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.
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
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
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.
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!’
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.
A light appetiser of a tale to be read in a single sitting, that will produce neither upset, nor any great sense of satisfaction in the reader. Although the writing is competent and not without atmosphere, and its Mary Shelleyesque theme diverting enough, Printer’s Devil Court possesses all the hallmarks of a story that should either have been shorter, or longer, but not the length that it is. It reads like a first draft for something meant to be more substantial, but which, for whatever reason, was left in its embryonic form and served up to the public. Either the author lacked the requisite motivation and energy to work it up into anything longer, or the demands of the publisher led to its seeing the light of day, semi-formed, in the autumn run-up to the Christmas book-buying extravaganza. A number of obvious typographic errors, as well as a certain peculiarity relating to its illustration, suggest that it was the latter. If this story had been written by anyone with a lesser public profile than Susan Hill, it strikes me that it would not have found a publisher.
The illustrator, it would seem, had read no further than the first sentence, and given it a cursory glance at that, before setting about producing the engravings for this sumptuously bound little volume. Why would I say this? Well, the opening lines make reference to ‘the days of Dickens’, although if we set these four words within the context of a slightly longer sentence fragment we learn that the tale was set quite some time later, for it refers to ‘an area which could not at the time have changed greatly since the days of Dickens.’ The illustrator has therefore diligently produced a set of charming illustrations from the age of Cruikshank, that punctuate the text here and there with figures sporting the fashions of the 1840s/1850s, and a paddle steamer alongside a fully rigged man-o’-war at rest on the Thames at Greenwich. All very Dickensian, which is something of a problem, for the story itself is not, despite its vague and murky setting amidst London’s fog and frost. The sole concrete temporal reference is a mention of the protagonist’s visit to London at the bidding of his stepson, which takes place after the Blitz had wrought its destruction. This is said to have been approximately forty years after he, then in his mid-twenties, had left London for a life in the country. This would suggest that the setting for the pivotal scene was most likely Edwardian London, or possibly at a push, the capital during the fin de siècle. The illustrations therefore, constitute a most peculiar, and glaring, anachronism.
The story, in many respects, is as vague and ephemeral as an ectoplasmic materialisation, its form and setting lightly sketched in an impressionistic manner, its characters written with suggestive strokes that impress themselves upon the reader’s imagination no more than the phantom, that lends the tale its spectral element, imposed its form upon the air that it occupied.
Yorkshire gothic this may be, but a ghost story, it is not.
Katherine Clements has in this book managed to achieve something quite remarkable: she has written a ghost story in which there are no ghosts. It is true that there is mention of malign spirits, hauntings, and the wicked deeds of the forgotten pagan inhabitants of the bog-strewn heathered heights, but beyond that, the reader is left with the dark imaginings of its claustrophobic cast of characters, as lust, family secrets, and deception, tear apart the lives of a household on the Yorkshire moors. There is mention of witchery and suggestions of the supernatural, but there are no actual ghosts.
The strengths of this book lie elsewhere: it is brooding, evocative, and highly knowledgeable about the traditional husbanding of sheep in England’s bleak northern uplands. It contains the best descriptions of the ‘fly-blown’ backside of a sheep that I have read, and I challenge you to find better. Likewise, I have read no more convincing descriptions of the mutilated carcasses of sheep and lambs than are to be encountered here, but each time one of these vaguely queasy images manifested itself, I found myself thinking not about ghosts, but the peculiar phenomenon of cattle mutilation so beloved of a certain sub-sect of UFO enthusiasts. In a similar vein, repeated references to a ‘slaughtered lamb’ conjured up images not of horror, but of the fictitious Yorkshire pub in An American Werewolf in London. And whilst we’re at it, do androids dream of slaughtered lambs? Probably not. Thankfully, I didn’t either.
