Friday, December 25, 2020

ghosts at Christmas, part three: The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Stories, Volume Four

Valancourt Books, 2020
231 pp


You need look no further than the announcement of "the Best Ghost Story" contest (reproduced on p. 74)  as advertised in New York's  Evening World, December 23, 1889 issue to see that ghost stories,  "in Keeping with the Christmas Holidays," were alive and well in America.    In this book, rather than drawing on the Victorian British tradition of telling ghostly tales at yuletide,  editor Christopher Philippo makes the case throughout that the Christmas ghost story tradition was also going strong in America during the same time. 

Volume four is a fine mix of stories, ghostly and otherwise, set at Christmas time along with a few poems, Christmas-themed advertisements and holiday-based newspaper articles of the period.  As with the best anthologies, it starts out with a bang, whetting the appetite for what follows.   Joseph Holt Ingraham's "The Green Huntsman; or The Haunted Villa," a "Christmas Legend" hailing from Louisiana was originally published in 1841, then later got "an English stamp of approval" in 1858 with its appearance in the Huddersfield Chronicle and West Yorkshire Advertiser of December 24.   Set during a "Christmas festival" at a villa in the "upper faubourg" of New Orleans,  a new bride and bridegroom are also celebrating their nuptials and the "bridal night" is about to begin. Everyone is happy until things become weird at the neighboring "ruined mansion" known as the Haunted Villa, which "to every mind supernatural terror was associated," and with good reason.  

My favorite story in this book is Julian Hawthorne's "The Devil's Christmas" which would be fully at home in any anthology of the weird.  It seems that the narrator of this tale has been invited to a Christmas party at the home of a well known socialite, at which the highlight of the affair is to "meet the Prince." It will be a Christmas he will most likely never forget.  

Others receiving my vote of honorable mention are the anonymously-written  "Worse Than a Ghost Story"  in which a dying "spiritualist with the reputation of being a superior 'medium'" gives a warning to her disbelieving husband, followed by  Frank Ibberson Jervis' "The Frozen Husband," the story of a beautiful young woman who falls for and marries a stranger known only as "the brown man." This one was delightfully creepy and thoroughly chilling.  F.H. Brunell's "The Ghostly Christmas Gift" also makes this list in a story of events in the gold fields of South America that turns utterly eerie as a man receives a bizarre Christmas gift each year in payment for the treachery that made him wealthy.   "The Blizzard" by Luke Sharp (pen name of Robert Barr, Jr.)  has more than a touch of irony that made me laugh when all was said and done, while  Henry Beaugrand's "The Werwolves" has the feel of a mini-epic involving native Americans who disappear "by enchantment" and who may actually be "a band of loups-garous."  Add to the mix a spurned and vengeful lover, and you have one hell of a fun story    Supernatural indeed, with an added feel of delicious pulp goodness.  

While I'm not really a major poetry person, there are two that I feel are beyond noteworthy: first, Paul Lawrence Dunbar's poem "The Haunted Oak," about which the editor says "the voices and silences" therein "seem as raw and necessary as ever" (to which I wholeheartedly agree),  and on a much lighter note,  HC Dodge's shape poem, "Poor Jack," the musings of a somewhat "demonic" jack-in-the-box.  Quite honestly, I've never seen anything like it, and I was so fascinated that I posted a photo of it on my facebook page:

 I may be wrong since I haven't read every anthology of Christmas ghost stories ever published, but at least in my experience this is the first time someone has taken the time to put together a volume such as this one.   Given that I've never come across anything  like it before, it is a most welcome addition to my home library as well as a book I'm recommending to everyone.   Do not skip Mr. Philippo's informative and  excellent introduction, and above all, do not feel badly if you miss out on this book at Christmas time because it makes for great entertainment any time of the year.  Nicely done!

