Saturday, 12 May 2018

10, 11 & 12. Sardonicus / Sagittarius / Sanguinarius

Written by: Ray Russell
Published: 1960/1962/1967

You can read these three lushly-written novellas as standalone pieces but, honestly, why would you deny yourself the trifecta? Ray Russell (1924-1999) was a somewhat underrated specialist in short stories, who published a lot of classic stuff in Playboy, for which he was fiction editor. You'll cop more than a feel of that side of his personality in Sardonicus and, especially, Sanguinarius, both of which delve into the perverse, but without getting too weird about it.

Of the trio, Sagittarius is perhaps most in line with the classic ghost story format, complete with a gentlemen's-club framing device and a backdrop of the infamous Parisian Grand Guignol theatre (deliciously described, incidentally). Sardonicus goes full gothic, with a disfigured villain and psycho-sexual threat in a European castle; while Sanguinarius takes us further back in history to the time of the murderous Elizabeth Báthory. All three tales feature rollicking twists -- not the cheesy kind, where the whole story exists just to set up a reversal of expectations, but the kind of stings that send you off with a truly satisfying chill. (Sanguinarius's comes down to a single word.) There's also Russell's almost outrageously elegant prose to enjoy across the triptych: yes, it's pure pastiche in style... but what style!

Anyway, with one breath, that's three more candles extinguished. Which seems to have darkened things considerably...

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

9. The Shadow in the Corner

Written by: Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Published: 1879

This one offers a real taste of the gothic but, perhaps surprisingly, only a hint of a ghost. Don't be put off, however, because Braddon's tale grips from the start. It's set in one of those houses with a 'bad name' -- once the site of a scandalous suicide but now just "a lonely house on a lonely road" where a mildly eccentric academic lives with his two elderly servants, the Skeggs. When a new maidservant arrives to help out, a haunting that has lain dormant for decades is awakened... with deadly consequences.

As noted, this is a page-turner, plain and simple. Braddon is a writer with an unfussy style, something she clearly holds dear in life (she has the displaced young maid remember with fondness 'her smart work-box and her plain sewing', while Mrs Skegg is complimented as a 'good plain cook') but which doesn't leave much room for ambiguity. On the other hand, some of her statement-like descriptions are wonderfully powerful ("There was an old mahogany bureau, that smelt of secrets") and, when the moments of apprehension approach, there's a definite prickle to the prose.

With the sense of gothic in full sweep, human emotions are what ultimately lead to the horror here, rather than external spectres, including an unpleasant act of jealousy and the unusual nature of the 'ghost' itself, which recalled for me H.G. Wells' haunted chamber piece, The Red Room. (Don't worry; I haven't given anything away.) I wouldn't say The Shadow in the Corner is anything like as effective, but it offers interesting characters, a perfect ghost story setting, and a satisfying last line.

The ninth candle gutters as we lean in to exhale... and then goes out completely. The game continues.

Notes (Major spoilers)

You really have to love Braddon's typically forthright explanation of the haunting: "It was not the ghost of the man's body that returned to the spot where he had suffered and perished, but the ghost of his mind – his very self; no meaningless simulacrum of the clothes he wore, and the figure that filled them". There's no mystery there... and it's all the better for it!

Image above from the British Library.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

8. Told After Supper

Written by: Jerome K. Jerome
Published: 1891

Today's tale offers an abrupt change of pace, as we take a sharp left turn into comedy, courtesy of the author of Three Men in a Boat... Wait, don't make that face! I assure you there's plenty of ghost in this story, including the malevolent kind. And, to further add to the novelty, it's also an example of a portmanteau piece, which is relatively rare in short fiction.

It's Christmas Eve (or as Jerome puts it "the ghosts' great gala night", since spirits are more likely than ever to put in an appearance) and a group of friends are slipping into a drunken haze in a candlelit parlour, the aftermath of a large supper. Conversation turns to 'true' supernatural experiences and, before long, we've been treated to three accounts from those present: Johnson and Emily, The Haunted Mill and The Ghost of the Blue Chamber. But the spookiness don't stop there, because the final tale is set to take place that night, involving an encounter for at least one member of the increasingly inebriated party.

The pleasures of Jerome's clever confection are here to be savoured -- from an opening, tongue-in-cheek attack on the cliches of the genre, to a whisky-soaked sense of Christmastime cosiness -- making this the kind of reading experience you can imagine making a festive tradition. Fans of ghost stories will delight at the satire on show (if a ghost smokes a pipe, is that pipe the ghost of a pipe? How does one get hold of ghostly tobacco?) and probably find Jerome's eye for detail both warmly familiar yet amusingly surprising. Not only do all the short tales within the framing story work in their own right, but each also manages a punchline, one of which made me laugh out loud.

