Thursday, October 10, 2013

Favorite Short Stories: The Calamander Chest by Joseph Payne Brennan

Once upon a time, I was asked to read a scary story for a grade school class. I think I'd written some young adult stories by then, but I didn't think I had anything appropriate for kids in single digits.

I set out to find something suitably spooky that might chill without traumatizing. I took a trip to the library and browsed collections in the children's section until I ran across Thrillers and More Thrillers edited by Robert Arthur. I honed my reading skills on the Arthur-created The Three Investigators, so I was drawn to his name.

Thumbing through the pages that promised to present phantom stagecoaches and more, I ran across Joseph Payne Brennan's "The Calamander Chest."

I'd read Brennan but never that tale, which appeared first in Weird Tales. Perhaps the illustration of a ghostly hand caught my attention first.  I took the book home and curled up with the story, and I soon decided it should work well for what I needed.

It told  of Ernest Maxx who, while browsing a second hand shop, happens upon a chest of "genuine Calamander wood" from the Indies. The proprietor seems happy to part with it for a pittance, but Maxx dismisses that hint, thinking the next time he changes housing, the chest will prove useful.

Never, never, never buy a mysterious chest the shopkeeper wants to get rid of. Before long, Maxx is awaking in the wee hours to notice a ghostly hand slowly rising from the box:

"He sat motionless, overwhelmed with sudden horror, his eyes riveted on this appalling object.
It just hung there unmoving, a long, pale finger with a heavy knucklebone and a black nail."  

It happens again and again until Maxx, angered at first by the intrusion, eventually tries to fight the finger and then to get rid of the chest. He ultimately must learn of the dark secrets it once contained.

What's Maxx's fate? To say more would spoil the fun.

The image of that ghostly hand tweaked my imagination, and it enthralled the kids in the classroom when I read it as well, and I revisit the tale from time to time.

With my imagination engaged and most of the lights turned out in the room, it can still bring a shudder.

It's a great choice for Halloween reading whether you're a kid or not.


Charles Gramlich said...

I've not read it. I gotta check it out.

Sidney said...

Brennan anthologies are sadly hard to find and used copies sell for big $ it seems.

Happily they are scattered through many collections. Another really cool one is "Mrs. Clendon's Place" from Shadows 7.

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