Monday, May 20, 2013

They That Dwell in Dark Places, by Daniel McGachey

Dark Regions Press
345 pp

Ever on the lookout for those stories that will send the odd shiver up my spine, I happened on this collection of 13 tales, which, according to the blurb on the back are  "stories told by firelight in isolated cottages, by lantern-light on storm-lashed beaches, by gaslight in scholars' studies and clubrooms, or by twilight in libraries and in lonely asylum cells." For someone like myself, who much prefers old-school horror and supernatural tales to more modern fare (with a few exceptions),  the words on the cover were like an invitation to settle into one of my wing-back chairs with a cup of hot tea and enjoy the ride. While not all of the stories quite measured up to my expectations, I can't say I was at all disappointed as the author reveals that they who "dwell in dark places do not wish to be forgotten," and that they "like you to know that we are here, always..." 

Introduced by Charles Black, the stories in this book are as follows:

1) "The Shadow in the Stacks," which introduces the recurring character of Dr. Lawrence, a "folklorist" who spends a lot of time and energy collecting the "fables and folktales of antiquity."

2) "The Mound," where a man who knows every inch of his garden notices something new and obsesses over it until it's too late;
3) "The Beacon" finds a familiar theme in ghost lore set in an offshore lighthouse;

4) "Shalt Thou Know My Name?" finds Dr. Lawrence on the receiving end of an eerie tale involving a plagiarist and a confession from the 18th century;
5) "The Wager," one of my favorites, where a gambler is told about some action at the "astonishing" Club Tenebrosa with very high stakes;
6) "The Crimson Picture," one of the better stories in this book, where an artist discovers he has a hidden ability where it comes to painting, but it's not such a good thing, as it turns out;
7) "Rags," another good one, where a traveler separated from his party passes by a tree adorned with rags before he understands its significance;
8) "The Travelling Companion," in which a traveling salesman buys a book, refuses to part with it, and suffers the consequences ... another one I really liked;
9) "A Ravelled Tress:" actually, this one was probably my least favorite, where a "thick tress of black hair" with a bizarre history is found in a rotting pile of books in an old house as a precursor to ensuing mayhem;
10) "And Still Those Screams Resound" is my favorite story in the book, dealing with one man's unchecked obsession.  This is probably one of the more frightening tales in the book, not so much for the supernatural content, but because of the subject;

11) "An Unwise Purchase," a tale as written by Dr. H.S. Grace, a graduate of St. Montague's, Master of Rhodes House College, then Head Master of St. James's School.  Another one of my favorites in this book, a strange brass carving of the three wise monkeys turns out to be the "unwise purchase" of the title.

 12) "The Unmasking: An Evening of Revels and Revelations," adds a touch of the surreal as Dr. Lawrence and two other guests at a masqued party are forced to put on borrowed masks; not everyone is left  to tell the tale of what happened afterwards.  I liked this one as well; and finally
13) "They That Dwell in Dark Places," another one I don't count as a personal favorite,but it's still a fun little story that starts with a gathering on Halloween. 

At the end the author adds notes on each of his stories, revealing his inspirations and his own thoughts as well. 

I love the work of M.R. James, and it's definitely obvious that McGachey does too.  While this book is  often similar in tone, it never devolves into a mere James pastiche; there's plenty to admire about Mr. McGatchey's writing on its own.  The author is best at creating and sustaining the dark, creepy  atmosphere that pervades this book, although sometimes in trying to capture period speech patterns, the narrative comes across as a bit clunky and it can become a little off-putting.  They That Dwell in Dark Places, imho, is best suited for readers who like good, old-fashioned ghost stories without all the gore, sex and thrill-a-minute action that modern horror seems to thrive on. The stories in this book will probably seem pretty tame to contemporary  readers, so if antiquarians digging through old tomes or strange goings on in old houses don't appeal,  then you may want to move along. However, if you enjoy this sort of thing, definitely pick up a copy.  I'll look forward to more by this author, especially if  he continues with the ghostly tales. And someday, maybe he'll set down the story of the traveling mausoleum!