Humdrum and lacklustre

graves

Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill.
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?

The answer, surprisingly and disappointingly, is no.

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Nights at the opera

The Witness for the Dead
by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette).
Solaris / Rebellion Publishing Ltd 2021

He stared at me as if I’d told him I could hear fishes singing.

Sometimes the effectiveness of a novel can be judged by whether it can make you believe in impossible things, such as being able to hear fish singing. On this basis The Witness for the Dead fulfils this criterion with flying colours, even though no piscine choirs are involved. Elves and goblins are involved, however, as are listening to the dead, dowsing for individuals’ whereabouts, and confronting ghouls and ghosts; and yet far from been presented with a succession of tired fantasy tropes we’re instead served a nuanced character study and an engaging crime fiction.

In the imperial state of Ethuveraz Thara Celehar is a prelate of Ulis, the divinity who has charge of both death’s dominions and the moon. Thara is also a Witness for the Dead in the provincial city of Amalo, a calling that depends on his ability to tap into the emotions and last thoughts of those who’ve died either by violent means or in unclear circumstances, and thus to speak for them.

But Celehar’s status within the Ulineise hierarchy is anomalous, attracting political jealousy as well as support, and though accorded respect for his abilities he is regarded by many with suspicion, even fear. And his past hides a potential scandal which, though previously hushed up, could jeopardise everything for him.

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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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Meddling in Nature’s domain

Robert Holdstock: The Fetch,
Time Warner Paperbacks 1992

Adopted boy gains |
gift of fetching gifts; travels |
through time and space too.

The Fetch (the US title, Unknown Regions, is taken from a subtitle of Holdstock’s Lavondyss) revisits one of Holdstock’s favourite tropes, the wood as gateway to other times, places and parallel worlds (as in the Mythago Wood series) but on this occasion the tale is set within the undergrowth which has grown up in a disused chalk quarry on the English south coast.

The action revolves around the boy Michael, adopted by a middle-class professional couple, who brings with him a maelstrom of psychic activity, changing their lives forever.

Holdstock’s starting point is the three meanings of ‘fetch’ (the act of retrieving, a spirit or doppelgänger, and a dialect word meaning ‘fetish’) which he interweaves into a narrative that also draws in archaeology, folklore, ritual, ESP, scientific ethics and a dysfunctional family.

As with many Holdstock stories there is a sense of escalating claustrophobia and menace, unleavened by any humour but told with a profound love of words, sense of place and concern over human meddling in Nature’s domain.

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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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Life in the realms of death

Imogen as Fidele, by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (Wikimedia)

The Time of the Ghost
by Diana Wynne Jones,
illustrated by David Wyatt.
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2001 (1981)

Corn yellow and running, came past me just now, the one bearing within her the power to give life in the realms of death.

As with so many of Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasies she weaves in so many strands — autobiographical, literary, supernatural and more — that it becomes almost like an ancient artefact or artwork, an object that mystifies as much as it magnetically draws one in, a magical narrative that repays a second read or more, and then a hefty bit of research and recall.

For example, the ghost of the title hears a voice from a longbarrow, the speaker mistaking a sister called Imogen for his long-dead daughter. This must surely be the Cunobelinus who was transformed in Shakespeare’s play into Cymbeline, who had a daughter called Imogen who was presumed to have been killed. And though the novel is set in North Hampshire the author draws from her childhood in Essex, the area with which Cymbeline and his family is associated.

So already we are seeing autobiographical and literary details being drawn together, but for the innocent reader what comes through most is a mystery story concerning a very strange family and a ghost who doesn’t know who she is.

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Uneasy lies the head

The so-called Alfred Jewel, part of the aestel now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

In this post I shall be discussing a couple of themes remaining to be highlighted from my examination of Joan Aiken’s novel Midwinter Nightingale.

No, don’t switch off, on the basis that you haven’t read this and what possible interest can it have for you: I shall in fact mostly be looking at the institution of monarchy in this alternative history and this will actually start with aspects of real history — you know, the kind of history you and I may have absorbed by osmosis at school, from fiction or the odd TV doc we’ve watched. Antiques Roadshow, for example.

So let’s start with a particular category of antique work, an art object — the aestel. What’s that? you may well ask. Read on … and beware, spoilers lurk.

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About children

1953 Coronation mug

Jan Mark: The One That Got Away.
Thirty Stories from Thirty Years
Roffo Court Press 2020

How have I not come across the fabulous Jan Mark before? I look over some of the titles of her children’s books, all written and published over some three decades from 1974, and find that not one rings a bell. Maybe they weren’t what I was avidly consuming then, or what our children brought back from the library, but I now find she represents a significant lacuna in my reading experience.

Collected here are some thirty short stories arranged by alphabetical order of titles; they represent a selection of varied narratives, from school stories to family vignettes via ghost tales and humorous anecdotes, speculative short fiction and flashbacks to life in the mid-20th-century, and everything else in between.

I can’t possibly comment on them all so I’ll point out the real highlights for me, the ones that lingered even more than others as I read through the collection over a month, though to be honest that could still be a lot more than the representative sample I was intending.

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Tales within tales

The Sleep of Reason (Wikipedia Commons)
The Sleep of Reason (Wikipedia Commons)

Ursula K Le Guin
A Fisherman of the Inland Sea: Stories
Harper Perennial 2005

Ursula Le Guin is best known for her fantasy and her science fiction writings, though she also writes other fiction as well as poetry, articles and reviews. The short stories in this 1994 collection, while firmly in the SF genre, also demonstrate her ability to compose in various tones, from light to dark, from gentle humour to philosophical musings. Originally published in various periodicals between 1983 and 1994, the narratives are clearly placed in context by an excellent introduction in which she not only discusses the tales but also mounts a spirited defence of SF as a genre, a defence which twenty years on may be less urgent though no less valid or effective.

