Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, Volume Two (ed.) Allen Grove

Valancourt Books, 2017
230 pp


"For our own part, we believe in ghosts."
                       -- from "A Real Country Ghost Story," by Albert Smith

On December 22nd, I baked scones, brewed tea, snuggled up in my leather wingback chair and started reading. I'd had this book in my possession for a while, but I'd saved it, having made a plan to finish  the last few stories on December 24th, so that I could try to catch at least a tiny measure of the Christmas Eve ghost story feel. As it turns out, I did finish late on Christmas Eve, and the only thing that could have made my experience any better than it was would have a been a roaring fire with the sound of wood crackling and embers popping as it burns.

part of my British Reading Room (aka the former living room)

All of that was just ambiance though; it's fun to close your eyes and imagine, as editor Allen Grove says in his introduction (quoting from Henry James' The Turn of the Screw),
"a group of men and women sitting 'round the fire, sufficiently breathless' as they share strange tales in an old house on Christmas Eve."
The stories in this book are an excellent sampling of ghostly tales appearing in Victorian periodicals, ranging from some with darkly-comic edges to full-on hauntings to vengeful spirits.  I counted ten separate publications from which these fifteen stories were taken, including Bentley's Miscellany, The London Society Christmas Number, and Belgravia's Christmas Annual, to name only three.  And while that's all part of what makes this book special, the truth is that it can be read and enjoyed any time of the year by anyone who has a deep and abiding fondness for these old tales.  As Grove reveals,
"Ghost stories are meant to surprise and scare us, but at the same time their conventions bring a certain level of pleasure in their familiarity.  The stories here don't disappoint on this front,"
citing "vacant old houses" with cheap rents, "secret rooms and hidden staircases,"...and many other pleasurable chills and thrills.  And for me, there's the added attraction of discovering new stories "by little known or anonymous authors," whose work resonates in  "echoes"  found in  more "popular and influential writers of dark and disturbing tales."  (12,13) 

from The Life Adjunct

The fifteen stories are as follows:

"A Real Country Ghost Story," by Albert Smith
"The Ghost of the Treasure-Chamber," by Emily Arnold
 "Number Two, Melrose Square," by Theo Gift
"The Weird Violin," Anonymous
"Walsham Grange," by E. Morant Cox
"Haunted!" by Coulson Kernahan
"The Steel Mirror," by W.W. Fenn
"White Satin" Anonymous
"Nicodemus," by Alfred Crowquill
"Wolverden Tower," by Grant Allen
"Christmas Eve in Beach House," by Eliza Lynn Linton
"The Necromancer," by Isabella F. Romer
"The Veiled Portrait," by James Grant
"The Ghost Chamber," by Anonymous
"A Terrible Retribution; or, Squire Orton's Ghost," by A.S.

I loved each and every story, and there is not a bad one to be found in the entire book.  As far as personal favorites go, it's very tough to choose. In my top three are ""Wolverden Tower," for several reasons aside from the chills it produced,  "The Ghost of the Treasure-Chamber,"  its "doggerel" verse included (I love clue-like "doggerel" verses in stories), and  "Number Two, Melrose Square,"  which is referred to in the pre-story blurb as "one of the most accomplished and effective tales in this volume."  It is exactly that, and just plain creepy to boot.  Coulson Kernahan's  "Haunted" has that lovely ambiguity I crave, while  "Christmas Eve in Beach House" takes us to a "threatening Christmas Eve on that wild Cornish coast."  But as I said, I loved them all.  

This second volume of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories is a true treasure, and I just want to say to the Valancourt team how very much I appreciate all of the time and thought that went into the selections found within.  I know that the purpose of publishing books is to sell them, but James and Ryan go well beyond the commercial to bring into our homes books that they love, which is why I'll keep buying them.  Once again, they have outdone themselves.  Highly, highly, highly recommended.  

