Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Scarlet Boy, by Arthur Calder-Marshall

Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961
222 pp


(read earlier this month)

I was doing a bit of reading on the topic of British ghost stories some time ago (I forget where exactly), hoping to find more authors of such tales for my library, and I came across a reference to this book by a writer I'd never heard of.  The fact that he was unknown to me was a definite plus so I decided to take a chance and I bought the book -- and it seems that with only a few reservations, my gamble paid off.

According to George Grantley, the narrator of this tale, the story "undoubtedly" had its start on April 3, 1959.  On that day, he had received a letter from his friend Sir Christopher Everness (aka Kit), who reveals that "after years of wanderlustiness," it's time for the Everness family to settle down.  Kit is married to artist Nieves, who wants to live in Wilchester.  It seems that their eleven year-old daughter Maria hates the boarding school she goes to and so her mom wants a home near a day school.  He's also very specific about the type of house he wants -- it has to be
"the run-down shell of place that we can make over to our own idea of home...with a garden and plenty of room."
Grantley asks around and comes to learn that a certain Anglesey House is on the market. It's a house that Grantley knows well, since he had spent quite a bit of time there as a child playing with young Charles Scarlet. He also adored Charles' mother Helen -- Grantley had always "envied" Charles because Helen was "much more beautiful and gracious" than his own mom had been.  Although they were playmates, George came to realize that Charles was "obscurely vicious," often wanting the two of them to play "Tortures" in Charles' treehouse, becoming a "different person, almost as if he were possessed." Grantley was actually afraid of Charles, "too frightened by this strange creature within Charles not to do what I was told." It isn't too long into the story that we discover that Charles died later in 1916, having fallen and broken his neck; Grantley would often go and visit Helen afterwards, and their friendship lasted for well over thirty years.

There is, however, one hitch -- Anglesey House, as Grantley becomes aware, is rumored to be haunted.  While he tries to warn his friend, Kit is having none of it.  But as things turn out, perhaps he should have heeded George's advice.

the author, courtesy of Great War Fiction

While The Scarlet Boy is an unsettling, creepy ghost story and a good haunted house tale, there's a lot more going on here than just a simple haunting. Family relationships are put in the spotlight,  as is the age-old debate between faith and reason, with the narrator of this tale often changing his own ideas and beliefs as he sifts through the past to find answers.  Considering the author's background, this isn't so surprising.  According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (I'll add the link, but it's a subscription-only website), Calder-Marshall leaned left in his thinking during the 1930s, but later edged toward a belief in Christianity, a move that was "underpinned by unchanging ethical concerns."

Sometimes it gets a little boggy, interrupting the flow,  but overall, it's a good read.  While I wouldn't say it's in my top ten of haunted house novels, it definitely kept me turning pages, making it one I'd recommend.   This is another book that will probably be appreciated mainly by niche readers, but I'm quite happy that it crossed my path.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Ghost Stories (ed.) Michael Cox

Oxford University Press, 1996
425 pp


"I could tell you lots of things you wouldn't believe..."
                         -- Joanna Russ, "The Little Dirty Girl" - 346

As I write this post, we are on vacation in Cancun -- well, not exactly Cancun, but more like an hour south on the lovely Riveria Maya in Playa del Carmen.  Nothing but sun, balcony, bebidas,  and lots of great food (my downfall, sadly) all of which  translates into much reading time.

There are a whopping thirty-three stories to be found in this anthology, ordered chronologically from 1910 to 1994.  Two most excellent tales bookend the entire collection -- E. Nesbit's "In the Dark" is the opener, while the grand finale is Jane Gardam's "The Meeting House," completing an entire book short but memorable tales. Like most anthologies, there will be something for everyone here, and also like most anthologies, it's a mixed bag of good, great, excellent, and oh my god yes. And while for me there really is nothing better than the old, classic ghost stories, some of these modern ones should be taken just as seriously.

Since there are thirty-three stories here, I'll just give the barest of barebones outline on what someone might expect to find within. I was quite delighted to discover some of my favorite writers on display here, for example Angela Carter, May Sinclair, Elizabeth Jane Howard, and Robert Aickman are here, along with other writers whose names are legend in the realm of ghost-story writing and some whose appearance is a nice surprise.  Let's begin, shall we?

** indicates my favorite stories

1. "In the Dark," by E. Nesbit -- when a story begins with "It may have been a form of madness. Or it may be that he really was what is called haunted," well, it's sure to be a good one. And it was. A man decides he's going to kill himself, and wants someone to know why ...

2. "Rooum," by Oliver Onions -- in which echoes abound, and like most stories by this author, it's a seriously and delightfully slow-burning, creepy tale.

3.** "The Shadowy Third," by Ellen Glasgow.  I read this previously in a collection edited by Alan Ryan called Haunting Women, and it's still disturbing now.

4. "The Diary of Mr. Poynter," by M.R. James. What ghost-story collection would be complete without M.R. James?  After reading this one, though, my first thought was "I've finally found an M.R. James story I don't really like." Here, a decision to decorate a room with curtains using a certain pattern causes havoc at Redcomb Manor.

5. ** "Miss Porter and Miss Allen," by Hugh Walpole -- this is a good one. Two women live together in a "conspiracy of silence," that probably should have been broken much, much earlier.

