Crime Corner

Your carriage awaits: a Halloween column

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Victor Sjöström’s 1921 film The Phantom Carriage follows the horrific events on a New Year’s Eve night.

JERRY HOLT
Purdue University

Hard to know when and where the concept of a carriage that transports the dead comes from. Certainly, it owes a lot to the concept of Charon, the ferryboat driver on the River Styx, and that would take it back to antiquity. One of the most benign examples of the chariot was given to us in 1861, when Emily Dickinson wrote “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.”

In the Dickinson version, Death arrives as a courtly lover, complete with his own carriage. Since Dickinson was always pretty fluid on the subject of the hereafter, Death in this poem isn’t all that warm and fuzzy. When Dickinson crosses the threshold between life and the grave “the dews drew quivering and chill,” and indeed the poet’s resting place is pictured as a grave. But we also get a sense of death as not particularly terrifying—even as, for Dickinson, the only husband she will ever know.

This image of a carriage or chariot has remained a fixture of folklore: the African-American spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” appeared near the end of the 19th century, and it was not long after that—1909, to be precise—that the much-heralded The Iron Chariot (Norwegian: Jernvognen) was bestowed upon the world by Norwegian writer Stein Riverton (real name:  Kristoffer Elvestad Svensen).

Iron chariot

The Iron Chariot by Stein Riverton is considered by many to be the first Norwegian detective novel. The author himself called it a “thrilling tale.”

This slim novel is often honored as the first Norwegian story of detection—in fact, the highest honor that Norway can bestow on a mystery writer is The Riverton Prize. Riverton himself seemed to be well aware that he was writing something game-changing. He had already published journalism, short stories, and other novels, but with The Iron Chariot, Riverton commented that “I’ve sketched out a fine new detective novel. Or not exactly a detective novel but a thrilling tale. A sensational tale—the most thrilling novel I have ever written.”

Not sure this reader would go that far—but, even so, there is no doubt that The Iron Chariot is a rollickingly scary read. I won’t commit the awful spoiler of revealing what the Iron Chariot actually is—but I will say that the most successful part of the book is not its major revelation—but its atmosphere.

The story is set on a Norwegian island and centers on guests in a seaside hotel. Our narrator, who remains nameless throughout, is a writer who seeks downtime but instead gets involved in not one murder but two—both of them announced by the rumble of a ghostly “iron wagon.”

In local lore, this vehicle is a warning of death. And, indeed, a forestry agent named Blinde and an elderly man, the grandfather of Hilde, the young woman Blinde has been courting, are found dead. It’s a puzzler—more of a Locked Island Mystery than Locked Room, but far too complex for the local law.

Enter Asbjørn Krag, a renowned sleuth in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin. Even though Krag takes his time, he is a relentless sort, and it is not long before we realize that he has a particular interest in—our narrator.

At this point, the story becomes a cat-and-mouse game, with the narrator and Krag locked in a deadly game. Are we being told this tale by a stone-cold killer? Is Krag somehow a guilty party? 

The Phantom Chariot

Swedish filmmaker Victor Sjöström both directed and starred in the 1921 film The Phanton Carriage, based on a 1912 novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf.

Much of the book sounds like a blueprint for the sorts of standoff plots that Karin Fossum would years later make her stock-in-trade. And it’s all made quite terrifying by a narrator so fallible that he trembles and tells us, “There was a noise outside my window. A branch snapped and there was rustling in the bushes. The wind? No—it sounded like long fingers gliding between the leaves.” Very nice indeed—one might even call the writing “cinematic,” although it is doubtful that the cinema could have much influenced Riverton, as he wrote during the first decade of the 20th century.

For the image of the Dark Chariot to ride onto movie screens, we turn to Sweden and specifically to classic film director Victor Sjöström (1879-1960). Sjöström was originally an actor, who moved effortlessly into directing, and during his long career, he would helm 42 films. One of these, from 1921, is called The Phantom Carriage (Swedish: Körkarlen) after the 1912 novel by Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf, and it shows Sjöström at the height of his cinematic powers. Indeed, within the next two years he would accept an offer to go to Hollywood and work for Louis B. Mayer.

The Phantom Carriage—which also stars Sjöström—follows the horrifying New Year’s Eve night spent by Philip Holm, a self-serving drunkard (Sjöström) who is visited by a not unsympathetic Angel of Death who arrives to claim the wastrel for eternal damnation. The visuals of the ghostly carriage are top notch for their time—employing a technique that foreshadows what we now call three-dimensional.

The Swedish film poster for Körkarlen, literally translated as “The Driver,” but released in English with the much scarier title The Phantom Carriage.

While the film finally offers some redemption, the nearly two hours it takes to get there are so creepily unremitting that you are still likely to emerge from this experience feeling more than a little damned. The Phantom Carriage certainly had its effect on a very young Ingmar Bergman. Part of the fun for cinephiles today in screening this film is to note the many details that the mature filmmaker Bergman later appropriated for his The Seventh Seal (Swedish: Det sjunde inseglet) in 1959.

Bergman claimed to have first seen The Phantom Carriage when he was 16 and then to have screened it every year thereafter. It does not take an eagle eye to catch the similarity between Sjöström’s ghostly carriage driver and the death mask that Bengt Ekerot, our grim reaper in Bergman’s film, wears. And if further proof of the influence of The Phantom Carriage had on Bergman were needed, the dying professor who is the focus of Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (Swedish: Smultronstället) from 1957 is played by none other than … Victor Sjöström.

Here at Crime Corner, we wish you the happiest of Halloween nights. But should it prove to be a foggy, rainy one, and should you hear those carriage wheels outside … well, better check those door locks.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 22, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Jerry Holt

Jerry Holt is a novelist, playwright, teacher, and public speaker. He is professor emeritus of English at Purdue University Northwest and a recipient of Purdue's 2015 Dreamer Award, recognized for work as that has "embodied Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of service to others.” Holt has written four major plays, one novel, and nine short plays. His acclaimed novel, The Killing of Strangers, focuses on several mysteries surrounding the Kent State University shootings on May 4, 1970.

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