Tuesday Terror! The King in Yellow by Robert W Chambers

Indescribable horror…

This is a short collection of four horror stories, all linked by a play called The King in Yellow which, we are told, reveals truths so awful that anyone who reads it will be driven to madness and despair. Sounds perfect for this week’s…

 

Tuesday Terror 2The King in Yellow
by Robert W Chambers

 

It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked. The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterward with more awful effect.

The first thing to say is that it appears that Chambers’ The King in Yellow collection usually includes ten stories. For this new edition, Pushkin Press have extracted the four that are linked and omitted the other six, which reviews tell me are mostly of a different style.

Each story is very short, so the entire volume isn’t much more than novella length. In truth, I found it a rather disappointing collection, with only one story that stood out for me. The awful truths contained in the play of The King in Yellow are not revealed to the reader, so fortunately at least I was spared from being driven insane. But this technique of telling the reader that there is something so awful it can’t be described – a technique used frequently in weird fiction, particularly by my old friend Lovecraft – strikes me as a major cop-out.

…it set me thinking of what my architect’s books say about the custom in early times to consecrate the choir as soon as it was built, and that the nave, being finished sometimes half a century later, often did not get any blessing at all: I wondered idly if that had been the case at St. Barnabé, and whether something not usually supposed to be at home in a Christian church might have entered undetected and taken possession of the west gallery.

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Here’s a brief idea of each of the four stories:

The Repairer of Reputations – a story told by a madman, driven mad obviously by having been foolish enough to read The King in Yellow. He is convinced he is entitled to become a King which involves him having to bump off the man he believes stands in his way. All very weird, but not really in a good way. I gave this one a generous 2½ stars.

The Mask – a sculptor, Boris, has discovered a solution that turns living things into the purest marble (including sweet little bunny rabbits – you have been warned, animal lovers!). Meantime Boris’s friend, the narrator, is in love with Genevieve, Boris’s wife. There’s lots of gothic drama, high, exalted love, madness and despair, mixed together with some nice horror and just a touch of weirdness. Good stuff! I gave this one 5 stars.

….Although I knew nothing of chemistry, I listened fascinated. He picked up an Easter lily which Geneviève had brought that morning from Notre Dame, and dropped it into the basin. Instantly the liquid lost its crystalline clearness. For a second the lily was enveloped in a milk-white foam, which disappeared, leaving the fluid opalescent. Changing tints of orange and crimson played over the surface, and then what seemed to be a ray of pure sunlight struck through from the bottom where the lily was resting. At the same instant he plunged his hand into the basin and drew out the flower. “There is no danger,” he explained, “if you choose the right moment. That golden ray is the signal.”
….He held the lily toward me, and I took it in my hand. It had turned to stone, to the purest marble.
….“You see,” he said, “it is without a flaw. What sculptor could reproduce it?”
….The marble was white as snow, but in its depths the veins of the lily were tinged with palest azure, and a faint flush lingered deep in its heart.

In the Court of the Dragon – a man goes to church just after reading The King in Yellow. He becomes obsessed by the organist – a dark figure who keeps appearing wherever he goes. Is he paranoid, driven to madness by the play? Or is there a more sinister reason behind the organist’s appearances? Hmm – I found this OK-ish, but nothing special, and gave it just 3 stars.

The Yellow Sign – An artist and his model seem to be sharing a common nightmare about the artist being in a coffin in a hearse. Needless to say, they’ve both read The King in Yellow, thus allowing evil and madness into their lives. This one has some quite good horror aspects, though, and a nice sense of creepiness to it. I gave it 3½ stars.

“Do you think I could forget that face?” she murmured. “Three times I saw the hearse pass below my window, and every time the driver turned and looked up at me. Oh, his face was so white and – and soft? It looked dead – it looked as if it had been dead a long time.”