6. ** "The Nature of the Evidence," by May Sinclair. Seriously one of the most downright creepy stories in this entire book, in which a widower's new wife gets much more than she bargained for in the marriage.  I love May Sinclair's writing, and this story is just reason why.

7. "Night-Fears," by L.P. Hartley, the story of a man who's happy to have taken on a new job but then has second thoughts after running into a stranger.

8. **Bewitched," by Edith Wharton.  Holy crap. This one is just flat-out terrifying and not just in a supernatural sort of way, as a man admits to having an affair with a young woman and is accused of being "bewitched." There's definitely a reason why in this case.  Edith Wharton truly was a master of terror.

9. Next up is "A Short Trip Home," by of all people F. Scott Fitzgerald.  It's okay -- not brilliant, but read between the lines on this one.

10.** "Blind Man's Buff", by H. Russell Wakefield is truly panic inspiring, taking place in a house where "none of us chaps" ventures "after sundown."

11. "The Blackmailers," by Algernon Blackwood, follows, and while it's not his best, it's still quite squirmworthy especially at the end when that particular 'aha' moment hits.

read this book!

12. Next comes "Yesterday Street," by Thomas Burke -- I've seen several variations on this theme in my ghost-story reading, but this one is really quite sad. It burns slowly, but is well worth the payoff.

13. Fritz Leiber makes an appearance with his "Smoke Ghost," in which a man whom "you might call a sensory prodigy" meets his match in something that seems to follow where ever he goes.  Very nicely done.

14. "The Cheery Soul," by Elizabeth Bowen -- again, not her best work, but still immensely creepy. A young woman accepts an invitation to stay as guest in a lovely home, but is puzzled by what she discovers there, interrupting her "disreputable psychic pleasure." Oh -- if she only knew!

15. Wow! Graham Greene has a nice little tale here with his  "All But Empty" from 1947,  which has a great surprise ending I never saw coming.

16. ** And now, my favorite story of the entire book, Elizabeth Jane Howard's "Three Miles Up," which is also one of my lifetime favorites because it is so frightening. While I won't give away the show, I could only imagine the horror facing the people in this story as their situation finally dawns on them.  The story begins "There was absolutely nothing like it," and that's definitely the case here.

17. "Close Behind Him," by John Wyndham comes next, another tale in which two criminals have no idea what they're about to get themselves into, with serious results. Pleasantly terrifying.

18. Walter de la Mare's "The Quincunx" is also quite good, a tale in which an inheritance from a dead aunt proves to be the main character's downfall.

19. ** To my great surprise, an author I've recently discovered, Marghanita Laski, makes an appearance here with her "The Tower." Italy is the setting for this story which centers on a young wife who decides to visit the Tower of Sacrifice built in 1535, which was the only thing that survived the destruction of an entire village in 1549. Another slow burner, but terrifying.

20. ** Elizabeth Taylor's "Poor Girl" demands two readings -- once for the supernatural element, which is in no way typical, and the second for what is really going on underneath the horror.  Very well done.

21. Robert Bloch's "I Kiss Your Shadow" is nothing if not entertaining, and definitely vintage Bloch.  A mixture of the supernatural and mystery/pulp gives it a kind of easy-read, fun sort of feel but there's a lot going on here once you get into it.

22. "A Woman Seldom Found," by William Sansom finds a mysterious veiled woman the object of attraction of a young man on his first visit to Rome.  He probably should have stayed home. Yow. The last line of this one...

Elizabeth Jane Howard (from The Telegraph)

23.** "The Portobello Road," by Muriel Spark is also a good one in which secrets have a way of coming back to haunt those who harbor them, not just in this life, but beyond.

24. ** A true virtuoso performance is up next in Robert Aickman's "Ringing the Changes," which is one of most truly-terrifying stories he's ever written.

25. "On Terms" by Christine Brook-Rose - well, let's just say it wasn't on my top ten or top twenty lists of stories in this book, but that's just me. A very strange tale related as a body lies slowly decomposing...

26. William Trevor has an entry here, "The Only Story," in which one man slowly deteriorates over time to the detriment of everyone around him, but mostly himself.  Talk about psychological insight ... whoa.

27. **"The Loves of Lady Purple" is a mind-blowing story by another of my very favorite writers, Angela Carter.
"She, the sole perpetrator of desire, proliferated malign fantasies all around her and used her lovers as the canvas on which she executed boudoir masterpieces of destruction. Skins melted in the electricity she generated."
Greatness in print. Enough said.

28.  **Penelope Lively's "Revenant as Typewriter," is also wonderful as a woman tries to exert herself and her will over the home she recently bought. Note I said "tries."

29. "The Little Dirty Girl," by Joanna Russ I've read before (I can't remember where) -- the second time through made it better than the first, but again, not in my top ten.

30. "Watching Me, Watching You," is by Fay Weldon, and reflects what a justice-loving ghost sees as the years roll by.

31. "The July Ghost" by A.S. Byatt -- good but not up to (in my opinion) Byatt's usual literary greatness.

32. "The Highboy, " by Alison Lurie -- this one's also good with a sort of sarcastic, funny edge to it as well as a great ending.

33. ** Jane Gardam's "The Meeting House" centers on the struggle for quiet in a Quaker meeting house. The Quakers eventually find it, but not in the way they'd expected.

I am just delighted to see so many women writers represented in this collection, and it's definitely a book serious readers of ghostly tales should include in their home libraries. It's certainly one I'd recommend.