Thursday, December 21, 2017

and now, one of THE greatest ghost story writers ever -- The Dead of Night: The Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions

Wordsworth Editions, 2010
657 pp


I feel absolutely  monotonal by reading and posting about all manner of ghost stories, and I'm sorry about that,  but I just can't help myself.  They're like the comfort food of reading for me, and I say the more the merrier (and the older the better).   I finished this collection back at the beginning of the month after starting it towards the first of November, and it actually did take me the entire month to get through it, reading it only late at night.  To be honest, some stories took longer to get through than others because they were just plain tedious, but the joy came in finding the really, really good ones that I'll probably never forget.

Onions is probably best known for his excellent "The Beckoning Fair One," which will live in my head as one of the greatest ghost stories of all time, one that explores the tenuous connection between, as editor David Stuart Davies says in his introduction, "creativity and insanity."    That one I've read several times and I'd read it several times again because it's so good.  It's his lesser-known stories that captured my attention here, and there are twenty-four of them in this collection:

Hey - it's easier than typing them all. Sorry about the blur --
While several of these tales follow on in the same thematic mode as "The Beckoning Fair One," there are many that branch out in other directions, including (but not limited to) more traditional ghostly fare, time slips, reincarnation, murder,  ghosts who enter the present via objects from the past, and strangely enough lycanthropy and a bizarre Kali-like cult.   All are a beautiful blending of the supernatural and the psychological, which is actually why I'm drawn to this author in particular.  Even though I read this sort of thing for fun, I also read in order to extract what I can about different aspects of human nature, and Oliver Onions has this uncanny knack of moving deep into the psyche.

So, let's see... favorites...hmm:
aside from "The Beckoning Fair One," there's "Benlian," "The Honey in the Wall," "The Rosewood Door," which is just bloody creepy when you give pause for thought,  "The Painted Face," "Hic Jacet," which is probably my second favorite after "Beckoning Fair One," and one that  all would-be authors should read, as  it comes down to the question of writing for love or money.  "The Rope in the Rafters" is another one that chilled, as was "The Woman in the Way" and "The Master of the House."  That last one was just downright creepy and considering that I'm not big on the subject matter involved as a general rule,  well, that says a lot.

While the stories are not all what I'd call perfect, The Dead of Night  is a must-have collection worth owning for the home library and definitely a no-miss collection for the avid ghost story reader.  I love Oliver Onions' work, and he should certainly be read by anyone aspiring to write horror.  Not that I fit that bill, but he has a lot to offer anyone who does. 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

from well-known to truly obscure, The Haunters and the Haunted: Ghost Stories and Tales of the Supernatural, (eds) Ernest Rhys and M. Larigot

Crow Press, 2015 
originally published 1921

The cover of my edition of this book shows the author as "unknown," but a little digging reveals that it was writer (and editor) Ernest Rhys who was responsible for bringing us this volume of ghostly and supernatural tales.  Rhys (1859-1946) according to an article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB, 24 May 2007) began his writing career in 1886, where in London, he established his "base as the British Museum Room," and became a "familiar figure in literary London."  He had a "passion for eastern mysticism,"  was a friend to Yeats and Madame Blavatsky, and was part of the founding group of the Rhymers' Club.   However, Rhys' claim to fame was not so much his poetry, but more because of his role as editor of Everyman's Library.  The idea had been conceived by Rhys and J.M. Dent with the vision of, as Rhys puts it,
"a large collection of the great books of the world, in a handsome edition that would be affordable by the common man." 
By the time Rhys died, the ODNB article reveals that there were over 983 volumes that had been published for Everyman's Library, and so those of us who have their works in our home libraries now know how it all began.   As far as this book goes, Rhys writes in the introduction that he intended to "widen the area of research, and relate the ghost-story anew to the whole literature of wonder and imagination."    He notes that
"One can take the book as a text-book of the supernatural, or as a story-book of that middle world which has given us the ghosts that Homer and Shakespeared conjured up."
What's interesting here is that the book seems to consist completely of works collected by a M. Larigot, "himself a writer of supernatural tales," as Rhys explains, but I haven't been able to find anything about Larigot anywhere.  Maybe as I get more into French tales I'll come across him, but doing a search brings me back around to this book and Rhys' introduction.  Rhys says that "In this Ghost book," Larigot has "collected a remarkable batch of documents, fictive or real, describing the one human experience that is hardest to make good."  He calls Larigot's collection "varied and artfully chosen," but that's about it except to mention that Larigot had
"in the course of his investigations, during many years, arrived at the conclusion that there is an Art of the Supernatural, apart from the difficult science of psychical research, worth cultivating for its own sake.  So he has gone to Glanvil and Arise Evans and the credulous old books -- to Edgar Poe and Lord Lytton and the modern writers who tell supernatural tales.  He gives us their material insight without positing its unquestionable effect as police-court evidence..."
which, one could take to mean that not only is Larigot an author in his own right, but a researcher into tales of the supernatural, which seems a good guess, since not only does this book present some already well-known stories, but also stories gleaned from Scottish castle lore, Irish legends, various diaries and accounts, as well as stories that go back to Plutarch and Homer.

