PseudoPod 862: The Curious Story of Susan Styles
The Society for Psychical Research was formed in 1882, 11 years before this story was written
The Curious Case Of Susan Styles
“Susan Styles,” the name is not a romantic one, and yet it is associated in my mind with a curious series of incidents, which, were I a member of the Psychical (or ghost investigating) Society1 I might have brought under the notice of that body.
I first heard of Susan Styles some two years ago.
My wife and I had just taken up our abode in a house in a country town, attracted there by the existence of a good and cheap Grammar School—a very sufficient inducement to the parents of five boys, whose education had to be provided for on a small income.
We had just settled ourselves in our new home, fresh with all the glories of new paint and paper, and were expecting calls from the neighbors. Hence I was rather annoyed to find the name which gives the title to my narrative scribbled on the spotless surface of our dining-room wainscot.
“My dear,” I remarked to my wife, pointing to the offending inscription, “these boys must really learn to respect some room in the house. They have their private den in which to execute any mischief they desire, and I cannot have every wainscot in the house defaced by their scribble.”
“I suppose it was poor Bobby,” said his mother; “he always has a pencil in his hand. Dear little fellow, I often think he will be a great artist one day.”
“I shall rejoice to see the results of Bobby’s pencil on the walls of the Royal Academy, but I cannot admire them on my new paint,” I answered sternly, for, with five sons one has to be firm on the question of willful damage to property, and I knew my wife to be a weak ally against the boys.
I carefully effaced the name and the subject dropped. But two days afterwards, “Susan Styles” was again scribbled on another part of the room, and this time I remonstrated more strongly.
“It is not the boys,” retorted my wife; “you are always so ready to blame the poor fellows. I asked Bobby the other day and he said he did not know anything about the writing.”
“I believe all my sons to be truthful lads as boys go; but does the most honest schoolboy readily plead guilty to an act of mischief? Besides, as Bobby is eternally scribbling everywhere, might he not be honestly oblivious of some acts of his vagrant pencil?”
“I dare say it was the new housemaid; she is a stupid sort of girl,” added my wife.
“Had the name been John or Will Styles I could have better understood it,” I remarked; “but a girl of that sort would hardly have the name of another woman so constantly in her thoughts that she was obliged to scribble it everywhere.”
“Well, I am sure the poor boys had nothing to do with it,” was my wife’s Parthian shot, as I left the room.
“Look here, James,” cried my helpmate a few hours later, “even you will allow the boys could hardly have written the name here,” as she pointed triumphantly to a corner of the ceiling where, in the same faint, apparently penciled characters, was visible “Susan Styles” again. “Only a ladder could reach up there, and we have not such a thing in the house.”
“I suppose it was done by one of the painters in love with a Susan Styles,” I remarked; “but I wish he had chosen some other place for his inscriptions than our walls and ceiling. It is so odd, too, that I never observed the writing before.”
“Ah, you always notice things when you are out of sorts,” said my wife, with an air of conviction; “whenever you begin grumbling, I always know you are due for a fit of the gout.”
The occurrence passed out of mind as the days went by, and though I occasionally noted the persistent “Susan Styles,” scrawled faintly on some place on the wainscot, I contented myself with rubbing off the inscription, supposing that I had overlooked it before. We had moved into our house in the dark, cold days, and the spring sunshine doubtless showed every nook and corner more clearly.
Some months later I was obliged to go to London on business, and was glad to accept the friendly offer of a bed for a night or two from an old college chum, who had recently married a widow of considerable means, a trifle older than himself, but the soul of good nature, as fat and elderly folk so often are. I was but slightly acquainted with Mrs. Wilson, still she received me with the utmost cordiality.
“And we’ve a treat for you tonight, Mr. Harper,” she added; “Miss Jones is coming to us.” I endeavored to look properly elated at this intelligence, but as Miss Jones was a total stranger to me, the announcement conveyed little information. Wilson perceived my embarrassment, and proceeded to explain. Miss Jones was a great personage in what may be called “spiritualistic circles:” she was a professional medium, and like Owen Glendower, undertook to summon “spirits from the vasty deep,” or anywhere else.
I found that my hostess was a sincere believer in table-turning, spirit-rapping, and the like, and that Wilson, for obvious reasons, found it best to abstain from open ridicule of her fancies. Most women have some silly fad,” he remarked to me after dinner, “and my wife’s is a very harmless one, after all. It pleases her and doesn’t annoy me.”
“When I remembered Wilson’s very struggling existence before he married his wife, and glanced round me at the luxuriously furnished apartment, and sipped the choice old port, I felt that silence regarding the miracles of spiritualists was not, perhaps, an overwhelming price to pay for such comforts.
