Stealing from the Classics: Bleak House

by on Apr.24, 2010, under Books

Say you have a character you want to invest with mystery. You might start by having another character mention him ominously:

But she had made a previous stoppage on the second floor, and had silently pointed at a dark door there.

“The only other lodger,” she now whispered, in explanation; “a law-writer. The children in the lanes here, say he has sold himself to the devil. I don’t know what he can have done with the money. Hush!”

We can learn his name indirectly too, through mail left lying around:

…announcing that a respectable man aged forty-five wanted engrossing or copying to execute with neatness and dispatch: Address to Nemo, care of Mr. Krook within.

Then forget about him for eighty or so pages. When he comes back, have yet a third character remark that “Nemo” is Latin for “no one,” and try to go see the mysterious copyist against more stern warnings:

“You know what they say of my lodger?” whispers Krook, going up a step or two.

“What do they say of him?”

“They say he has sold himself to the Enemy, but you and I know better—he don’t buy. I’ll tell you what, though; my lodger is so black-humoured and gloomy that I believe he’d as soon make that bargain as any other. Don’t put him out sir. That’s my advice!”

Then apply the atmospherics with a trowel.

Mr. Tulkinghorn with a nod goes on his way. He comes to the dark door on the second floor. He knocks, receives no answer, opens it, and accidentally extinguishes his candle in doing so.

Naturally. Time for the pathetic fallacy.

The air of the room is almost bad enough to have extinguished it, if he had not. It is a small room, nearly black with soot, and grease, and dirt. In the rusty skeleton of a grate, pinched at the middle as if Poverty had gripped it, a red coke fire burns low. In the corner by the chimney, stand a deal table and a broken desk: a wilderness marked with a rain of ink. In another corner, a ragged old portmanteau on one of the two chairs, serves for cabinet and wardrobe; no larger one is needed, for it collapses like the cheeks of a starved man. The floor is bare; except that one old mat, trodden to shreds of rope-yarn, lies perishing upon the hearth. No curtain veils the darkness of the night, but the discolored shutters are drawn together; and through the two gaunt holes pierced in them, famine might be staring in—the Banshee of the man upon the bed.

The stage is set. The mystery man revealed at last.

For, on a low bed opposite the fire, a confusion of dirty patchwork, lean-ribbed ticking, and coarse sacking, the lawyer, hesitating just within the doorway, sees a man. He lies there, dressed in shirt and trousers, with bare feet. He has a yellow look, in the spectral darkness of a candle that has guttered down, until the whole length of its wick (still burning) has doubled over, and left a tower of winding-sheet above it. His hair is ragged, mingling with his whiskers and his beard—the latter, ragged too, and grown, like the scum and mist around him, in neglect. Foul and filthy as the room is, foul and filthy as the air, it is not easy to perceive what fumes those are which most oppress the senses in it; but through the general sickliness and faintness, and the odor of stale tobacco, there comes into the lawyer’s mouth the vapid taste of opium.

“Hallo, my friend!” he cries, and strikes his iron candlestick against the door.

He thinks he has awakened his friend. He lies a little turned away, but his eyes are surely open.

“Hallo, my friend!” he cries again. “Hallo! Hallo!”

As he rattles on the door, the candle which has drooped so long, goes out, and leaves him in the dark; with the gaunt eyes in the shutters staring down upon the bed.

Are these tricks crude? You betcha. But they work.

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