* * * * * * *

So a mixed bag. The question is – would I recommend it? In truth, not for the quality of the stories themselves on the whole, but I’m led to believe these are considered to have been influential on Lovecraft and others, and are often referenced by later writers, so I guess I’d recommend them to people who are interested in the development of weird fiction.

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀

The porpy doesn’t understand why people would find yellow scary…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

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The Long Arm of the Law edited by Martin Edwards

‘Allo! ‘Allo! ‘Allo! Wot’s going on ‘ere, then?

😀 😀 😀

Another of the British Library’s collection of vintage detective stories, this one takes us away from the amateur detective beloved of Golden Age authors and gives the downtrodden policeman* his place in the spotlight.

(*Yup, no female police officers, of course, in these older stories, so I’m not going to attempt to be pointlessly politically correct with lots of he/she-ing, etc.)

The book is informatively introduced by Martin Edwards as usual, plus he gives a little introduction to each story telling the reader a little about the author. He points out that although policemen were somewhat overshadowed by their amateur rivals, they were still there throughout the period, and not always as the simple stooge or sidekick.

The stories in these collections always tend to be variable in quality, and that’s the case in this one too, with several of the fifteen stories getting an individual rating of three stars (OK) or below from me. However, I also gave three stories four stars (liked it) while another four achieved the full five stars (loved it). Overall, that makes this one of the weaker collections for me, and I found I was having to plough through quite a lot of mediocre stuff to find the gems. Perhaps I’ve just read too many of these collections too close together, but my enthusiasm certainly wore a little thin halfway through this one.

There are fewer of the usual suspects among the authors, presumably because most of the well known ones who’ve shown up in previous collections concentrated on their gifted amateur ‘tecs. But Edgar Wallace is there, along with Freeman Wills Croft, Nicholas Blake and Christianna Brand, among others. There are several I haven’t come across before and one or two who I felt didn’t succeed quite as well in short form as in their novels (always bearing in mind I’m no expert and am comparing tiny sample sizes – often one story versus one novel) – ECR Lorac, for example, or Gil North.

Here’s a flavour of the stories I liked best:

The Man Who Married Too Often by Roy Vickers – an excellent “inverted” mystery where we know whodunit and the story revolves around how the police prove it. A fortune-hunting woman tricks a man into marriage only to discover he’s a bigamist when his wife shows up. Murder ensues. It turns neatly on a fair-play clue and a quirk of the law, and it’s perfectly possible for the reader to get the solution before it’s revealed. But I didn’t.

The Chief Witness by John Creasey – a story of secrets within families and their sometimes tragic consequences. A child lies in bed listening to his mother and father argue. Murder ensues. The motivation is a bit weak in this one, but the writing is good and it’s very well told, especially the opening with the child discovering his mother’s body. Plus I liked the policeman in this one – he’s one of those ones who cares about the people as much as the puzzle.

Old Mr Martin by Michael Gilbert – Old Mr Martin is a sweet-shop owner, much loved by generations of children to whom he often gives free sweeties. (No, no, it’s not what you’re thinking, I promise!) But even so, murder ensues. When he dies and his premises are sold, a body is found buried in the cellar. The police assume it must have been a previous tenant, because it couldn’t have been nice old Mr Martin. Could it? Again I liked the writing, and this one had an intriguing plot point based on how people sometimes disappeared without trace in the chaos of the wartime bombing of London.

Alastair Sim as Inspector Cockrill in the film version of Green for Danger

After the Event by Christianna Brand – easily the highlight of the collection for me, starring Inspector Cockrill whom I’d met before in Green for Danger. In this story, an old detective is recounting one of his past cases to a group of admiring listeners, but Inspector Cockrill keeps chipping in and stealing his thunder. During rehearsals for a stage production of Othello, murder ensues. Othello’s wife is strangled – that is to say, the wife of the actor playing Othello. The old detective charged someone for the crime but the accused got off. Cockrill then takes over to show where the old detective went wrong and to reveal who actually dunit. Lots of humour in this one, a nice plot with some good clues, and very well told.