The novel is born amidst the visceral symbolism of birth begetting death, and decline, madness, and death form the threads that weave through the warp and weft of the novel’s plot, from its misty and bloody beginnings, to its snowy and even more bloody end, and you’d best be warned that it takes a bloody long time to get there. Gloomy atmospherics are its strength, pace is its limping, and often absent, companion.
Its overall tone struck me – if the screaming mob slinging stones and excrement whilst occasionally yelling ‘witch’ is excepted – as being more suitable to the Victorian period than to that of the Restoration, which is a pity. Moreover, its sense of place, or more specifically, its sense of ‘Yorkshireness’, was largely lacking. It was so unlike, in this respect, the highly engaging and regionally-anchored The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood, which deploys the Yorkshire accent and dialect to such powerful effect in her Victorian gothic creation. That said, I sympathise with Katherine Clements in her decision not to employ dialect, as so many readers, particularly ones living in the US, aren’t keen on English regional dialects and accents, to put it mildly, which is a shame.
I do not wish to sound too harsh, as I did enjoy the tale, especially its descriptive passages, but I felt that it wasn’t quite what it was billed. As with The Essex Serpent, it would have benefitted from some judicious editing, slimming the manuscript by a quarter, to a third, leaving an altogether leaner, and meaner, novel. To view The Coffin Path on Amazon, click on the image above, or here. For an alternative excursion into occult mystery on the Yorkshire moors, dare you set foot here?
Does she own the house, or does the house own her?
This is the second of Alison Littlewood’s books that I’ve read, and whereas I wasn’t as taken with it as with The Hidden People, I still found it a solid read. The novel opens with a theme of loss and acquisition, with its protagonist – Emma Dean – having lately lost both of her parents, as well as a distant elderly relative who has bequeathed her Mire House. However, it soon becomes apparent that the house as much owns Emma, as she owns it.
The story weaves in a little folklore here and there, and is firmly grounded in its rural Yorkshire setting with a good sprinkling of Yorkshire accent and dialect lending it an engaging warmth and authenticity. However, this is a ghost story, so the few moments of warmth that are encountered are greatly outnumbered by the reader’s chills. Littlewood is particularly good at portraying childhood group dynamics and bravado, showing how a simple dare can descend into cruelty and lead to the direst of consequences. For me, this was the greatest horror in the book, and made me cringe, but in the manner that the author intended rather than in a bad way, for it was extremely well written.
The novel has an interesting non-linear narrative structure which works well, and the period aspects of the story are deftly handled. However, I did guess the twist some way in advance, and the ending seemed to stutter and fade, being somewhat drawn out. As for the protagonist, I felt less sympathy for her than for many of the other characters, but this may well have been the author’s intention. For all that, this was an enjoyable read that I’d recommend to those who possess a taste for ghost stories.
It has been many years since I first read this novel, and upon rereading it recently what struck me the most was not the book’s supernatural element, but the coldness of the contemporary protagonist – Matthew Palmer – for whom I was unable to conjure up the least smidgen of sympathy. In fact, there is a chilliness that pervades the whole of the book that left me, for all of its merits, to a degree cold. ‘Behold the world without love,’ enjoins the shade of Dee’s late wife at a critical juncture of the story, and the same may be said to the reader of the tale as a whole, but this feeling of emotional sterility was doubtless intentional on Ackroyd’s part, for he is too good a writer for it not to have been. The protagonist, his mother, and father are each deeply estranged from each other, with their set of alienated relationships being echoed in the dysfunctional relationships between Dee, his wife, and his dying father, but beyond this it is the physical fabric of the house – or what remains of Dee’s dwelling – that unites them all.
In terms of its structure, this tale, like a number of others penned by Ackroyd, involves the interweaving and interpenetration of two distinct periods, in this instance the Tudor London of Elizabethan magus Dr Dee, and the capital that you may have known some quarter of a century or so ago. Neither London, of course, is with us today, for it has in many respects been rendered as unrecognisable as its sixteenth-century incarnation. It is, however, in his conveying of the ambience of the latter that Ackroyd excels, along with his measured updating of Elizabethan speech for a modern readership; in this respect, he is a conjuror of spirits, and raises Dr Dee, or a version thereof, from his slumber of centuries. His ghost is made to speak.
