Wednesday, July 15, 2015

creepiest, creepier, creepy: The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (ed.) Robert Aickman

Fontana/Collins, 1974
(first published 1964)
256 pp

mass market paperback

You just never know what you're going to find when you start cleaning off your horror shelves.  I'd totally forgotten I even owned this book so imagine my great delight when I looked through the table of contents and saw these titles and these authors:

  • "The Travelling Grave", by LP Hartley
  • "The Ghost Ship",  by Richard Middleton
  • "Squire Toby's Will," by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
  • "The Voice in the Night," by William Hope Hodgson
  • "Three Miles Up," by Elizabeth Jane Howard
  • "The Rocking-horse Winner," by D.H. Lawrence
  • "The Wendigo," by Algernon Blackwood
  • "The Crown Derby Plate," by Marjorie Bowen
  • "The Trains," by Robert Aickman
  • "The Old Nurse's Story," by Mrs. Gaskell
  • "Seaton's Aunt," by Walter de la Mare
Modern readers of horror may find these stories somewhat dated, or perhaps not even scary, but these stories are true classics in every sense of the word. 

 I'm hard pressed to pick a favorite, but Aickman's "The Trains" and "Three Miles Up," by Elizabeth Jane Howard totally rattled me.  I've read "The Trains" a number of times (it's a favorite, and I'm  still scratching my head over that one). Howard's work (new to me) wins my choice for creepiest story in this collection, about some friends who decide to take a boat ride through England's canals.  Crikey -- here's another story where the ending  left some pretty mind-shattering and beyond-disturbing implications in my head.  It was one of the creepiest tales in the entire collection.   Memo to self -- I MUST find more of Howard's ghost stories. 

Also new to me are "The Voice in the Night,"  "The Old Nurse's Story" and "The Crown Derby Plate."  I don't know that I'd classify Hodgson's piece as a ghost story per se, but it's an incredibly disturbing little tale. 

[sidebar: some time back I read a collection of pulp stories written by a relatively unknown author named Philip Fisher, who had one tale called "Fungus Isle" (1923).  While trying to find out more about the author, I came upon a website devoted to Hodgson which noted that "Fungus Isle" was partially (and shamelessly)  lifted from "The Voice in the Night." After having read it,  I can totally see why little factoid might be true.]

"Seaton's Aunt," "The Rocking-horse Winner," "Squire Toby's Will" and "The Wendigo" are old, true-blue  favorites; although they are rereads, they still have an incredible amount of creep factor that produces the familiar and greatly-desired raising o' the hackles and hair on my neck.

 Less personally appealing but still good (although neither totally wowed me)  were "The Travelling Grave" and  "The Ghost Ship."  I have to confess that I'd never heard of Richard Middleton before picking up this book, and even though I wasn't overcome with delight while reading his piece, it did make me want to find out more about him and his other work.  So I bought a copy of his The Ghost Ship and Others; apparently he's also quite well known for a story called "On the Brighton Road," so I'm sure I'll be posting about that collection in the near future.  

Aickman notes in the introduction that "There are only thirty or forty first-class ghost stories in the whole of western literature," without saying which ones, but if the Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories is any judge of what he considers "first-class," I'm eager to move on through all eight of this series of books he edited before Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes took over.  As someone who loves a great ghost story, especially the classics, I'd say that this book is definitely a must-have for anyone who is even remotely interested.  Enjoy the shivers up your spine...

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