So plenty here to interest vintage crime enthusiasts even if it wouldn’t be the first of these collections I would recommend to newcomers. (Capital Crimes, since you ask, or Miraculous Mysteries.)

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.

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The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd

Light entertainment…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

William Boyd is one of my long-time favourite authors. Although I’ve always found him a bit hit or miss, when he’s on form he’s one of the best. As a novelist he tends to write long books, full of layers and depth and detail, and with wonderful characterisation. But I’ve never come across any short stories by him before, so was intrigued to see how his style would work in that form.

The stories in this collection are largely unconnected, though many of them have a common theme of artists who have experienced some form of failure in their professional or personal lives. To some degree, they’re mainly character studies, though each has a plot. They vary in length from quite short up to novella length and, for me, the longer they were, the better they were, so I guess that answers my question about his style suiting the format. There’s a lot of humour in them, some of it mildly black, and truthfully, not much depth. I found them enjoyable enough to read but rather disappointingly light – although I’m sure my disappointment is mainly a result of my expectations of him based on his novels.

However, the characterisation is great. Even in the shorter ones, he creates fully formed individuals, with enough background for each to explain why they are as they are. He also shows a lot of originality in both subject matter and structure – everything from a UN soldier in the Congo to an out-of-work actor carrying a mysterious substance on a trip to Scotland, and from a love story told backwards to a series of unsent letters. Here’s a flavour of some that I enjoyed most…

The Road Not Taken – the story of a love affair that begins with how it ends. It then jumps back through time, giving snapshots of the relationship at various points, and ends on the day the lovers met. The ending felt a little too much like a neat ‘twist’, perhaps, but otherwise I found this one very well told and quite moving.

Humiliation – One to frighten all of us reviewers, professional or amateur! A novelist’s career has foundered after a prominent reviewer trashed his second book. Having run off to France to lick his wounds, the novelist is at first horrified to find the reviewer is staying in the same place. But then he begins to see the possibility of taking a little revenge… Lots of humour in this one, and a feeling that Boyd might be taking a tongue-in-cheek pop at some reviewers who’ve been less than enthusiastic about some of his books…

The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth – the title story is novella length and tells of a young woman who is determined to do something creative in her life, but she’s not sure what. We follow her as she tries but fails to write a book, to act, to become a professional photographer, and so on. Again I didn’t feel there was much depth to it, and it just faded away at the end with no real resolution. But again humorous, and great characterisation – Boyd is one of the few male authors who I think creates really convincing women.

The Vanishing Game – an out-of-work actor is offered £1000 to take a jar of holy water to a church on the west coast of Scotland. But he quickly discovers he’s being followed, and begins to wonder what’s really in the jar. By far my favourite story, this is an old-fashioned adventure in the style of The 39 Steps – indeed, there are similarities as the hero takes to the wilds of Scotland in a bid to throw off his pursuers.

William Boyd

So in conclusion, for me, the collection doesn’t have the depth that makes his novels stand out from the crowd, but there’s still plenty to enjoy overall. A lighter read than I expected, very well written, of course, with the emphasis on humour for the most part and with some excellent characterisation, so despite my slight disappointment, I’d still recommend it for those times when one just wants to be entertained.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Books UK.

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The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen

Weird and wonderful…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a collection of those stories of Arthur Machen that fit into what would now be thought of as ‘weird’ tales. Normally when a book is titled after one story with the rest lumped under “and other”, my expectation would be that the title story would be the best of them. And indeed, I loved The Great God Pan, as you’ll know if you read my Tuesday Terror! post about it. But I was thrilled to find that many of the other stories in this book are at least as good, and some are even better. I’ve discovered a new favourite horror writer!

