As with Alfred Kubin, I have no prior experience with the author other than seeing Crawford and “The Screaming Skull” pop up in some conversations on Twitter. I think the premise to be interesting, though the execution is peculiar enough to interrupt my reading and throw me out of the story. Therefore, I’m left with a bittersweet aftertaste.
“The Screaming Skull” is at its core a very simple story, perhaps unsettling at best, though far removed from horror. Retired captain Charles Braddock has inherited the estate of his late and dear cousin Luke and his wife, Mrs. Pratt. However, Braddock learns of a rather unusual and quite vocal resident, a smooth human skull, which engages in nightly screaming sessions. The story encapsules Braddock’s coexistence with this screaming skull to an unidentified friend of the captain, starting from the early signs of habitation and catching up to now.
Crawford presents this story of denied habitation [for Braddock vehemently rejects the idea of ghosts and vengeful spirits] as a one-sided dialogue. As soon as I got through the first page it was evident that Braddock conversed with someone, though I had access to Braddock’s words only. Although Crawford is a silver-tongued storyteller and I enjoyed Braddock’s voice as a narrator and a person, I encountered several difficulties as I read “The Screaming Skull”. The shifts from first person point of view to second person and back demanded I shift gears as to how I perceived the world inside the story. Was I to act as Braddock’s collocutor or was I to hide in his head and hear his thoughts?
At times, Braddock steers the narration off course to recount stories connected to his servants or his past as a captain. I think it’s clever how Crawford used the story-within-the-story to add substance to the world of “The Screaming Skull”. Braddock and his wordy descriptions also help flesh out the surrounding, adding texture to a monologue, which borders on a stream of consciousness narrative style. This narrative technique’s main drawback manifests, when you look at the overall structure of the story. The main story concerns the skull and Braddock, but at the same time you focus on these interludes to make sense of background. My need to shift from one POV to another coupled with the story’s demand to switch focus from the interludes to the overall story arc complicated my reading process.
Two overall themes dominate “The Screaming Skull”, disbelief and guilt. Braddock struggles to rationalize the skull’s nature and why it screams. There is a strong rejection towards all that not known and metaphysical, which borders to blind and desperate ignorance of what the skull is and why it screams. Through denial of the obvious truth [as to the identity of the skull, then about the cause of its owner’s death] Braddock seeks to absolve his guilt towards Mrs. Pratt [I will not comment any further on the connection between those two; that is for you the reader to discover]. Guilt makes sense of the story.
Guilt explains why the captain talks as fast as he does and why he launches into these mini-stories, to escape talking about the skull. The guilt is evident in Braddock’s emotional attachment and interaction with the skull. He tries to please the spirit inside, despite his failure to name it as such. He enters a state of contradiction with himself, both trying to humor the skull and appease through his care and manners. Since Braddock rationalizes every event connected with the skull, he overlooks the true danger of his predicament. In this well-mannered panic “The Screaming Skull” resembles Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart” as both of the stories share the motif of the narrator’s guilty conscious as a means to their demise. While Poe straddles the gothic genre tropes, Crawford head off to uncharted waters and leaves a lot open for discussion.
In the end, I consider “The Screaming Skull” a peculiar story. It possesses rich texture, but is a spoken monologue distilled from a conversation. The buildup doesn’t surprise or frighten, but the promised resolution is quite satisfactory to keep going, until you reach the ending.