Don't wait for Christmas Eve; get your hands on Told After Supper as soon as you can. And, as we blow out that eighth candle, we'll notice it's definitely a bit darker now... Perhaps our next story will be too...


Told After Supper has also been published, since 1990, as After-Supper Ghost Stories.

Image above from the British Library

Sunday, 3 December 2017

7. Ringing the Changes

Written by: Robert Aickman
Published: 1964

Like Oliver Onions, Aickman is another well-known purveyor of supernatural tales whose work I'd never sampled until I took up this game of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai. But the unique feel and flavour of this creepfest means I'll definitely have to try some more before the game is up.

We're by the sea again -- an already familiar setting for ghost stories... What is it about coastal regions that seems to invoke a sense of eeriness and desolation? The (fictional) town of Holihaven in Aickman's tale takes this notion to the extreme -- not because it's particularly spooky in itself, but because honeymooners Gerald and Phrynne arrive there on the one evening of the year when visitors are definitely not welcome. When the streets are empty, the beach deserted, and for some reason the church bells simply won't stop ringing.

Atmosphere is thick in this one. In fact, I'd go so far as to call it stifling. Whether or not you come out on the other side feeling satisfied (it's another of those ambiguous horrors) is almost inconsequential; you'll feel like you've spent a long and horrible night in Holihaven yourself. One of the most disturbing moments for me arises in the most mundane of settings: the run-down hotel bar where the chirpy landlady falls afoul of her drunken husband in front of the newlyweds:
To reach the flap of the bar she had to pass her husband. Gerald saw her hesitate for a second; then she advanced resolutely and steadily, and looking straight before her. If the man had let go with his hands, he would have fallen; but as she passed him, he released a great gob of spit. He was far too incapable to aim, and it fell on the side of his own trousers. 
Events get a lot stranger than this (to say the least) but all of the story's essential wrongness, its subdued hatred and fear, is summed up for me in this small action. Plot-wise, it's something you feel rather than necessarily understand. The last few lines show how the relationship of Gerald and Phrynne has been altered and redefined by what they've experienced, and I don't think you'll come out of it completely unscathed either.

Tread carefully as you make your way back up the beach in the darkness; another of our candles has just been blown out...


Roald Dahl included this in his Book of Ghost Stories (1983) -- a collection of tales originally selected with the intention of adapting them for TV -- and I can see why he went for it on those terms. Like The Birds (another seaside tale) it achieves a lot within a limited setting and, while the later scenes would have represented a challenge, I'm pretty sure they would have come off quite frighteningly.

Image above from the British Library.

Friday, 1 December 2017

6. The Tractate Middoth

Written by: M.R. James
Published: 1911

You knew we were going to encounter some M.R. James sooner or later in this game of online Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, didn't you? I picked this particular tale to tie in with the first day of Adam Z. Robinson's wonderful Ghost Story Advent, for which it's the (perfect) choice for day one.

I've read almost everything by James but I hadn't read this, as Meatloaf might say. It boasts perhaps the most arcane-sounding title ever dreamt up by an author known for his arcane obsessions, but don't let that put you off. As always with James, the intro is a grabber, opening on an elderly man arriving at a library to borrow an old book. (Sorry, I've just made that sound completely un-grabbing.) Anyway, said book -- the tractate of the title -- is mysteriously missing; a dark figure has been spotted stalking the stacks; and a library assistant has a horrible experience when he attempts to investigate.

As a pure supernatural entertainment, James gets everything right with this one. While it lacks some of his hallmarks, such as the gradual drawing near of some dreadful evil, or even a moment of hair-raising confrontation, it's still uniquely Jamesian throughout. In fact, it juggles various elements within an unusually fast-paced plot, including a couple of juicy horrors and a nice sense of mystery. As a demonstration of the author's skill in rendering finely-tuned chills with just the right level of ambiguity, it's a masterclass. But, as perfect as it is, considering the amount going on, I can't help but wonder... if James had been of the mind to write a novel, might this have become his masterpiece?

Ponder that as we blow out that well-deserved sixth candle, leaving 94 flickering in the gloom.

Notes (Spoilers)

The roadside clearing at the climax -- could that be close to Dr Rant's resting-place "in a brick room that he'd made underground in a field near his house"...?

I'm not sure I'll be able to keep up with the pace of Adam's Advent, but tomorrow's story (The Captain of the Pole-Star by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) is another that's been on my must-read list for a while, so I'm definitely hoping to review that one here, as well as many others on the list.

Don't forget to Google Piccadilly weepers.

Image above from the British Library.