‘Doctor Zeit’ is a short story with a foreboding theme by the British author of biographies, detective fiction, history books, and short fiction, namely Antonia Fraser. Antonia Fraser is a famous public personality, and her full name is Lady Antonia Margaret Caroline Fraser. The word ‘Zeit’ means Time, and the Doctor Zeit mentioned here in this text is the Grim Reaper or ‘the Keeper of Time’. In this fearful fiction and haunting supernatural tale, the protagonist Nola, a British writer in the making, is haunted by nine visitations from the Keeper of Time or the Grim Reaper to prepare her for death. Her five-year-old son Johnnie would be the only witness to her death at the hands of the Grim Reaper. There is a mix of the horror and psychological thriller genre in this tale of terror and is told mainly from the author’s point of view. Though penned in a simplistic style, it is frightening and suspenseful. A detective fiction writer of excellent reputation, Antonia Fraser presents the shocked reader of this tale with a few hints leading to the dramatic death of a very disturbed Nola in the last part of the text. The story creates a mysterious angle in our perception. We tend to wonder whether the ‘Doctor Zeit’ mentioned in the title is the German or Austrian psychiatrist treating Nola and the reason for her terror. However, through the excellent plot twists and tricks of Lady Antonia Fraser, we are fooled right up until the end and are then left spellbound.
Other minor themes to add color to this foreboding tale of terror are:
- The seventeenth-century family life of the people of the West that Nola was researching in the reading room of the British Museum for a non-fiction history book. We notice that the Puritan theme is much more than just Antonia Fraser lending some of her personality to the text. We realize that the Puritan and closed and almost hysterical atmosphere of suspense is accelerated because of the choice of theme for the writing of this book.
- The character and historical importance of the Grim Reaper or the Keeper of Time and the Death Angel himself. From various parts in the text, we realize that Doctor Zeit had to be the Grim Reaper because he was elderly, asexual, reeked of the stench of the dead, had immense strength, could cause a chill in the atmosphere wherever he went, and where the last part of the text is concerned he also appeared to Nola with a scythe in his hand which is the very stuff of his profession. The Grim Reaper is also symbolic of the many plagues during the Puritanical past. The death Angel used to be shown as literally digging out dead bones with his scythe from the fertile ground, the graveyard not having sufficient land to bury the many victims of the plague.
- The health of Nola is seen through the eyes of Denis, her elderly husband, which makes the reader wonder whether it was a hint that she was psychologically disturbed. Denis mentions in one part of the text that Nola was nervous and could go into a collapse if stressed to a great extent, and he married her to care for her. However, readers take the wrong end of the stick when they analyze it from a psychological angle because it was the somatic angle that Denis was alluding to and presumed to be the cause of Nola dying in their garden.
The story begins with suspenseful unease with Nola’s predicament already being declared that she was worried about a face that was haunting her. Only a face and not an actual person, which makes the reader want to sit up and take note because we tend to associate a person with his face at first visual notice and even from retained memory. Thus, the tale begins with suspense and moves higher up the scale of terror until the final climax. Nola’s situation is summarized, and she is otherwise a typical ordinary British wife of a husband who was much older than her and doted on her. She was keen on writing a non-fiction history book as a post-graduate thesis. She, therefore, visited the British Museum for research and worked in the Reading Room every day. She was diligent at her work, and even though she had a pressing schedule as a mother and wife, she still made time for her home and work. Denis, as we note in the short story ‘Doctor Zeit’, does not take Nola’s work seriously, and neither did he have any respect for her work as he casually maintains a patriarchal tone indicating that she had plenty of time to write her book once her son Johnnie grew older. Denis is a calm person who is mature and does not like to trouble his nervous wife. Her concerns do not seem valid to him, which is why she keeps hiding the truth of the haunting face from Denis.
Nola does not trust Denis with her secret, and the stress in her mind and body keeps building up over the weeks. She dotes on her son Johnnie, an extroverted child who would later be subject to the brutal shock of seeing his mother dying before his very eyes. Nola is otherwise content in her home, where she mainly works in the garden and kitchen. She is a stereotypical housewife with little concern for the supernatural. However, she starts seeing the face of the Grim Reaper and is haunted by it exactly nine times.
- The first apparition is on the steps of the London Underground leading to Tottenham Court Road, where Nola sees an almost asexual elderly geriatric individual tugging at her long skirt. She thinks of the person as a woman. Already we note the hint of the eternal asexuality of the Reaper.
