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The Vacant Lot - A Critique

Every now and then, a story triggers a critical response in me. It’s difficult to carry this critic mode with all stories because each work has its own mission. Yet, this week’s story was an exception.

“The Vacant Lot” was written by Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman, a daughter of nineteenth century Massachusetts. She has several published short stories and novels, and has been well received as a writer of her day as well in modern literary circles.

“The Vacant Lot” began with some fictional background regarding the Townsend family. The Townsends were owners of a general store and their ancestors previously owned a hostelry (for man and beast), and a tavern. They were portrayed as affluent and prominent in a rural setting who decided to move to Boston to improve their economic conditions.

A house was found in a very fashionable neighborhood at an unbelievable price and next to a vacant lot. The other members of the family were suspicious of the home’s durability but eventually the house was pronounced to be perfectly sound by the same relations.

In time, paranormal activity developed in the home regularly with several family members as witnesses. Some of these events were quite creative: shadows in the vacant lot of someone hanging up phantom clothing, black veils dancing around rooms by themselves, clusters of ghosts clothed in black moving around and the smell of ghostly cabbage in the air.

The Townsends decided they were not equipped to continue living in the house. The head of the family, David, visited and questioned the realtor about the previous owner. The realtor was not allowed to disclose the detailed information David was seeking but admitted to investigating the history of the house on his own. The realtor was aware of the house’s spooky activity and reputation.

David continued to question the realtor about the vacant lot. The realtor was not aware of the current owner but based on old public records found out it was referred to as the “old Gaston lot.” That bit of information struck David Townsend into pallidity and sent him back to the old homestead in the country without an explanation to his fears.

The secret David held was this: “He remembered all at once the story of a ghastly murder which had taken place in the Blue Leopard (name of the old hostelry). The victim’s name was Gaston and the murderer had never been discovered.”

What that had to do with the haunting of the vacant lot and the house was beyond me. It seemed like the ending was poorly contrived in relation to the rest of the story. Twelve pages of story lacked a substantiate link to that ending.

I can see if Gaston’s spirit haunted the old hostelry or if the family was lured by a series of events throughout the story to that house but the entire story lack those types of connections.
It was like moving through a brick castle to a door. The door opens and all you see is a spilt cup of coffee. What?? This really bothered me. How could the writer do that?

Upon further investigation, I learned Mary Wilkins died in 1930 and the story was part of a collection released in 1974 by Arkham House entitled “Collected Ghost Stories.”

My speculation is this: “The Vacant Lot” was an unfinished story and not Ms. Wilkins’ intention to publish it. It needs further editing to fill in the holes for completion. It is at best and respectfully, a very detailed and lengthy synopsis.

The creative process is a peculiar animal. It has the reputation of shape shifting for every artist. Speaking from personal experience, it is not unusual to put down a story until it calls the writer back to it. In Mary Wilkins’ case, she went on to glory before she could finish it. R.I.P.

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