Lost Hearts by M.R. James

An essential volume for any lover of ghost stories.

It is, perhaps, not so serendipitous that the reading matter for the M.R. James Ghost Stories Discussion Group this Valentine’s Day should happen to be the second of James’s stories, Lost Hearts. However, the reader would be very much mistaken if they happened to take this for a romance of some sort, for it is anything but.

As with a number of James’s works, this tale unfolds within the atmospheric confines of an isolated country house of a ‘modest’ grandeur, with its cast of characters limited to its proprietor, the eccentric Mr Abney, his two servants, and a new arrival, his recently orphaned and much younger cousin, Stephen Elliott. At first, Mr Abney would appear to be a kindly gentleman of an esoteric scholarly bent, a confirmed bachelor who is now rather advanced in years, but as time passes, it becomes apparent that his concern for the welfare of his young cousin is not quite as disinterested as it might at first have appeared.

Strange and disquieting nocturnal visions and impressions are deftly conveyed by James’s pen, conjuring up a frisson of unease that does not dissipate until the final scene. The servants seem to know a little more than they let on, but it is when young Master Elliott listens to the recollections of Mrs Bunch concerning two other children who had taken up but a temporary residence at Aswarby Hall, that the significance of these spiritual visitations begins to become apparent. A reek of the sinister hangs about the place, in the form of the Gnostic beliefs, hermetic magic and ritual practised by Mr Abney. A glass of wine set aside for the vernal equinox is not, it would appear, a mere innocent libation in celebration of the turning of the seasons.

Lost Hearts was adapted for television by the BBC in 1973, with its version faithfully adhering to the text, although it deviates in one or two respects to make clear some elements of the story set at night that would not have otherwise been easy to convey on-screen. It is an atmospheric piece, enhanced by its use of music, including that of the hurdy-gurdy. Sadly, the actor who played young Master Elliott was to meet a tragic end at an early age, for Simon Gipps-Kent was found dead of morphine poisoning at the age of 28 in September 1987.

Lost Hearts is included in the Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James, published in a Wordsworth edition for the bargain price of £2.99. It’s one of my favourite volumes.

Is Alison Littlewood the New Queen of the Yorkshire Gothic?

Having just read The Crow Garden, an enchanted brew of mesmerism, madness and the parting of the veil, I am left pondering the following question: is Alison Littlewood the new Queen of the Yorkshire Gothic? Could Kate Bush one day find herself penning, and performing, another wild and windy Yorkshire ditty by way of tribute? We shall have to see. One thing, however, is for certain: the author has found her forte in the world of the Victorian Gothic.

In mood and tone, this novel shares much in common with Littlewood’s previous book, The Hidden People, in which another young male London protagonist finds himself lost amongst the darkness of rural Yorkshire. This time, however, the young Victorian gentleman in question does not quite find himself away with the fairies, although he too is possessed of an equally powerful, and destructive, idée fixe. Also, as with The Hidden People, the figure of an alluring and yet unobtainable woman stands at the heart of this story. She is an enigma, and she not only holds Nathaniel Kerner in her thrall, but the reader too.

Séances, abduction, mesmerism and hysteria make for a heady concoction, served up in a dense descriptive prose, very much in keeping with the time in which the novel is set: the 1850s. It is something to be savoured, rather than rushed, but if a pacey read should be what you’re looking for, this is not a book for you. There is a certain sickening twist near the end of this tale which made me almost wish to gag. I really didn’t see it coming.

I shall say no more, for to do so would risk spoiling the shocks, and surprises, that lie within. The question is, will you dare take a step inside the doors of Crakethorne Asylum? Doctor Chettle awaits, with his calipers and a curious gaze. Has no one previously made mention of what a fascinating skull you possess?

The Crow Garden may be viewed and purchased here. Readers might also find the following Yorkshire-set Edwardian occult mystery to their taste: Upon Barden Moor.  