The Haunters and the Haunted is divided into three distinct sections:  "Ghost Stories From Literary Sources," "Ghost Stories from Local Records, Folk Lore, and Legend," and finally "Omens and Phantasms."    The table of contents can be found here at Project Gutenberg, which contains the footnotes that my edition is missing.   Just an FYI though -- "The Old Nurse's Story" that's mentioned is written by George MacDonald and NOT Elizabeth Gaskell, so don't pass it by thinking you've read it before.  I have quite a few favorites in this section, especially "Teig O'Kane and the Corpse," translated from the Irish by Dr. Douglas Hyde, which is one I hadn't read before.  This story is truly one of the best in the entire book, and focuses on a young man who won't heed his father regarding a marriage, preferring instead to "follow on at his old tricks -- drinking, sporting, and playing cards."  That all changes one night when he meets up with a "band of little people coming toward him, ... carrying something big and heavy with them."  What happens next well and truly makes for great ghostly reading.   In second place is "The Seven Lights," from John Mackay Wilson's Tales of the Borders, which is just eerily and creepily delightful but very sad at the same time.   "The Lianhan Shee" by Will Carleton follows in my list of favorites here, in which a wife realizes that showing charity is good thing, but only to a point.   This one has a most unexpected outcome with a nice twist as well.  One more thing about this section -- Bulwer-Lytton's "The Haunted and the Haunters" appears here, and it's the unabridged version, which tends to become a bit tedious after a while but is still quite good.

from Decoded Past

After finishing the tales in "Ghost Stories from Local Records, Folk Lore and Legends," I decided that it would have been fun to sleep in an old haunted Scottish castle for even one night.  Glamis and Powys castles are represented here, as are various British homes (halls, if you will), and then comes a strange but good one called "Croglin Grange," which isn't at all a ghost story but I won't say what it is exactly so as not to spoil it.  I ended up spending a lot of time researching this particular tale for my interest in the legend itself and how it's been handed down over time.  Don't go looking it up though until you've read the story because you'll wreck it for yourself, and you really, really don't want to do that.

Under "Omens and Phantasms," there's what I would consider a rather obscure ghostly tale called "The Vision of Charles XL of Sweden," which, interestingly enough, (supposedly) comes from an historical document.  This one was just great and the imagery amazing.  There's also a very different version of "The Pied Piper," that sent me looking at all of the various retellings of this one,  a no-miss story called "Anne Walker," with a plot that's been used many times but is still well worth the reading, as is  "The Hand of Glory." My favorite, though is "The Bloody Footstep," another one where giving away the plot would just not be a good idea.

On the whole, this collection is probably most geared toward readers like me who have not only an interest in older ghostly tales, but who also are into the history behind them.  Some of these stories are very short, a paragraph in length, and if you don't read French you'll want to skip the small piece about Joan of Arc, which was left untranslated.  I will say that the best way to read this book is probably the Project Gutenberg version, since my edition has omitted the footnotes which to me are absolutely critical. Then again, I'm a nerd and enjoy knowing where things come from so I can go look them up.   There will be something for everyone here, especially anyone looking for something way, way off the beaten path.