Alas, however, as a story it has its flaws. Whereas I rather enjoyed that part of it that was set during the sixteenth century, I did not care for the chapters set some four hundred years later, which it would have been better to have dispensed with. As for the book’s concluding chapter, it was a confused and muddled mess that seemed jumbled up with the author’s reflections on the writing of history and fiction. This second reading will therefore, I think, be my last.
H.E. Bulstrode’s latest novel – Upon Barden Moor – an occult mystery centring upon a single summer’s day in Edwardian England, is now available on Kindle and in paperback.
Such could be the honorific title that deserves to be bestowed upon William Meikle in the penning of this short, restrained, and engaging story, in which the author takes upon Stoker’s persona in its writing. The conceit of this tale, and others in the collection from which it is taken, is that it is but a rediscovered piece by one of the leading lights of the late-Victorian literary firmament, all of whom gather to tell each other tales of the uncanny, and the supernatural, in a gentleman’s club: the Ghost Club. Who should preside over this fictitious entity, but none other than Henry James himself.
This was the era in which supernatural fiction, particularly the ghost story, flourished, and reached its apogee, and Meikle’s decision to produce a compendium of tales employing the voices of some of its foremost exponents, is an appealing one. With respect to In the House of the Dead itself, the author’s prose strikes the right tone for its period, and the story is related with a commendable restraint. Its central theme of loss and yearning is an eternal one, as is the understandable, and yet delusional, desire to bridge the divide that separates the living from the dead. It is, in a sense, a dilemma that is here resolved, but be warned: death dominates this tale; it stalks every page.
To purchase a copy of In the House of the Dead, please click on the image above.
It seems that there is scarcely a patch of earth in rural England that does not bear some trace of the lives of its former occupants, and one cannot help, at times, but feel that something of them lingers, lending the landscape a sense of the uncanny. Dotted about here and there are the remains of the monuments of prehistory and distant antiquity, their original names and functions lost with the passing of the people who built and used them, but beneath the soil, unseen to the eye, lies so much more. Some of those things that lie below were put there for a reason, whereas others were lost by their owners and, for one reason or another, never retrieved.
In the finding of such artefacts, the finder kindles a physical and tangible bond with the past, although the original owners can never be known, at least directly. These crafted pieces of metal, stone, and pottery may speak to us through their form of their past function, significance, and role, but of the specific personalities of the men and women who held them in their hands, they say but little. It is into this void of the unknowable that supernatural fiction dares to tread, with M.R. James providing many fine examples, with two of my favourites being Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad, and A Warning to the Curious.
In both instances, an object is found and taken by the finder, who soon discovers that retribution is not long in coming. In the first tale, it is a bone whistle protruding from a former graveyard upon a crumbling cliff edge that summons up the guardian spirit, whereas in the second it is the theft of an ancient Saxon crown from a burial mound that does the same. However, the nature of the spirit in A Warning to the Curious is somewhat unusual, for it is not connected, directly, to the former wearer of the crown that lies buried in the mound, but rather to a now extinct family of guardians, entrusted to watch over and protect the place of burial. The message of these tales is clear: do not take that which was placed in the ground for a purpose.
For some reason, which I cannot explain, I find this inadvertent release of the forces of psychic chaos somehow satisfying, and it is a device that I have employed in my latest tale Epona, a blend of Victorian gothic ghost story and folk horror, the title of which derives from the Romano-Celtic goddess of that name. If the reader should be curious to see what enfolds, then please click here, or on the picture above. Eponais also available, alongside three other tales, as part of my anthology Uncanny Tales, either as a paperback, or on Kindle.