Thursday, February 27, 2014

Madam Crowl's Ghost and Other Stories

Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1994
174 pp

Madam Crowl's Ghost and other stories contains twelve supernatural tales that might be best be read late at night when the house is quiet. Even Henry James agrees: there's a statement by James on the back cover that reads

"There was the customary novel by Mr. Le Fanu for the bedside; the ideal reading in a country house for the hours after midnight."

The book is a mix of Victorian ghost stories, haunted houses, and tales based on Irish folklore.   These aren't perhaps the best ghost stories I've ever read, but Le Fanu is a master of  atmosphere, which helps to  produce the sense of dread or doom I look for when I read these tales.  For the ghost-story aficionado, this collection is definitely one not to miss.

Since this is not  a literary blog, and because I am not at all skilled in literary analysis, you won't find that here; there are, however,  lots of places on the Internet where people get much more in depth with Le Fanu and his ghost stories than I ever could. 

The contents of Madam Crowl's Ghost and Other Stories are (with absolutely no spoilers)

"Madam Crowl's Ghost," in which  an elderly woman, looks back to her thirteenth year, when she arrived at Applewale House near Lexhoe.  She was there to help take care of Dame Arabella Crowl, who's "gone quite aupy, and can't remember nout rightly," often so out of control that the servants have a straitjacket just in case.  As our young maid is about to find out, there are secrets hidden at Applewale House waiting to be uncovered.  Very creepy -- a deliciously eerie haunted house story.
"Squire Toby's Will," where the ghosts that haunt the old house are not the usual benign spirits.  About "three miles south of the town of Applebury and a mile and a half before you reach the old Angel Inn," there stands a "large black-and-white house," called Gylingden Hall standing in neglect. It wasn't always that way; some seventy years earlier, it had been the home of Squire Toby Marston.  On Squire Toby's death, his sons Scroope and Charlie, were surprised to discover that their father leaves the house to Charlie, the younger, rather to the the elder whose whom it should have been.  Some time later, a dog shows up and Charlie takes him in, even though his servant thinks it's a bad idea -- and the servant turns out to be right. 
"Dickon the Devil," is set in the northwest of England near the "famous forest of Pendle, "which Mr. Ainworth's Lancashire Witches has made us so pleasantly familiar." Squire Bowes dies with no will, causing his property, Barwycke,  to be left to the Misses Dymocks. He had planned to make a will, but died before it was finished.  The narrator, who is there twenty years later to divide up the property between them, is curious about the house, and one of the locals goes with him to Barwyke. While examining the churchyard, the narrator encounters "an idiot, an awpy," known in those parts as Dickon the Devil, "because the devil's almost the only word that's ever in his mouth."  It isn't long until the narrator receives a visit in the nighttime from someone his guide swears must be the old Squire himself -- and until the narrator discovers why the "awpy" idiot Dickon is the way he is. 
"The Child That Went With the Fairies."  Back in Ireland again, in Munster, following a "very old and narrow road, " connecting the Limerick road to Tipperary and the road going from Limerick to Dublin, there's a lonely stretch through "a deserted country" among the Slieveelim hills. There, on a small pasturage lives Mary Ryan, a widow, and her children. At the head of her bed she has her beads (rosary) and a "phial of holy water" to protect her and her family from the "Good people," or the fairies. The "hill-haunt" Lisnavoura is close by, and Mary keeps a constant watch on her four children just in case the fairies have it in mind to take them.  But one day when Mary had left older daughter Nell to keep an eye on the three younger ones, they go missing; when two of the three are found, they relate a strange story of a beautiful woman and her dark companion.  You can spin this one lots of ways, but to me it was a cautionary tale, and with a bit of imagination on my part, I could see how a story like this one told to small children at night before bedtime might scare the crap out of them so that they don't ever wander off.  While there are a number of stories about the loss of children to the fairies, here the atmosphere and the  descriptions of the lonely country where Mary and her family are living set the stage for a most incredibly haunting tale. 
"The White Cat of Drumgunniol" again set in Ireland, here evil takes the form of a white cat. Interestingly, the first paragraph of this story lets the reader know that LeFanu is going to take a "famous story of a white cat, with which we all become acquainted in the nursery," and make it into something "more sinister."  It is a story told by one Dan Donovan to the narrator, who has come to Munster to study some records and to learn the Irish language.  As a boy in Drumgunniol, Donovan used to go down to read by the lough, a deserted place in "the gentle hollow field that is overhung toward the north by the old orchard." One day at age thirteen, he saw a woman coming toward him in a light grey dress; between the two of them was the lough.  She didn't change course, though, and walked right over the water, giving Dan the fright of his life.  It was the first of many frights for the family, who found themselves ultimately struck down under a strange curse.  
" An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street," my favorite of all of the haunted house stories in this book.  Two medical students and cousins, Tom and Dick (who is the narrator of this tale), are in need of lodgings, and take up residence in a Dublin home that Tom's father had purchased but which remained unoccupied. Their cleaning lady  had been working in the house when  "under an impulse of 'temporary insanity'," one of the former tenants, a Judge Horrocks, had taken a child's jump rope and hanged himself over the bannister.  It isn't long until they both become surrounded by strange phenomena, starting out first with nightmares but eventually becoming much worse.  I loved this one.
"Ghost Stories of Chapelizod" is really three small tales: "The Village Bully", who gets a most terrible retribution by one of his victims; "The Sexton's Adventure," in which a boozing sexton's friend and favorite publican kills himself with a gun, shaking the sexton to the core to the point of promising never to drink again. However, after a late night appointment with a curate, his promise is put to the test as he passes by the dead man's pub, where a stranger tries to tempt him with a bottle. The third story is "The Spectre Lovers." Having had a good evening of drinking, Peter Brien is going home from the pub. Crossing the Chapelizod bridge, he sees something very strange -- a regiment of soldiers, who to the man had a "melancholy and hang-dog look" about them. Peter accompanies them to an old stone house, the home of the Captain's lover, who has a particular job for him: to "bring my lost treasure to the churchyard."  According to the introduction to Bleiler's collection of Le Fanu's Ghost Stories and Mysteries, the author was very interested in folklore and with the help of different friends, collected these sorts of tales. I love folklore, so this little group of stories definitely appealed to me. 

