This slender volume contains three short stories, all of which are about men who become so obsessed with something strange that they fail to recognize there is a woman who loves them. All three are rather macabre and disturbing. The first two are purely psychological in nature, and the last includes the supernatural. The only hindrance in reading them is James' occasionally rather awkward manner of writing. Some sentences are so long, with so many phrases that it is easy to lose track of the point, often making it necessary to reread the sentence several times. But once you get familiar with his style, you can appreciate the rich and descriptive pictures he is painting.
The Altar of the Dead is about a man whose betrothed died of a malignant fever before the wedding day and he is never able to recover. The anniversary of the death of Mary Antrim is a date that keeps George Stransom forever widowed. His obsession with the Dead continues to intensify, until now, at age fifty-five, he counts his losses, numbers his dead, not only Mary, but all of them. It is on the eve of the anniversary that he happens to meet a friend on the street. It is Paul Creston, but is not Mrs. Creston one of the dead? Her widower had left for America shortly after her death because he needed a "little change," and now he has returned to London, with the "little change" hanging on his arm, in the form of a new wife. At home, still recovering from the shock, and remembering that he had felt passion for the late Kate Creston, he glances at a newspaper. He then experiences another shock seeing the obituary of his former best friend, Sir Acton Hague, whom he has alienated from his life, ten years now since their bitter quarrel. Now the memory of the horrible incident leaves him stone cold. The next afternoon, as he returns from his long walk, his yearly pilgrimage to the place of Mary's burial, he happens upon a church vestibule, well lit with candles, leading him to believe there had recently been a service for the dead there, so he decides to rest. As he sits, mesmerized by the lights, he is aware of another person, a woman in mourning. He is also aware that there is an empty recession in the church that has no candles, and an idea springs upon him: he shall make this a place of remembrance to his own dead. Determined, he convinces the bishop to allow his dream to be realized. His Dead are now truly numbered, one candle for each, all except Hague whom he is unable to forgive. As time passes, he notices that the woman in mourning is, along with himself, regularly devoted to his altar. They become friends, a relationship that continues over many years, until one day Stransom is horrified to find that what brought them together also severs their bond, through the stubbornness of his heart and inability to forgive.
In The Beast in the Jungle, John Marcher is reunited with his friend May Bartram, the only person in the world who knows about his "secret:" the foreboding of a terrible event that will spring at him like a "beast in the jungle." His life becomes paralyzed as he awaits what is to come. Little by little, he draws May into his psychological fantasy, which becomes all-consuming. When it finally consumes May's life, he realizes with great horror and revulsion that it was his obsession that brought about the self-fulfillment of his prophesy.
The Jolly Corner is about a man, Spencer Brydon, who returns to New York after a long absence, to make arrangements for the demolition of his childhood home. But before that happens, he is lured to confront the ghost of his alter ego, the person he might have been had he made other, perhaps better, life choices.
These short stories are works of art that can and should be read again and again to fully grasp their meaning. Additional critical research is also suggested.
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