The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“Silhouettes” was written by Jerome K. Jerome and appeared in The Idler (Feb 1892). “The Dancing Partner” is a dark short story. “Silhouettes” is darker and more disturbing, and much better–and "The Dancing Partner" is pretty good.
A nameless man reminisces about his childhood on the coast of England. The years he spent there put him in a “somewhat gruesome turn of mind,”1 as he admits, but nonetheless he loves such places as the lonely sullen lakes and the dreary marshes and the fields in cold autumn twilights. When he was younger the “dismal stretch of coast”2 was full of dark wonders, of wide shallow pools that seemed, in the right (or wrong) light to be full of blood; of “unken” spots which trapped the boy, or seemed to; of giant stones (“pebbles,” as the locals called them) which had been thrown onto the land from the sea, and which crashed in the surf, so that the locals would say, “Old Nick’s playing at marbles.”3 Out to sea the boy could see a perpetual thin white line of surf, underneath which was something called “the Bar,” something which was cruel to the fishermen and which the boy came to imagine as an underwater ogre, for the fisher folk attribute desires to him. After one storm the “pebbles” had been tossed a hundred yards inland, and giant holes had been dug into the sand and the wall of stones looking over the sea. In one of these holes was found the body of a local who forty years ago was known to the fisher folk. The narrator also thinks about an awful black land visitors sometimes told stories about, a place of blackness upon blackness and weariness upon weariness. Stories about that land were grim, and the people there valued their dogs far more than each other. One night a fugitive came to the narrator’s parents’ house, and they gave the man sanctuary. A lynch mob came after him, and the narrator’s father was prepared to kill, and die, to prevent the man from being lynched, but before that could happen others came and stopped the lynch mob. The narrator remembers a final nightmarish vision, or perhaps merely a dream about Hell.
“Silhouettes” is more a vignette and memory than a story. There is no definable beginning, middle, or end; the story primarily consists of atmosphere and reminiscences. But they add to the strange power of the story. Jerome does a superb job of conjuring up the rural, coastal environment, even better than A.T. Quiller-Couch did in the similar “The Roll Call of the Deep.” Jerome then uses that setting as backdrop for dark, horrific, and almost hallucinatory moments and descriptions. Jerome does not provide a rationale for what he describes, instead leaving everything ambiguous, as memories from early childhood often are, so that one could, if one liked, ascribe a rationalist interpretation to everything in the story. It is clear, though, that the supernatural interpretation is the more accurate one. Another way in which Jerome adds to the effect of this story is by leaving the mysteries unresolved, so that the reader never learns the story behind the body in the pit, or why the lynch mob was after their victim. “Silhouettes” is full of fine writing, of memorable images and striking turns of phrase:
I like the twilight of the long grey street, sad with the wailing cry of the distant muffin man. One thinks of him, as, strangely mitred, he glides by through the gloom, jangling his harsh bell, as the High Priest of the pale spirit of Indigestion, summoning the devout to come forth and worship.4
There is also the passage in which the narrator describes the black land:
From these sea scented scenes, my memory travels to a weary land where dead ashes lie, and there is blackness-- everywhere. Black rivers flow between black banks; black, stunted trees grow in black fields; black withered flowers by black wayside. Black roads lead from blackness past blackness to blackness; and along them trudge black, savage looking men and women; and by them black, old looking children play grim, unchildish games.
When the sun shines on this black land, it glitters black and hard; and when the rain falls a black mist rises toward heaven, like the hopeless prayer of a hopeless soul.
By night it is less dreary, for then the sky gleams with a lurid light, and out of the darkness the red flames leap, and high up in the air they gambol and writhe the demon spawn of that evil land, they seem.5
“Silhouettes” is a peculiar and powerful piece of work.
Print: Hugh Lamb, ed. Three Men in the Dark: Tales of Terror by Jerome K. Jerome, Barry Pain & Robert Barr. New York: HarperCollins, 2018.
1 Jerome K. Jerome, “Silhouettes,” The Idler; An Illustrated Monthly Magazine volume 1 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1892), 47.
2 Jerome, “Silhouettes,” 48.
3 Jerome, “Silhouettes,” 49.
4 Jerome, “Silhouettes,” 47.
5 Jerome, “Silhouettes,” 51.