#849: (Spooky) Little Fictions – ‘The Grinning God’ (1907) by May and Jacques Futrelle

It’s Hallowe’en — or, er, it will be in a few weeks — and so I’m jumping on the branding train and looking at some short stories that feature ghosts, ghouls, witches, and other season-appropriate horrors which end up having rational resolutions.

I wanted to start with ‘The Grinning God’ (1907) because it’s a fascinating anomaly in the rich history of detective fiction finding ratiocinative explanations for the apparently supernatural. Published in the Associated Sunday Magazine over two weeks, the first part (published at the end of November, which seems a month too late to me) was written by May Futrelle, wife of Jacques, under the title ‘Wraiths of the Storm’, with the express intention that she provide a range of seemingly otherworldly occurrences which would admit no explanation. The following week, under the title ‘The House That Was’, her husband would bring the full intellect of his genius amateur detective Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen — “the Thinking Machine” — to bear on the problems, and show how each could be attributed to an earthly cause.

‘Wraiths of the Storm’ tells the story of Harold Fairbanks, driving in the late hours along a lonely road between the towns of Pelham and Millen, stopping off at a store to buy some petrol — which it was apparently illegal to pump between certain hours, history fans — and being told that there is nowhere before Millen where he will be able to put up for the night. Undeterred, he continues along the road until it reaches a fork not shown on his map, and then the oddities start: ghostly screaming, a figure in white crossing the road without leaving footprints before apparently floating up a tree, the discovery of an old house occupied by an old man who evinces no awareness of Fairbanks’ presence, more screaming, and Fairbanks eventually setting the house on fire (I think this is accidental) and then fleeing, breaking his ankle in the process.

“A quiet night, then.”

Upon waking up in a hospital in Millen, Fairbanks tells his story and learns several important things, chief among which is that the road along which he drove has no branching point, being instead straight between the two towns, and so the entire basis of his story is looking rather wobbly. He is even taken out to the stretch of road by a sympathetic doctor and discovers that the store at which he called has been closed up for some time, and sees for himself the complete absence of any branching road. However, certain physical considerations — his broken ankle, the statue of a deity taken from the house that he finds in his pocket (petty theft and arson, what a guy!) — convince him of the legitimacy of what he experienced and so, naturally, it’s off to the asylum with him.

This first section is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly just how damn tame it is — Futrelle had dealt with a possibly-ghostly figure in white in ‘The Mystery of the Ghost Woman’ (1907), a superior story, earlier in the year, and his own ‘The Mystery of the Flaming Phantom’ (1907) does a far more inventive job of conjuring up the horror of the inexplicable — but also how there’s simply no way it was written without Mr. Futrelle’s input despite the magazine’s editorial comments to the contrary. The final line of this story, the last deduction that makes sense of arguably the most interesting element, is so damn perfect, and relies so heavily on a trifling detail from early in Mrs. Futrelle’s tale, that I refuse to believe she would have included it without his prompting (or, as seems even more likely, his just writing it himself). Interesting, too, that explanations for some aspects seem to be included in this first part: the figure leaving no footprints being put down to “the wind gusts [having] covered them with dust, obliterat[ing] them” — the Absence of Mr. Futrelle, hm?

It’s well-written at times, leaning hard into the Suspense school before it would have occurred to anyone that there should be such a thing as a Suspense school…

Heedless of all the intangible horrors of that lonely spot in the forest, maddened by terror at the inexplicable things which had befallen me, I stumbled back to the pulsating automobile, clambered in, and sent it forward headlong on the road…

…but the problems really creep in when Fairbanks comes upon the house, and finds the door opening without anyone being near, the old man unaware of his presence, the fire in the grate without “the fresh crackle of fresh burning wood as there should have been”. It’s all perfectly weird and enjoyable from the position of trying to imagine something inexplicable, but when Van Dusen brings his eye to the problem he manages to overlook certain factors in a way that’s more than a little unsatisfying if only because it’s the small points that usually make this sort of endeavour so interesting.

“Go on.”

Van Dusen’s entry in the second half is interesting purely because of the man’s commitment to pure reason in the face of the spiralling emotion crammed into events thus far — “I don’t even disbelieve in what is broadly termed the supernatural — I merely don’t know”. In assuming nothing, and investigating carefully, he is able to provide the answers that seem to out of reach, but they’re all a little too pat — an Edmund Crispin story disposes with one of the fallacies herein, and the explanation by which a house burned down can be found still standing is…a reach, at best. Even more so would be that no-one connected Fairbanks’ story with the solution…how much could really be happening in these American backwaters just after the turn of the century for no-one to think there might be some link between two identical situations on the same night? That silent fire is simply never mentioned again, either, even though there could have been a way to explain it (anyone who has read Paul Halter’s most recent story ‘The Celestial Thief’ (2021, tr. 2021) will tell you that).

This is why the story is such a fascinating one to me — because it’s a wonderful idea, but it ends up so completely squandering its promise. I appreciate that a game of literary Consequences, with the writer of the second part having no influence over the difficulties raised in the first, would be disappointing in the extreme, but to simply bat away these tame problems with equally tame solutions (and to add in a conveniently acrobatic lunatic — Futrelle’s word — at that) is something of a disappointing outcome. The lesson learned is that the eldritch, the supernatural, the intangible needs to have a single steering hand behind it — or the consistent input of two or more hands for every part of the story — otherwise the setup will promise things the resolution simply cannot deliver. Hopefully we’ll see more pleasing example of this type of undertaking in the weeks to come [SPOILER: yes, we will].

One thought on “#849: (Spooky) Little Fictions – ‘The Grinning God’ (1907) by May and Jacques Futrelle

  1. I’ve always been fascinated by the supposed wife-husband-tag-team aspect of this, but I still haven’t gotten around to reading it. And though your diagnosis of the strategy’s inherent structural imbalance seems spot on, I do look forward to finally doing so, since meeting Futrelle’s intelligence and inventiveness is always a pleasure in any measure.

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