Monday, December 21, 2020

ghosts at Christmas, part two: Chill Tidings: Dark Tales of the Christmas Season (ed.) Tanya Kirk


British Library Publishing, 2020
212 pp


"Oh, it is a stirring night in Ghostland, the night of December the twenty-fourth!!"
                -- Jerome K. Jerome, Told After Supper

In Chill Tidings I have a double bonus -- a first-class collection of specially-chosen ghostly Christmas stories and another installment of the excellent British Library Tales of the Weird series. I originally bought this book to read on Kindle since Amazon said it was not due to be published in hard copy until August 2021 (??)  but  I was so completely nettled  over not having a physical book to hold in my hands that I went directly to British Library publishing for my copy.  I was so happy to have been notified about this book by one of my like-minded goodreads friends (Thank you, David!) because I'd already read and loved Ms. Kirk's Spirits of the Season (2018), also part of the Tales of the Weird series.  This volume presents thirteen stories that the editor says she wished she could have "fitted into the first book," chronologically arranged from 1868 to 1955 with one exception -- Jerome K. Jerome's "novelette" Told After Supper from 1891, placed at the end of this anthology.   

Between these covers one can look forward to (according to the editor's introduction)  "traditional Victorian spookiness,"  as well as "a weird pagan vision," a "sentimental tale of redemption," and then 
"spooky monks, a Vampire lady, a fatal duel, a gruesome Father Christmas and festive gifts from beyond the grave."

How could anyone possibly say no to all that?  Each and every story is set at Christmas time, with not a bad story to be found anywhere.  

For "Traditional Victorian spookiness" you can't go wrong with Irish writer Charlotte Riddell.  Her "A Strange Christmas Game" finds a brother and sister who after years of grinding poverty inherit a house called Martingdale, and in doing so, discover the cause of their kinsman's strange disappearance on Christmas Eve forty years earlier.  As the narrator says, "you pooh-pooh the existence of ghosts, and 'only wish you could find a haunted house in which to spend the night ...' but wait until you are left in a dreary, desolate old country mansion .." well,  you get the drift.  Not to steal thunder from the British Library, but Leonaur has an excellent collection of Riddell's Complete Supernatural and Weird Fiction available for readers who may be interested.   Creepiness continues with Hume Nesbit's "The Old Portrait," about which the editor notes that "it's a powerful story of the Fin-de-Siècle period, and is akin to Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Bram Stoker's Dracula, the latter of which it predates."  Once you've read it, you'll immediately see why this is so.  In the meantime, not even one baby hint.  Next up from Louisa Baldwin (1895) is "The Real and the Counterfeit."  In this story, the Christmas holidays bring  "three young fellows"  to "kick it up alone" at the Musgrave family home, Stonecroft.  As one of the three notes, "an old house is not complete unless it is haunted," and to his surprise, he learns that the family has its own ghost, not seen since Grandfather Musgrave's time.  Young Musgrave's lifetime desire to "become personally acquainted" with the family ghost just may happen, if his friend Armitage has anything to say about it.  As a brief aside, for some reason, I was very much reminded of Montague Summers' "The Man on the Stairs" while reading this one.    Described as "sweet rather than scary," and a story that "features a very Victorian idealised Christmas,"   Frank Richard Stockton's "Old Applejoy's Ghost" takes it very personally when his elderly grandson, "the old curmudgeon,"  makes absolutely no moves toward celebrating Christmas in the old family home. 

