The Dead Valley

In which two Swedish boys find themselves in a hinterland unknown to cartographers.

By Ralph Adams Cram

First published in 1895

Collected in Black Spirits and White (available via Project Gutenberg)


I say “haunted,” you say…

“House,” I would suppose. And with good cause, because if it’s haunted, both literary tradition and common usage insist that it’s a house.

Yes, I’m aware of all the attempts to branch out over the years, those stories of haunted cruise-ship berths and beach resorts and operating theaters and Christian Science reading rooms.  Some of them are highly effective, yet the house retains its dominance.  Clearly, for most literary specters, to manifest themselves in anything other than a house would be gauche.  That’s the power of culture, here and in the next world.

Given all that, there’s an irony to “The Dead Valley,” for two reasons:

  1. The author of this story was a distinguished American architect with a career that spanned sixty years. His work as a creator of churches earned him a feast day in the calendar of the Episcopal Church (December 16th), and he was an earnest historian of his profession.  He also built his share of houses.
  2. In “The Dead Valley” <non-spoiler_alert> it’s the valley that’s haunted </non-spoiler_alert>.  There are no buildings in sight; in fact, no buildings are even described in passing.

The latter fact makes “Valley” unique among Cram’s literary works, since his other ghost stories are very much informed by his trade. From their titles alone you can tell that the built landscape was Cram’s obsession: “No. 252 Rue M. Le Prince,” In Kropfsberg Keep,” “The White Villa,” and “Notre Dame Des Eaux.”  All of these are haunted house stories par excellence. Within this corpus “The Dead Valley” stands alone, an odd duck in an spooky pond.

It begins with the unnamed American narrator telling us a story that was, in turn, related to him by his friend Olof Ehrensvärd.

When Olof was twelve, he and his best friend Nils visited the nearby town of Engelholm. There, they became smitten with a puppy that they couldn’t afford to buy.  Later, having procured the necessary funds from their parents, the boys made arrangements to visit the pet merchant’s home in Hallsberg, to purchase the puppy prior to the next market day.

Incidentally, Cram makes the trip to Hallsberg seem lengthy but doable by a couple of plucky kids.  When you check Google Maps, however, you discover that Engelholm and Hallsberg are 235.9 miles (379.7km) apart.  Now, this is only a short 4 hours and 45 minutes via Saab on Swedish Route 26, but Olof and Nils lacked the Saab, and — I suspect — the route. You can file this flagrant disregard of geography under the heading of “Dark Fantasists Like to Mess With You.”

In any case, having successfully made their way across 25% of Sweden in record time, the lads buy the puppy. Following this, they stay overnight at the house of Nils’s aunt, and start back later than they planned the next day. Olof reckons that they’ll be home by midnight, but you just somehow know his schedule is overly optimistic.

So it is that, around dusk, the boys and the new puppy stumble upon an unnerving valley. where the air is stagnant and the acoustics are disconcerting:

“”Perfect silence,—the crushing silence of deep forests at night; and more, for always, even in the most impenetrable fastnesses of the wooded mountains, is the multitudinous murmur of little lives, awakened by the darkness, exaggerated and intensified by the stillness of the air and the great dark: but here and now the silence seemed unbroken even by the turn of a leaf, the movement of a twig, the note of night bird or insect. I could hear the blood beat through my veins; and the crushing of the grass under our feet as we advanced with hesitating steps sounded like the falling of trees.”

Then they hear a ghastly cry.

Olof and Nils attempt to flee, but this only brings them closer to the Dead Valley.  Things go more and more wrong, and soon the lads are in a strange fight for their lives.  It’s this that later makes Olof want to confront the valley, which has become his idée fixe.  That proves to be a spectacularly bad idea…

Written nearly a century after the demise of German Romanticism, “The Dead Valley” nonetheless captures that movement’s basic impulses.  It’s easy to imagine Caspar David Friederich painting a landscape based on this story, and the imagery of rugged mountains, deep forests, dense fogs and spiraling hawks are straight out of Das Nibelungenlied.

At the same time, “The Dead Valley” points forward, toward the 20th-century masters of the ambiguous, such as Robert Aickman and Shirley Jackson. It’s not giving anything away to tell you that the thing haunting the valley remains unknown, and likely unknowable.

That his story faces both the past and the future shouldn’t be as surprise, because Cram was a man who loved both Gothic and art deco architecture, and whose work combined the traditional with the modern.  Unfortunately, the number of stories he left isn’t large, but his best work can be found in the 1895 collection Black Spirits and White, available via the Gutenberg link above.

Of course, a ghost story in pixels is somehow not the same as one in paper and ink, but Cram is so good you might be able to overlook that, as you read late into the night at your house, haunted or not.