For myself, I may say that I have the profoundest disbelief in “mediums; “ I have attended more than one “séance,” at which the spirits of the great and talented of the earth have been supposed to rap out replies. I have noted on such occasions how sadly mental gifts deteriorate in another world. The shade of Lord Byron had been credited with balderdash which would disgrace a bell-man; while Scott and Addison appear to have forgotten, not only their graces of style, but even the humbler art of spelling their native language, to judge by the replies they dictated through their mediums.
Therefore I attended Miss Jones’s “séance” with languid interest, more especially as I perceived that the lady in question much resembled others of her profession whom I had previously met, an example that the spirits were not particular regarding the rank and education of the persons they selected as messengers.
A crowd of devout believers had gathered in Mrs. Wilson’s drawing-room, receiving ambiguously and somewhat ungrammatically worded messages with profound admiration. Wilson had slipped away, but I was obliged to remain out of politeness to my hostess.
“Now, Mr. Harper, you must ask a question,” cried that lady. “I believe you are as bad as Richard, and think it is all imposture.”
I felt a guilty thrill, for the accusation was all too true, and, to disguise my embarrassment, answered: “I should be most happy to do so, Mrs. Wilson, but I really don’t know what to say.”
“Oh! ask to communicate with some deceased friend or relative,” said a young lady near me, who had just been en rapport with the spirit of her dead sister. I felt a sensation of disgust at the suggestion. I have lost loved ones, like other middle-aged people, but to profane their dear and sacred names by uttering them in an assemblage of strangers, to submit my most holy and cherished memories to the common gaze, never, never! Even were it true that that vulgar woman could bring me a message from the dead, would it not seem profaned by passing through such lips? I had even too much reverence for my favorite authors to pretend to call them up—and hesitated a moment.
“Oh! do say something,” implored Mrs. Wilson. A name flashed upon me.
“Well, I said, “I should like to communicate with Susan Styles. Even the medium started at the loud and emphatic rap with which this lady proclaimed her presence and willingness to answer questions, and my own interest was suddenly awakened.
I do not expect anyone to believe the narrative that follows. I hardly think I believe it myself. Anyway, were it a coincidence or chance, the results were singular. It took time to arrive at the history of Susan Styles, as spelt out by means of knocks on the table, but I was now as eager a listener as the rest of the company. It was a very old story of sin and sorrow—an unwedded mother, a little life sacrificed to save the parent’s reputation.
“No one ever knew that he was born, or that I killed him,” said the guilty shade; “but I buried him under the drawing-room flooring.”
That was all we could extract. The spirit reproachfully said she “had tried to communicate before.”
Then came silence, and the medium announced that the “séance” was concluded for the evening.
I was now plied with eager questions. “Who was this Susan Styles? Had I known her? Had I ever seen her?”
I may remark that the spirit had been sparing in its communications, merely answering to its name, and stating its crime as explaining the reason of its desire to communicate with us. I had no mind to discuss the matter with Mrs. Wilson and her friends, so contented myself with replying that Susan Styles was a total stranger to me, but that the name had caught my memory, and I mentioned it as the first that came into my head.
When I next saw Wilson alone, however, I told him all the circumstances.
“It is curious, very curious,” he remarked. “I think, in your place, I would have a look under the flooring.”
This was exactly what I was longing that someone should suggest to me, though I was ashamed to propose it myself. Few of us like to acknowledge that we are setting out on a ghost hunt.
I felt so ashamed of my own credulity that I determined to wait for a week, when my wife and family would be away at the seaside, and to then prosecute my explorations secretly under the cover of the general house-cleaning. I had long promised my wife to erect a little conservatory outside the drawing-room window, and determined to make this pretense for engaging the services of a carpenter. All was quietly arranged. I made an excuse to slip back from the seaside “just to see how the workmen were getting on at home.” and met Wilson, who was curious enough to come down from town to assist at my investigations. As we walked together from the station I began to think what a pair of fools we were. Talk of superstition and credulity, I should be ashamed to laugh at the nursery maid who believed in a dream-book.
I was thankful that I said nothing about my expedition even to my wife. The only thing that inclined me to prosecute further investigations was that I had discovered that Susan was, or had been, a real personage I had made cautious enquiries in the neighborhood and discovered that some years previously a young woman of that name had been in service with the family who had formerly occupied my house—that she had been left in charge of the premises during their absence for some six months and been dismissed on their return, after which she abruptly left the town. As regards her character, it was difficult to gain authentic information, but the baker’s wife said she was “flighty” and a “giddy lass,” and the butcher’s wife remarked darkly, “Yes, she had known Susan once, but the girl got herself talked about latterly.”
