Lungfuls of Horror

From my ongoing assessment of Elizabeth Bowen’s stories here:

THE INHERITED CLOCK by Elizabeth Bowen

Possibly Bowen’s most important story, as well as the most powerful influence on Robert Aickman’s major theme of Bowen’s ‘anatomy of time’ or, as I discovered, Zeno’s Paradox that I recently dubbed gluey Zenoism when making a detailed assessment (HERE) of Aickman’s fiction work recently … and quoting, at more than one point in this public assessment, a seminal passage from The Inherited Clock, indeed from all literature, as follows:

“‘I’ll tell you something, Clara.  Have you ever SEEN a minute? Have you actually had one wriggling inside your hand?  Did you know if you keep your finger inside a clock for a minute, you can pick out that very minute and take it home for your own?’  So it is Paul who stealthily lifts the dome off. It is Paul who selects the finger of Clara’s that is to be guided, shrinking, then forced wincing into the works, to be wedged in them, bruised in them, bitten into and eaten up by the cogs.  ‘No you have got to keep it there, or you will lose the minute.  I am doing the counting – the counting up to sixty.’ . . . But there is to be no sixty.  The ticking stops.”
From ‘The Inherited Clock’ by Elizabeth Bowen


This work deploys a complex portrait of distant cousins, Clara and Paul, (like siblings or childhood friends or would-be lovers, we are never sure, as we are never sure whether the clock ticks today audibly or not: despite their own more official relationships, Clara’s with a married Henry being a difficult one): and their complexly vying, almost counterintuitive, claims upon the estate of Aunt Rosanna which includes the eponymous clock, and which of the cousins should inherit it, a clock that at one point nearly becomes a cyborg human smashed on a blitzed blackout pavement if Clara had submitted to her own impulse. And who was gaslighting the madness of whom, Clara or Paul? The characters of Aunts Rosanna and Addie are full-fledged, and the wartime atmosphere of blackout and billeted soldiers, the seaside Sandyhill house, almost like a sanatorium from Mann, and the bomb this house suffered. Flashbacks to the cousins’ childhood, Clara fat at 14, and her “crevasse of memory” with regard to what happened to her finger that pre-empted that passage quoted above years later. And the clock’s dome put on her childhood head by Paul? A strange clock indeed, with its skeletal parts revealed and no numbered face, and it has been ticking solidly for 100 years as Rosanna boasted, till a clock man secretly let it stop for half hour after the first finger incident? (Compare the clocks and clock man in Aickman’s Clockwatcher story.) The kiosk and the lake – a kiosk where they locked up headless ladies, Paul once told Clara. But above all else, the WAITING, the ever waiting: “…when you are waiting you have to look back and back again at the clock?”

As this is such an important story, I hope I shall be forgiven quoting so much below from it, including a long paragraph about Paul that demonstrates the unique strength of Bowen fiction’s characterisation as well as imaginative themes.


‘Your mother feared you were over-excited; I said, “It’s the spring, perhaps”, but Cousin Rosanna said, “Not at all: it’s the clock”.’

“At sixty-five, the big woman was to be felt contracting, withdrawing from life with the same heavy indifference with which she withdrew her life from room after room.”

“The clock was without a face, its twelve numerals being welded on to a just visible wire ring. As she watched, the minute hand against its background of nothing made one, then another, spectral advance. This was enough: if she did not yet feel she could anticipate feeling her sanity being demolished, by one degree more, as every sixtieth second brought round this unheard click.”

“…even lungfuls of horror seemed salutary.”

“The newly-arrived clock, chopping off each second to fall and perish, recalled how many seconds had gone to make up her years, how many of these had been either null or bitter, how many had been void before the void claimed them.” (For me, the essence of Null Immortalis.)

“…she seemed to pass like a ghost through an endless wall.”

“Paul, whose way of standing about was characteristic, did not seem disposed to sit down again. Having flicked ash into a shell not meant for an ashtray, he remained with his back to the mantelpiece, fixing on nothing particular his tolerant, narrow-eyed, level look. His uniform fitted and suited him just a degree too well, and gave him the air of being on excellent terms with war. He had thickened slightly: otherwise, little change appeared in the dark bullet-head, rather Mongolian features and compact, tactile hands that had made him by turns agreeably disagreeable and disagreeably agreeable as a little boy. ‘Tick-tock, tick-tock,’ he said, out of the blue. ‘Sounds louder than ever, in here; though as nice as ever, of course. You don’t think it’s a little large for the room?’”

“Suppose gravity failed? Or suppose the tick stayed up here without the clock, or the nothing that had shown through its skeleton form continued to bear its skeleton shadow?”


And the shadow continued, till at the end Clara unsprung some eternal winter’s spring?

One thought on “Lungfuls of Horror

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s