Grim to the brim

Edith Nesbit at her desk

The Power of Darkness: Tales of Terror
by Edith Nesbit,
introduction by David Stuart Davies.
Wordsworth Editions 2006.

‘Very good story,’ he said; ‘but it’s not what I call realism. You don’t tell us half enough, sir. You don’t say when it happened or where, or the time of year, or what colour your aunt’ s second cousin’s hair was. Nor yet you don’t tell us what it was she saw, nor what the room was like where she saw it, nor why she saw it, nor what happened afterwards.’

Edith Nesbit, ‘Number 17’ (1910)

In this selection of Edith Nesbit’s tales of mystery and supernatural occurrences she demonstrates exactly how verisimilitude is a crucial component in ghost stories and their ilk, precisely as the commercial traveller in her short story ‘Number 17’ outlines. But she herself is also an unreliable narrator because with macabre humour she proceeds to break all the rules she puts in the mouth of her commercial traveller: we never discover his name, or of his colleagues, or the location of the inn where the tale takes place; and though we’re given incidental details of how Room 17 is furnished — a coffin-like wardrobe, the red drapes, the framed print on the wall — we end by doubting the reliability of the traveller’s account and thus that of the author.

And here too lie further conumdrums when ghost stories are related: it’s not just the who and what, and the when and where, that go towards their effective reception by reader or listener, it’s how we experience them — the time of day or night, the place, whether orally conveyed or merely seen on the page — and why we choose this genre — our mood or inclination, our desire to be frightened witless — that decide whether such grim tales amuse or bore or chill us.

And, of course, whether the author is the mistress or not of her craft must surely be a deciding factor.

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Unputdownable

Angel niche
Angel niche © C A Lovegrove

Ghost of a Chance
by Rhiannon Lassiter.
Oxford University Press 2011

This, if it’s not too contradictory a description for a ghost-cum-detective story, is a delightful novel, often deeply satisfying and always captivating. The narrative is set within the span of a month, from April Fool’s Day to May Eve, and features the ghost of young Eva, who has to act as a kind of detective to uncover the details of her own murder.

Good detective stories include a cast of suspects and a shoal of red herrings, and we get plenty of both here. Ghost stories, by definition, must offer us a closetful of skeletons, spooks and denizens of the spirit world and there are enough here too for all the proverbial hairs on your neck.

Particularly memorable are the maid Maggie, the Witch and, most chilling of all, the Stalker, who feeds off other ghosts.

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Time no longer

Philippa Pearce:
Tom’s Midnight Garden
Illustrated by Susan Einzig
OUP 2008 (1958)

When the dreamer dreams who dreams the dreamer? Do people change their essence as they age? And can Eternity be contained in a dream? Big questions, imponderable maybe, but ones raised by a reading of Tom’s Midnight Garden, first published over sixty years ago but retaining a freshness whilst reflecting the angst of childhood.

Though set in 1958 — when, incidentally, I was roughly the same age as young Tom — the story also harks back to the late Victorian period, specifically the late 1880s and 1890s. This is the time of the midnight garden, when orphan Hatty is growing up in a Cambridgeshire villa, reluctantly taken in by an unsympathetic aunt and largely left to her own devices.

Meanwhile — and it is a curious ‘meanwhile’ — Tom Long is sent to stay over summer with his aunt and uncle, in quarantine while his younger brother Peter recovers from measles. Like Hatty he is isolated from his contemporaries, and his yearning for company of his own age chimes in with the mystery of the grandfather clock that incorrectly marks the hours. At one witching hour, when thirteen is struck, Tom finds his way through the back door leading to a plot out of time.

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Interlace and the gimp

Kathy Hoopman: Lisa and the Lacemaker
An Asperger Adventure
Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2002

Lisa lives largely in a world of her own, tolerating a select few friends and family members but otherwise extremely sensitive to sensory over-stimulation. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a strong imagination or a rich mental landscapes; and it doesn’t mean she is unable to focus on things that matter to her, or to say things as she sees them. For Lisa, as is immediately made clear, has Asperger’s Syndrome.

One day, in the backyard of her only friend Ben—who also has Asperger’s—she unexpectedly comes across a door obscured by undergrowth. This turns out to be the lost and forgotten servants’ quarters of the Victorian house in which Ben’s family now live. In exploring it she starts to uncover its secrets, leading to family histories involving long lost loves, the ancient art of lacemaking, and the ghost of one of the dwelling’s former residents.

