During the pandemic, a lot of people have been reading shorts stories -- a lot of them. So Patti Abbott (or. She Who Must Be Obeyed) suggested a weekly meme in which various bloggers report on a short story they have read, starting today. So here's my first contribution.
Dr. O'Brien, a slightly overweight medico well into middle age, is returning from a week away from home. It is a dark night and there is a mighty windstorm. Suddenly the headlights in his car die. Unable to safely see the road to continue his drive, he seeks shelter at a large home on a nearby hill. He is greeted by an elderly man who inexplicably calls him by his name and says that he has been expecting him.
The man, we learn is Robert Lockleaven, the last of his line, and known to local villagers as "the Daft Laird of Lockleaven," famous for the profligate antics of his youth. O'Brien and Lockleaven settle down with a welcome drink before a comfortable fire. There is a scratching in the wall. Mice, thinks O'Brien. No, replies the Laird, Listen they're singing. And Robert Lockleaven begins to narrate his story...
Until he was eighteen, he lived in the house with his Uncle Peter, a mean-spirited miser who kept Robert in rags and nearly starving as Peter chortled over the wealth lock away in his chest. Uncle Peter took ill and was dying; Robert was told to stay by his uncle's bedside while the only servant remaining fetched a doctor. Dozing, Robert was startled awake to find his uncle dead. On closer look, there was something in his uncle's beard -- some with two beady little eyes. Robert fainted. Perhaps he had imagined it. Robert then locatd his uncle's chest, broke it open, and spent the next twelve years living a wild, dissolute life until the money ran out.
Then, twenty years ago to the night, on All Soul's Night, Robert said, he was dozing on a chair when he spied a loose gold coin on the floor. There was a scurrying and Robert spied a very small man sneaking up to the coin and trying to carry kit away. A fairy, perhaps? Scottish lore has it had if you capture a fairy, he must grant you a wish. So Robert quickly placed a clear glass tumbler over the little man, both trapping and enraging him. Then, a sudden surprise: Robert recognizes the little man as his dead Uncle Peter and not fairy.
We learn that the little is and is not Uncle Peter -- it is Uncle Peter's soul. Every person has an identical (albeit much smaller) person inside him that is one's soul. Upon death, the soul escaped the body and runs toward heaven or hell, both of which are located inside the walls of the house. Uncle Peter, as well as all of his ancestors, are damned to hell and cannot enter heaven (located in another wall). Also, there's a little bit of hell inside Uncle Peter's soul, which is why Peter is so enraged and wanting to get back to hell. The only thing that can block that bit of hell from the soul is with green glass -- not with the clear glass tumbler that is currently trapping the soul.
Robert still wants a wish granted and his wish is to know the secrets of life and death. Uncle Peter can give him a limited view of the afterlife, one that is only restricted to hell (he is barred from heaven, remember?) So Robert continues his narration as a Dante-like tour of the hell that is inside the wall. (This particular hell and this particular wall are exclusive to the Lockleaven family.) Strange and fitting horror upon horror is revealed during the tour -- a hunter is forever being chased by giants rat, people trying to convince unhearing ears about things that are important to them, and so on. Some of these fates may not seem so horrific, but to the souls being tortured, they are. Uncle Peter also shows Robert the place reserved for him after he dies, the Pleasure Hall. Robert refuses to tell O'Brien what was in that particular hell, but it is clear that Robert had been shaken to the core.
His story told, Robert then tells O'Brien that he has just taken poison. When he soon dies, Robert wants O'Brien to help the aging servant locate and capture his soul before it escapes to hell. By having his soul placed in a green bottle, Robert would then be able to escape the horror of his particular and pre-ordained hell. Will Robert's plan work? Read the story and find out.
An amusing and somewhat disturbing tale, "Who Wants a Green Bottle?" was originally published in All-Story Weekly for December 21, 1918. It was included in Robbins' collections Silent, White and Beautiful and Other Stories (1920), Who Wants a Green Bottle? and Other Uneasy Tales (1926), and Freaks and Fantasies (2008); the first collection is available online at the Online Books Page from UPenn.
Robbins is best known for his short story "Spurs" (which was filmed by Tod Browning in 1932 as Freaks), and for his novel The Unholy Three (filmed twice, once by Browning in 1925 and featuring Lon Chaney, and then in 1930, directed by Jack Conway and again starring Lon Chaney).