Review of Davenant’s Egg and Other Tales by Jemahl Evans

In this slim volume, the reader encounters five tales centred upon the Royalist Siege of Gloucester in 1643. Each is narrated by the author’s roguish character, Sir Blandford Candy, who provides the reader with insights into life both within the besieged city, and without. Notable historical personages make an appearance – Charles I, Sir William Davenant, and Colonel Edward Massey – as well as plausible sundry ordinary folk, such as a couple of gravediggers, trying to go about their everyday business in far from everyday circumstances. Evans thus paints with a varied palette, vividly transporting the reader into the miserable and dangerous reality of the time, but not without a certain admixture of wit.

The author has researched the history underpinning the siege well, which helps lend an authenticity to his stories, and out of the five, it would have to be The Gravediggers, with its slow-witted and yet noble Haystack that proves to be the most moving. However, it is in the last tale – The Red Regiment – that we finally hear Candy speak in his own voice, and what a scurrilous and appealing voice it is. It contains one of the most memorable images encountered within the book’s virtual pages, in which Candy voids the contents of his bowels in a field, before wiping his arse on pages torn from a book of psalms and prayers. In the trilogy of novels associated with this collection, it is Candy who speaks to the reader in the first person, and from what little I have so far read of its first instalment – The Last Roundhead– his irascible and witheringly witty voice comes across as a strongly appealing one, suggesting that the novels make for a more satisfying read. There might lurk within, just the slightest smidgen of Smollett, and that’s no bad thing.

To dip into the tale of another seventeenth-century rogue by the name of Robert Tooley, click here.

We have yet to break free of the mentality of salem

Review of The Crucible by Arthur Miller.

Although I saw the film adaptation of The Crucible upon its release over twenty years’ ago, I have never seen it performed on stage, and it is only during this past week that I finally got around to reading a copy of its script. Whereas many now read this piece in school, it was not on the curriculum all those aeons ago when I studied O Level English, but as a piece of vintage Americana, I certainly preferred this creation of Miller’s to what we had to read at the time: Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Miller’s script is powerful, and taut, with the language of its characters providing a plausible facsimile of the forms of English that would have been spoken in late seventeenth-century New England. It succeeds in generating an atmosphere that is suffused with religious mania, sexual tension and bitter personal rivalries, with the tenor and pace of the play being such, that the reader is left feeling emotionally drained at its conclusion.  

The Crucible is quite rightly lauded as a classic for its portrayal of a tightly-knit community in the grip of religiously-inspired hysteria, but although it is closely based upon the historical witch-hunt and trials that took place in Salem Massachusetts in 1692, Miller made it clear from the outset that this work was intended to possess a wider political resonance. His specific intent was to draw parallels with the paranoia of McCarthyism that then held its malign sway over much of US society, with its frenzied hunt for Reds under seemingly every bed. But these observations were not intended to be restricted to the parochial political situation in America in the early years of the Cold War, for they are applicable to any society in which the maintenance of the social order rests upon a framework of values that has at its core a definable ‘other’ against which it defines itself. Thus Miller noted that both the countries of the Communist bloc and capitalist America, possessed opposing contemporary forms of ‘diabolism’, in which citizens in both societies were enjoined to search for signs of the demonic other. In either social system, the simple act of naming, and then accusing, the alleged deviant – Communist or Capitalist – could be enough to destroy the reputation, and livelihood, of the accused. Accusation proved guilt.

Alas, as you might well observe, the situation today is in many regards but little changed, for although the demonological discourses may now run in different channels, employing different labels and expressing different preferences, the psychological and social mechanisms at play remain essentially unaltered. The ‘righteous’ perceive that the world is out of joint with their ideology, and they then seek to change it so that it is brought into conformity. This they attempt to achieve by hunting for those whom they deem to be impure, following the well-trodden path of select, name, stigmatise, accuse, judge and destroy. In America in particular, and to a lesser extent in the UK, a debased and perverted form of liberalism now reigns, which is anything but liberal, characterised by a pathological obsession with identity politics and collective group ‘rights’, rather than the rights of the individual. There is a great crying out for all to join in the chorus of the ‘righteous’, whatever cause they may espouse at a given time, and if anyone does not do so, they are immediately placed under suspicion, for the ‘righteous’ see in this reticence a sign of their diabolical complicity.

