Thursday 29 March 2012

Strange Stories #10. Dress Of White Silk by Richard Matheson

Strange Story #10:  Dress Of White Silk
Author: Richard Matheson
Collected In: Nightmare At 20,000 Feet: Horror Stories

Grandma locked me in my room and wont let me out. Because its happened she says. I guess I was bad.

This is my favourite Richard Matheson story. It is told from the point of view of a six year old locked up by her Grandma because she has been "bad." Over the course of the story we find out exactly how bad she has been...

Well, not exactly. That is we know by the end of the story something pretty terrible has happened to the narrator's best friend, Mary-Jane, but we aren't sure precisely what. More importantly, we are not quite sure who is to blame.

I've spoken a lot about ambiguity in this series, and here Matheson creates a whole ton of ambiguity simply by his choice of narrator - the little girl telling the story might know what has happened, but she can't fully express it, and certainly doesn't understand the full import of what has happened (in her eyes she has merely been bad). If the grandma had narrated this story it would be very different, because Grandma we feel would be able to tell us what "it" is that had happened, and what happened to the girl's mother, and whether the mother really was beautiful (as the narrator contends) or slightly... odd looking (as Mary Jane says). There's a similar argument between the two girls concerning the titular white dress itself:

And anyway its not a white dress its dirty and ugly she [Mary Jane] said 

If you Google this story you'll find plenty of anguished English Literature students saying things like "What does this story mean???" Is it a ghost story? A vampire story? Is it, in fact, a naturalistic account of a girl who idolises her dead mother and pretends she is somehow still under her influence when she turns violent against her friend? (It's perfectly possible to read this story as having no supernatural element at all - the grandma's cries of god help us its happened its happened simply meaning the apple hasn't fallen far from the tree...) Is it a witch story? A child demonic possession story?

All of these possible interpretations point to one thing: it's a strange story.

Next Week: Strange Stories #11. Not sure yet!


Anonymous said...

Matheson's great. Some really punchy short stories.

There's a short story of his I'm trying to track down which I can't remember fully, but it features a boy whose parents paint terrifying faces on his bedroom wall with luminous paint.

James Everington said...

Don't think I know that one, but sounds great!

Anonymous said...

It's short, but very disturbing.

Anonymous said...

Didn't you get it? The girl had eaten or sucked the blood out of Mary Jane. In the end of the story she said "She doesn't have to even give me supper. I'm not hungry anyway. I'm full."

James Everington said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Everington said...

As I said, that's one interpretation. I don't think the story as it stands, unreliable narrator and all, means you can ever remove all ambiguity though.

Ross Warren said...

Iain, I think that story is Graveyard Shift from Shock! 2.

Melanie said...

The story is called 'Day of Reckoning' (1960) and is included in a collection of his short stories titled 'The Best of Richard Matheson' (2017).