- The second apparition is at the station where she sees an elderly man waiting and then getting on the train with her on her way to the British Museum. He is a different man but with the same face as the Angel of Death.
- The third apparition is on the same platform on her way to the British Museum, this time with Johnnie, who is later kidnapped by the Grim Reader but found by a policeman of color. Nola only partly sees the visage of the young Reaper clad in jeans and T-shirt but is confident that he has the same face.
- The author Antonia Fraser mentions the fourth, fifth, and sixth apparitions as mere meetings when Nola went shopping or picked up Johnnie from school.
- The seventh apparition is at The Reader’s Room, where Nola sees three seats in front of her chair, a cross elderly woman with five books on her table with the same face as the Angel of Death. The woman was reading the same genre of books as Nola, which chills Nola to the bone. She was addressed as Doctor Zeit by a male help at the Reading Room.
- The eighth apparition of the Reaper is not done directly but indirectly. Instead of meeting Nola this time, the Angel of Death, in the guise of a doctor, does a medical checkup of her husband Denis at his firm and gives Denis a clean health chit and a message for Nola. The seventh and eighth apparitions specifically indicate to Nola that the apparitions were supernatural because the doctor checked up Denis at the same time the female Doctor Zeit was haunting Nola. There is a clear potent indication here of meticulous foreboding by the Reaper. The Reaper indicates to Nola via the doctor’s message that her husband Denis would live, but the Angel of Death would soon visit her!
- The ninth and last apparition is in Nola’s garden. She sees a young lad or gardener with a scythe in his hand but with the same haunting face which declares that at that very moment Nola would die, but he, the Grim Reaper, would be digging in her garden long after she is dead and gone. It indicates the death blow he gave her with his mystical scythe, which was not visible or tangible to Denis because Nola had no mark on her body. The reader is left to presume that Nola’s death would be deemed a death by a heart attack. Only Johnnie maintains that it was the gardener who killed his mother, the five-year-old Johnnie being the only witness to the horrible crime.
All these apparitions add suspense to the text, making us wonder about the real identity of the person with ‘the old face’. There are many elements of writing style and peculiarities that are meticulously noted down by detective fiction writer Antonia Fraser which are very revealing about her stronghold on the main plot and the tight grip that she holds on the behavior and actions of all the characters in the story. The descriptions are crisp and relevant, enhancing the main plot of the story: the haunting and the apparitions.
Antonia Fraser delicately mentions that Nola at times complained about the fuss Denis made over her and that he seemed not to take her seriously enough, the way one would not take a child or plaything or a pet seriously enough. Yet we note that he telephones Nola on the day of her death to see whether she was doing well after her shock at the Reading Room of the British Museum. We notice Nola’s hurt when Denis disregards the fact that she had a writer’s job, the Reading Room was her office, and that Johnnie ought to know and respect the place where his mother worked. We see in these partial mentioning not merely plot addons but the change that mid-twentieth-century British life was undergoing with the urban women becoming independent and economically self-sufficient.
Antonio Fraser mentions the Reading Room of the British Museum as a getaway for Nola. She calls it Nola’s ‘Secret Garden’, indicating the British novelist Frances Hodgson Burnett’s evergreen classic novel The Secret Garden. When one reads of Denis wondering about Nola’s illness and the apparition of the female Doctor Zeit, we wonder if Nola was suffering from hallucinations or a queer form of visual hallucination and whether Doctor Zeit was her Austrian psychiatrist Austria being the birthplace of all the three major schools of psychotherapy. All these deflecting tricks continue till the end, where Nola is finally claimed by death in a way only visible to Johnnie. The haunting is finally complete, and Nola will never write the book on the Puritan family life. Antonia Fraser ends the story with a partial puzzle about the actual identity of the killer if one does not deduce the signs.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing the short story titled ‘Doctor Zeit’ penned by British writer Antonia Fraser. I hope to read and review more horror and terror short stories and other fiction in the coming days. If you are interested in reading my reviews of M.R. James’s short stories, known as the British gentleman of letters or academic ghostwriter, you can check them out here. If you are interested in reading some classic ghost stories, you can check out my abridgment of the two horror classics, namely Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. I hope to read and review more short stories and longer fiction by British writers soon.
©2022 Fiza Pathan