And so, we have yet I am afraid, to break free of the mentality of Salem, for all too often, accusation is taken to be synonymous with guilt. We have need of greater scepticism, rather than of greater faith.

Miller’s play may be previewed and purchased by clicking here.

Ladies, might you not consider the benefits of puppy water?

A review of The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain, by Ian Mortimer.

Dear reader, might I recommend the services of the good Doctor Mortimer as a companionable guide to the highways and byways of life in Restoration England, with occasional, albeit brief, remarks upon the lives of the North Britons, who pride themselves upon the name of Scots. From the life of the meanest peasant to that of the most urbane and profligate rake, you will find yourself witness to the pleasures, and pains, of our forebears, as they throw off the restraints of those dismal and earnest years of Old Noll, and the Commonwealth. From the squalor and superstition of the old world, we see the glimmerings of a new and more rational age, ushered in by the gentlemen of the Royal Society, and the efforts of architects in the wake of the Great Fire. Fewer crones in their dribbling dotage now find themselves prosecuted and hanged for witchcraft, but still other women find themselves consigned to the flames for the petty treason of dispensing with an abusive husband. The law must be seen to be done, and so the highwayman sways in his creaking gibbet, and the corpse of the pirate hangs tarred on the shores of the Thames; many a thief must hang, or be indentured to the West Indies, and the heads and quarters of traitors may find a public resting place upon a spike, or nailed up somewhere for the edification of the populace.  

It is an age of tumult and colour, of enlightened discovery and casual cruelty, rendered in a deft and engaging manner, channelling the observations of Pepys, Evelyn, Fiennes, and others, to transport the reader into an everyday world that we can never directly know. The impressions are vivid, and the details striking, with the consequence that this volume is a delight for any reader who possesses an interest in social history, or this particular period in time. It is also, undoubtedly, a boon for authors of historical fiction. There are details here which will in turn surprise, delight, and disgust, and sometimes all three. Ladies, might you not consider the benefits of puppy water?  

A Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain may be viewed by clicking the title.

the spectre of the Fifth Monarchists stalks Restoration London.

A review of The Ashes of London, by Andrew Taylor.

Old St Paul’s Cathedral stands at the centre of this complex historical murder mystery that vividly transports the reader to the London of the Great Fire and its immediate aftermath. Its first chapter literally – pardon the pun – crackles, as the old edifice is reduced to ruins and ashes amidst the roaring of the flames. This is where the novel’s dual protagonists – James Marwood and Catherine Lovett – encounter each other for the first time, and not for the last. It is a novel that plays with identities, real and assumed, weaving fictional characters into the lives of historical personages, with deception and subterfuge at its heart. Rape, murder, greed and religious fanaticism are given free rein to wreak their bloody work, whilst the spectre of the Fifth Monarchists stalks the world of Restoration London.

Both Marwood and Lovett have familial skeletons in the cupboard that leave them vulnerable to manipulation from without, and the reader’s sympathy is engaged as they attempt to find a place in the world for themselves whilst being employed as tools in the stratagems of others. Catherine Lovett makes for an unusual female lead, being possessed of a taste for architectural drawing, but proving to be as free and easy with the knife, as she is deft with the pen.

The book is lengthy, but the shortness of the chapters and the pace of the prose ensures that the reader’s attention is not lost. It is likely, however, to appeal more to readers of historical fiction than to those with a taste purely for crime and mystery, and although I have seen comparisons drawn between this volume and the works of C.J. Sansom, I must say that I prefer this one. That said, that may, at least in part, be down to my personal preference for the world of Restoration England over its Tudor equivalent, a preference expressed in my forthcoming novel The Gwennel Girl: A Cornish Mystery (to be notified of its discounted release, please click here to sign up to my mailing list).

