Category Archives: Book Review

Night Terrors: The Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson

The fatness of this volume, clocking in at over 700 pages, bears testimony to E.F. Benson’s prolific output of ghost stories and supernatural tales. Their range, in terms of both subject matter and tone, is wider than that of most who have written in the genre, which should not be surprising given that he was a highly-successful author of the satirical Mapp and Lucia novels, amongst others.

Perhaps the best known of the short stories included in this anthology is The Bus-Conductor, an unnerving tale that was included in the classic 1945 portmanteau horror film Dead of Night, but many readers may well also have encountered his chilling The Face and In the Tube in horror anthologies alongside the works of other authors.

In a collection of this size, the reader is bound to encounter stories that grip the imagination, whilst others may fall a little flat, but this economical Wordsworth edition is worth every penny for those that do hit the mark, and of them there are many. To enumerate all of the titles included would be tedious for any reader of this review, but I shall mention those that I found particularly appealing.

Benson drew heavily upon Scottish folklore in both Gavon’s Eve and The Shootings of Achnaleish, with the latter in particular possessing a notably folk-horror vibe, prefiguring elements of The Wicker Man and Straw Dogs. How Fear Departed the Long Gallery, on the other hand, is a charming ghost story set in an old country house, whose many spectral inhabitants are largely harmless but for those who perished as a consequence of a dastardly act at the close of the age of the Virgin Queen. Perfectly delicious with a touch of whimsy. The House with the Brick-Kiln is quite murderous, whereas Monkeys would appear to have been informed by Benson’s sister’s expertise in the field of Egyptology, and possesses a most chilling twist. Humour comes to the fore in stories such as Mr Tilly’s Séance, Thursday Evenings and the singularly titled The Psychical Mallards, with the latter featuring a pair of levitating mediums who reach the heights of absurdity. Benson thus proved himself to be equally adept at raising a smile and a shudder, and this is to his credit.

Like M.R. James, Benson’s protagonists are more often than not of a particular type, with both men tending to favour bachelors like themselves. Whereas James’s fellows normally proved to be of a scholarly bent, Benson’s were of a more frivolous type – upper-middle-class chaps of independent means who possessed no greater pleasure than a rubber of bridge of an evening (no, I hadn’t heard of that term either until I read these stories), and renting a house for a month or two to escape the unclean air of London. Whilst all of the stories in this volume may be viewed as period pieces, firmly embedded within the social milieu that was familiar to the author, their ability to entertain the reader remains undiminished. This is a volume to be savoured by any lover of ghost stories, and tales of the supernatural.

Click on the following title to view on Amazon: Night Terrors: The Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson

The Small Hand by Susan Hill

Ghosts are, as a rule, conservative creatures that do not tend to wander much beyond their favoured haunts. That they are also, at least in literature and the traditional ghost story, bound to return to our plane with some form of purpose, to re-enact some past trauma, or to seek retribution, or some form of restitution, is a given. On occasion, however, the ghost may venture further abroad, and such is the case in this tale, where the protagonist finds that a certain presence manifests itself at a far remove from where it was originally encountered.

In this novella, Hill leads us on an excursion into the contemporary gothic, where secrets, the supernatural, and psychological repression converge within the confines of an idyllic English country garden. It is a literary tale with a literary theme, where an antiquarian book dealer’s quest for a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio becomes entwined with a deep self-questioning and sense of doubt, arising from a sequence of vivid impressions that he is unable to explain with any rational lucidity. The chill follows the protagonist from the Downs to loftier heights amidst the mountains of France, where a monastic setting provides an additional soupçon of the gothic. There may be others who possess an insight into the state in which he finds himself, but any such revelations you must discover for yourself.

This is an enjoyable read that I found more to my taste than Hill’s Printer’s Devil Court. Rather than focusing upon ‘jump scares’, as seems to be much the fashion these days, this novella focused upon creating a general ambience of unease, which is a technique that I, personally, find far more satisfying.

The Small Hand by Susan Hill may be previewed and purchased by clicking here.

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.

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.

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 Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov, edited by Robert Chandler

This book, a collection of tales deftly edited and translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, is a delight to read, and is guaranteed to provide many hours of entertainment for those who possess a taste for folklore and fairy tale. The Russian folkloric tradition is a particularly rich and captivating one, and this sizeable volume manages to introduce English-speaking readers to many stories that they may not previously have encountered, although one of the recurrent characters – Baba Yaga – will be well known by name if nothing else.

It brings together a selection of stories written by a number of the most gifted Russian writers to have put their own personal spin on traditional themes and stories, as well as oral tales collected by the Russian equivalent of the Grimm brothers – nineteenth-century folklorist Aleksandr Afanasyev. Amongst the more well-known examples provided by Afanasyev are Vasilisa the Fair, and The Frog Princess, both of which you may be aware of through illustrations rather than having read the stories themselves. Talking of which, many of you will doubtless have happened upon the enchanting folktale illustrations created by Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin, who also provides a contribution to this book in the form of his interpretation of Ivan Tsarevich, the Grey Wolf and the Firebird. As the book also provides some biographical details relating to the featured authors, it was sad to learn that Bilibin died in the Siege of Leningrad in 1942 after having returned to Soviet Russia in 1936 after a long period of exile. A personal tragedy amidst millions of others.

A particular favourite of mine in this selection is Pushkin’s A Tale about a Fisherman and a Fish, which raised a wry smile. A nice little morality tale if ever there was one, and just as apt today as ever it has been.

Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov can be previewed and purchased from Amazon by clicking on the image above, or here.

 

Review of ‘The Witchfinder’s Sister’ by Beth Underdown

There are few episodes in English history that rival the notoriety of Matthew Hopkins’s reign of terror as Witchfinder General in East Anglia, nurtured by the social turmoil of the Civil War. During the relatively short period of 1644-47, he, and his associates, are estimated to have been responsible for the hanging of around 300 women for witchcraft, approximately 60% of the total executed for this crime between the end of the fifteenth and the early eighteenth centuries when the crime of witchcraft was removed from the statute books. The woodcut image from the frontispiece of his book The Discovery Witches is a familiar and chilling one, showing Hopkins himself observing two witches naming their pictured familiars. Although Hopkins died at the age of 27 in 1647, he has enjoyed a lengthy afterlife in the popular imagination, spawning verse, a number of books, and, perhaps most famously, the film Witchfinder General in which Vincent Price played the eponymous role.  

In her debut novel The Witchfinder’s Sister, Beth Underdown has approached Hopkins and his deeds through the eyes of a fictitious sister, Alice, which allows her to present the reader with the domestic Hopkins, as well as the public figure. She has taken the fragments of what is known about his life, and imaginatively fashioned a plausible Hopkins, who plays upon biblically-rooted popular fears and prejudices about women to unleash a wave of persecution that brings some solace to his damaged self.  

Written as a first-person memoir, the style is detailed and intimate, with a great deal of atmospheric description that is at once one of its strengths, as well as one of its weaknesses, for if I have any criticism of this novel it is with respect to its pace, which is as sluggish as the waters of an East Anglian river. That said, this novel manages to produce an appropriate sense of suffocating entrapment, paranoia, and fatalism, and delivers an ending with a suitably satisfying twist.