Wednesday, July 6, 2016

this one I really liked -- My Bones and My Flute: A Ghost Story in the Old-Fashioned Manner, by Edgar Mittelholzer

Peepal Tree Press, 2015
originally published 1955
231 pp

paperback (read in June)

I enjoyed this book so very much that even before I'd turned the last page, I bought another work by Edgar Mittelholzer.   Considering I'd never even heard of him before buying this book, I'd say that's a recommendation for reading this writer's work.

As our story opens, we learn that this tale is the work of Milton Woodsley, who in 1954 has written a book about a series of strange occurrences that he was part of in 1933.  He guarantees that he's combed through the facts as noted in his diary of twenty years earlier, and that this book is indeed a "true record" of events "including  nothing that might be attributed to my imagination."  He had originally intended on publishing just his diary notes "as they stood," but he was convinced by the three other principal players to a) "let it be a good thrilling sort of old-fashioned ghost story, with the mystery solved at the end," b) to write it up in "sonorous prose style" with  "as much 'form and shape'" that he could manage, and c) to add into it a "lot of atmosphere and excitement."   And all three of these elements are definitely here, although Milton himself wonders if the actual mystery was truly solved when all is said and done.   That question, he says, must be left up to the reader, and as it turns out, Milton is spot on with his observation.

We then go back in time to 1933, where young Milton is on a steamer heading up Guyana's Berbice River out of New Amsterdam.  He had been invited to accompany Mr. Ralph Nevinson along with his wife Nell and daughter Jessie, to Nevison's company's up-river station at Goed de Vries for two weeks and while there, Milton's job will be to paint "some pictures depicting jungle scenes" that "would adorn the walls of their head office."  After the steamer had gone more than half way, Milton has this sort of flash that his inclusion on this trip was more about something else other than painting; it was then that he realized that "things were not what they appeared to be."  As it turns out, he learns from Jessie that her father had only just returned from Goed de Vries a month earlier and that since he'd been back, he'd been "nervy and jumpy" for reasons unknown to her, but what really captures his attention is that suddenly, out of nowhere, Jessie asks him about the sound of a flute playing on a lower deck:
"Don't you hear that flute? It's the same one I've been hearing for some days now in Queenstown."
Milton can't hear a thing, but then Nevinson admits that he can also hear the flute playing, confiding in Milton that he hears it right beside him.  Milton is puzzled but Nevinson eventually lets him in on what's going on.  Nevinson's hobby was collecting anything related to the early history of the colony, and some two years earlier, he had learned of a manuscript that was
"supposed to bring good fortune to its possessor, provided it was kept shut away in safety from daylight and fire."
However, it comes with the explicit warning that  "it must not be handled at any time."

Berbice River at sunset, courtesy of Guyana Tourism Board
Nevinson never saw the manuscript, but was definitely intrigued, and he tells Milton that just the month before when he'd gone to Goed de Vries, he discovered that its owner had died and left him the manuscript sealed in a canister.  Nevinson, who is "the last person on earth who thinks twice about superstitions," decides to open the canister and on arriving back home, sits down to translate the manuscript.

And now here I have to add a [sidebar]: The name M.R. James appears more than once in this book, and while there are a number of reasons why this is so (which I'll leave for other readers to discover), one is most obvious -- as in many of James' stories, everything begins when someone starts messing around with things best left alone. So you might imagine that I wasn't surprised when Nevinson fails to heed the warning.   The irony of the situation is that he is a huge fan of James' work, even carrying a copy of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary into the jungle with him.  I mean, come on ... you'd think someone who is that big of a fanboy should have known better!  Now back to the book.

It was then that he began to hear the flute, and no matter where he goes, it's always with him.  Soon, the entire family and Milton are infected and find themselves at the mercy of some pretty strange forces. Even worse, they find themselves racing against the clock to fight off whatever evils are attacking them.

Like most of the books I read, My Bones and My Flute can be read strictly for its surface value -- in this case, a creepy, mysterious ghost story where the tension ratchets over the course of the book -- or for people who want to dive deeper, there's certainly plenty lurking beneath: race, the immense power of the jungle landscape, Guyana's troubled slave past, and much, much more. One thing I didn't pay much attention to but discovered while reading the introduction -- which should absolutely be left until the end of the book to avoid any sort of spoilers, so don't be a Nevinson and disregard the warning -- is that you can read this story as a book about writing, since Milton is coming at this tale retrospectively, trying to create a polished product from diary notes, often stopping to refer to the process throughout the novel.

No matter how you choose to read it, My Bones and My Flute is a fine ghost story that had me flipping pages until I'd finished, and as I said earlier, it is so very well done that without hesitating for a second, I immediately picked up another of Mittelholzer's Caribbean novels. My only issues: there are some pretty overwrought, overwritten sections in this book that are almost laughable and the ending sort of left me with a few more questions, but on the whole, it is one that serious readers of older supernatural stories will not want to miss.  Quite frankly, I feel like I hit paydirt when I discovered this  novel, and I can't wait to read his next one, Shadows Move Among Them.  If you're into rare and obscure finds, this should definitely be a part of your library.

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