Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Haunters at the Hearth: Eerie Tales for Christmas Nights (ed.) Tanya Kirk

British Library, 2022
305 pp


It's been a while since I've been here -- vacation and then a subsequent case of covid have sucked up my time pretty much since Thanksgiving and I'm just now feeling up to posting again.  I couldn't let the year go by without reading at least one volume of Christmas ghost stories, which, ever since Valancourt launched its first book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories  has become a tradition I've followed as the holiday approaches.   Sadly, they haven't published  one in a while, but luckily for me, the British Library Tales of the Weird came up with Haunters at the Hearth: Eerie Tales for Christmas Nights, edited by Tanya Kirk.  These stories are not limited to the Victorian era; in this volume there are actually only two in that particuar category, with the entries spanning a whopping 110- year range from 1864 to 1974.   In my very humble reader's opinion, this is one of the best Christmas anthologies the British Library has to offer.

There are a few stories in this book I'd encountered before -- "The Phantom Coach," by Amelia B. Edwards (1864), "Bone to His Bone," by E.G. Swain (1912)  "The Cheery Soul," by Elizabeth Bowen (1942) and Celia Fremlin's "Don't Tell Cissie" from 1974.   As for the highlights here, the most unexpected story and hands-down winner of my own award for most disturbing comes from American writer Mildred Clingerman (1918-1997), an author whose name I'd not heard before.  "The Wild Wood" (1957),  which I had to read twice because I couldn't believe wtf I'd just read, is worth the entire price of this book and inspired me to buy a collection of this author's work called The Clingerman Files, so be prepared for a post about that one in the near future.   Tanya Kirk notes in the brief introduction to this story that "The domestic horror of a seemingly wholesome 1950s scene can be likened to the work of Clingerman's contemporary, Shirley Jackson," but if you ask me, "The Wild Wood" is creepier than anything Jackson ever wrote in her short stories.   Pardon the overused cliché here, but it is like reading Shirley Jackson on steroids ... jeez! It all begins when Margaret Abbott, a mom of two small children, decided that her young family needed to establish its own Christmas traditions, starting with buying a tree.  By the time the kids had become teens, the tradition of buying the tree at Cravolini's which had started when her daughter was just four had "achieved sancrosanctity" over the years, but it is a family custom that Margaret does not look forward to at all.  While "Wild Wood" begins on the mundane side, once the family walks into Cravolini's the first time, things start to take a strange turn as Margaret gets a serious case of déjà vu, knowing "this has happened before." To say any more would be absolutely criminal, but let me just say that it's been a while since a story has punched me in the gut like this one did.  

from Cincinatti Enquirer

Another story that stands out comes from D.H. Lawrence.  "The Last Laugh," first appearing  in 1925 could be an entry in my entirely mythical complete book of Pan-related stories, even though his appearance is  not specifically stated here.  A bowler-hatted man with a faun-like face and a young, "nymphlike" deaf woman leave a house just as the midnight bell is striking, making their way through the snowy streets of Hampstead.  The man hears someone laughing, "the most extraordinary laughter" he'd ever heard; not long after she sees someone she describes only as "him" in the same holly bushes where the laughter had originated.  Strange, inexplicable occurrences follow. Obviously there's more happening here under the weird bits in this tale, but all signs definitely point to the return of the goat-footed god.   And speaking of weird, Eleanor Smith's story "Whittington's Cat" certainly fits that bill.  A young man named Martin is writing a book called Pantomime Through the Ages, although he knows absolutely nothing about the subject.  His interest was sparked after a visit to a curiosity shop where he'd picked up "a series of spangled prints representing characters from popular pantomimes."  Since then he'd developed  "pantomime mania," spending each and every night watching Dick Whittington (which is evidently still going strong) at the Burford Hippodrome.  Martin's life takes a strange detour after one particular performance when it's his turn to be the victim of Dick Whittington's Cat as it did its regular  thing, climbing up to a stage box where "it was wont to engage one or other of the spectators in badinage, much to the delight of the entire audience."    "Whittington's Cat" appears in Smith's collection of stories Satan's Circus, which I will now be pulling from its shelf after reading this tale, which beyond its weirdness is also laced with more than a bit of humor.   Perhaps the most Christmas-y of all of these stories is "Christmas Honeymoon" by Howard Spring (1939), which follows the strange adventure of a couple who have chosen to hike in Cornwall for their honeymoon.  I really can't say too much about this one without giving away too much, but clearly the term "Christmas miracle" applies.    The rest of these tales are also very good, perfect for Yuletide.  You can find the entire table of contents here

from The Newark Advertiser

There is not a bad story in this anthology, ranging from ghosts, possessions, hauntings and dark humor to  other strangeness, so really, there is something for everyone to be found here.  The book joins my highly-revered, personal collection of British Library Tales of the Weird volumes, to which I've just

today added two more books (well, pre-ordered them anyway).   I can't speak highly enough of Haunters at the Hearth, and once again Tanya Kirk has done a great job selecting terrific stories for the holiday season.  Very highly recommended.