She explains that she experiments with SF by using the form to explore character and human relationships, rather than exploring the ‘scientism’ and elitist technocracies that much traditional ‘hard’ SF was associated with and which put off the unconverted. She also denies that SF (and by extension, I suspect, fantasy) is necessarily escapist; instead, by exploring human characteristics, even or especially in alien humanoids, she throws light on our own humanity, humaneness, human-ness; she focuses on the potential strengths of SF, most particularly on a quality that is not always attached to this genre: beauty.

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Pattern seeking

WordPress Free Photo Library

Every so often I put up a post drawing together themes, or characters, or places. As we approach a turning point in the year — in this case, the end of 2019 — it is tempting to start a summative series of posts. But I shall resist that impulse, reserving such an approach for December.

This time I shall merely attempt to summarise what the last few books I’ve read have, or indeed don’t have, in common. Why? Because, like all of us, I am a pattern-seeking animal and like to check that life isn’t just a random sequence of events, with no meaning or significance at all.

Or so I’d like to believe!

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Dark deeds and the Devil

Alpine glacier, from a 19th century print
Alpine glacier, from a 19th century print

Philip Pullman:
Count Karlstein
Doubleday 2002 (1982)

Exactly four decades ago this year [2013] as a student teacher I took part in a college production of Weber’s Der Freischütz, when I sang in the chorus and took a minor role as Prince Ottokar. First performed in 1821 this was a landmark opera sung in German, adapting native folksongs — the famous ‘Huntsmen’s Song’ has affinities with the traditional English tune ‘Strawberry Fair’, which may even have been influenced by Weber’s tune — and featuring supernatural Gothic horror.

The Gothic horror tradition was also purloined by Mary Shelley when she first composed Frankenstein while sojourning near Geneva in 1816, though the novel wasn’t published until 1818. One of the crucial scenes takes place on a glacier near Mont Blanc — coincidentally, we were holidaying one summer in Chamonix when our son was reading Frankenstein as a set text for school, within sight of the very same Mer de Glace glacier where Viktor Frankenstein is confronted by his monster.

These personal memories came flooding back when reading this early piece of fiction by His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman.

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The banshee’s exile

Edvard Munch 1895 lithograph of The Scream
Edvard Munch’s 1895 lithograph of The Scream

Joan Aiken: The Scream
Macmillan Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

Edvard Munch’s expressionist work The Scream is justly famous for its haunting quality: a figure shrieks in the foreground while in the background of the original painting a lurid red sky is reflected in the waters of a Norwegian fjord. Two figures are strolling along a walkway away from the figure, intent perhaps on the two vessels at anchor or the port which can just be discerned by the steeple of the church.

Munch’s painting has not only given its title to Joan Aiken’s children’s book but also furnished one of the many themes that run through its pages. An iconic image that has found its way onto objects as mundane as a whoopee cushion given to the author transforms into a screech that causes a fatal traffic accident, a shriek that recalls a banshee’s cry which in turn inspires a composition by obscure composer Ronald Runaldsen, and a howling storm that produces a wave fit to swamp the puny boat of any owner who foolishly ventures out.

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Primitive catastrophe

Bryn Hall, Llanymawddwy, Gwynedd (image credit: © Copyright David Medcalf and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence)

Alan Garner: The Owl Service
Postscript by the author
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2007 (1967)

“Possessive parents rarely live long enough to see the fruits of their selfishness.”
— 1965 quote from Radio Times used as an epitaph for The Owl Service

We often unconsciously live our lives according to a script, seeing ourselves acting out a tragedy or a quest, a journey or overcoming major obstacles, human or otherwise. Sometimes those scripts follow a fairytale trope, such as the arc of the Cinderella story. More rarely do we mirror an ancient myth, but in The Owl Service that’s exactly what Gwyn, Alison and Roger do, aided and abetted by the mysterious Huw.

The three youngsters, unwittingly at first, take the parts of Gronw, Blodeuwedd and Lleu from the Mabinogion tale of Math, the son of Mathonwy, but even when they become aware of the parallels they seem almost powerless to avoid a descent into darkness. And yet this is not just a simple updating of a medieval plot for modern times: the author also offers insights into psychology, family dynamics and social mobility, all contained within a strong sense of place, in North Wales.

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A shiver down the spine

Jen Campbell:
The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night
Two Roads 2018 (2017)

A dozen short stories do not a novel make — this last was what the author’s agent was originally expecting, but at least she didn’t shout when informed otherwise. Yet for all that these are diverse pieces – some, one suspects, semi-autobiographical, others sweet, yet more being fractured fairytales or freeform musings – they share themes and points of view which, in a weird way, could connect them into one long rambling narrative.

In fact the epigraph quotes Frankenstein’s Creature declaring, in the hopes of his creator furnishing him with a mate, that “It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another.” This suggests that there are indeed connections between these tales, however curious and eccentric they may appear if we are expecting conventional narratives; but it also hints at a personal apologia. A self-declared queer writer with physical deformities, Jen Campbell brings a distinct perspective into her writing while managing to render her stories universal, a task that she somehow manages effortlessly. Or so it appears.

I shall avoid listing and discussing all twelve tales as being an arid exercise; instead I want to draw out from a select few the aspects that appealed to me most in the expectation that you may find my remarks useful.

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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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