Ghostly goings-on

 

© Wordsworth Editions

 

As usual, I spent the recent festive season engaged in a very traditional, Christmas-y pursuit – the reading of Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories.  And as usual, I found those ghost stories in the excellent Wordsworth Editions’ Tales of Mystery and Imagination series, which has published work by still-celebrated writers like E.F. Benson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, M.R. James and Edith Wharton but also by writers like Gertrude Atherton, Amyas Northcote, J.H. Riddell and May Sinclair, who were prolific and / or acclaimed in their day but whose names slipped into obscurity following their deaths.  (Getting republished by Wordsworth Editions might, of course, help to rescue their names from obscurity.)

 

This Christmas I read two more Wordsworth collections, both published in 2006: A Night on the Moor and Other Tales of Dread by R. Murray Gilchrist and Aylmer Vance: Ghost-Seer by Alice and Claude Askew.  Here are my impressions.

 

Firstly, I’ll talk about the collection I enjoyed less.  R. Murray Gilchrist was born in Sheffield but lived for much of his life in Holmesfield, 800 feet up in Derbyshire’s Peak District.  By the time of his death in 1917 at the age of 50, he was responsible for 22 novels and about 100 short stories.  However,  A Night on the Moor and Other Tales of Dread is something of a misnomer because most of the stories featured don’t particularly evoke feelings of ‘dread’.  Rather, they are tales of darkly gothic romance, where the atmosphere – and, alas, the prose – is often stiflingly thick.

 

These are stories where every building is an imposing structure with ‘stacks of twisted chimneys’, ‘great square windows’ and ‘a vision of gables’ and ‘so covered in ivy that from a distance it seems like a cluster of rare trees with ruddy trunks and branches’; where every garden is adorned with statues of satyrs, nymphs, dryads, dragons and the goddess Diana; and where the air is always suffused with the sickly-sweet smells of flowers, such as roses, lilies, honeysuckle, ‘withering snowdrops’ and ‘scarlet poppies, with hearts like fingers’ that effuse ‘a close and sleepy perfume’.  The villain of the story The Manuscript of Francis Shackerley even gives off ‘a rich smell of violets’ and it’s said that ‘his skin by some artificial means had been impregnated lastingly with their odour.’

 

Unfortunately, Gilchrist’s writing is frequently hamstrung by melodrama (“O the midsummer noontide; the trembling air; the golden dusk that clung around the fir trunks!”) and is occasionally clunkingly awful (“My thoughts had withered, my words had grown unpregnant”).  There’s an attempt to emulate the morbid, decadent intensity found in such tales by Edgar Allan Poe as Berenice (1835), Ligeia (1938), The Oval Portrait (1842) and Eleonora (1850), but while Gilchrist’s characters indulge in much pontificating and running hither and thither to no great effect, the impression you get is one of bluster rather than of anything genuinely, dissolutely macabre.  Some of the stories I found a real chore to get through.

 

Still, there are a few items where Gilchrist dials it down a bit and manages to strike a properly creepy note.  The Lover’s Ordeal is the tale of a dare that unexpectedly ends up featuring a vampire.  The Grotto at Ravensdale sees a newly married couple encounter tragedy at the titular (and haunted) cavern.  The Priest’s Pavan is about a harpsichordist forced to play some demonic music at a wedding party.  And A Night on the Moor itself is an atmospheric piece where the main character experiences a time-slip.

 

Also, two additional stories, The Panicle and The Witch in the Peak, are tagged on in an appendix at the end.  Presumably this is because they eschew the aristocratic characters, lavishly gothic settings and rather po-faced tone of the other stories and instead have straightforward and refreshingly humorous narratives where working-class people experience supernatural goings-on in the Peak District.  The 19-century Derbyshire dialect is slightly hard to decipher, but I enjoyed these two stories more than anything else in the collection and would have liked more with their flavour.

 

© Wordsworth Editions

 

Aylmer Vance: Ghost-Seer is more modest in its ambitions and I have to say I found it the more enjoyable read because of that.  It has eight stories, all connected by the recurring character of Aylmer Vance – ‘a curious-looking man, tall and lean in build, with a pale but distinctly interesting face’ – who as the title indicates is sensitive to paranormal activity and acts as a supernatural detective, trying to explain and put an end to hauntings suffered by other people.  The narrator, however, is an acquaintance of Vance’s called Dexter.  Vance tells the first three stories to Dexter, then Dexter becomes an unwilling participant in the fourth one, and then for the remaining four stories he joins forces with Vance and serves as a Dr Watson to his Sherlock Holmes.

