Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Spirit of the Place and Other Strange Tales: The Complete Short Stories of Elizabeth Walter (ed.) Dave Brzeski

Shadow Publishing, 2017
409 pp


"You've got to be careful when dealing with spirits."

The work of Elizabeth Walter, whose name I didn't know before buying this book this past spring, has found its way into many an anthology, including several volumes of The Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories, New Tales of Unease (ed. John Burke), The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories, and The Virago Book of Ghost Stories. (Sadly, as I was looking up the last book just now, the little red guy with the pitchfork on my right shoulder made me hit the buy button, so I expect I'll be talking about that one here after my vacation in August). Considering how little there is about her to be found (and believe me, I tried), I think Brzeski has done a great job here in compiling so much information about Elizabeth Walter.

So now on to the book, which all told comprises a whopping thirty-one stories, each listed under the titles of Walter's original books in which they first appeared. In this book, those forces lying outside the realm of nature are not of the beneficent sort, but have a rather cruel, malevolent streak to them. To her credit, and with only minor exceptions, Walters manages to sustain this idea throughout most of the stories in this book; when all is said and one, however, it's the human reaction to these forces that matters in this volume.  As she is quoted in the introduction,
"The thing I like most about the supernatural is that it enables you to play God, to dispense justice -- only you dispense it from beyond the grave." (3)
I can guarantee that this happens here, in spades.  Like any other anthology, it's not perfect -- the writing can be uneven, the later stories are not as good as the earlier ones, but as a whole, The Spirit of the Place and Other Strange Tales is well worth reading. The big plus for me was the stories with Welsh settings -- it's amazing how old superstitions still abide in some places.  

Just FYI: not only is this probably going to be a lengthy post, but I am briefly annotating here so opting out at this point would be a good option for those people who want to go into this book knowing absolutely nothing. For those brave enough to read on, don't worry -- there is no leakage of critical detail. I've organized the stories into their original collections.

Book one is Snowfall and Other Chilling Events, from 1965, containing five stories. "Snowfall" takes on the benighted traveler, who this time finds himself stuck in a horrific storm with only a few miles to go until the next town. He's fortunate that someone just happens to be walking around and takes him in, or is he? "The New House," well, when you live in a home that is built in an area once known as Gibbet Hill, you might expect some creepiness to crop up. Let me just say that while the trope's been used before, the ending just about made me jump out of my chair. The best way to describe the next tale, "The Tibetan Box," is grotesque. A little carved box with a strange history finds its way into a home via a jumble sale, and gives its new owners more than they'd bargained for. Yikes. And now, just four stories in, we've come to "The Island of Regrets," my favorite story in this entire volume. Set in Kéroualhac, a small town in Brittany,  from "the hill above the village," one can see a small island in the Channel, "Like a child's toy left floating by the beach." On their way to St. Malo, Dora Matthews and her fiance Peter Quint (ring any bells, Henry James readers?) stop in this little town for the night, and learn about the superstitions surrounding this island, which the locals call the Ile des Regrets. "The island is a magic place," they are told, one that
"grants the first wish you make when you first set foot there, but grants it in such a way that you will wish it had not been granted." 
Even though they're also warned that "the island is an unlucky place," Dora drags a passive Peter along with her to visit it. Wild horses couldn't drag the rest of the story out of me -- this one is beyond chilling, and needs to go in a hall-of-fame sort of collection of best supernatural/weird tales ever told. The final story in this group is "The Drum," which, while it does highlight Walter's concept of justice meted from beyond the grave, I wasn't so keen on since I've read this same kind of thing before more than once. 

from Weavers of Tradition

The next block of six tales is from Walter's The Sin-Eater and Other Scientific Impossibilities (1967), which I'll say is a mixed bag of stories ranging from good to okay to whatever. This group begins with "The Sin-Eater," which when all is said and done is rather eerie, involving a hiker who accidentally finds himself caught up in a bizarre ritual that will come back to haunt him later. "Dearest Clarissa," which is set in a sanitarium, starts out well enough, but I figured it all out long before the narrator was able to. I really hate when that happens. Moving right along, "A Scientific Impossibility" was less creep-inspiring than laughworthy, especially because it takes place among a group of arguing academics, and then we come to "A Question of Time," which builds ever so slowly but ends up with a gutpunch. Discussion among friends about the subject of a certain centuries-old painting turns very strange in a big way. Up next is a story that Brzeski says was turned into a segment of the old Night Gallery show called "A Fear of Spiders," which I'll admit I've never seen, but I'm kind of inspired to see if I can find it now. Walter's tale is called simply "The Spider," and ultimately it's a tale of revenge served cold with a rather hair-raising twist. To say more would be to wreck it but I ended up pitying that poor fool, even if he is a jerk. Closing out this batch is another one I didn't care for very much, although its title, "Exorcism" will probably arouse some readers. Here the victim of a murderer appears shroud and all, to exact vengeance, but the murderer's wife is having no part in the dead guy's scheme. I think this one was supposed to be humorous, but the comedy escaped me for the most part.

