Monday, August 28, 2023

Holy Ghosts: Classic Tales of the Ecclesiastical Uncanny (ed.) Fiona Snailham


"The past seems so close here..."

British Library, 2023
279 pp


I have a serious addiction to the British Library Tales of the Weird series, so much so that I tend to preorder the books often months ahead of  their scheduled release.  I actually just got one in yesterday's mail, The Uncanny Gastronomic (ed. Zara-Louise Stubbs),  which I will likely set aside to read in October when I do a month of spooky reads.   The other book I'm looking forward to landing at my doorstep soon  is The Lure of Atlantis (ed. Michael Wheatley) which sounds like good, pulpy fun and which will likely also be saved for October.   December brings Circles of Stone: Weird Tales of Pagan Sites and Ancient Rituals (ed.) Kathryn Soar. As long as the British Library continues to publish these books, I will continue to buy them. * 

Today's post  is about Holy Ghosts: Classic Tales of the Ecclesiastical Uncanny, edited by Fiona Snailham, which I finished a couple of weeks ago or so.  The title alone should offer enough of a clue about what you're about to read, but to clarify, the editor spells it out in her introduction, saying that this book

"presents a collection of stories published between 1851 and 1935. The tales offer accounts of holy places filled with horror and believers tormented by terrifying ghosts."  

 The introduction, course, reveals other considerations and various themes to take into account while reading these stories, but I will leave these for prospective readers to discover.  

I've had the pleasure to have previously read six of the eleven tales presented in this book.  Even before opening this anthology and perusing the contents, I just knew M.R. James would be among the authors and I was correct.  The James selection was "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral," a perfect pick for this volume, and a story that never fails to chill me to my bones.  By the way, back in 1971, this story was dramatized as "The Stalls of Barchester,"  the first of the BBC's A Ghost Story for Christmas annual series, and, of course, I had to watch it again. Cue serious spine hackles.  I have it on dvd, but it is available on youtube as well.    "The Poor Clare" by Elizabeth Gaskell and E. Nesbit's "Man-Size in Marble" are also found among the previous-reads.  Nesbit's story has been anthologized so often that although I love it, it's just a bit on the disappointing side to see it here yet again, while "The Poor Clare" runs to novella length at 70 pages,  sort of interrupting the flow of the book as a whole.  Rounding out the remaining three are Le Fanu's "The Sexton's Adventure," an awesome little tale which is one of his Chapelizod stories, "The Face of the Monk," by Robert Hichens [sidebar:  I read this story first in The Zinzolin Book of Occult Fiction (Snuggly Books, 2022;  ed. Brendan Connell) and I really need to read it again] and "The Duchess at Prayer" by Edith Wharton, which is quite good but sadly, I saw the ending of this one coming. 

the Barchester Stall cat carving, from Cathode Ray Tube

From  Mrs. Henry Wood comes my first unread story, "The Parson's Oath" (1855), a tale that involves two young people in the village of Littleford.  Vicar  John Lewis and school teacher  Regina Winter discover they have feelings for each other.  The problem is a certain Brassy Brown, who has designs on Regina and has "sworn" to marry her, and will keep his promise "by fair means or foul."   She wants nothing to do with him and just knows that "he will kill me, some of these days," and jokingly makes the vicar swear an oath to give her a "Christian burial" if that should happen. The vicar believes it's a joke, at least at first ...  I knew where this was headed as well,  and the same happened with "A Story Told in a Church," by Ada Buisson.  This story was first published in 1867 in Mary E. Braddon's  Belgravia Annual for Christmas, and would be a good choice for modern anthologies of Victorian Christmas Stories.   It's Christmas Eve and it seems that a governess, Miss Montem,  and a few young girls in her care have been the victim of "dreadful boys" who have locked them inside of a church while they'd been "decking" the place "with holly-wreaths and shining laurel."  Night is on its way, and while rescue is certainly at hand, Miss Montem is "deadly pale" and  ill at ease.  When prompted to tell a story, she takes the girls back ten years to when she and her fellow schoolgirls were "obliged" to remain at school over Christmas.  The schoolmistress, not wishing for anyone to feel disappointed, arranges a small party with a few local village families.   Miss Montem remembers that that  Christmas Eve began "joyously," and she'd "never since" laughed "with such freehearted joy."  The night takes a very dark turn, however, with the arrival of the fiancé of one of two cousins, who decides to invite himself to the party and proceeds to be less attentive to his betrothed than to her cousin.   "In the Confessional," by Amelia B. Edwards (1871) is a much stronger story, which begins as a man who prefers to amble in less tourist-oriented places finds himself in Rheinfelden, an "old walled town" where the inhabitants are preparing for a fair.  Trying to find an inn, he comes to a "little solitary church" where he stops for a while.  It is near the altar that he sees a plaque commemorating a certain priest by the name of Chessez and finds himself captivated by its final line --  "He lived a saint; he died a martyr."   On the way out of the church, he decides to take a look at the confessional, opening the door.  To his surprise he encounters a priest within with "fixed attitude and stony face," with "terrible" glaring eyes, saying absolutely nothing.  The encounter disturbs our narrator to the point where he decides he must discover something of this man's life.  What he finds is murder, madness and of course, a ghost. 

from Wikipedia

Rounding out the final two, sadly I actually didn't care for "An Evicted Spirit" by Marguerite Merington, but choosing to save John Wyndham's (yes, that John Wyndham) "The Cathedral Crypt" to finish off Holy Ghosts was brilliant;  at only seven-and-a-half pages, it packs a powerful punch that really highlights the notion that (as expressed in the introduction) "holy settings" are not always places of sanctuary.  Married for only three weeks, Clarissa and Raymond are in Spain and come upon a medieval cathedral.  Clarissa finds it frightening, unlike Raymond, who wants to go inside and take a look around.  Putting aside her fears, she accompanies her husband inside but still has "an overwhelming desire to get back to the familiarities of noises and people."  Unfortunately, by the time it's time to leave, they find themselves stuck inside with no way out. That is all I'll say, except for this: Clarissa is sadly on the money when she notes that "the past seems so close here ... Somehow it hasn't been allowed to fade into dead history."

I love the concept behind this book, as well as the majority of the editor's choices for inclusion.  There is something here for everyone in the range of uncanny tales presented, including the weird, the strange and the ghostly.  Do not miss the introduction; I didn't go into it as much in this post as I would have liked to for time reasons, but really, it's best discovered on one's own.  The first story definitely whets the appetite for more and sets the tone of what's coming next, and the book as a whole was certainly most difficult to put down.   I've sung the praises of this series so often that all I have left to say is that this volume is a no-miss, especially for regular fans of these books published by the British Library and for  aficionados of older ghost stories.  It's an anthology I can most certainly and without hesitation highly recommend.  


*If you're in the US and you want paper copies of these books but don't want to wait for them to be published here, Blackwell's is a good place to pick them up.  Like the now defunct  😢 Book Depository, shipping to the US is free.