 

There’s nothing spectacular here, but there are some imaginative ideas – the fire-raising ghost of a frustrated poet in The Fire Unquenchable, for example, or the malevolent spirit of a pianist using his music to haunt the woman he lusted after when alive in The Indissoluble Bond.  Meanwhile, The Stranger, about a young woman attracted to a mysterious figure she encounters in a local wood, is a nicely pagan affair with a hint of Arthur Machen; and the final story, The Fear, is impressively oppressive and does what it says ‘on the tin’.

 

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy Aylmer Vance as much as I might have done.  This was because a year earlier I’d read a Wordsworth Editions collection called Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder, written by William Hope Hodgson, which was a set of tales about, yes, another supernatural detective called Thomas Carnacki.  The Carnacki stories were good enough to have influenced later writers like H.P. Lovecraft and Dennis Wheatley and the Vance stories can’t help but seem a little pedestrian in comparison.

 

Aylmer Vance also suffers from a problem that’s inevitable when you have a series of supernatural stories that are mostly self-contained and have different elements (ghosts, poltergeists, vampires, etc.) but also have the thread of a recurring character.  If paranormal activity does happen, it must happen incredibly rarely – otherwise scientists would have observed and recorded it and acknowledged its existence by now.  So how does someone like Vance manage to defy all laws of probability and have eight full-blooded encounters with the supernatural in its different forms?  (William Hope Hodgson at least seemed aware of this credibility problem, for he interspersed his genuinely supernatural Carnacki stories with ones where the hauntings turn out to be hoaxes.)

 

Vance writers Alice and Claude Askew, incidentally, were a husband-and-wife team who supposedly penned over 90 novels during a 14-year period in the early 20th century.  During World War One, they found themselves in Serbia and later in Greece, working at a British field hospital and then for the Serbian Red Cross and also writing war despatches for publications like the Daily Express.  Like R. Murray Gilchrist, they died in 1917 but in a particularly tragic manner.  Both were killed while they were travelling from Italy to Corfu, when their boat was torpedoed by a German submarine.  Claude’s body was never found.  Alice’s body was recovered, however, and her grave is on the Croatian island of Korčula.

 

Wordsworth’s ghosts

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I’ve read a lot of 19th century ghost stories recently.  This is no doubt because Christmas was a month ago and Christmas is the season par excellence for mixing yourself a hot toddy, turning the lights low, hunkering down with a book and reading good, old-fashioned ghost stories. 

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The stories in question have featured in collections published by Wordsworth Editions in its series Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural.  I’ve picked up a number of these at library clearance sales and in second-hand bookshops in Sri Lanka and Thailand over the past year.  The last time I checked, Wordsworth’s Mystery and the Supernatural series consisted of 80 different titles and they’re an admirable balance between works by authors who are well-known, like H.P. Lovecraft, M.R. James, Edgar Wallace, Edith Wharton and Henry James, and works by authors who aren’t – or, in some cases, were famous once but have now disappeared off the reading public’s radar.  By acquainting modern readers with writers in the latter category, the series performs an invaluable service.  It was through reading one of its books a few years ago, for instance, that I discovered the excellent but now neglected writer May Sinclair, about whom I wrote here.

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Anyway, I’ve just finished reading Wordsworth collections by Amyas Northcote, Gertrude Atherton and J.H. Riddell.  How do their ghost stories measure up?

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(c) Wordsworth Editions

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Amyas Northcote is the most elusive figure of the three.  His Wikipedia entry merely states that he was the seventh son of the First Earl of Iddesleigh – Benjamin Disraeli’s Chancellor of the Exchequer; he was a businessman in Chicago at one time and a Justice of the Peace in Buckinghamshire at another; and he “wrote ghost stories in the line of those of M.R. James, which were compiled in his only book, In Ghostly Company.”  One likely reason why Company was Northcote’s only book was because it was published in 1921 and he died soon afterwards in 1923, before he had much chance to follow it with further fiction, ghostly or otherwise.

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I have to admit that while I found Northcote’s stories enjoyable, most of them feel a bit run-of-the-mill.  Often, as in the case of Mr Kershaw and Mr Wilcox, The Late Earl of D., The Steps and The Governess’s Story, they involve manifestations of the supernatural linked to murders, untimely deaths and disappearances.  The two most interesting stories are those that stray furthest from the formula.  The Downs deals with a secluded stretch of British countryside that, one night a year, becomes the scene of a haunting on a spectacular scale; while The Late Mrs Fowke strays unexpectedly into the realms of devil worship and reads like a prototype for the occult potboilers that Dennis Wheatley would start writing little more than a decade later.   