All this was somewhat corroborative evidence of the story told in Mrs. Wilson’s drawing-room.
We found the house exactly as we had hoped—both servants out, a deaf old aunt of one of them strangely in charge of the premises, and our old carpenter languidly at work in the greenhouse.
The old woman readily admitted us (she would have done the same to a burglar), and the old carpenter was only too pleased to leave his work on any pretext.
I made up some story of doubtful drains and a desire to investigate under the flooring, and the carpenter readily undertook to remove the planks in the drawing-room. Wilson and I watched with an eagerness of which we were secretly ashamed, but, to our utter disgust and humiliation, nothing was discovered. Dust and emptiness—but no sign of a tiny form once hurried away to avoid detection of a crime.
“I always thought it was stuff,” observed Wilson, very unjustly, for had he not believed enough to come a railway journey to investigate the matter?
Of course, we had not taken the carpenter into our confidence, and the man sat placidly on his heels, remarking that “he never thought as drains ran under this room, nor under the drawing-room neither, for that matter.”
“This is the drawing-room,” I said.
“Well, sir, I was a-speaking of the house as it used to be when I worked here in Captain Hardy’s time. The room across the passage was the drawing-room then. They were a large family, and took this room, being bigger, for the dining room.”
“You have just reversed the case,” said Wilson. “Your dining-room was their drawing-room.”
An idea struck me. Were we examining the wrong room? And I now remembered all the scribbling had been on the dining-room walls.
“Come in here; this is where the bad drains are,” I said hurriedly to the work-man, and in a few minutes the dining-room planking was being taken up. And here, hidden in a corner of the room, under a plank that bore traces of having been disturbed, we found a little box.
I need not detail all that followed. The police were called in, and the remains of the infant discovered. Neither Wilson nor I saw fit to give the reasons for our examinations of the flooring, and the discovery of the box passes as an accidental occurrence in the search for defective pipes. But the investigation that followed clearly established a strong case of suspicion against Susan Styles as the mother and the murderess. She had had ample time in six months’ sole occupation of the house to conceal the remains of her victim, and her dismissal on the return of her employers was chiefly owing to the unfavorable rumors they had received regarding her conduct.
No trace of her could be found. I, for my reasons, believed her to be dead. We never found any scribbling on our walls after, the poor little remains had been decently interred.
I told my wife the curious circumstance which induced me to make the discovery, but I grieve to say she only smiled at my supernatural explanation of them. The inscriptions on our walls were, in her judgment, clearly traceable to some former lover of the mysterious Susan Styles, on whom his thoughts had run while painting and white-washing.
As for the “seance’’ at Mrs. Wilson’s, my wife believed the story to be a pure invention on the part of the medium, desirous of attracting interest by a sensational tale. The verification of the tale by the discovery was a mere chance coincidence. All this may be true, most likely it is; I am no believer in mediums or ghostly appearances. Still, the whole story is a curious one and might interest enquirers into spiritualistic communications.
Wilson and I have certainly kept the tale from reaching the ears of his wife. We feel that she would score it as a victory.
PseudoPod, Episode 862 for April 21st, 2023.
The Curious Case of Susan Styles, by Catherine Lord
Narrated by Samuel Poots; hosted by Kat Day and audio by Chelsea Davis
Hey everyone, hope you’re all doing okay. I’m Kat, Assistant Editor at PseudoPod, your host for this week, and today, April 21st, is my Dad’s birthday – happy birthday, Dad, enjoy the plants! There definitely aren’t any triffids in there. Almost certainly. Probably. Oh well, even if there are, they’ll be no match for your secateurs!
Anyway, this week we have a fantastic public domain story for you:
The Curious Story of Susan Styles: A Psychical Romance, by Catherine Lord
This story was first published in The Ludgate, in 1893.
Catherine Lord was born in Poona, East Indies in 1845 to British parents. After the death of her father when she was five years old, Catherine moved to England with her mother under the care of her grandfather Sir Thomas Joshua Platt. Catherine started writing under the pen name ‘Lucy Hardy’ in 1892 and her stories were published in Argosy, Belgravia, and The Sketch. Sadly, she died within a decade of becoming a professional writer, dying in 1901 of exhaustion. Her short stories were never collected in her lifetime and she vanished into obscurity until Johnny Mains discovered her work in 2017 and published her first collection of short stories, Our Lady of Hate (Noose & Gibbet, 2020).
