The Ape, the Idiot, and Other People
William C. Morrow
Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1897.
The nineteenth century is capped by monsters: Frankenstein in the beginning (1818) and Dracula at the end (1897). Between these two nightmares, the works of Edgar Allan Poe would help form the basis of almost all modern horror stories. Almost forgotten today is another author of thrilling tales who was well-respected in his day: William C. Morrow. Ambrose Bierce, who tells a story about Morrow under the “Story” entry in The Devil’s Dictionary, lamented bitterly that Morrow wound up teaching instead of continuing to write. In the same year that Dracula took the world by storm, Morrow published a collection of his short stories called The Ape, The Idiot, and Other People.
Morrow’s tales are both typical of their time and notable for their creativity. In some ways, his stories are clearly patterned after the writing of Poe, in that the “horror” involved in his stories is generally a psychological thrill rather than a monster. (Think, for example, of “The Tell-Tale Heart”, which is one of the most frightening stories ever written, despite the fact that nothing really happens.) Dracula, on the other hand, had moved past psychology straight into supernatural action, paving the path to the pulp magazines that would come in a couple of decades.
One of the big differences between Morrow and Poe, however, is the tone of their tales. Poe’s works are generally dark and gloomy, whereas Morrow has a sentimentality and sometimes nostalgia that would be mirrored later by some of Ray Bradbury’s short stories. Despite this, Morrow’s tales can be truly scary, and sometimes dwell on horrific details.
The title story is one of the best, if one of the strangest: an ape escapes from a circus and wanders around the countryside. He notices an “idiot” locked in an asylum and helps him escape. Together, they eventually spy on a Chinese funeral (this takes place in California, and the description of nineteenth-century Chinese-American funerary customs is an interesting cultural insight), and steal the food that is left on top of the grave. I won’t give away the ending, but it comes as a surprise, even for this odd little fantasy.
October is a great month for reading scary stories. If you would rather be scared by the weird & mysterious than by gore-soaked monsters—not to say that there’s anything wrong with those, of course!—then you might check out Morrow’s work.