Emma Darwin on Writing Historical Fiction

This is the second volume that I’ve read devoted specifically to the subject of writing historical fiction, and it is the better of the two by far. It provides a good practical nuts and bolts approach to the crafting of stories in this most demanding of loose and baggy genres, focusing primarily upon the novel. If exercises should be your thing, then Darwin provides plenty of them peppered throughout the text to get your creative juices flowing. Her lengthy experience as both a tutor of creative writing and a novelist truly shows through here, and whereas some other books I’ve read on the practice of writing tend to contain a fair amount of waffle, this one doesn’t. It is packed with useful suggestions, and would likely be useful to anyone looking to write in a different genre.

One of the many things that I liked about this book was that it cautioned against the slavish following of advice dished out by any one author, as every writer has their own stylistic bent, and what is ‘right’ for a predominantly American readership might grate with some UK readers and vice versa. Every author has to find their own individual voice, as well as their readership, with the latter being one of the hardest tasks of all, not least because of genre constraints and expectations. Darwin touches upon several of the subgenres of historical fiction such as adventure and thriller, crime and mystery, and comedy to name but three, but alas she does not touch upon my own: the rather idiosyncratic combination of ‘horror’, historical fiction, and, more often than not, comedy.

As with every book I have read on writing and publishing, she emphasises the importance of submitting your manuscript to professionals in the sphere of copy editing and proofreading, although her text in the final two chapters provides ineloquent testimony to their fallibility in the form of a considerable number of typos, as well as a completely mangled and nonsensical sentence.

Emma Darwin’s book Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction may be viewed by clicking on the book title.

The Ghosts of Christmas Present

The Twelve Apostles on Ilkley Moor

As we enter another festive season here in the UK, typically characterised by darkness, rain, drizzle and a general sogginess that extends beyond the obligatory serving of overcooked sprouts, our thoughts often turn to visions of a land mantled in crisp snow held in the grip of a harsh frost. Sprouts, for some reason, seldom feature in this wintry idyll, possibly because Dickens thought it too cruel to inflict the windy pleasures of this diminutive brassica upon even so poor a family as the Cratchets. It is therefore to fiction that we habitually turn to seek the ‘true’ atmosphere of Christmas that the British climate so obdurately denies us. More often than not, the sought-after shivers are thus supplied not by the weather, but by means of the ghost story which, unlike in America, is more closely associated with yuletide than with Halloween. It would seem to be Dickens himself who is to a considerable extent responsible for this association, for A Christmas Carol is by far the most well-known and popular Christmas story if we discount the Nativity itself, and perhaps manages to encapsulate the essence of the Christian message more effectively than the four Gospels combined.  

The BBC has over the years helped to popularise the association of the ghost story with Christmas, adapting a number of the masterful works of M.R. James for the small screen, as well as Dickens’s The Signalman which remains one of my favourite adaptations to this day. As for the James stories, the two screen versions that I find most satisfying would probably be A Warning to the Curious and The Stalls of Barchester. When I first saw these, at rather a tender age, they made quite an impression on me, and have remained lodged in the darkened recesses of my imagination ever since. There they lurked for the span of four decades, quietly fermenting and bubbling away, providing part of that creative mulch that would prompt me to try my hand at penning a few ghost stories of my own which, so it happened, have often clustered around this darkest time of the year.

Lionel Smallwood, the snobbish and dismissive theatre critic who encounters his nemesis in the Minster of Grimstone Peverell, would not have been out of place amongst the members of the Critics’ Circle who meet their cruel and bloody fates at the hands of a vengeful Edward Lionheart, played by Vincent Price in his magnificently over-the-top comedy horror Theatre of Blood released in 1973. That said, it is not some aggrieved actor who proves to be Smallwood’s nemesis, but a mysterious guide named Agnes, who seems to be something of a fixture whenever the Christmas market returns to her small Dorset town, and the scent of mulled wine wafts about the market square.