Image from "A Fear of Spiders," from Night Gallery, via Genre Snaps 
The next bunch are included in her Davy Jones's Tale and Other Supernatural Stories (1971), and it's here that I discovered my second favorite story, which is coincidentally, "Davy Jones's Tale." It begins with the story of a shipwreck  a century earlier "with the loss of all hands," without which, as the narrator tells us, "nothing in this tale makes sense." Set in Wales, the modern-day story goes along and builds to a conclusion where the reader has to make his/her own choice about what actually happens here, and I have to say, it's not an easy one to make. The draw here is most definitely the ambiguity; this one demands more than a casual read. The next one is a kind of weirdo Cold War spy story that absolutely didn't do it for me called "The Hare." Seriously, had I never read it, I wouldn't have missed a thing. It may float someone's boat, but not mine. Following that one there comes another one that was less than satisfying and less original than most of the stories in this book, "In the Mist." All I would have to do is give the storyline, and I guarantee that someone reading this would go "oh yeah...I know that one."  Enough said. We enter into the zone of completely weird with the next story, "The Lift," in which a man in trouble seeking help finds himself in a building where strangeness follows. Not a fan of this one either. In "The Street of the Jews," while there is a supernatural element, it's the history here that rattles. "Hushabye, Baby" is a tough one to talk about without giving anything away, so I won't, but it's a good one. Really good. 

from The Telegraph

1973's Come and Get Me & Other Uncanny Invitations begins (obviously) with "Come and Get Me," set deep in the Elan Valley of Wales. A house that was put on the market and remains vacant years later is the setting for this one, which begins with military maneuvers interrupted by a "terrible shrill ha-ha-ha that was human but maniac." Here past aligns with present; in the end, it was just okay. Luckily, the next one is pretty good, "The Concrete Captain," where a newcomer learns the hard way that "You've got to be careful when dealing with spirits," followed by "The Thing," another one I just didn't care for. It starts out very nicely, has a lot of potential for weirdness, but frankly, this one just sort of fizzles into meh. "The Travelling Companion" is yet another I figured out way earlier than I should have since it's another been there, read that, bought the t-shirt kind of ghostly tale, as is "The Spirit of the Place," set in Italy. Next is "Prendergast," which is somewhat of a departure from the other stories in this book. A string of killings of young girls prompts concerned citizens to form a group that patrols the streets between 6 pm and midnight. The narrator of the story gets the cemetery beat, and it doesn't take long until the strangeness begins. This one really relies on its ending, although admittedly it was suspenseful on the path to getting there and I quite enjoyed it. "The Grandfather Clock" is quite fun though, as a young woman wants no part of family tradition and it comes back to haunt her. Sort of.

from Ambient-Mixer

Two years later  Dead Woman & Other Haunting Experiences was published,  and the "Dead Woman" in this case is a hill in Wales with a tainted history. Another personal favorite, this story underscores the idea that superstitious beliefs are alive and well in this part of the country, and have everything to do with what happens to a newcomer to a village where "everyone was polite but no one was friendly." Great story. The next one, "The Hollies and the Ivy" could have benefited from fleshing out the story a bit more fully. Like "The Thing," it had the potential to be terrifying but fell somewhat short, in my opinion. A couple sinks everything they have into their new home The Hollies, bought to be renovated. If only they could get rid of that damn ivy that covers everything. I liked everything about the next story "A Monstrous Tale" except the last couple of pages where what could have been majorly creepifying just fell flat. A vacation turns into a nightmare for one couple when they decide to take a ride on a small boat to accompany a yacht across the Bodensee; luckily for the wife she had a tantrum and decided not to go with her husband, who didn't fare so well. "The Little House" is very well done although somewhat predictable, but still very nicely written. Once again, like so many of Walter's stories, past deeds come back to haunt the present when the owners of a newly-bought home clear out their garden and discover a Wendy house. That's when the weirdness begins. In "Dual Control" two people on their way to a party are sniping at each other and in the midst of their argument, they happen to bring up the girl they've just run down and left to die. The driver, Eric, refuses to go back to take a look, but the story is far, far from over. Oy! In "Telling the Bees" a gardener's superstitions regarding his bees turns out to be not just another old wives' tale when a young woman who's convinced her husband has been trying to kill her takes steps to do something about it. This one took two reads, but I ended up liking it. And last but not least in this volume comes "Christmas Night," which takes place at an inn with the name The Hanged Man, so I just felt in my bones that something weird was going to happen there. My bones were right.

This is a book I would certainly recommend to anyone who has an interest in the supernatural or in older weird tales in general, although obviously these are pretty tame in comparison to modern horror tales so maybe a less jaded audience without a need for gore or the severely grotesque would more likely appreciate these stories. Collectively, they make for a great time, and kudos to the editor for bringing the work of Elizabeth Walters into the public eye once again.  

one last thing: readers thinking about this book may well want to read it on Kindle or another e-reader, since this book is huge dimension-wise. As I said to someone recently, it's not one you can take to the vet's office to read while you're waiting, and if I had it do over again, I would have foregone the print copy for the electronic. Either way, though, read the book! 

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