A Terribly Strange Bed by Wilkie Collins, 1856

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by Wilkie Collins, 1856

"A Terribly Strange Bed" was the first of numerous contributions by Wilkie Collins to Charles Dickens's magazine Household Words, where it appeared on 24 April 1852. Collins subsequently included it in his collection After Dark. Like many of Collins's stories, it sets the main narrative within a frame, an appropriate metaphor here since the initial narrator is an artist. Confronted with the task of painting the portrait of a sitter who seems unable to relax, he is relieved when the man begins to tell the story of an adventure that befell him in France many years earlier. Engrossed in his storytelling, the sitter loses his self-consciousness, and the artist is able to produce a good likeness. The story thus draws attention both to the narrative act and to the power of narrative art.

Leading a dissipated life in Paris, the narrator-protagonist goes to a gambling house one evening and succeeds in "breaking the bank," winning a fortune at the card game rouge et noir. An old soldier who befriends him, and who later turns out to be the proprietor of the gambling house, first plies him with champagne and then gives him black coffee containing a narcotic. He finds himself in no condition to make his way home and is taken to a bedroom in the house, The coffee has, however, been too effectively drugged, and the effect is to make him intensely wakeful.

In this state he passes the time in examining the room and its contents, especially a four-poster bed with a heavy canopy and valances. To his horror he discovers that the top of the bed is gradually descending and, had he been asleep, would certainly have suffocated him. Escaping through the window, he goes to the police station, the house is raided, and the criminals, who have played the same trick more successfully on other lucky gamblers, are arrested.

The story depends for its effectiveness almost entirely on the rapid and economical narrative, with virtually no development of character or analysis of motive and relatively little description. The narrator's horrified realization that the bed is designed to kill him is graphically depicted, and the narrative as a whole gains from the use of the first-person method. As in much of Collins's fiction, the tradition of gothic horror tales has been modified and domesticated so that an important element is the existence of appalling wickedness and ingenious crimes in commonplace, even banal settings. At one point in the story this become explicit. As the man discovers the true nature of the bed, the narrator reflects that it is "in the 19th century, and in the civilised capital of France" that he has stumbled upon "such a machine for secret murder by suffocation, as might have existed in the worst days of the Inquisition, in the lonely Inns among the Hartz Mountains, in the mysterious tribunals of Westphalia!" And as in much gothic fiction, what at first appears to be inexplicable and uncanny turns out to have a rational explanation, for the "terribly strange bed" is, in fact, a piece of ingenious machinery designed for a specific purpose.

Collins himself said that the idea for the story was given to him by the artist-friend W. S. Herrick. The French setting may owe something to Edgar Allan Poe, who used a similar setting in such stories as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," as well as to the French writer Eugène Sue, whose novels described the Parisian underworld. Joseph Conrad's story "The Inn of the Two Witches" (1913), which has strikingly similar features, may in turn have been influenced by "A Terribly Strange Bed," a resemblance that was, in fact, noted by a reviewer. Conrad, however, denied any knowledge of Collins's story, and as Catherine Peters has suggested, the two stories may have been derived from a common source.

When Collins decided to follow Dickens's lucrative example and give readings from his own work in the United States, he prepared a version of "A Terribly Strange Bed" and gave a trial reading at the Olympic Theatre in London on 28 June 1873. The reading was extensively reviewed but not always sympathetically, some reviewers pointing out, not unfairly, that Collins did not possess Dickens's histrionic powers and should adopt a less dramatic style. One member of the audience recalled that Collins "seemed to think that the word 'bedstead' was full of tragic meaning, and we heard again this 'bedstead' repeated till it became almost comic." In the event, Collins substituted another story for his American readings.

Robert Ashley has described "A Terribly Strange Bed" as "the most exciting short story Collins ever wrote and a first-rate story by any standard, Victorian or modern." There is perhaps some exaggeration here, for, by the standard of psychological realism that we might apply to, say, a short story by D. H. Lawrence or Katherine Mansfield, Collins's tale can hardly be taken seriously. As an example of pure narrative, however, it does have considerable pace and power, and the cool, almost scientific detachment of Collins's always lucid prose contributes to the effect. Part of Collins's distinctive achievement in his fiction was to combine disturbing and even violent incidents with a manner and style that are notable for their control of structure and syntax and their precision of detail. He excelled in the very long and complex narrative, as his great novels of the 1860s testify, but "A Terribly Strange Bed," a very early example of his work, proves that he was also a master of the shorter form.

—Norman Page

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A Terribly Strange Bed by Wilkie Collins, 1856

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