‘A Face in the Dark’ by Ruskin Bond: Short Story Analysis
‘A Face in the Dark’ is a simple horror story penned by the most favorite writer of India, Ruskin Bond. Ruskin Bond is known as ‘the writer from the hills’ and most of the themes in his stories are centered in the hills of India, especially in the regions of Mussoorie, Shimla, Landour, Dehradun, to name a few. This horror story is centered around an otherwise comical character in Bond’s fiction called Mr. Oliver. Mr. Oliver was a teacher at Bond’s boarding school where he studied. Bond is very fond of using real characters he has met in his life and putting them in his stories. Mr. Oliver has been a part of a lot of humorous stories by Bond. However, in this story, the fictional Mr. Oliver has to come ‘face to face’ (sorry about the pun it was unintentional) with a faceless ghost or ghoul.
The story is set one late evening in the Shimla hill station in pre-independence India. The fact that it was set in that era indicates that most of the streets would not be well lit and it, therefore, was preferable for people of the hill station not to venture out late at night. There is a mention in the story of how the people of Shimla never used the narrow shortcut roads on the outskirts of the town. However, Mr. Oliver being a bachelor living alone at the boarding house for boys, wanted a bit of entertainment in his free time. Therefore, he used to visit the Shimla Bazaar or market area, especially its many cinemas and restaurants. He also used to take the narrow shortcut road home which other people not as steely as Mr. Oliver would avoid after the sun had set. This is the setting of the scene when Mr. Oliver the bachelor school teacher would have his encounter with a ghost.
Bond introduces the dress code of the boarding school boys right in the first paragraph of the story titled ‘A Face in the Dark’. He does this purposely so that we are fooled when we see the first ghost and think he is just another boy from the boarding house. This is what Mr. Oliver thinks so too with very disastrous consequences. Notice in the story that Mr. Oliver first reprimands the boy on seeing him seated on the rock, indicative of the teacher’s attitude to always correct a student or pupil who is trying to break the order of school life. Mr. Oliver scolds him but then seeing the silent and very queer weeping of the boy gets unnerved. We realize that even Mr. Oliver could be afraid of the unexplained. Notice the prop of the flickering flashlight carried by Mr. Oliver. It is a prop that adds an eeriness to the story. The flashlight’s batteries are running out so they are flickering on and off in the night. It is the flashlight that first falls on the apparition of the boy in uniform. The second prop used similarly in this story is the swinging lantern used by the watchman who also sadly turns out to be a ghoul.
A lay reader of Ruskin Bond’s fiction would think that Mr. Oliver, after encountering the first ghoul, would have perished immediately. However, Ruskin Bond like the authors O. Henry, Saki, and William Somerset Maugham is not ready to simply end his ghost story in this manner. There is a twist in the tale when Mr. Oliver while escaping from the first ghost encounters a watchman holding a lantern. The watchman was also in the middle of his path and only when the watchman makes the lantern light shine on his face that the fact is revealed that he too is a ghost or a ghoul. Thus, Mr. Oliver’s fate is sealed and it is left to conjecture what happened to him in the dark.
The title of the story is the crux of the story of the two ghouls or ghosts who:
- Were the schoolboy and the watchman.
- They had smooth round heads with no eyes, ears, nose, mouth on their faces.
- They always had their faces hidden in the dark.
- Their faces were only revealed when a light shone on them.
- They were out to terrify people like Mr. Oliver.
- They were in a way a few of the many fears man has to come to terms with when darkness falls.
The story as I said is simple and has the unique Ruskin Bond quality to it that makes it a very cozy read despite the paranormal angle. The story is a chronicle of Mr. Oliver’s change in demeanor towards the supernatural. He always professed to never have been ‘an imaginative’ man, which meant he didn’t believe in ghosts. This story was one way of paying Mr. Oliver back for his lack of respect for the supernatural elements of life.
This story appears in most of Ruskin Bond’s ghost stories and tales of the supernatural; it’s quite a popular horror story for children growing up in India. It is obvious in the reading of this story that Bond has focused on his own life at the boarding school. Many horror stories were passed down from one student to another in these hill station boarding schools in pre-independence India and Ruskin Bond may have used such a story to color this particular story.
I love Ruskin Bond’s literature as well as his non-fiction pieces. He has spent seventy years of his life writing books and spreading his joy of literature to children and adults in India. He is my second favorite writer, the first being R. K. Narayan, the Grand Old Man of Malgudi. I have mentioned a lot about Ruskin Bond in my memoirs The Reclusive Writer & Reader of Bandra and Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai. I have mentioned how Ruskin Bond has shaped the way I write and how I hope to meet him one day soon. The first time I read ‘A Face in Dark’ was when I was in the third grade at school. However, I was not unnerved by the story as I had already by then read and re-read the unabridged version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. You don’t expect a person who has read Dracula to be scared of a few faceless ghosts, do you? But I still loved Ruskin Bond’s style and I am surprised that this is the first time that I am analyzing a short story or piece penned by him. I hope to analyze more books by him shortly. He is a master short-story writer and I shall analyze his stories here on my blog as soon as possible.
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