THE DEEP ONES: "Professor Pownall's Oversight" by H. Russell Wakefield
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"Professor Pownall's Oversight" by H. Russell Wakefield
Discussion begins on October 17, 1928.
First published as "The Unseen Player" in the March 1928 issue of The Royal Magazine.
No online versions found to date.
SELECTED PRINT VERSIONS
They Return at Evening: A Book of Ghost Stories
The Best Ghost Stories of H. Russell Wakefield
Hm. I could get hold of this, but it'd be yet another ebook collection bought for a single story.
I will try for an interlibrary loan if I don't find it on the shelves at my local.
I just got an email that my requested copy of The Best Ghost Stories of H. Russell Wakefield is now waiting for me at the library across the street.
The cosmos wants you to read it!
Apparently the cosmos wants me to wait a bit: on the shelves but not at my local, probably take a week for transport.
I'll be re-reading, but I really should. I was the nominator for this one.
I liked this one a lot with what I took to be it's combination of a "standard" ghost story, sort of a frustrating doppelganger (shades of Poe's "William Wilson"), and sort of a Jungian shadow self. And how many stories feature haunting by the spirit of chess, a game whose study may draw you too far into the "dim borderland"?
I'm rather surprised that Serge doesn't provide us proof that Morisson existed so even that may be in doubt.
I came away with a lot of questions.
How to explain no record of Pownall playing?
Did Pownall slip over into that “dim borderland” through his maniacal chess studies? Was he especially susceptible because of his forsaking all human attachments?
If Morisson does exist is he some kind of “double” for Pownall, Pownall’s better self? The idea of that is planted when Pownall tells us his life began when he met Morisson.
What are we to make of Morisson’s charm? An unfair gift of the gods (thereby hinting earlier at Morisson’s association with the supernatural) granted by the universe (assuming Morisson existed) just to foil Pownall?
Morisson exists in some form since Serge sees him. But is he a manifestation of a being from those “dim borderlands” there to foil human presumption at trying to play the perfect game, to attain perfection? Does Serge see him because Serge, by studying Pownall’s games and trying to imitate them, can’t be allowed to prevail by whatever force Morisson represents? Or, if Morisson existed, does he simply haunt chess games where Pownall’s spirit is, so to speak, in play?
Does Morisson, whether he existed or not, represent the universe foiling Pownall in every effort, a personal universal malevolence?
Is Wakefield casting his net wider and speculating that abstract pursuits can render people insane?
We know that Pownall is an unreliable narrator, if nothing else because Serge contradicts his account of the tournament. But he also seems to be a very believable instance of a socially-blind misanthropic Aspie intellectual. Perhaps Morisson's "charm" is only perceived as such by Pownall, relative to his own lack of the same and in the context of their rivalry.
It does seem as if the ghost of Morisson inhabits Pownall's games, and that is how he is transferred to Serge.
Wakefield's ghosts tend to be rather traditional, ontologically objective but inexplicable.
>10 paradoxosalpha: I had not considered the case for Pownall being so Asperie that Morisson's "charm" is really only remarkable in his eyes. That character profile would fit in with Pownall being obsessed with chess and its details and what he sees as its total disconnection with social aspects of life.
Such a person would be attracted to a systematic profession like "moral philosophy".
I also liked the suggestion that chess is a game that may not be the product of human thought. That implies that delving into its mysteries is like pursuing magic. One of the "things man was not meant to know" is, according to this story, a really good game of chess.
>11 RandyStafford: One of the "things man was not meant to know" is, according to this story, a really good game of chess.
LOL. I picture a tome of Unaussprechliche Schachspiele.
>9 RandyStafford: Or, if Morisson existed, does he simply haunt chess games where Pownall’s spirit is, so to speak, in play?
>10 paradoxosalpha: It does seem as if the ghost of Morisson inhabits Pownall's games, and that is how he is transferred to Serge
That's how I took it: Pownall and Morisson haunt one another, and anyone else in touch with one (in the instance here, with Pownall's annotated games) seems susceptible to that malevolence.
I'm not all that familiar with chess history nor with the game itself, though I've long been fascinated. One aspect I've read about was the fascination with automatons, and it would appear this story is set a little later than the high point for automaton spectacle in Europe. Of course, this story doesn't literally feature an automaton, but the "Unseen Player" aspect put it in mind.
In The Best Ghost Stories of H.R. Wakefield, this story is followed by one set on a golf course. I may read it before returning the book to the library, the one other I read from it so far was also quite good and unusual ("Death of a Bumble-Bee").
We haven't commented yet on Wakefield's use of nested correspondence to structure the story.
In some ways I found the structure convoluted and unlikely, but never confusing for all that. The writerly architecture peeks from behind the curtain, Wakefield needing a plausible means for sharing such intimate details of life from two separate individuals (Pownall and Serge), but indirectly (especially as Pownall, at least, is presumably dead at the time the story is shared).
On the other hand, I was surprised by Serge's letter and the story was extended in a way it couldn't have been, had we only had Pownall's manuscript (written the night of his death).
(I'm going from memory here, maybe I'm not getting exactly right the timing of Serge's letter: it was sent to the Doctor, correct, and not Pownall?)
The correspondence also neatly echoes the chess games themselves, which for a time existed only as match notations. And those notations themselves demonstrate that Morisson and Pownall appear to haunt the chess matches, given the two shadows appearing when the notations are committed to the fire. Should we readers fear Wakefield's story might now be the locus of the haunting, assuming some spectral transference has taken place?
>14 elenchus: Should we readers fear...
Absolutely! Glad I'm not the only one to see it. That's what I love most about this story.
The odd "disproving" of Pownall's account even inoculates against the objection: "Well, it's just Wakefield's fiction. There haven't even been such people." We're all of us just stories anyway. (Nicely demonstrated in Irwin's Wonders Will Never Cease and The Arabian Nightmare.)
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