The Horror Show: “Consequences” by Willa Cather

“Etymologically, ‘individuality’ means that which cannot be divided: we are indivisible, at one with ourselves,” writes Darryl Jones in Sleeping with the Lights On: The Unsettling Story of Horror. “Much psychological horror has worked hard to destabilize this secure sense of the unified self through its presentation of doppelgängers, twins, shadows, mirrors, portraits, repetitions, madwomen in the attic, and other forms of doubling and fracturing.” The double motif was a stock in trade for Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote what arguably remains the quintessential doppelgänger story, “William Wilson.” The double is also a central motif in canonical novels such as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. More recently, it features in Ramsey Campbell’s story “The Scar” and is all over the work of Stephen King (see, e.g., The Dark Half, “Secret Window, Secret Garden,” The Outsider, “If It Bleeds”).

The double is a manifestation of Freud’s unheimlich, or uncanny, and incorporates elements of the Narcissus myth and the return of the repressed. But Jones pushes the trope even further, seeing in the double motif a metaphor for human mortality: “If our double is originally the embodiment of our soul, then it follows that an encounter with the double should portend death, that moment when body and soul are finally divided. Paradoxically, then, the double, originally an embodiment of our immortality, is also a reminder of the mortality of our own bodies.”

In Wilde’s novel, the central figure, Dorian Gray, remains hale and healthy to all outward appearances; it is his portrait that ages and decays in his place. In Campbell’s story, a haughty Englishman is attacked by a figure who is his exact double save for a vicious scar along one cheek. The doubles are figures of fright and threat and, in most cases, portend the deaths of their fictional counterparts.

In Willa Cather’s unsettling 1915 story “Consequences,” New Yorker Kier Cavenaugh imagines a shadowy figure stalking him at various points and in various places, up to and including his own apartment. The double figure is a decrepit old man who seems to know everything about Cavenaugh, to the extent that the latter has been rendered unnerved and paranoid. Cavenaugh calls the spectre his “haunt,” lending the antagonist explicitly ghostly characteristics or qualities.

Cather is best known as a regional writer; her most famous novels, O Pioneers! and My Ántonia, are set in Nebraska. The New York setting of “Consequences” is a departure for the author, as is the uncanny nature of the tale. Cather’s approach in the story is subtle and effective. Instead of a first-person narration, the author opts for a close third-person from the point-of-view of Henry Eastman, a lawyer who has an apartment in the same building as Cavenaugh.

When we first encounter Eastman, he is standing in the rain outside the Flatiron building, desperately trying to flag down a taxi. Cavenaugh pulls up in his chauffeured limousine and offers the lawyer a ride. Very efficiently, Cather is able to sketch out the salient details about her characters and their relationship. Eastman is forty and, as a lawyer, one can expect that he is rational and careful in his devotion to factual detail. This will become important as Cavenaugh begins to describe the way in which he is being tormented by the mysterious figure of the anonymous old man.

Our impressions of Cavenaugh, by contrast, are filtered through Eastman’s psyche. The urban professional considers Cavenaugh “a young man of pleasure” and questions whether the various women he has seen entering and leaving the limo are not “notoriously afraid of … smooth young men.” In a few strokes, Cather provides the contrast between the two characters – the one, upstanding and recondite; the other a louche playboy – while also ensuring that the portrait of the younger man is offered at one remove. We are subject to Eastman’s assessments with regard to Cavenaugh’s character and, not incidentally, his account of the old man.

This is significant because everything we discover about Cavenaugh’s “haunt” is filtered through Eastman’s lawyerly credulity, leaving the reader unsure as to how much of the young man’s story is accurate. We never witness the spectral figure directly interact with Cavenaugh; when he and Eastman return home from their limo ride, the only evidence that someone has been in Cavenaugh’s rooms is a lingering scent of cigarette smoke and an open window leading to the fire escape. When Cavenaugh points out a figure in the alley below, Eastman does not get a clear view of the shadowy person. (The same occurs in the limo, when Cavenaugh questions his passenger about the possible occupant of a hansom cab he glimpses out the car’s window.)

By choosing this mode of narration, Cather is able to insert an element of ambiguity into her story that closely resembles that of Henry James in “The Turn of the Screw.” Is Cavenaugh’s aged tormentor real, or is the young man mad? If real, is the old man a doppelgänger, a manifestation of some future iteration of Cavenaugh – the physical consequence of his dissolute lifestyle? These questions are never answered within the text of the story.

Nor is the ghostly figure of the old man the only double Cavenaugh has in the tale. On the wall of his apartment is a picture of Cavenaugh’s late brother, Brian, a twin. When Eastman charges into Cavenaugh’s room at the climax, this picture is turned toward the wall. According to Cavenaugh, it was the old man who turned the photograph around. If true, what inspired him to do this? And why does Cavenaugh claim to feel such close responsibility for the “old gentleman”?

Cather’s approach to the narration obviates her from what James referred to as “weak specification” – concrete details that would diminish the unease and creepiness of the story by rendering clear the various ambiguities and sanding down the psychological rough edges. The story’s unnerving aspect results precisely from the fact that as readers we can never be sure how thoroughly to believe Cavenaugh. Though it is evident from his final act that whether he is mentally ill or actually bedevilled by some supernatural force, his torment is real, as are the tragic and inevitable consequences.

The Horror Show: “Consequences” by Willa Cather
Tagged on: