Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, January 11, 2022


"The Yellow Globe" by Alexander W. Drake (first published in The Century Magazine, November 1893: included in the author's collection Three Midnight Stories, 1916)

Alexander W. Drake (1843-1916) apparently published only three stories in his lifetime:  this one and two others in The Century Magazine. "The Curious Vehicle" (December 1893) and "The Loosened Cord" (June 1894).  All three were collected in a 500-copy limited edition memorial book, along with several tributes, published some eight months after his death.

Few people associated Alexander W. Drake the writer with A. W. Drake the well-known artist.  Drake had said that he stopped writing stories because he felt no one liked the three that had been published -- a judgement that was patently false, but one in accord with his modest nature.   Drake began as an engraver.  In 1870 he became the art director of Scribner's Monthly when that magazine began.  Later, St. Nicholas magazine began and Scribner's Monthly changed its name to The Century Magazine, both with Wilson as art director.  "[T]hese two publications under Drake's art direction had set the standard of illustration for the publishing world," doing much (among other things) "to aid the development of the new school of wood engraving in America."   His influence on the art world of the time was tremendous.  Drake was also a noted art collector; his collection was one of the most extensive and remarkable in America and included "Antique samplers and needlework, fragments of old printed chintz, bandboxes, wallpaper, glass bottles, pottery, china, pewter, engraved pledge glasses, antique silver cups and ladles, an extraordinary collection of old finger rings, silver, enameled and pearl snuff boxes, patch boxes and vinaigrettes, old paintings and prints."  To give an idea of the size of his collection, there were nearly eight hundred finger rings, "betrothal rings, memorial rings, gimmel rings, puzzle rings, rings of Roman, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Irish Scandinavian, English and American workmanship, and many Oriental rings, Sassanian, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Hebrew, Gypsy and Moorish...

"[N]o one had labored more enthusiastically and successfully in the course of art encouragement and art education."  Given all this is there any wonder that Drake's few stories were imbued with an artist's aesthetic?

"The Yellow Globe" is a strange story, one that raises far more questions than it answers.  The narrator notices a strange looking man staring at a large yellow globe of colored fluid in a druggist's window.  The man's attention is fixed, staring at and through the yellow globe.  The narrator moves on but returns about an hour alter to find the strange man back, staring at the globe.  He was craning his head to view it from different angles and holding his finger up to it as if to view it reflection.  A week later, the narrator sees the man once again by the druggist's window, again staring at the globe.  Curiosity has gotten the better of the narrator; as the man goes to leave the narrator catches up with him.

Walking beside the stranger, the narrator asks him why he was so fascinated with the yellow globe.  The man's answer come in fits and starts; he often stops and looks at reflections and shadows in the night.  We learn that his actions has something to do with an experiment the stranger is doing, one that he has expended much time and effort into.  Their meandering takes them through the city, along the river, and into one of the shabbier parts of the city.  They stop in front of a building -- the stranger's home -- and the narrator is asked if he would like to come up.  He agrees.

The building is dark.  The narrator and a caretaker are the only persons who live there.  The stranger akes the narrator by the hand and leads him through the dark lobby and slowly up the inky stairs to the top floor where his apartment is.  The apartment is a large loft that has been converted into a vast experimental area, the purpose of which is not readily known.  There is a realistic model of a mansion, with an ugly face etched onto the window.  There are large panes of glass set upright. smeared with some sort of paint.  There's a globe with yellow fluid, smaller than that in the druggist's window.  There were small models of fences, miniature bits of ironwork and gateways.  On the walls were large, lifelike drawings of giants plants and flowers.  Globes filled with different fluids an old ship's lanterns hung from the ceiling.  Porcelain dishes lay strewn over a table with the residue of different colored liquids staining them.  The place was an eccentric phantasmagoria of oddities.

The stranger explained that he was creating the essence of a haunted house.  Why, we are never told.  Nor do we learn what had started him on this pursuit.  We slowly learn that this "essence" will be a large painting. far more "real" than reality itself, for true art must surpass nature.  He had experimented with various colors and decided that a yellow hue was suitable to effuse his haunted house.  His experiments with different colors, materials, and media have allowed him to create a painting that goes beyond nature.  Years of work and study have brought his masterpiece near to completion.

The artist then shows his work -- the essence of a haunted house -- to his visitor:

"We both stood in absolute silence.  What strange, hidden something was there about it that affected me so curiously?  I looked at my companion; he seemed lost in reverie.  But it was not merely seeming, it was with real horror that he stood gazing at those little glass windows.  I do not know how long we stood thus; but at last he turned up the light, and I noticed how pale he had become and how absorbed was his manner."

The narrator was also affected.  He could almost hear a piercing cry from within the house.  The artist had, somehow, truly created the essence of a haunted house.  Again, we have no idea why or how, but the last line of the story, as spoken by the writer, is:  "Only a man with a haunted heart can paint a haunted house."

An odd story.  Or sketch, if you will.  We are led, somewhat frustratingly, through the story mystified.  At the end we remain mystified but are certain that art can transcend reality and that it also can lay a heavy cost on the artist.  Beyond that, what can I say?  The tale is told with skill and understanding and is a remarkable break from other tales from that era.  I am still not sure if I read the story or experienced it.

Drake's Three Midnight Stories is available to read on the internet.  The book should give a better view of the author through the various appreciations in it.  The other two stories are also very interesting.  In one, an artist searches for a perfect halo that would embody his feelings for his dead wife; in the other, a singing bird's cage is attached to a balloon and sails up into the sky.  All of Drake's stories are fantastical but not in any fantastic as most would describe the term.


  1. I'm a big fan of haunted house stories so I'll check this out! Like you, I'm drawn to fantastical stories!

  2. I hope his art work and collection gave him happiness and a good living.

  3. It does sound almost "thirsty" to indulge in the new definition for that term...but some folks simply choose to stop. Thanks for the pointer!