Victorian Christmas card from Ripley's Weird News

 From 1913, Algernon Blackwell's "Transition" is the story of "an ordinary man" who finds himself caught up in an extraordinary situation on his way home to deliver Christmas presents to his family, and that's all I will say.   A.M. Burrage, whose name you may recognize from his story "Smee,"  is up next with "The Fourth Wall" from 1915,  one of my favorite stories in this volume, and so very different from the others.  Solicitor Jack Forran is told he must take time off work to recuperate from severe headaches; he, his wife, her brother, her sister and her sister's boyfriend all share a cottage "just outside the region of the fens."   It's an ideally-secluded, "ripping old place"  for these "normal, hard-headed people," until one of them begins to feel that the room they're in seems "stagey."  Let the weirdness begin.  Frankly, I am a bit sad that Burrage's work is not as well known as it should be -- he is one heck of a neglected but great teller of supernatural tales.   I was sort of wondering why HP Lovecraft's "The Festival" would show up here, but as it turns out, the poor narrator in this story had absolutely no clue just how terrible his Christmas was about to get -- it's likely he will never, ever forget the strange Yule-rite.  Creepsville. Seriously.  In "The Crown Derby Plate"  Marjorie Bowen has written  one of the most effective ghost stories ever.  It all begins when Miss Martha Pym hears of a nearby recluse who collects china and begins to wonder if perhaps she might just have a Crown Derby Plate to finish off her set which is one plate short.  Going to see her at Hartleys just might provide Martha a double pleasure --  finding the plate and seeing the ghost in that house which is supposedly haunted. After all, as she says,  she would very much like to, "particularly at Christmas for you can laugh as you like, that is the correct time to see a ghost." 

more Christmas card fun from Ripley's Weird News

Elizabeth Bowen's excellent "Green Holly" from 1944 follows, with seven housemates "Experts -- in what the Censor would not permit me to say" living and working in an old country house called Mopsam Grange while  obviously engaged in some sort of covert work for the government.  They aren't alone -- it's Christmas Eve, a special anniversary for the ethereal inhabitant, who falls for one of the earthly ones.  There is so much to this little story that goes well beyond the supernatural and miles beyond ghostly entertainment -- I've read it three times now and it's just as powerful every time.  I could talk about this one for days, but you know.   I LOVE her work, supernatural or not.  Next comes Andrew Caldecott's "Christmas Re-union" which is, as Ms. Kirk reveals, based on an idea of M.R. James as described in an essay he wrote called "Stories I Have Tried to Write." Not only is this story à la James, but his name is even mentioned within the story.   What was supposed to have been a joyful family Christmas party at the Dreyton home turns out to include a guest described by Mr. Dreyton as "a busted balloon" or a "wet blanket" that no one is happy to have there.  When Father Christmas arrives as scheduled for the children, well, let's just say that I'll never again view Santa in the usual light.  Rosemary Timperley's short  "A Christmas Meeting" from 1952 falls squarely into the weird zone, as a woman spends Christmas alone for the first time, thinking over her "so many Christmases over the years."  Her thoughts are interrupted with the arrival of a young man, a writer who didn't go with his family for the holiday, staying behind instead to work. The two strike up a conversation, and on the verge of coffee and plum cake, he disappears.  This one's a bit of a mindbender, when all is said and done, and another I read more than once.   Very nicely done.  L.P. Hartley's "Someone in the Lift" is a rather gruesome tale I'd read elsewhere, about a boy who sees a "shadowy passenger" in a hotel elevator when his father's not with him.  Let's just say that dad shouldn't have told him his thoughts on who it must be.  Memo to self: must find a good, used copy of Tartarus' The Collected Macabre Stories . Finally, last but by no means least, is Jerome K. Jerome's delightful Told After Supper, which made me laugh out loud, receiving strange looks from the spouse all the while. 

This volume is truly a fine anthology, and I don't know how Ms. Kirk will top her two Christmas anthologies for the Tales of the Weird series, both of which are excellent.  If she does go on to do a third, I'll be waiting eagerly.  Of course, it's not necessary to wait until the Christmas season to read either, but I'm sort of into this whole ghostly Christmas reading tradition now and quite enjoying it. 

very, very highly recommended 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Ghosts at Christmas, part one: The First and Second Leonaur Christmas Book of Great Stories (ed.) Eunice Hetherington


Leonaur/Oakpast, 2017
367 pp


Ever since Valancourt started issuing their annual Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, I've found myself fascinated with the idea of the tradition of reading ghostly tales at Christmas.   As Jerome K. Jerome stated in his Told After Supper (not included in this book but in the subject of the second part of this post, Tanya Kirk's Chill Tidings: Dark Tales of the Christmas Season)
"Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories. Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders and blood."  

Not that I don't enjoy reading that sort of thing at any time, but I do make an effort to find different collections of Christmas ghost stories every year.  To my great delight, I discovered that Leonaur Books has published not one, but two volumes of Christmas Book of Great Ghost Stories.  

