glowed like evil jewels in his head.”
“…the fear-shriek of a tormented corpse out of which the soul cannot pass for shame of deadly sins.”
“They know it in hell.”
“Sir Gabriel and Evelyn were left standing alone at the head of the table before the wreck of their feast, not daring to turn to look at one another, for each knew that the other smiled.”
The Irish maid “was knitting fast. Her needles clicked like three or four clocks ticking against each other. But the real clock on the wall solemnly ticked alone,…”
Even the Nurse’s cat had the dead smile! Probably the most frightening moment of all.
And the clinging ‘master thought’:
“The dream faded far and in its place there came the master thought that racked his life.”
“There was a frightful stench of drying death.”
And then that elbow-trigger of impending catharsis….
“Slowly he lifted it. It clove to the half-dried skin of the face, and his hand shook as if someone had struck him on the elbow,…”
My reviews of separate older horror stories: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2022/07/13/separate-horror-stories-from-many-years-ago/
PS: Please see two further FMC reviews in comment stream below