Thursday, April 26, 2012

Thirsty Evil: "A Bottle of Perrier" (1926), by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton's significant contribution to supernatural fiction is well-known (see her short story collection Ghosts, 1937), but it seems that her story "A Bottle of Perrier"--originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1926 under the title "A Bottle of Evian" and reprinted in Wharton's short collection Certain People (1930)--is less heralded as the great crime/mystery genre tale that it is.  It is always a pleasure for me to go back and read this story, for in artistic merit as a genre tale it is comparable, I think, to such inspired short stories as Lord Dunsany's "The Two Bottles of Relish" (1932) (what is it about bottles?), John Collier's "The Touch of Nutmeg Makes It" (1941) and Stanley Ellin's "The Specialty of the House" (1948).  It also harks back to such sinister Edgar Allan Poe tales as "The Black Cat," "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Cask of Amontillado" (bottles again!).

Perrier in the desert....

Edith Wharton evidently did not think much of detective fiction (in her 1913 novel The Custom of the Country she uses the fact that a family has The Hound of the Baskervilles displayed to suggest the family's comparative illiteracy), yet she gave mystery and murder fans a corker of a story in "A Bottle of Perrier."

Edith Wharton
When the story opens "young Medford, of the American School of Archeaology at Athens" has gone to visit "his queer English friend, Henry Almodham," who, himself a lay archaeologist with sufficient private means to indulge his eccentric whims, lives in a crumbling crusader's castle in the desert.  As Medford leans against "the roof parapet of the old building, half Christian fortress, half Arab palace," he looks out around him at the vast "mystery of the sands, all golden with promise, all livid with menace, as the sun alternately touched or abandoned them."

Medford is informed by Almodham's servant, Gosling, speaker of "a sort of palimpsest Cockney lined with Mediterranean tongues and desert dialects," that Almodham was suddenly called away by a friendly Arab chief to explore some ruins to the south, but will be back shortly; meanwhile, Medford is to make himself at home.

At Medford's first meal at the castle Gosford offers him wine, which Medford, still recovering from a bout with fever, has been forbidden.

"Just a mineral water, then, sir?"
"Oh yes--anything."
"Shall we say a bottle of Perrier?"
"Perrier in the desert!  Medford smiled assentingly....

I've just taken you through the first three pages of the story; there are eighteen pages of beautifully-written, steadily-mounting tension to go.

After several days have passed, Wharton writes:

Medford found sleep unrecoverable. He leaned in his window and watched the stars fade and the dawn break in all its holiness.  As the stir of life rose among the ancient walls he marveled at the contrast between that fountain of purity welling up into the heavens and the evil secrets clinging bat-like to the nest of masonry below.

What happens over those days at the crumbling crusaders castle that looms up, in majestic isolation, out of the desert? If you're like I am, you will have to keep reading, because you will simply have to know.

Happily, "A Bottle of Perrier" is available on the net and also was reprinted by Scribner's in 1991 in The Selected Short Stories of Edith Wharton, which also includes some of the author's best ghost stories: "The Lady's Maid's Bell"; "The Eyes"; "Kerfol"; "Mr. Jones"; "Pomegranate Seed" and "All Souls'."  It also appears in the 2002 collection The Ghost Feeler: Tales of Terror and the Supernatural (though it is not a supernatural story), along with an introduction by Peter Haining.  See this review at darkecho.

Next up: a shipboard mystery--a very obscure one!--The Passing Tramp.


  1. And don't forget "Who Wants A Green Bottle?" by Tod Robbins...or don't you know that one? You can't step into my realm without me waving supernatural shorts in your face. ;^)

    I never knew Wharton was so disparaging of detective fiction and yet she was a believer in paranormal phenomena. She even claimed to be "haunted by formless horrors" from a very early age. She definitely wrote some chilling ghost stories. "Kerfol" is one of the best tales ever written about spirit animals. Your ol' pal B.L. Farjeon even wrote about a spectral cat in one of his books - THE LAST TENANT.

  2. John,

    No, I haven't read "Who Wants a Green Bottle?" Like a good number detective fiction fans I do love supernatural tales as well. Something about taking the rationalism of the detective story and turning it on its head. Reading M. R. James, then H. R. Wakefield, made me totally fall in love with the classical supernatural tale. Wakefield also wrote some detective fiction, as I imagine you know!

    Wharton wrote some really good ones. She must have had some interest in crime too, because she wrote another story with a character obviously based on Lizzie Borden (I think it's disappointing though). But "A Bottle of Perrier" is suspense not detective fiction, really. More on the order of Ruth Rendell's non-Wexford shorts.

  3. Oh, I had a copy of The Last Tenant and was reading it, but it was incredibly cheap paper and the whole book fell apart me! I thought it was quite good though.