Leonaur/Oakpast, 2017
paperback - 353 pp

Out of the twenty stories in the first book I'd read only eight:

"Man-Size in Marble," by E. Nesbit 
"An Eddy on the Floor," by Bernard Capes
"The Haunted Organist of Hurly Burly," by Rosa Mulholland
"The Open Door," by Mrs. Oliphant (one of all-time favorites)
"The Upper Berth," by F. Marion Crawford,
"To Let," by B.M. Croker (which happens to be my favorite of the entire bunch)
"The Withered Arm," by Thomas Hardy,  and
"Thurnley Abbey," by Perceval Landon.

Of the remaining twelve, the anonymously-written "The Story of Clifford House" is worth a mention, while  Grant Allen's "My New Year's Eve Among the Mummies" was, I think, somewhat misplaced, having a better home in Andrew Smith's (ed.) collection Lost in a Pyramid and Other Classic Mummy Stories (which I'll be reading at some point in 2021 when I feel the need for pulpy fun).   

Moving on to book two, nine of these stories were familiar:  

"The Old Nurse's Story," by Elizabeth Gaskell
"Bewitched," by Edith Wharton (a perennial favorite)
"At Crighton Abbey," by M.E. Braddon
"An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street," by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
"The Botathen Ghost," by R.S Hawker
"The Doll's Ghost," by F. Marion Crawford
"The Ghost at the Rath," by Rosa Mulholland (my favorite of this volume)
"The Tapestried Chamber, or The Lady in the Square," by Sir Walter Scott and 
"The Tell-Tale Heart," by E.A. Poe

Honorable mention here  to Henry James' "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,"  "John Charrington's Wedding" by Edith Nesbit, and Charlotte Riddell's "The Open Door" (which has absolutely nothing in common with the story of the same name by Margaret Oliphant).   The story by Poe could have been left out and wouldn't have been missed -- again, a bit of a misplacement on the editor's part, in my opinion.  

Either taken individually or as a set, these Leonaur editions are pretty good, with ghost stories of all sorts included.  While there are a few in  both books that sort of meander and made me want to skip ahead (I didn't, but almost...),  for the most part there will be something for every reader of ghostly tales.  I was somewhat disappointed though, since the table of contents lists only titles with no authors, no story provenance,  and worst of all is that there is no introduction in which to explain the rationale behind the inclusion of the stories that have been anthologized here.  I also think the contents list could have been a bit more pared down.    Still, I would recommend both volumes to avid ghost-story readers like myself and I've discovered new authors to track down for other works they may have written like the ones included here.  

Part two of my Ghosts at Christmas posts is for the above-mentioned Chill Tidings: Dark Tales of the Christmas Season (ed. Tanya Kirk), while part three is for (you guessed it) The Valancourt Book of  Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, Volume Four which I've just started.  


an interim "oh dear" -- aka YIKES!


found at Pinterest

Somehow the comments that people have been making for a couple of  years have been stockpiled with no notification from Blogger, and had not one of my goodreads friends notified me about making a comment here, I never would have seen all of the others.   My settings included getting an email whenever there was a comment made, but for some reason that hasn't been happening. I just figured no one was commenting.  So to all who have, my apologies, and I'll be sure to check from now on.   

I feel so stupid...

Saturday, December 5, 2020

hopefully, the first of many: The Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories, Vol. 1 (ed.) James D. Jenkins and Ryan Cagle

"there's something universal about the telling and reading of a good, creepy tale."

Here's the question asked by the editors:

"What if there were a whole world of great horror fiction out there you didn't know anything about, written by authors by distant lands and in foreign languages, outstanding horror stories you had no access to, written in languages you couldn't read? For an avid horror fan, what could be more horrifying than that?"

Luckily for readers like me who have experienced this dilemma, there's Valancourt's new Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories.  This book is like a key that unlocks a door to a room which once opened, yields a library of previously-unknown treasures gathered from around the globe.  