A pair of Gothic tales, that in part seek to channel the spirit of Wilkie Collins, also possess key scenes that unfold over the Christmas period. The first of these linked stories – At Fall of Night – happens to open at the close of 1843, the same year in which A Christmas Carol was published, but unlike Dickens’s tale fails to provide any message of hopeful redemption. It will have the ladies gasping for breath, unfastening their corsets, and reaching for the smelling salts. Its follow-up – Epona – possesses a climactic scene involving the wild riot of the chase in a Boxing Day hunt, at which the eponymous spirit makes a dramatic appearance in a moment of vengeful triumph.

The next brace of related stories – Old Crotchet and its sequel Old Crotchet’s Return – possesses as its supernatural setting a venerable and yet modest country pile in the county of Somerset during the 1920s. The focus of the events that unfold is the now largely forgotten highpoint of the Christmas season: Twelfth Night, or more specifically Old Twelfth Night. Although the tone here encountered is much lighter than that found in some of my other pieces, there are chills to be had courtesy of a couple of spirits, both residents of Hinton St Cuthbert Manor these last few centuries past. At least two female guests have found a certain bedchamber more rewarding than they could possibly have expected, whereas the other spirit, who views the house very much as her own, takes a distinct dislike to any young lady who might cross the threshold of her domain.

I shall now close by wishing you the most merry of Christmases, and a happy New Year. If you should be in the mood to read a tale or two from amongst those mentioned above, I hope that they should afford you a few shivers, as well as a few laughs along the way in many cases.

Cheers!

H.E. Bulstrode

Agnes of Grimstone Peverell and Old Crotchet are included in the collection Anthology: Wry Out West, available from Amazon as a paperback or in Kindle.  

At Fall of Night and Epona are included in the collection Uncanny Tales from the English Shires, available from Amazon as a paperback or in Kindle.  

Old Crotchet’s Return is available from Amazon as a paperback or in Kindle.

Review of The Lost Village by Neil Spring

In this book, Neil Spring succeeds in creating moments of genuine horror that will make the reader flinch, but there were occasions, I’m afraid, when I flinched in horror for very different reasons altogether. It is a book that purports to have at its heart a supernatural mystery, specifically the haunting of the abandoned village of Imber, so I must make it clear that I have no problem with suspending disbelief in such phenomena for a story of this nature, but there were elements of this novel that simply stretched credulity beyond breaking point. From his description of Imber, for example, gripped by frost and covered in snow, you would think that he had set this tale in the middle of a harsh English winter, but the action unfolds at the end of October. Such weather at this time of year is atypical even for the lofty heights of the Cairngorm Mountains, let alone for Salisbury Plain. He even refers to it being ‘winter’ at one point, even though it is spelt out that the action is taking place around Halloween. Earlier in the story he describes the art deco fixtures of a cinema as being ‘old’, even though the character making this observation is reflecting on their ‘oldness’ in 1932, when Art Deco was the style of the moment.  

With respect to this self-same cinema, he makes mention of his characters hearing the wind whistling around outside whilst they are stood in its auditorium. Can anyone hear the wind when standing in the auditorium unless it should be issuing from the cinema’s speakers? No. To think that this could be the case is ‘a big ask’ on the part of the author, who places this anachronistic ‘big ask’ phrase into the mouth of his twenty-something heroine in the autumn of 1932. I can recall the jarring effect of hearing someone speak this phrase for the first time a few years ago, and concluded that it must have been a recent Transatlantic borrowing smuggled into English to displace the more restrained native ‘it’s a bit much’. Other Americanisms cropped up in the prose of this Welsh writer, slipped into the speech of his 1930s English characters, presumably to appeal to a contemporary American readership. The result left his prose bobbing about in the turbulent and choppy waters of the mid-Atlantic, but appearing far more artificial than the once well-known drawl of Masterchef and Through the Keyhole presenter Lloyd Grossman.  

