Welcome back to Dissecting The Dark Descent, where we lovingly delve into the guts of David Hartwell’s seminal 1987 anthology story by story, and in the process, explore the underpinnings of a genre we all love. For an in-depth introduction, here’s the intro post.
For some writers, the idea that love will last beyond the grave is unbelievably romantic. For E. Nesbit, it’s terrifying. “John Charrington’s Wedding” sees the English fantasist and socialist (never one to meet a fairy-tale or romantic trope she couldn’t put her own spin on) examining the horror of this idea and its realistic outcomes, complete with an undead groom, a terrified bride, and wedding guests who are understandably bewildered that the two are even getting married, given how many times Charrington was rebuffed. By examining the basic plotline of a gothic “beyond the grave” romance and skewering it with a certain dark, acerbic aplomb, Nesbit exposes the twisted power dynamics behind privilege and obsession, and in doing so writes a strange ghost story for the ages.
John Charrington is a man for whom everything comes easily. He’s the king of his village’s social scene, successful in business, and the world is his oyster. His charmed life is the envy of all around him and is almost complete, save one thing. That one thing is the hand of May Forster, the prettiest woman in the village and all men’s current fascination. To the surprise (and envy) of his friends, Charrington suddenly invites them all to his and May’s wedding, to be held a short time later. Something isn’t quite right about Charrington and his bride-to-be, though, and as his friends look on in bewilderment and ill omens gather around the couple, the stranger and more in doubt their union seems. But as Charrington himself says, rest assured, alive or dead, John Charrington will be married by Thursday.
The more you look at Nesbitt’s simple framework, the darker things get. John refuses to take no for an answer when pursuing May, no matter how many times she rebuffs him. When they finally do get together, everyone seems more surprised than anything that she genuinely loves him. It also seems like Charrington doesn’t want to be married to May so much as he wants to be married in general, as it’s the next step for someone like him. He pursues her as an obsession, constantly talks about how he wants to die together with her as if it’s the most romantic thing in the world, and doesn’t really listen to her when they’re together. Every interaction between the two (including the titular wedding) unnerves and bewilders everyone around them, with the groom a disheveled wreck and the bride horrified beyond belief.
Most of the interaction as seen through Geoffrey (the narrator) involves Charrington talking at May more than to May. When May does get the chance to speak, it’s usually about Charrington, as if she’s developed a dependence on him. She’s a trophy, something he’s won that validates him as better than those around him. He’s attained the unattainable. The fact that she’s spurned everyone in the village—including Charrington—means that she’s the rarest and most valuable trophy. This even plays into the ending, where an undead Charrington marries May and then moments later is (we can only presume) dragged to Hell in front of his bride, terrifying her into catatonia—it was never actually about May so much as it was about possessing May.
This plays into the idea of Charrington’s privilege and obsession remarkably well. Those with privilege tend to fixate endlessly and obsessively on the things they lack, the things that they cannot achieve through their privilege. They view each victory—no matter how small—as a validation that they’re worthy of their station, whether it’s as simple as a trophy for a local event or as complex as wooing May, described as “the only attractive girl in the immediate area.” Charrington, someone for whom fortune intervenes in every available circumstance, cannot possess May, and therefore he obsesses over her, trying again and again until, in the strangest of circumstances, she finally falls headlong in love with him. While he’s evasive about how such an affection came about, it’s clear that there’s something unnatural going on, especially with the way he exerts such a hold over May. No matter how much he wants something, he can’t have it, and it drives him to a single-minded obsession. Not getting everything he wants means that he’s not good enough.
It’s that single-minded obsession that drives Charrington back from the dead to claim May for himself eternally. The story ends with the two of them buried next to each other, Charrington having fulfilled his promise that “alive or dead, I will be married by Thursday” and his ghostly presence (and possibly his attempt to drag his bride with him) scaring May so badly that she remains in a catatonic state before passing away three days later. The end isn’t simply horrifying because an undead man clawed himself out of the grave and married a woman while literally scaring her to death, but because Charrington’s pursuit of May (a pursuit that ignored all of May’s own agency in the process) is a total victory. He gets the one thing he wanted, no one can take it from him, and no one else gets to have May. In the end, everyone is horrified, and the only one who gets what they want out of all of this is Charrington.
Further driving this home, May’s only actions in the story are to pine for John Charrington and worry about if he’ll be alive to wed her. She gets no real agency in the plot, most of her dialogue is handwaved, and everyone is left horrified by her wedding to her corpse groom, where the narrator describes her as being “carved from ivory” because she’s so pale. From the moment Charrington secures her as the object of his obsession, her position moves from unattainable object to that of a prop, with every other character in the story concerned for her well-being. The all-devouring void of Charrington’s need for validation, his need for May as a trophy, undoes her as a person as it sucks her in.
“John Charrington’s Wedding” might use the framework of a tale of love from beyond the grave, but in its portrait of obsessive desire, unnerving power, and the exploration of privileged people’s desperate need for validation, it becomes so much more in Nesbit’s hands. Charrington’s unyielding persistence, their unnatural courtship, May’s curious lack of agency, and the unambiguously disquieting ending all point not to a tale of love conquering death, but a gothic horror story about one narcissistic man and his need to possess everything around him. Nesbit’s skewering of one of gothic romance’s most traditional plots (love enduring from beyond the grave) ruthlessly examines the nature of the power dynamics behind that romance in detail, exposing the putrid innards of power, obsession, and the overriding of agency that occurs when such things are allowed to go unchecked.
And now to turn it over to you. As she’s mostly known for her beautiful and mildly subversive children’s literature, where was the first place you encountered the works of E. Nesbit? Was it her horror stories, or more her work as a fantasist, or even her socialist essays? (Mine was the Puffin Classics edition of The Magic World, though I quickly also grabbed The Enchanted Castle at an early age.)
Please join us in two weeks as we get our first taste of Adirondack gothic with Karl Edward Wagner’s “Sticks.”
Sam Reader is a literary critic and book reviewer currently haunting the northeast United States. Apart from here at Tor.com, their writing can be found archived at The Barnes and Noble Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Blog and Tor Nightfire, and live at Ginger Nuts of Horror, GamerJournalist, and their personal site, strangelibrary.com. In their spare time, they drink way too much coffee, hoard secondhand books, and try not to upset people too much.