Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Haunted Man by Charles Dickens

Source of Book: I own this.
Date originally posted on Facebook: December 20, 2010

In addition to one of the best Spock lines, (“Perhaps ‘because it is there’ is not sufficient reason for climbing a mountain.”); Star Trek V: The Final Frontier contains an interesting scene.

Sybok, the prophet, if you will, for the personage alleged to be “God” in the movie, has been gaining control of various characters by revealing to each their most secret pain, and then offering to take that pain away. Dr. McCoy tries to convince Kirk to give in to Sybok, saying, “This man took away my pain.”
Kirk responds, “[Pain and Guilt] are the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. We lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!”

But Charles Dickens was there first.

Dickens wrote five Christmas novels in addition to twenty-some Christmas themed short stories. The first was A Christmas Carol, perhaps the best known story in our modern times. My (admittedly incomplete) research seems to indicate that no other story has been made into as many movies as this one. I would even be willing to wager that a random sample of persons would reveal more familiarity with this story than the nativity itself. Oddly enough, I have found that few have read the original. No excuses! Read it this season!
For the last five years, I have read one Dickens Christmas novel each December between the craziness of Nutcracker week and the frenzy of food, family, and fun that is the holiday itself. This year, I reached the last one, The Haunted Man. Starting next year, [2011] I intend to include the kids in this tradition, starting back at the beginning.

In chronological order, the novels are, A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, and The Haunted Man.
None of the others quite rises to the level of the original – perhaps an impossible task. Each is charming in its own way, however, and worth reading.
The central premise of this story is the role of pain in making us human. Mr. Redlaw, a successful, if eccentric, chemist, is described as appearing haunted. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that he is haunted both by his memories of his tragic past and by a phantom that he alone sees. This phantom resembles him, being perhaps a metaphysical embodiment of his darkest self. Mr. Redlaw grew up under circumstances nearly identical to that of David Copperfield, himself semi-autobiographical. Later, Mr. Redlaw’s best friend jilts Redlaw’s sister, instead marrying Redlaw’s sweetheart. Redlaw’s devoted sister later dies, leaving Redlaw embittered at fate.
The phantom offers Redlaw a gift: the phantom will erase Redlaw’s memory of all sorrow, wrong, and trouble. This sounds good to Redlaw, despite some misgivings, after he is promised that none of his other mental faculties or memories will be disturbed. There is a catch, however. Not only will Redlaw receive this gift, but all he comes in contact will receive the gift from him as well.
I do not wish to spoil the story, so I will not reveal any more about the plot.
It is worth noting that Dickens’ Christmas novels are remarkably dark. We tend to think of Christmas as unfailingly optimistic, bright, cheerful. Dickens instinctively grasped the need for a contrast of light and dark, deep unhappiness that will reveal joy in its splendor. Besides, the shiver of reading a good ghost story by the glimmer from the lights on the Christmas tree is unmistakable.
If you have not read A Christmas Carol, you simply must. Read it to your kids. As to the others, kids would enjoy The Cricket on the Hearth. The Battle of Life, despite its underwhelming title, and The Haunted Man would be suitable for older children, who might not get the point. The Chimes goes to a very dark place. Consider that one in the same class as Edgar Allen Poe – kids prone to nightmares might want to grow up a little.
A note on my copy of this book:

My copy of the five Christmas novels is a Heritage Books boxed hardback. I have nearly a dozen of these by Dickens that match, several of which I have collected used at library sales and used book stores. This book, along with a few others that started my collection, were given to me by Dale Brooks. (The now retired Music Theory professor from Bakersfield College, and the husband of my former violin teacher) In addition to this generous gift, he also introduced me to and gave me my first books by P. G. Wodehouse, Anthony Trollope, and Wilkie Collins. For this, I am truly grateful.

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