Montréal Lit: Montreal’s Gothic Roots

Photo by Cynnerz

Spacing Montreal is pleased to present this bi-weekly column exploring Montreal’s literary landscape, written by Gregory McCormick, Director of Programming for the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival.

Available only online here, I overcame my usual distaste for reading books on my computer once I started into this fascinating gothic tale of 19th century Montreal.

As the story opens, Dr. Thorborne is visited by a patient in his clinic, a young girl named Martha who nervously asks the doctor if he believes that people come back after they are dead. The doctor poo-poos the girl and dismisses her, despite the fact that she is clearly terrified of something and quite disturbed. Later that evening, the doctor is making his way to a gentlemen’s club on St-Urbain, making his way which:

…lay up a steep hill through the least inviting part of the city. In fact, I had to walk the whole length of St. Urbain street. This street, according to some authorities, divides the English part of Montreal from the French part. I cannot say that I fully coincide with this assertion. No street, to my mind, can be said to do this; if it is necessary to name one street or another as a dividing line, however, I suppose St. Urbain street would do as well as any… St. Urbain street is in no way remarkable except that it is always very dirty…This night it fully sustained its reputation. Water was running down the middle of the street in a furious manner, two or three different streams of it, sometimes coalescing, sometimes dividing into as many more. The sidewalk was in much better condition. It was paved with brick, and was very uneven; the slush was mixed with ashes which had been put out to prevent people from skipping when it was icy, and in the darkness it was not always possible to tell whether a black spot ahead was a piece of brick pavement, a heap of ashes or a pool of water.

As our protagonist continues up the hill, he spies a policeman leaning against a street light in the darkness, looking up at a school building along the street. Later when he returns back down the street on his way home after midnight, he sees the same policeman in the same position as he had been three hours earlier. Curious, he crosses the rushing torrent of the street and

walked up to him and stood before him. He did not seem to be aware of my presence. Placing myself directly in front of him, so close that the buttons of his coat rubbed against my waterproof, I looked up – for I am a short man myself – into his face. I knew the face very well. It was the face of Policeman Logan who was buried at the close of the year!

The italics from the original are smile-inducing in the writer’s awkward attempt to elicit his reader’s fear.  Indeed, much of the story’s sping-tingling attempts feel dated and lack subtlety. That said, the story gives us a very interesting portrait of Montreal in the late 19th century.

In an eerie scene retold to the doctor by Martha Warne, the doctor realizes why the ghost of the dead policeman is haunting young Martha. In a long walk from the village at St-Laurent back to her boarding house on St-Urbain downtown, she passes by the cemetery:

‘I was in a place on the road to St. Laurent, that is called the ‘Devil’s Hollow.’ You know the place, Dr. Thorburn?’

‘No, never heard of it,’ I said; nor indeed had I. ‘Why is it called by such a name?’

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘There is some story of some bad men of some sort who are all buried there together; I think that is how it gets its name. But I don’t know much about it. You remember, don’t you, that the Roman Catholic cemetery is there, the French burying-ground they call it. It was one of those stone posts of the gate leading into the graveyard, that I had run against. When I found this out, I felt a cold shudder creep over me, and I fell right down on my knees…After a while I got the better of this feeling. At first I fancied I could see into the burying ground, and thought I could distinguish the white grave-stones…I started but I didn’t go far, I couldn’t have got more than fifty yards from that gate when something made me look back. And, looking back, I saw a light…a lantern; I could tell that much about it, and no more. There was just the glimmer that you would expect to see from a lantern seen through the mist.’

The story gives us a glimpse into the rational vs. the superstitious which obsessed many writers at this time, and the allusions to long ago Montreal landmarks is nearly as engrossing as the ghosts and dead spirits which haunt the story.

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