Mighty pleased with herself

Balthus: ‘Jeune Fille en Vert et Rouge’ (1944)

The Collectors by Philip Pullman,
illustrated by Tom Duxbury.
Penguin Books, 2022 (2014).

‘What a very pretty girl. D’you know who she is?’ ‘No idea,’ said the Bursar, ‘but she looks mighty pleased with herself.’

p 68

“A sad tale’s best for winter,” opines a character in The Winter’s Tale, thus confirming that the tradition for ghostly, tragic accounts has a long and distinguished pedigree. Many and varied are the expected ingredients for such narratives, their purpose to excite shivers of nervous anticipation. The author of this short story duly delivers the shivers with his particular concoction.

In order to give grounding to some aspects of the unspecified ivory-towered institution mentioned in the story Pullman seems to have based it on his own Oxford alma mater, Exeter College, setting it a couple of years after he’d graduated in 1968. But this college seems to be an altogether spookier place, and that’s down to the recipe typically specified for such winter tales.

The ingredients, many chosen from late Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories, include a cloistered setting with academics, curious objects which exude a baleful influence, a hint of mysterious or even otherworldly origins, and of course an unexplained death or two. What gives The Collectors its especial flavour is its implicit link with the worlds of Pullman’s His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust, but – as with any good winter’s tale – it has to stand on its own merits. Does it do so?

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