Valancourt Books, 2020
432 pp, hardcover (#163)

As the editors note in their introduction, 
"if one takes the trouble to look hard enough, there's a much larger body of world horror fiction out there than any of us would suspect ... it often involves deep digging and venturing into uncharted waters."

The "deep digging and venturing into uncharted waters" is what the people at Valancourt do best, no matter what they publish, so I knew before I even ordered this book that I would not be disappointed.  I wasn't.  

Before you even get to the main event, Valancourt has included an aerial view of sorts with a look at which countries are represented and a little blurb about each story (not that this photo is particularly legible but you get the drift):

Of course, as in any anthology, it's impossible not to latch on to favorites even though all of the stories found in this volume are topnotch.  These are mine, in order of appearance.   "Uironda" by Luigi Musolino (from Turin) opens this book, in which a truck driver, as the brief description on the world map above states, takes an "exit to terror on the highway to Hell," and his "umpteenth work trip" assumes "the features of a nightmare." From Hungary comes "The Time Remaining" by Attila Veres.  The narrator of this story needs to "recount everything ... up to the point when I lost control."  It all begins when a plush toy named Vili begins to be sick, with a prognosis of death looming.  I swear that when I first started reading this one I nearly passed it by but it just kept getting better (and creepier) with every paragraph.  It was poignant, until the turn to  absolutely frightening.     "The Angle of Horror," by Spanish writer Cristina Cubas Fernández is another of my top picks, one of the most eerie tales in this book.  Some time ago, after reading her collection of stories called Nona's Room, I entered her name into my imaginary top tier of writers of the weird and the strange, so I was beyond happy to see her represented here. The editors quote Terrence Rafferty from his New York Times review of Nona's Room as saying about her that she is "most interested in the ambiguities and the periodic disturbances that plague the imagination," and that in her work, "The threat of madness is never too far away, a dark cloud hovering."   In "Angle of Horror," a young man returns home from being abroad and locks himself away in his room.  The explanation of why that he gives to his sister seems unbelievable to her, until it isn't.  As much as I loved that one, my very favorite story comes from Bernardo Esquinca (Mexico) called "Señor Ligotti," an eerie, menacing tale in which Esteban, a writer of thriller novels who is also about to become a father,  accepts a strange but intriguing proposition from an elderly man, Señor Ligotti.  The señor offers to sell him his beautiful home for whatever money he has on hand;  Esteban's wife isn't sure about the deal, telling her husband that the old man might be "the tip of the iceberg of something we can't even imagine."  Of course he fails to heed her advice, and soon comes to regret the deal.  I enjoyed this one so much that I've preordered Esquinca's El libro de los dioses, the book  from which this story comes.   "Si non oscillas, noli tintinnare..."  I dreaded each mention of those words, getting the shivers even now as I wrote them.    From the Netherlands it's "The Bones in Her Eyes" by Christien Boomsma which moves well beyond the point of disturbing to downright horrific as a young woman feels terrible about hitting a cat with her car, returns the cat to its elderly owner,  then goes to check on it the next day.  It's the ending of this one that will leave you with nightmares... I couldn't stop thinking about it for a long, long time.  

Really, there isn't a bad story to be found in this book, and the beauty of this volume is in the diversity of points of view and storytelling, while encompassing ideas and themes that everyone everywhere will recognize.   The full table of contents can be found at Valancourt Books' website, where there is also a blurb from Ann VanderMeer which explains one of the many reasons this particular volume is so important, so groundbreaking and so incredibly meaningful.  As she notes, 
"While the language of horror is universal, its means of expression necessarily varies from culture to culture... "

and the stories in this book come from "voices and perspectives we have lived too long without." 

 I agree wholeheartedly, and it's a shame that more of the work of these authors has yet to be translated into English.   The editors ask and answer the question of why this is so in their introduction,  but at the same time it is just a bit frustrating to know that so much great writing is out there that remains unavailable to an English-language readership.  Hopefully some day this will change, but for now at least we have this first volume as an introduction.

Very well done, and very highly recommended. Now awaiting a Volume Two.