The book is edited by Aaron Worth, Associate Professor of Rhetoric at Boston University. He provides an informative introduction, which gives a brief biography of Machen’s literary life along with a discussion of his influences and themes, and of his own influence on later generations of writers. Worth also provides copious notes to explain any unfamiliar terms, or allusions within the text to other works, to mythologies, or to the preoccupations of Machen’s society. All of this richly enhanced my reading experience, reminding me once again that, great though it is to be able to download so many old stories, a well-edited volume is still a major pleasure.

Machen’s stories are set mainly in two locations, both of which he evokes brilliantly. His native Monmouthshire, in Wales, is depicted as a place with connections to its deep past, where ancient beliefs and rituals are hidden just under the surface of civilised life. His London is a place of dark alleys and hidden evils, with a kind of degenerate race living side by side with the respectable people, and often stretching out a corrupting hand towards them. Worth tells us that Machen was sometimes considered to be connected to the Decadent movement – Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, et al – although Machen himself disputed this. But there is a definite air of decadence with a small ‘d’ about the stories. Many have strong sexual undercurrents (never overtly spelled out – it’s the Victorian era) and paganism is a recurring feature. There’s also a frequent suggestion that the morally deficient are most likely to succumb to the forces of evil, and will often pay a horrible price for their weakness.

The Great God Pan
All the fabulous illustrations on the post are by mgkellermeyer via DeviantArt.com.

The quality of the writing is excellent – stylistically it compares to the likes of Conan Doyle or HG Wells. There’s a good deal of humour in it alongside some effective and occasionally gruesome horror and he’s a great storyteller. His descriptive writing is also very good. I particularly liked how he used London pollution effectively to give a strangeness to the city – his skies are purple, grey, dark, red, and the street lamps have to fight to shed their light through the dirty air. His Wales is equally good in what feels like a deliberately contrasting way. There, the air is clear but there are hidden things behind ancient rock formations – old symbols, and sometimes new symbols placed by ancient races.

The Welsh parts have a very similar feel to Lovecraft’s ruins – Lovecraft acknowledged his influence – but where Lovecraft opted for ancient malign aliens, Machen’s evil is all of earth, earthly. Worth reminds us that this was at a time when Victorian society was having to get used to the ideas that man had evolved from the beast and that the world was far, far more ancient than had previously been thought. Where Wells takes evolution far into the future in The Time Machine, Machen instead suggests that some of the ancient things of earth are still here, unevolved and unchanging. And that sometimes they might even live within us…

The stories range in length from a couple of pages to well over a hundred. I gave every one individually either 4 or 5 stars – I think that’s a first for me in any collection. Some of the very short ones are a little fragmentary, but each either tells a tale on its own or adds depth to the world Machen has created. Some are outright horror, some more an evocation of a kind of witchy paganism, some based more in reality. Marvellous stuff! Hard to pick favourites, but here are just a few of the ones I enjoyed most:-

The Shining Pyramid

The Inmost Light – this one features Dyson, who along with his friend Phillips, appears in a few of the stories, almost as a kind of Holmes and Watson of the occult. Dyson sees a horribly frightening face in a window and some time later discovers the woman of the house has died. The doctor at the inquest declares that her brain was inhuman, and Dyson investigates. This has some great London scenes and a decidedly demonic theme – Machen apparently subsidised his meagre earnings as an author at one point by taking on the job of cataloguing a library of occult publications, and used the knowledge he gained from that throughout his work. Excellently told and a very effective horror ending.

The Three Impostors – this is the longest in the book and in fact reads like a mini-collection of stories all linked by one major underlying one. It has a great mixture of humour and horror within the separate episodes, and again stars Dyson and Phillips. The main story is of an evil cult which sucks people in through exploiting their greed or weakness, and then either forces them to join or uses them as victims. But it’s really the minor stories that make this one special. My favourite of all, I think.