It was a great book to curl up with during late nights of zero sleep, and one I'd recommend but more to nerdish people like myself.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Twenty Days of Turin, by Giorgio de Maria

W.W. Norton, 2017
originally published as Le venti giornate del Torino, 1977
translated by Ramon Glazov
187 pp


"The dark forces that seek to hold us back are far from vanquished."  -- 53

"Take heed! ... The Twenty Days of Turin were the final warning of the LORD!"  --57,58

By the time I'd put this book down, I was actually shaking.  Not so much for the horror elements here, but more because of the feeling that this book, while written in the late 1970s, has a certain timeliness about it that terrifies me, one that is more frightening than the contents of any horror novel.

Our guide through this book of strange events in the city of Turin both past and present is an unnamed man who has decided to write a book about the "Twenty Days of Turin
...neither a war nor a revolution, but as it's claimed, 'a phenomenon of collective psychosis' - with much of that definition implying an epidemic
and actually, the word "epidemic"  seems an appropriate description for what follows as the twenty days are recounted through interviews and other media uncovered by our narrator. It was a time of drought, a time when men and women struggled with a strange insomnia that prompted them to "shamble" through the streets and plazas of Turin during the night.  Some witnesses reported strange smells in the air; others were disturbed by unworldly noises, screams that seemed to relay "some kind of message," with "always something gray and metallic deep behind it," ... conveying the "intonation of war cries...virulent and hostile." And then, of course, there were the strange murders that took place during this time, and witnesses who "made certain they didn't see anything."   It was as if the city was in the grip of unknown dark forces unleashed by the cosmos itself, blanketing Turin's citizens in terror to the point where, as our narrator discovers, people are still reluctant to discuss their experiences some ten years later.  And it is to get "behind that silence" that the narrator seeks to understand exactly who it is that is "hiding the mystery of the Twenty Days."

As he proceeds with his investigation, he begins to understand that there are forces at work who do not want him to succeed. The first warning comes after a visit to the remnants of the mysterious  Library, which, according to the narrator, must be part of any picture being painted about "Turin in the time of the Twenty Days."  It had been started with the idea of "encouraging people to be more open with one another," in which people could  collaborate in submitting "documents reflecting the real spirit of the people." They weren't looking for people to contribute works of literature ("there's too much artifice in literature"), but rather "a diary, a memoir, a confession of some problem that really worries you," with the promise that there would be someone who would be interested enough to read what you had to say, and then for a small fee, could get your address and be able to contact you.  Back in the present though, our narrator continues to be plagued by strange occurrences, including a murder, all part of an attempt to get him to back off.

 I see this book in part as an allegory of the fear and upheaval that resulted from Italy's tumultuous "Years of Lead" a time when, as the translator notes in an interview at Weird Fiction Review
"People were scared of being killed as soon as they stepped out of their houses and also scared that the government wouldn't be on their side,"
which also became a "taboo-ish topic to speculate about too loudly."  On the other hand,  I can't get out of my head that since the narrator's real quest is, as he stated,  to discover who (or what)  it is that is "hiding the mystery of the Twenty Days,"  it seems to me that a very big part of this book reveals that those strange dark forces responsible for that dark time haven't disappeared, but are still there, lurking and hiding in the shadows, unseen and unknown, but still in control.

 De Maria used the stuff and the language of horror fiction to tell an horrific story here, and it works, especially upon reaching the ending which seriously chilled me to the bone. One more thing -- there's been a lot said about this novel's prescience in De Maria's early vision of social media, and it is a big part of this story but don't let that be the only thing you get out of it.   There's much, more here -- as just one example, people turning to spirituality (including strange cults) as a sort of bulwark against the darkness,  and the translator in his introduction spends a great amount of time helping the reader to understand how the novel can be viewed as an artistic expression of the turmoil of an Italy in its years of great upheaval.  But skip the intro  until you've finished the novel, so you can experience the chills without any hints first.

 I can see why this book is considered a cult classic, and while it may not be for everyone, I thought it was brilliant.