In which a sea traveler’s roommate displays a range of unpleasant habits, including one involving a porthole.
First published in 1886
Available online at Project Gutenberg
Literary devices are like fashion trends. Both come out of nowhere, have their day, and then fade into nothingness. If they return, they only do so in distorted forms, or as pastiche. This is certainly the case with the club story.
In a club story, members of a gentlemen’s club* listen to one of their number recount a tale of adventure, mystery, or the fantastic. The recitation is a frame, and the main story is told in flashback. Examples include Lord Dunsany‘s “Jorkens” stories, comic fantasies such as H. G. Wells‘s “The Truth About Pyecraft,” and many classic ghost tales (e.g., Henry James‘s “The Turn of the Screw“).
Men’s clubs played a key role in much of 19th century popular fiction, even when the recitation framework was absent. To name just two examples:
- The strange Diogenes Club appeared in a number of the Sherlock Holmes stories involving Mycroft
- The non-fictitious Reform Club marked both the beginning and the end of Phileas Fogg‘s journey in Jules Verne‘s Around the World in Eighty Days
No matter how stuffy or patriarchal these places might seem today, something about them spoke to the imaginations of many people during the Victorian era.
F. Marion Crawford’s “The Upper Berth” is a definitive club story. It perfectly captures the form. This is slightly ironic, because its setting is ambiguous — strictly speaking, it might not actually be taking place in a club at all:
“Somebody asked for the cigars. We had talked long, and the conversation was beginning to languish; the tobacco smoke had got into the heavy curtains, the wine had got into those brains which were liable to become heavy, and it was already perfectly evident that, unless somebody did something to rouse our oppressed spirits, the meeting would soon come to its natural conclusion, and we, the guests, would speedily go home to bed, and most certainly to sleep. No one had said anything very remarkable; it may be that no one had anything very remarkable to say. Jones had given us every particular of his last hunting adventure in Yorkshire. Mr. Tompkins, of Boston, had explained at elaborate length those working principles, by the due and careful maintenance of which the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fé Railroad not only extended its territory, increased its departmental influence, and transported live stock without starving them to death before the day of actual delivery, but, also, had for years succeeded in deceiving those passengers who bought its tickets into the fallacious belief that the corporation aforesaid was really able to transport human life without destroying it. Signor Tombola had endeavoured to persuade us, by arguments which we took no trouble to oppose, that the unity of his country in no way resembled the average modern torpedo, carefully planned, constructed with all the skill of the greatest European arsenals, but, when constructed, destined to be directed by feeble hands into a region where it must undoubtedly explode, unseen, unfeared, and unheard, into the illimitable wastes of political chaos.”
It certainly looks like their get-together is about to pass into the party afterlife without so much as a token show of force. It’s at this moment that the usually-taciturn Brisbane lets slip that he’s recently had a life-altering experience:
“‘It is a very singular thing,’ said Brisbane.
“Everybody stopped talking. Brisbane’s voice was not loud, but possessed a peculiar quality of penetrating general conversation, and cutting it like a knife. Everybody listened. Brisbane, perceiving that he had attracted their general attention, lit his cigar with great equanimity.
“‘It is very singular,’ he continued, ‘that thing about ghosts. People are always asking whether anybody has seen a ghost. I have.'”
At this point, the party revives faster than a napping 5-year-old who smells fresh cookies.
Brisbane tells the company that he will never sail again on the passenger ship Kamtschatka, formerly one of his favorite means of getting to and from Britain. On his most recent trip, he was assigned to the lower berth of stateroom 105. The steward who took him to the room seemed hesitant to escort him, and the doctor across the hall from 105 offered Brisbane the use of his cabin, even though Brisbane was a stranger to him.
Now, this general ominous air about stateroom 105 would be enough to dissuade me from sleeping there; however, I’m not the plucky hero of a Victorian ghost story. As you might expect, Brisbane is completely undaunted by what he’s been told, and resolves to keep the room.
Brisbane soon discovers that 105’s porthole is always open whenever he returns, even after he’s left it closed and locked. He initially blames this on the steward, although he learns in time that no one on the ship’s staff is responsible.
Then there’s the matter of his roommate, the passenger in the upper berth. Brisbane decides (for rather petty reasons) that he’s not inclined to make the man’s acquaintance; nevertheless, when the new roomie bolts from the stateroom in the middle of the night, Brisbane becomes anxious. That anxiety is assuaged somewhat when he notices that someone is in the berth the next day, unseen behind drawn curtains. But is it the same man?
The pacing of “The Upper Berth” is nigh-on perfect, as is the tone. Crawford is sending up the genre as much as he’s working within it; he often verges on a tongue-in-cheek attitude, but never in a manner that takes away from the terror of the situation. His writing also has a crispness that many other period authors lack (I’m looking at you, Henry James).
After you read “The Upper Berth,” I suggest that you seek out Crawford’s other supernatural stories that are available online, such as “The Screaming Skull” and “For the Blood Is the Life.” He was one of those authors who was incredibly prolific and popular in his day, but who’s now only known to specialists and fanatics like me. That’s a shame, and undeserved. Give Crawford a chance, and I think you’ll find him as effective as Stephen King is, even after nearly 130 years.
*”Gentlemen’s club,” in this context, means an exclusive place where men hang out and network. It is not meant in the contemporary sense, meaning an exclusive place where men hang out and network and stuff dollar bills into strippers’ g-strings.