Our narrator this week is Samuel Poots. Sam is a writer from Northern Ireland who communicates primarily through Pratchett quotes. He has been a dead Wildling, a teacher in Japan, a tabletop games journalist, and spent a lot of time assuring tourists at the Causeway that he was the new 5ft 4? giant, due to budget cuts. He writes both fiction and tabletop games and loves making stuff up with friends; he’s also an associate editor at our sister podcast, Cast of Wonders. If found, please give him a cup of tea and send him home via the nearest post office. Follow him on Twitter at @pootsidoodle.
And now we have a story for you, and we promise you, it’s true.
Well done, you’ve survived another story.
As a parent, the first thing that resonated with me in this story was the cheerfully exasperated way in which the narrator described his children. This story was written 130 years ago, at a time when we tend to think of fathers as somewhat distant figures. But, slightly archaic turns of phrase aside, “I shall rejoice to see the results of Bobby’s pencil on the walls of the Royal Academy, but I cannot admire them on my new paint,” is just the sort of thing any modern dad might say. It’s always helpful to be reminded that some things never change!
And speaking of turns of phrase, Parthian shot — these days, we tend to say “parting shot”, which admittedly makes a great deal more sense than foul swoops and nipping things in the butt. But the phrase was, originally, Parthian shot — and described a cavalry hit-and-run tactic used by the ancient Iranian Parthians, in which archers would turn and shoot at the enemy while appearing to retreat at full gallop. See, it makes sense when you know, doesn’t it?
But anyway, away from language nerdery and back to the 130-year-old The Curious Case of Susan Styles, by Catherine Lord. Although there are some moments of casual male entitlement here, such as the notion that, “most women have some silly fad,” generally the male-female relationships in this story are portrayed as warm, loving and equal. Certainly the living ones. Indeed, at one point, the narrator, James Harper, describes his wife as his “helpmate”, and she certainly gives him a run for his money intellectually. It’s a sharp contrast to the treatment that the titular Susan Styles received — she was “flighty”, “got herself talked about” and was dismissed on the basis of “unfavorable rumors”. A lot of this is about class, of course, but I also wonder if Lord was purposely trying to portray James and his wife as very modern couple. Especially considering that the tagline to this story is A Psychical Romance — the romance here is surely between James and his wife, rather than anything the tragic Susan Styles experienced. Here we have two people, raising their sons as equal partners, happily supporting their children in their endeavours. It is very progressive and they are — well, the wife, least! — very scientifically minded.
It’s funny, isn’t it, how we always tend to imagine we’re the pinnacle of civilisation? I wonder if, in another 130 years, assuming we haven’t managed to completely destroy the planet, someone will listen to this podcast or read the transcript and smile at how terribly old fashioned it all sounds.
Well, if you’re out there, person from 2153, hello! I’m glad the apocalypse didn’t wipe everyone out, that your brain wasn’t eaten by zombies, and that AI hasn’t completely taken over. Assuming you’re not… the AI. Anyway, one final thing to remember: for all intensive porpoises, all that glistens is not a damp squid.
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PseudoPod is part of the Escape Artists Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, and this episode is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license. Download and listen to the episode on any device you like, but don’t change it or sell it. Theme music is by permission of Anders Manga.
Next week we have more from the public domain: Coincidence & The Dream — two stories by A.J. Alan. Narrated by Matt Dovey and Phil Lunt, hosted by PseudoPod co-editor Shawn Garrett, and with audio production from Chelsea Davis.
See you soon, folks, take care, stay safe.
About the Author
Catherine Lord was born in Poona, East Indies in 1845 to British parents. After the death of her father when she was five years old, Catherine moved to England with her mother under the care of her grandfather Sir Thomas Joshua Platt (1788-1862). Catherine started writing under the pen name ‘Lucy Hardy’ in 1892 and her stories were published in Argosy, Belgravia, and The Sketch. She died within a decade of becoming a professional writer and died in 1901 of exhaustion. Her short stories were never collected in her lifetime and she vanished into obscurity until Johnny Mains discovered her work in 2017 and published her first collection of short stories, Our Lady of Hate (Noose & Gibbet, 2020
About the Narrator
Samuel Poots is a writer from Northern Ireland who communicates primarily through Pratchett quotes. He has been a dead Wildling, a teacher in Japan, a tabletop games journalist, and spent a lot of time assuring tourists at the Causeway that he was the new 5ft 4? giant due to budget cuts. He writes both fiction and tabletop games and loves making stuff up with friends. If found, please give him a cup of tea and send him home via the nearest post office. Follow him on Twitter at @pootsidoodle