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(c) Wordsworth Editions

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Considerably greater in range and ambition are the stories of American author Gertrude Atherton collected in The Bell in the Fog and Other Stories, originally published in 1905.  These are tales that are by turns grisly (The Striding Place), phantasmagorical (The Dead and the Countess) and imbued with a psychological intensity reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe (Death and the Woman).  Some aren’t supernatural at all but are grim character studies.  A Monarch of a Small Survey is about a sad and frumpy lady’s companion who suffers the double misfortune of being cut out of her employer’s will and becoming futilely besotted with a younger man.  The Tragedy of a Snob similarly looks at the gulf between the haves and have nots, chronicling the efforts of a man of limited means to gain access to the world of high society.  And The Greatest Good of the Greatest Number is about a physician who convinces himself that by eliminating the life of one worthless person he can improve the lives of all the decent people who’ve been blighted by her – but finds the execution of the deed harder than he’d expected.  Simply but compellingly set up, The Greatest Good feels like a Roald Dahl story with a stern moral conscience.

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I have to say, though, that my respect for Atherton’s collection was diminished by the inclusion of A Prologue, which is presented as the first part of an unfinished play.  It’s a brooding, gothic piece set on a West Indian island about to be pulverised by a hurricane and is slightly reminiscent of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966).  Unfortunately, it’s also racist. It depicts a household’s black slaves cowering and wailing pathetically on the floor while their white owners stomp around, cursing them for their superstitious uselessness and trying to secure the premises without their help.  Yes, I know A Prologue simply reflects the attitudes back then of white people towards slaves and slavery and it should be taken as being ‘of its time’; but it still left a bad taste in my mouth.    

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(c) Wordsworth Editions

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I’d been looking forward to J.H. Riddell’s Night Shivers, a volume that contains 14 short stories and is rounded off with a short novel, The Uninhabited House, which was first published in 1875.  This was because Riddell originated in Northern Ireland, like I did.  She was born in Carrickfergus, County Antrim, in 1832 and lived there until 1855, when she and her mother moved to London.  She remained in England until her death in 1906 and during the intervening years established herself as a prolific author.  Her Wikipedia entry lists some 40 novels and a half-dozen short story collections.

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I’d hoped that Ms Riddell’s ghostly fiction would have a strong Irish flavour and, occasionally, it does – to good effect.  The Last of Squire Ennismore sees a dissolute Irish landowner come to an infernal end for his misdeeds, through the agency of a mysterious stranger with ‘an ambling sort of gait, curious to look at’ who leaves cloven hoof-prints on the sand of the local beach.  Hertford O’Donnell’s Warning features that most Irish of supernatural creatures, the banshee, though in the incongruous (but effective) setting of a Victorian London hospital.  And Conn Kilrea features an Irish family haunted by another spectral, though non-banshee, harbinger of death.  However, most of the stories take place in England and, because I’ve read countless other English ghost stories over the years, their scenarios seem very familiar and they have the same generic feel as Amyas Northcote’s work.  Riddell enjoys presenting her ghosts and supernatural phenomena as puzzles that the living characters have to solve.  Invariably, they turn out to be traces and echoes of nefarious incidents – usually murders – that once upon a time occurred in the ‘real’ world.

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One thing I like about Riddell’s fiction is her depiction of uncommonly (for the era) feisty and unconventional female characters, even if they come across as somewhat grotesque: most notably, Miss Gostock, the hard-working, hard-bargain-driving and hard-drinking landlady in Nut Bush Farm; and the formidable Miss Blake, ‘the child of a Scottish-Ulster mother and a Connaught father’ who ‘had ingeniously contrived to combine in her person the vices of two distinct races, and exclude the virtues of both’, in The Uninhabited House.  Also, I like how she portrays the main character in Walnut-Tree House.  He’s an unpretentious type who comes into possession of a haunted property in London after spending years as a ‘digger’ in the Australian goldfields.  The snobby Londoners he has dealings with disdain him as ‘a rough sort of fellow’ who’s ‘boorish’ and has ‘never mixed with good society’.  But when he encounters the ghost in his house, that of a child, he doesn’t react as characters normally do in these stories and cringe or flee in terror.  Instead, he feels sorry for the poor child’s ghost and resolves to find a way to make it rest in peace.

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