British Library Historical Collection, 2010
originally published 1892
This book comes just after three darker ones in a row, so it's labeled "fluff" in my head. First was the book by Zelenyj I talked about in my previous post here, followed by Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and I The Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos, both of which seriously messed with my head. I decided I needed something on the lighter side before embarking on my next novel, presumably another head messer-upper, Alejo Carpentier's Reasons of State, and voilà, here we are.
I first read about this book in L.W. Currey's catalogue one morning, something I do now and then which I probably shouldn't since it tends to make me want to find reprints of these old tomes, which adds to the already groaning bookshelves and my husband's serious eyerolls when new books arrive at my doorstep. He's already convinced that when the Library of Congress needs a copy of a book they'll phone here, but that's another story for later.
|from LW Currey, original 1892 edition
Anyway, for fluff reading you can't beat this little volume of two short novels in one. Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Haggard was not as well known as his brother Sir Henry Rider Haggard, and as a writer at Fine Books Magazine reveals,
"The larger part of Haggard's canon of work comprised French histories, poetry, historical fiction, and roving accounts of his military exploits and sporting excursions."Leslie's Fate doesn't really fall into any of these categories; for that matter, neither does Hilda (subtitled "the Ghost of Ermenstein)." The first of these two tales is set in the Scottish Highlands, where the Lord of Dumbarton and Duncaid falls victim to his family's curse. It seems that anyone born in the the north wing of Castle Duncaid will
"not only have the power to view beings from another world, but be absolutely unable to avoid doing so from time to time; and no matter how painful or awful such manifestations of the hidden world might be to a sensitive mind, they will have to be endured."Naturally, the pregnant women of the castle have taken great pains to avoid the North Wing, but Charles Leslie's mother was looking for something there, "tripped and fell," and before she could be moved elsewhere, went into labor, bringing young Charles into the world right then and there. The ghosts young Charles saw as a boy were ancestral and meant no physical harm; they gave what Charles refers to as "ghostly performances" where they were
"cutting each other's throats, or throwing each other out of the window, down the cliff, into the rushing Arrow."Sometimes the "performances" varied and the ghosts took turns putting each other on the rack, but young Charles took it all in stride and actually took a weird sort of pride in the fact that "no one but a Leslie was ever thus honoured." But it's not these "beings from another world" that Charles needs to worry about, as he discovers on a hike while looking for the source of a "considerable affluent" of the River Arrow, and wanders on into an area known as the Fairy Burn, which has the reputation of being "bewitched." However, despite the name of the place, it's not fairies on the program for our young Lord, but something completely unexpected; all I'll say is that if ever a promise made in the past had consequences for the future, it's the one Leslie makes during his strange encounter. Truth be told, this is one of the silliest and most bizarre tales I've ever had the pleasure to have read, but as I said, I was looking for fluff so in that sense it worked. [If anyone else ever reads this story, was it me, or was the timeline way off here?] The seriously pulpy vibe in this one, along with spectral encounters made it fun, and it also set off a few rounds of the giggles here and there.
|from page 141, original illustration by Evelyn Stuart Hardy (my photo)
Even more spectral (and not as silly as Leslie's Fate) is Hilda; or, the Ghost of Ermenstein, which takes place in an ancient castle in the forests of Hungary. After reading about the location, my ahhh reading sensors were put on alert, but really, outside of a wolf pack which one sort of associates with that area, it might have taken place anywhere. "Hilda" is the story of a love triangle -- two women who love the same man -- gone very, very wrong. The Schloss Ermenstein in 1876 is the setting for this one, the abode of the Graf von Ermenstein, whose niece, Hilda von Schrieden, is making her first visit as this story opens. At age nineteen, she is "everybody's pet," the total opposite of her cousin Frederica von Ermenstein, another niece of the Graf. Frederica loves "admiration," is a bit jealous of Hilda, and the man they both love is Louis de Fontach, a lieutenant in the Austrian Hussars and "protégé" of the Graf, who is also at the castle. Louis, however, only has eyes for Hilda. Left alone one day, while the rest of the inhabitants are all out, Hilda decides to go and do some exploring in the castle, which leads her to a particular gallery which she'd seen but had never really got a look at, one that the old housekeeper had only quickly led her through but had never stopped at, saying there were "better things" just beyond this gallery. While exploring the tapestries there, Hilda sees one that catches her eye because it was something altogether different than the others on either side. Those depicted "gloomy battle scenes" but this one was striking;
"It was a representation of the Crucifixion, with the Virgin Mother kneeling at the foot of the cross. Everything was carefully depicted, even to the blood gushing from the wound of the Saviour's side."Curious now, she moves the tapestry only to find a locked door, but events make her forget the gallery until much later, when she mentions her find to Frederica, who reveals that the tapestry is located in the "ghost gallery," somewhere Hilda should completely avoid. That warning, plus that of the old housekeeper only furthers her curiosity, and she goes back, Louis in tow, which sets off a chain of unforeseen tragic events having to do with (dare I say it?) a family curse.
It's not great by any stretch, but this book is a fun little volume for whiling away a few hours, if family curses are your thing, since this is pretty much what ties together these two tales outside of the ghostly visitations. While Leslie's Fate is certainly a bit giggleworthy at times because it is soooo out there (L.W. Currey's catalogue refers to it as a "mass of absurdities," a description with which I concur), and Hilda is at its heart a tale of tragic tale of romance, both should be read by true-blue, Victorian ghost-story aficionados who might wonder what else is out there. I didn't love it, but then again, I'm happy I read it because I had a good time with it. Sometimes that's all I really want from a book, especially when I'm on brain detox. And then, of course, there's the obscurity factor, which in and of itself also brought joy.
Read at your own risk, really, but as I said, if you're a diehard fan of ghost stories, you won't want to miss it.