Time Travel in 2017

It had been intended to spend the better part of this year in the 1670s and 1680s, before skipping a couple of centuries to find myself in the 1920s by November, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Whereas the year began amidst the magic, superstition and suspicion of the 1680s, in the company of Devon cunning man Robert Tooley (resulting in the publication of The Cleft Owl), and it did then proceed, as intended, to the Cornwall of the preceding decade, my imagination insisted that I turn my attention elsewhere. What led to this change of plan? The discovery of a sinister, bizarre, and unexplained crime that took place in 1530s Yorkshire, but if you should think that this prompted me to focus upon that decade, then you would be wrong, at least in the first instance, for it hurtled me forward to the 1940s, and then back to the Edwardian period. ‘But, where then is the resultant tale?’ I hear you protest. I have not finished it yet, but I will. Why not? Well, all was progressing well, until something happened. 

This autumn I took a break in an out of the way part of the Lake District, and there experienced something the like of which I have never experienced before, and for which neither I, nor my wife (who shared this experience), can find any satisfactory rational explanation. Thus did The Ghost of Scarside Beck force itself upon me, finding its way to publication before October was out. Although the spirit may have stood without the confines of time, the characters of this tale were firmly located in the 1990s. Time to return to Edwardian Yorkshire, I thought to myself, but no, my imagination had resolved otherwise, having decided that it wished to spend some time amidst the world of ghostly Victorian gothic, sending me hurtling back to 1843, and then forward to 1899. Where? In Wiltshire. Involving whom? A talented, and superstitious, Breton artist, and his subject – the alluring Lady Helena Brocklington. December was thus ushered in with At Fall of Night, which has already garnered enthusiastic reviews in the UK. 

As to where I find myself with my writing at this moment, another supernatural tale set in 1840s England is being penned (yes, that verb is appropriate, as its initial draft is being written in longhand), with the hope being that it will see the light of day before winter is out. What comes next? Well, according to my plans – and you have seen how they have panned out this year – 2018 will see me returning to 1906, before heading back to 1676, and then ending the year in early 1920s Devon. All being well, the coming year will see the publication of my first novel, which by then will have been more than three years in the writing, owing to the odd interruption, or ten.

Review: ‘Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories’

Book titles are sometimes misleading, perhaps no more so than in this instance, for the stories contained in this volume were not penned by Dahl, but selected by him as being exemplary pieces within the genre. That said, I was aware of this fact when I received this as a welcome Christmas present, so was not disappointed with its content. Dahl’s only contribution is in the form of an introductory essay, which outlines how he came to be tasked with selecting a number of ghost stories for adaptation for a US television series many years ago; this also outlines his thoughts on what makes a good ghost story.  

As with any selection of tales, the reader’s enjoyment will, to at least a certain extent, be conditioned by the coincidence, or otherwise, of his or her taste with that of the editor. In this instance, Dahl lets us know that he’s a very picky reader by stating that he managed to find only two dozen genuinely good stories amongst the 749 that he read for this project, fourteen of which are published between these covers. Luckily for me, there seems to have been a considerable overlap between my taste and that of the editor in this instance, for of the fourteen, I found eleven of them quite gripping.  

Strangely, not all of these tales are ghost stories, but they are nonetheless all possessed of a heavy dose of the uncanny. Two of the best are the introductory and closing tales, the first of which – W.S. by L.P. Hartley – features not a ghost, but an author’s creation come to life to seek an audience with his maker. It is a humorous piece, but unsettling all the same, and got me thinking as to which of my own characters I would not much relish meeting. Authors beware!  

The Upper Berth by F. Marion Crawford, manages to elicit a frisson of nautical terror accompanied by the salty stench and decay of something that has momentarily escaped the depths of Davy Jones’s Locker. Other spirits that stalk the pages of this book are possessed of a most malign intent, such as the eponymous character in A.M. Burrage’s The Sweeper, and the felt-hatted visitor in Edith Wharton’s Afterward, but others – such as the shade in Cynthia Asquith’s The Corner Shop, – are of a more benign disposition. 

Overall, this book makes for a satisfying and rewarding read for those whose tastes incline more towards the traditional ghost story, but would probably not satisfy anyone who favours gore and breathless action-driven narrative. I would have given this volume five stars, but for the inclusion of Elias and Draug by Jonas Lie, which was not a ghost story, and by Dahl’s own admission, not a very good translation from the Norwegian. 

In the mood for some fresh shivers? Here are a couple of new ghostly works that you may find to your taste.

Review: ‘Collected Ghost Stories’ by M.R. James

Having just finished savouring this volume of classic tales by the master of the ghost story, M.R. James, I am delighted to see that BBC4 will be treating us to a celebration of his work this coming Christmas Eve, starting at 9:00pm with Mark Gatiss presenting a documentary on the erstwhile Cambridge scholar. This will be followed by Gatiss’s own treatment of The Tractate Middoth, as well as an adaptation of No. 13 and an interpretation of A View from a Hill. The festive shudders do not end there, for the viewer may also relish Christoper Lee’s unparalleled reading of two of his classics – The Stalls of Barchester and A Warning to the Curious – complete with port and flickering candlelight. Only Dickens is permitted to interrupt this schedule, with an excellent version of The Signalman starring Denholm Elliot, which I have not seen since I was a child when it was originally broadcast.   

Returning to James, the Wordsworth volume gathers together all but a tiny handful of his shorter and more obscure tales, and is such a treasure house of the supernatural and the uncanny that it is difficult for me to single out my favourite half a dozen tales, let alone a story that I could possibly say ranked above the others. That said, I find that the earlier tales in the book – those originally published as Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904 – are of a consistently higher quality than some of his later efforts, although there are undeniably gems amongst his later pieces such as An Episode of Cathedral History, A View from a Hill, and A Warning to the Curious, that rank amongst the author’s best. Given the nature of his posthumous popularity, it would be interesting to know what James, being an accomplished mediaeval scholar, would have made of being remembered for a series of tales that he penned for personal amusement. For me, however, as well as for many others, his stories represent a high watermark in the English ghost story tradition. Understatement and restraint are key to their effectiveness; they are atmospheric works of suggestion that lure the reader into a suspension of disbelief, with their success being as dependent upon what they do not show, as what they do. Such a style may not be as popular today as it once was, but for my tastes, this more genteel approach to ‘horror’ is one that resonates more profoundly than the plethora of formulaic vampire and zombie tales, stripped of adverbs and adjectives, that casts its pall over the dulled imaginations of readers today.  

So, this Christmas season, I ask you to join me in raising a glass of port in remembrance of James, whilst savouring the morbidly living vitality of his works. May they, like so many of the creeping creations that populate his tales, endure.   

As for my own offerings within this genre, well, they naturally pale in comparison, but his understated approach is something that I have sought to adhere to in the likes of At Fall of Night, The Ghost of Scarside Beck, and Old Crotchet.