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A score of stories

Rye, Landgate

Joan Aiken:
The Monkey’s Wedding, and Other Stories
Introduction by Lizza Aiken
Small Beer Press 2011

In the introduction to this posthumous collection of short stories Joan Aiken describes the three ingredients that have gone into the making of these tales: fantasy elements (“witches, dragons, castles…”), realistic elements culled from everyday life (“mending punctures, winning raffles…”) and, finally, dreams (“an old lady hunting for lost things…”). Unlike her longer novels, the tales aren’t planned but spring from a chance combination of two or more of these ingredients; in The Monkey’s Wedding you can marvel at how these elements appear and re-appear in limitless permutations, always surprising, always entertaining, and always haunting.

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Bly spirits

The figure on the tower at Bly, Essex: a contemporary illustration to The Turn of the Screw

Henry James: The Turn of the Screw (1898)
in Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw
Penguin English Library 2012

Here is the ideal kind of story to read as autumn sets in, the nights get longer and our wilder imaginations take hold. Or perhaps not, if we are of a nervous disposition or cursed with an overactive imagination.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I began this. A ghost story, certainly, set in an old country house, mysterious goings-on, and two children under the supervision of a governess with issues of her own. What would I encounter? Poltergeists? Subterfuge? A storm in a teacup? None of these, it turns out, and to some extent I’m as mystified as before though, I have to admit, in different ways.

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Merely raw materials

Lamb House and garden, from the south

Joan Aiken: The Haunting of Lamb House
Jonathan Cape 1991

‘Perhaps we are nothing but the raw materials of a ghost story.’
— Hugo to Toby Lamb

A ghostly apparition, what does it signify? Misfortune? Death? Something lost or unfinished? Are inexplicable happenings evidence of a poltergeist or just the wild imaginings of the observer? Do houses, ancient sites and natural features attract supernatural entities like a genius loci, or perhaps preserve the memory of ancient associations? Will we ever fathom out true answers?

The Haunting of Lamb House is a ghost story unlike any other I’ve read. True, there may be more than one ghost (it appears) and there are three related stories: but if you’re looking for your spine to be tingled or expecting multiple bumps in the night you might be disappointed. Instead, what you’ll be offered is a sense of place and of the personages, real or imagined, that inhabited a three hundred year old house, so that the house becomes as much a character as the denizens that inhabit it.

What for me adds to the novel’s attractiveness are a couple of considerations: first, the house featured in it actually exists — and can be visited by the public — and second, the three narratives, with their different voices, give the novel a documentary feel, as though one was perusing transcriptions of actual historical artefacts. Their combination in one narrative thread somehow allowed me, Coleridge-style, to willingly suspend any sense of disbelief.

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A heart-warming tale with a twist

First snowfall: Pembrokeshire road

Joan Aiken The Shadow Guests Red Fox 1992

Joan Aiken was one of those children’s fantasy writers who made the task of reading her books not a task at all, just a pleasure to slip between the sheets and lose yourself in the narrative. Her command of story and speech seems so effortless yet true to life.

The Shadow Guests opens in a 20th-century airport, Heathrow, with a youngster waiting to be collected by a relative, an opening so unlike many Aiken novels as to feel incongruous. There is a mystery surrounding Cosmo’s family back in Australia, a mystery which gradually unfolds itself but which sets up an atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety which maintains itself right through to the end.

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Humdrum and lacklustre

graves

Susan Hill Printer’s Devil Court
Profile Books 2014 (2013)

Hugh Meredith is a junior doctor in the first decade or so of the twentieth century, lodging near Fleet Street in London and training nearby at the fictitious medical school of St Luke’s. He is drawn into a mysterious enterprise set up by fellow students Walter Powell and Rafe McAllister, namely bringing a dead person back to life. The results of witnessing the experiment come literally to haunt him in this novella by Susan Hill. The question I asked myself is, does this short story (a little over 100 pages) live up to the reputation that the author’s ghost tales have established for her?

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Tame by modern tastes

mist

Arthur Machen The Great God Pan Parthian Books 2010

Tame by modern tastes:
supernatural horror,
Victorian-style

When I was young I swore by H P Lovecraft while my friend Roger championed Machen. At the time I thought The Hill of Dreams pretty insipid compared to anything with Cthulhu in it. Several decades on I felt that I have to give Machen another chance, as it were, and this edition of The Great God Pan (and the two companion pieces in this volume, The White Pyramid and The Shining People) provided the opportunity.

I still now find Machen fin-de-siècle novels a taste I have yet to acquire. Continue reading “Tame by modern tastes”

A sad tale’s best

winter sleepwalker

Elizabeth Gaskell The Old Nurse’s Story [and Curious, if True]
Penguin Little Black Classics 2015 (1852 and 1860)

Nothing is commoner in Country Places, than for a whole Family in a Winter’s Evening, to sit round the Fire, and tell Stories of Apparitions and Ghosts. And no Question of it, but this adds to the natural Fearfulness of Men, and makes them many Times imagine they see Things, which really are nothing but their own Fancy.

