What’s really scary: Wharton’s “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell”

Edith Wharton's house at "The Mount," Lenox, Massachusetts. Stories that the house is haunted havecirculated for years: even the Ghost Hunters did a show there. (David Dashiell / Wikimedia Commons / CC-A-SA)

As a kid, I helped build a haunted house at a camp carnival. We made our house a homage to great horror films such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Shining and Children of the Corn.

But the last thing we put in our haunted house was a simple dark room. When people entered the dark room, we’d hide in a corner and wait, listening to them giggle nervously, wondering what was going to happen.

Then we’d make a small noise – just the sound of a chain hitting an old shovel blade — and sit back and laugh as they freaked out and tore out at top speed.

We understood what you don’t see is often scarier than what you can see. And similarly, what you don’t know can be more disturbing than having actual answers.

These are two tricks that Edith Wharton uses in her short story “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell.” Published in 1902, Wharton tells the story of a maid, hired to assist a woman who lives in a stereotypically gloomy country house. Her children are dead, her husband usually absent. Her only companions are a local (Mr. Ranford), the staff, and the obligatory ghost of her former maid, who spends her afterlife causing everyone grief by appearing in the house and ringing the staff’s call bells.

If you haven’t read the story, don’t worry. I’m not giving the plot away. The story, which has thematic implications going well beyond my interests for this piece, opens up numerous doors as it raises questions. Unfortunately for the concrete-sequential reader, Wharton obstinately refuses to shut any of them.

Portrait of Wharton as a child.

Edith Newbold Jones Wharton, 1870, Oil on canvas by Edward Harrison May. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

Why is the ghost of the former maid haunting the house? We don’t know.

What really went on between Mrs. Brympton and Mr. Ranford? We don’t know.

And why does the ghost lead Alice Hartley on a cross-country jaunt?

None of us know. This frustrates the reader, but terrifies the narrator, especially when the ghost disappears without telling her why she’s led her on an afternoon stroll:

I knew well enough that she hadn’t led me there for nothing… She was gone, and I had not been able to guess what she wanted. Her last look had pierced me to the marrow; and yet it had not told me! All at once, I felt more desolate than when she had stood there…

Normally I don’t like this sort of open-ended story technique, where the reader’s denied a literal resolution to the story. Though I appreciate good questions, I do want them to be answered eventually. I like my fiction nice and tied up by the end.

But in this piece, Wharton uses the story’s questions as a way of increasing the scare factor. Because we don’t know for certain why the ghost is around, we’re forced to come up with our own interpretations, drawing us deeper into the mystery.

And what we come up with might disturb us just as much as we scared those kids in the carnival haunted house.

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