F. Marion Crawford was a prolific and popular American novelist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who wrote about forty novels, mostly in the romance, historical-fiction, and fantasy genres. However, he is now known more for his short horror fiction. He wasn’t so prolific in that regard, having written only eight, count ‘em, eight supernatural stories.

Francis Marion Crawford was born on August 2, 1854, in Bagni di Lucca, Tuscany, Italy, of American parents who lived in Rome. His father was Thomas Crawford, a sculptor who is most known for Armed Freedom atop the dome of the U.S. Capitol. Crawford’s mother was Louisa Cutler Ward. Among his relatives were his aunt Julia Ward Howe, a well-known poet, and the writer Samuel Ward, who was his uncle. One of his sisters and a cousin were also writers. Crawford was just three when his father died. His mother later married Luther Terry, an American painter.

Crawford’s early education was by private tutors. Though the family lived in Rome, he was sent to the U.S. in 1866 to start his formal schooling. To prepare for college, he attended St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, and then he went to Harvard. He did not stay at Harvard long and returned to Europe to continue his education. He attended Trinity College of Cambridge University in England, Heidelberg University in Germany, and the University of Rome in Italy. He studied Sanskrit at the University of Rome and in 1879 went to India to continue his study. While in India, he edited The Indian Herald at Allahabad. He later returned to Harvard to continue his study of Sanskrit for another year. He eventually learned some twenty languages.

While at Harvard, he contributed to numerous periodicals, and in 1882, his first novel was published. Mr. Isaacs, which was an immediate success, was a sketch of Anglo-Indian life and included some elements of Oriental mystery.

He lived for a short time in New York and Boston, and in 1883, he returned to Italy to take up permanent residence. He married Elizabeth Christophers Berdan on October 11, 1884, with whom he would have four children. Initially, the couple lived in Rome. After their first child was born, they bought and remodeled a villa, which they named Villa Crawford, near Sorrento on the Bay of Naples. In addition, he leased a forbidding tower in San Nicola on the coast of Calabria. He used this retreat for writing and for when he needed solitude.

In 1883, his second novel, Dr. Claudius, appeared. In the following two years, he published four novels: A Roman Singer (1884), An American Politician (1884), To Leeward (1884), and Zoroaster (1885). In every year from 1886 through 1897, anywhere from one to four of his novels appeared. From 1899 through 1909, his production slackened slightly, but he still produced ten novels in the last decade of his life, and he was working on yet another one when he died.

He also wrote a play, Francesca Da Rimini: A Play in Four Acts, and a number of histories of Italy.

Of his 40 novels, only one was horror. The Witch of Prague (1891) is about the search for true love. The main character is a beautiful young woman who masters hypnotism to achieve her powers of witchcraft.

Turning to his short stories, the well-known “The Upper Berth” (Unwin’s Annual, 1886) tells of a ghost with enormous physical strength. H.P. Lovecraft hailed this story as Crawford’s masterpiece of weird fiction.

“By the Waters of Paradise” (Unwin’s Annual, 1887) is an atmospheric romance about the legend of the Woman of the Water and an old nurse with second sight.

“The Dead Smile” (Ainslee’s Magazine, August 1899) tells of a banshee, family secrets, and corpses that won’t stay in their coffins.

The novella “Man Overboard” (published in book form in 1903) is a seafaring tale involving twin sailors, a haunted stateroom, and death at sea.

Considered one of the best vampire stories ever written, “For Blood is the Life” (Collier’s Magazine, December 16, 1905) takes place in what is clearly Crawford’s tower in San Nicola.

“The King’s Messenger” (The Cosmopolitan, November 1907) starts out with a dinner party at which the thirteenth chair is empty, but the story is hard to describe further without spoilers.

“The Screaming Skull” (Collier’s Magazine, July 14 and 21, 1908) is also well-known and is another of Crawford’s seafaring stories, though most of it takes place on land. A retired sea captain buys a house which contains a skull in a box – a skull that does not want to be moved. This story was the basis for two films, in 1958 and 1973.

“The Doll’s Ghost” (Wandering Ghosts, 1911) is a story about a non-menacing ghost and has an autobiographical element in that Crawford, as a child, once broke a little girl’s doll in a fit of rage.

Seven of these horror stories were gathered in a posthumous collection in 1911 (for reasons that are not clear, “The King’s Messenger” was not included). The collection, which received generally good reviews, was called Uncanny Tales in Europe and Wandering Ghosts in the United States. A New York Times critic commented: “Altogether for those who like ghost stories and like them strong, this [collection] may be recommended as likely to produce the desired effects and sensations in quite satisfactory fashion.”

Toward the end of 1908, an earthquake struck southern Italy, destroying Messina and killing over 200,000 people. Crawford pitched in doing relief work for refugees. In the process, he contracted influenza and developed pulmonary complications. He died in April 9, 1909, in Sant’ Agnello di Sorrento, Italy, and was buried there.

After his death, Villa Crawford, which is still known by that name, became a convent, in which Crawford’s daughter was a nun. The tower in San Nicola continues to be referred to by the locals as Crawford Tower.

Wildside Press has a number of Crawford’s books available, including The Witch of Prague and The Complete Wandering Ghosts, which contains all eight of Crawford’s horror stories.

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