"Wicked Captain Walshawe of Wauling." This story has a particular frightfulness that creeps up on you slowly, and it's one of the better stories in this volume.  Captain James Walshawe (who wasn't really a captain except by "courtesy," married an heiress named Peg O'Neill, who had been living in a nunnery.  Peg eventually dies, and she is attended by "some half-dozen crones..." and her maid Moll Doyle. Peg had been laid out in a "strange brown robe," holding her rosary and a burning candle, which the Captain took out of her hand, and flung at Moll Doyle.  She tells him it was the "holy candle," and he accuses her and the others of witchcraft.  Moll sends him out with a curse. Some forty years later, the Captain, who  "hated nearly everybody" dies, and one of his cousins, uncle to the narrator, is summoned to the funeral.  He also wants to look around the estate, but he will eventually regret ever going there.  In some ways, this story runs along the same lines as "Squire Toby's Will," but is definitely much better.
"Sir Dominick's Bargain: A Legend of Dunoran." In the south of Ireland, the narrator who has come there for business took a long, twenty-five mile horseback ride, a journey "By bog and hill, by plain and ruined castle, and many a winding stream."  At the end of one day, as he's ready to find a place to rest, he notices a ruined house halfway up the mountainside. The name of the place is Dunoran, "a grand house in its day." He meets a hunchbacked man who tells the narrator a very strange story about Sir Dominick's proverbial deal with the devil.  Normally, these deals-with-the-devil type of stories are pretty formulaic, where good triumphs, but you're in store for something just a wee bit different here.  I liked this one.
"Ultor de Lacy," is one of the strangest and saddest stories in this book, and tells of the last members of a family of Jacobite lineage. The past reaches out to confront the present here in this eerie tale of Ultor de Lacy and his daughters Una and Alice.  When  Ultor is implicated for treason in the Rebellion of '45, he flees to France, but sneaks back every now and then to see his daughters. They are also watched over by a priest who comes to visit every so often, up until one day when try as he might, he was physically prevented from reaching the girls. The locals think the old castle where they live is haunted, so they're left on their own.  Eventually Ultor comes up with a plan to save his family from complete ruin, but what's really going on in the castle could thwart any hopes he has.
"The Vision of Tom Chuff." Another personal favorite, this story is a little like "The Sexton's Adventure," in that something causes the main character to give up his vices and change his ways. Unlike "The Sexton's Adventure" though, this one is pretty frightening.  Tom Chuff, local poacher, drunkard and wife beater, arrives at his little house one evening and after his third dram of spirits, passes out in a chair by the fire. His wife and children are petrified that Tom his dying, when a "death-like pallor came over his face" and he didn't respond to her cries.  The doctor arrives, and sticks Tom with a lancet and no blood comes out. Twenty minutes later, however, Tom comes to, and the narrator reveals that he'd had a most disturbing vision. What he saw in that vision chilled him to the marrow enough to inform his wife that he'd become a changed man.  But then again...
"Stories of Lough Guir" are again, like "Ghost Stories of Chapelizod" bits of folklore the author picked up from his childhood from local storyteller Anne Baily of Lough Guir.   The first story in this collection, "The Magician Earl," is about the Earl of Desmond and his lovely bride who, due to the wife's inability to stay quiet, find themselves living in a submerged castle. The second story here is "Moll Rial's Adventure, connected to the "Magician Earl." Moll Rial, old when Anne Baily was a child, used to be a washer woman. One day she saw a gentleman walking toward her, who offered her a ring from his finger as a "reward." Luckily she didn't speak to him or things could have been very bad.  And what Irish folklore would be complete without "The Banshee," which Miss Baily herself once experienced.  "The Governess's Dream" has Anne's governess recounting to her pupils a very strange dream. It was so intriguing that she took the girls to the old castle nearby to carry out instructions from the dream.  Finally, there is "The Earl's Hall," that takes place in the same castle with the same governess, but this time, she's visited by a strange apparition.

 While these stories aren't a complete set of terrifying tales by Le Fanu, they've been enough to whet my appetite for more. Most of these tales have to do with vengeance of wrongs brought forth to the present because of actions of someone in the past, while some are folkloric in nature. My favorites are the stories set in among the hills of Ireland, largely because Le Fanu steeps these  tales in atmosphere from the outset.  I also noticed that in many or most of these stories, there are clues at the very beginning that lead the reader toward the climax -- when all is revealed.

While I have all of Le Fanu's novels, I've never before ventured into his shorter tales, but I must say that they are very satisfying for someone like me who loves a good ghostly yarn. As I read this book, I could envision people sitting near a fireplace in a darkened room listening to someone tell these ghostly tales and feeling chills run up and down their respective spines.