I found that I warmed neither to his protagonist – Sarah Grey, anachronistically placing career before family – and her erstwhile employer/foil, the ghost hunter Harry Price, who came across as some sort of American gumshoe detective. On the plus side, the story did deliver an interesting twist at the end, but the central premise of the book simply didn’t ring true to me, as the author seemed to be projecting contemporary social norms regarding inheritance law into the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The gentry could, and would, pass on the bulk of their estate to their eldest son, even if he did have older sisters; the existence of such sisters would not hinder this practice, and thus the central motivation for the frankly deranged and utterly unbelievable actions of the novel’s antagonist are removed at a stroke.  

Having said all of this, I might be seeming a little harsh, but my remarks and quibbles are intended to highlight how this could have been a better book. Many readers will find it to their taste and like it just as it is, but for me, it could have benefited from the attentions of a more competent copy editor, and a sharper and more-focused plot. It read more like a storyboard for a Hollywood movie than a novel, and I can imagine it making for a diverting enough 90 minutes or so on ‘film’. Don’t be surprised if reading this book summons up the unnerving spectres of Scooby and Shaggy: ‘If it weren’t for those pesky kids!’

The Ghost Hunter by Neil Spring may be purchased here.

Review of Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward

Ghost stories are conventionally supposed to elicit at least a frisson of fear, but just occasionally, one will come along that breaks this rule and does so with aplomb. One such story is Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, initially written for the stage in a single creative burst one week in 1941, and adapted for the big screen in 1947. One of the bleakest moments of the war seems, in this case, to have brought forth a ghost story of a contrastingly light mood. The audience does not so much shudder with terror, as with barely suppressed laughter, if it bothers to suppress it at all. It is a creation imbued with an abundant acid wit, nowhere more manifest than in the lively repartee between the eponymous spirit, Elvira, and her remarried husband, the author, Charles Condomine. In the film version, Kay Hammond, all ghastly greenish white set off against a lurid red lipstick, and Rex Harrison, the very model of an impeccably turned out English gent, play their roles with a decided verve. And then there is Margaret Rutherford, as the inept medium Madam Arcati, who provides an energetically eccentric performance that steals more than a scene or two.

The rivalry between Condomine’s murderously devoted former spouse and his new wife, Ruth (Constance Cummings), is brought crashing into the present quite unwittingly by the efforts of Madam Arcati. The latter has been invited to the author’s abode purely so that he might make notes on the tricks of the trade employed by mediums, for his forthcoming mystery – The Unseen. However, what neither he, nor Ruth, expect, is that anything will come of it, for both of them view mediumship as the purest bunkum. Madam Arcati on the other hand, is not amused to learn of their attitude towards her inexpertly mastered craft. The sceptics soon learn to rue their disregard for her powers.

You may find this rather strange, but the film for me brought to mind something that I have previously mused upon whilst regarding those late-mediaeval and early-modern tombs that feature effigies of a deceased husband flanked by his first and second wives: just how were they all supposed to get along in the afterlife? Blithe Spirit, perhaps, provides the answer: they squabble a great deal.

Coward’s film was one of those influences that fed into the penning of my first ghost story, and its recent follow-up, Old Crotchet’s Return, which has just been released on Amazon in Kindle, and in paperback. Its blurb follows below:

Old Crotchet’s Return: a high-spirited romp of a ghost story set in 1920s England.
George Simpkins is in a state, and it’s not just because of the gin. His wife remains missing, his son a curious and callous enigma, and, most worryingly of all, his spouse’s erstwhile schoolmate, the witheringly waspish Cynthia, has plans afoot for his future. An invitation to a festive break in the country brings London society into collision with half-cracked Somerset locals steeped in cider and superstition, as well as a far from festively inclined spirit. Welcome to the world of Hinton St Cuthbert, the parish with a past, but seemingly no future.

Amazon UK
Old Crotchet’s Return Paperback: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1730996191
Old Crotchet’s Return Kindle: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07K7X33MD

Amazon US
Old Crotchet’s Return Paperback: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1730996191
Old Crotchet’s Return Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07K7X33MD

Amazon Australia
Old Crotchet’s Return Kindle: https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B07K7X33MD

Amazon Canada
Old Crotchet’s Return Paperback: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/1730996191
Old Crotchet’s Return Kindle: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B07K7X33MD