— Henry Bourne in Antiquitates Vulgares (1725), quoted in
J Simpson and S Roud A Dictionary of English Folklore (OUP 2000)

Henry Bourne was a curate in Newcastle-upon-Tyne at the beginning of the 18th century who inveighed against traditions he regarded as popish or heathen. I suspect, then, that he would have given Mrs Gaskell’s short fiction ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ short shrift (or perhaps not, since “giving short shrift” is a relic Catholic phrase) for it perfectly epitomised that winter’s tale told at a Northumbrian fireside which he so hated. Luckily for his mental state he had died over a century before the two narratives included in this slim volume were published, the first in 1852, in Household Words, and the second in 1860, in The Cornhill Magazine.

The first-person narrator of ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ is Hester: an intelligent young girl in the second half of the 18th century she is selected to be nurse to Rosamond Esthwaite, daughter of a Westmoreland curate and Miss Furnivall, herself a granddaughter to a Northumbrian lord. When Rosamond is four going on five her parents both unexpectedly die within a short while of each other, and she and Hester are sent across country to the ancestral seat of Furnivall Manor House, located in Northumberland at the foot of the Cumberland Fells. The subsequent events are here recounted by the older Hester to Rosamond’s children, to whom she has also become nurse.

This is the setting for Continue reading “A sad tale’s best”

Disturbing visions

gatehouse

Neil Gaiman:
Coraline and Other Stories
Bloomsbury Publishing 2009

This is a collection of eleven Gaiman short stories (and one poem) repackaged for the young reader market. The novella Coraline is added to Bloomsbury’s earlier Gaiman collection M for Magic, while M for Magic was itself a throwing together of disparate tales, some from the adult collection Smoke and Mirrors, some from other publications, all deemed suitable to send a chill down pre-teen, teen and, of course, adult readers. So the moral is, if you already have these titles in your library you may want to pass on this ‘new’ title.

Or then again, you might not. This is a good place to include the almost flawless Coraline together with the other chillers about the fears and bogeys that haunt the childish and not so childish imagination, deliciously presented in a volume with pages that are black-edged and including Dave McKean’s original nightmarish illustrations for Coraline. This story about a girl (don’t call her ‘Caroline’) who finds a way into a parallel house where her mother has been replaced by a sinister figure with buttons for eyes is both a terrifying and yet satisfying modern equivalent of all those Grimm fairytales, such as Hansel and Gretel, with their bewitching and unspeakable devouring figures.

Outstanding are the pieces that bring horror (and sometimes humour) rather too close to home; Troll Bridge, Don’t Ask Jack, Chivalry, The Price and The Witch’s Headstone, whether set in the UK or the States, all remind the reader that the veil separating reality and the supernatural may be awfully thin. Less engaging but just as skilfully written are the more alien, fantastic or futuristic stories such as How to Sell the Ponti Bridge and Sunbird; these are more for those who have leanings towards genre fiction, but they are still rooted in a rich Western cultural heritage.

Gaiman is a master at bringing the unexpected to the seemingly banal; don’t read this if you don’t ever want to have his disturbing visions floating up to your consciousness unbidden.

Run-of-the-mill supernatural romance

Carcassonne-19th-century
19th-century Carcassonne

Kate Mosse, Labyrinth. Orion 2006

I read this before it was acclaimed The Viewers’ Choice (in a TV Book Club shortlist at the 2006 British Book Awards) but, frankly, remained unimpressed. I had high expectations for an out-of-the-ordinary modern take on the holy grail written by a successful reviewer and generous sponsor of new writing, but was deeply disappointed at the result.

Kate Mosse has mixed up a cocktail of familiar elements (Cathar heretics, reincarnation, grail, medieval history) and somehow turned it into an entirely run-of-the-mill romance-cum-fantasy-cum-thriller. I admire her research into life in the Middle Ages, her knowledge of the French Midi (she lives in the old walled city of Carcassonne, ‘restored’ to a Victorian vision of the High Middle Ages) and her attempt to make the grail a little different from the familiar holy bloodline thesis. The labyrinthine storyline seesaws between the past and the present, turning on the fulcrum of a scandalously disorganised archaeological investigation.

However, her use of Hollywood-influenced magic denouements and crude Disneyesque villains and villainesses, combined with a holier-than-thou heroine, ultimately left this reader cold and mystified. Still, back in 2006 I couldn’t argue with 70,000 presumably satisfied readers, and probably can’t even now; though its frequent appearances on charity shop bookshelves, along with The Da Vinci Code, suggests that those readers aren’t now fussed about keeping it on their bookshelves. I myself shan’t be seeking out the sequels.