I've continued reading M.R. James' ghost stories this past week. "Number 13", about a scholar named Anderson travelling in Denmark, is another nice example of how a characteristic layering of perspective helps give a sense of reality to the horror. The first person narrator is giving the story second hand, as it was told to him by Anderson, whose description of the strange occurrence is preceded by the process he went through in choosing his hotel room and then an account of why he was in a position to notice something so subtly strange.
He had nothing to tell me (I am giving the story as I heard it from him) about what passed at supper, and the evening, which was spent in unpacking and arranging his clothes, books, and papers, was not more eventful. Towards eleven o'clock he resolved to go to bed, but with him, as with a good many other people nowadays, an almost necessary preliminary to bed, if he meant to sleep, was the reading of a few pages of print, and he now remembered that the particular book which he had been reading in the train, and which alone would satisfy him at that present moment, was in the pocket of his greatcoat, then hanging on a peg outside the dining-room.
If there was nothing to say about supper, why tell us? The implication of the comment suggests the reader's or the speaker's interest in supper--it's a significant irrelevance at the same time that it starts to circle Anderson's objective: the time after supper, when he should be sleeping.
It becomes a "wrong geometry" kind of story, one in which the dimensions of Anderson's room change at a particular period during the night. It works so well because the feeling of disorientation upon awaking in the dark of a room is so familiar to virtually anyone reading. Published in a collection in 1904, it's easy to see the story's influence on H.P. Lovecraft and, of course, on Danielewski's House of Leaves.
In the hall, Anderson notices a room number 13 beside his own which he hadn't noticed before. When he brings it up to other people, he first finds an annoying shock in a series of his own misapprehensions and then slow confirmation of his senses being accurate after all.
Next morning he was woke by the stuepige with hot water, etc. He roused himself, and after thinking out the correct Danish words, said as distinctly as he could:
"You must not move my portmanteau. Where is it?"
As is not uncommon, the maid laughed, and went away without making any distinct answer.
Anderson, rather irritated, sat up in bed, intending to call her back, but he remained sitting up, staring straight in front of him. There was his portmanteau on its trestle, exactly where he had seen the porter put it when he first arrived. This was a rude shock for a man who prided himself on his accuracy of observation. How it could possibly have escaped him the night before he did not pretend to understand; at any rate, there it was now.
I also love how unremarkable Anderson deems any observations he makes regarding the occupant of 13 before he realises there's anything truly odd. This bit is pure poetry, and would probably have been much more effective before the existence of movies:
He went to the window—the right-hand window it was—and looked out on the quiet street. There was a tall building opposite, with large spaces of dead wall; no passers-by; a dark night; and very little to be seen of any kind.
The light was behind him, and he could see his own shadow clearly cast on the wall opposite. Also the shadow of the bearded man in Number 11 on the left, who passed to and fro in shirtsleeves once or twice, and was seen first brushing his hair, and later on in a nightgown. Also the shadow of the occupant of Number 13 on the right. This might be more interesting. Number 13 was, like himself, leaning on his elbows on the window-sill looking out into the street. He seemed to be a tall thin man—or was it by any chance a woman?—at least, it was someone who covered his or her head with some kind of drapery before going to bed, and, he thought, must be possessed of a red lamp-shade—and the lamp must be flickering very much. There was a distinct playing up and down of a dull red light on the opposite wall. He craned out a little to see if he could make any more of the figure, but beyond a fold of some light, perhaps white, material on the window-sill he could see nothing.
Now came a distant step in the street, and its approach seemed to recall Number 13 to a sense of his exposed position, for very swiftly and suddenly he swept aside from the window, and his red light went out. Anderson, who had been smoking a cigarette, laid the end of it on the window-sill and went to bed.
There's nothing so strange about a head drapery or red flame. Context is everything.
Here's the whole thing read by Michael Hordern: