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Paranormal activity at Wilde's Canterville

October 31, 2009 |  9:00 am


When it comes to handling ghosts, the characters in Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost” (in a new recording from Naxos Audio Books) are far bolder than Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.” When Marley’s ghost comes rattling his chains, you may remember, the old miser drops his gruffness in the face of his old associate’s awful warnings. Not Wilde's Hiram B. Otis, an “American minister” who purchases an English country house and moves in with his family despite dire warnings that it is haunted. 

The ghost, Sir Simon Canterville — who’s been scaring the daylights out of the house’s inhabitants since his death in 1584 — wastes no time in mounting a haunt. In the dead of night, Otis hears chains clanking in the halls and beholds an awful sight:

Right in front of him he saw, in the wan moonlight, an old man of terrible aspect. His eyes were as red burning coals; long grey hair fell over his shoulders in matted coils; his garments, which were of antique cut, were soiled and ragged, and from his wrists and ankles hung heavy manacles and rusty gyves.

“My dear sir,” said Mr. Otis, “I really must insist on your oiling those chains, and have brought you for that purpose a small bottle of the Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator.”

Oiling those chains! Rupert Degas is pitch-perfect in the Naxos recording -- quite a departure from some of his previous Naxos recordings, including Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and Kafka’s “The Trial.” The grimness and desperation of those stories is far from the desperation Sir Simon faces with the Otises. No matter what he does, he can’t bloody well scare them! The couple’s twins boys hit him in the knees with pea-shooters, and, when Mrs. Otis hears the ghost’s terrible laugh, her reaction is: “I am afraid you are far from well ... and have brought you a bottle of Dr. Dobell’s tincture. If it is indigestion, you will find it a most excellent remedy.”

Degas captures the nasally voices of the Americans (for Wilde, Americans are the ones with the accents) and Sir Simon’s exasperated harrumphs — which turn, later, into sighs of relief as somebody finally pities him: the Otises’ daughter, Virginia. Degas gives listeners a hilarious performance that's an ideal antidote for the shivers if you've seen “Paranormal Activity.”

-- Nick Owchar

Oscar Wilde photo courtesy of Associated Press