The White People – a story told by one man to another as an illustration that evil is an elemental force. It tells of a girl who from an early age has seen things invisible to others. She is introduced to old stories and pagan rituals by her nurse. This displays another common theme of the stories – female sexuality and its links to witchery, paganism and even Satanism. It’s brilliantly told and one can see its influence on both weird and witch fiction, and Machen’s siting of evil within humans rather than as an external force is particularly effective.

The White People

I could go on, and on, but I won’t. I’ll just say if, like me, you’ve managed to miss out on Machen up till now, I strongly recommend you make his acquaintance – a great collection.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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Tuesday Terror! The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

Paganism and Victorian shenanigans…

First published in 1890, this is the title story in the new Oxford World’s Classics collection, The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories. It’s considered to be a classic of the genre, influential on later writers from HP Lovecraft to Stephen King. So I prodded the porpentine awake, and we sat down ready to be horrified, in this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2The Great God Pan
by Arthur Machen

Arthur Machen

‘I have heard myself called quack, and charlatan and impostor, but all the while I knew I was on the right path. Five years ago I reached the goal, and since then every day has been a preparation for what we shall do tonight.’

Clarke has been asked by his friend Dr Raymond to witness an experiment in his laboratory in far away Wales (Machen’s native land), the culmination of the work of years. He proposes to carry out a brain operation on his young ward, Mary, which, he claims, will allow her to look into the spiritual world closed off to our normal brains – to see the Great God Pan, as he puts it. Clarke isn’t so sure the whole thing is a good idea…

“Consider the matter well, Raymond. It’s a great responsibility. Something might go wrong; you would be a miserable man for the rest of your days.”
“No, I think not, even if the worst happened. As you know, I rescued Mary from the gutter, and from almost certain starvation, when she was a child; I think her life is mine, to use as I see fit.”

Crikey! I’m betting Mary’s thinking pretty nostalgically about that gutter round about now! Anyway, needless to say, it all goes horribly wrong…

…suddenly her eyes opened. Clarke quailed before them. They shone with an awful light, looking far away, and a great wonder fell upon her face, and her hands stretched out as if to touch what was invisible; but in an instant the wonder faded, and gave place to the most awful terror.

Le Faune by Carlos Schwabe.
Musées d’art et d’histoire in Geneva.

Poor Mary collapses, shrieking. When Clarke sees her next, three days later, she is lying in her bed, grinning vacantly. Fortunately, Dr Raymond manages to be quite philosophical about the whole thing…

“Yes,” said the doctor, still quite cool, “it is a great pity; she is a hopeless idiot. However, it could not be helped; and, after all, she has seen the Great God Pan.”

Oh, well, that’s all right then! This is all in the nature of a prologue. The story then jumps forward some twenty years or so and the scene shifts to London. Clarke has remained interested in the occult and makes a habit of gathering strange stories. These stories are relayed to the reader as a series of snippets or brief sketches with a variety of narrators. To the people involved these incidents seem entirely random at first. But after a while, Clarke begins to see a pattern emerging. His subsequent investigations take him into the dark belly of London’s seamy underworld, on the trail of a mysterious woman who has been connected to some of the strange and horrible events…

“I should be wrong in saying that she found her level in going to this particular quarter, or associating with these people, for from what I was told, I should think the worst den in London far too good for her. The person from whom I got my information, as you may suppose, no great Puritan, shuddered and grew sick in telling me of the nameless infamies which were laid to her charge…”

Fabulous illustration by sandpaperdaisy at deviantart.com

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While the porpy and I weren’t exactly terrified, we thought this was a jolly good story. Mad science, that great love of Victorian horror and science fiction writers, mingled with paganism and a good deal of hinting at immoral and quite possibly unnatural sexual shenanigans, there’s also plenty of typically Victorian, fine descriptive writing, both of nature in the countryside and of the dark and gloomy streets of London at night. The Great God Pan is no cuddly pipe-playing faun in this one – he’s satanic, possibly in fact Satan, and we all know what happens to innocent young girls who fall in the path of that old cloven-hoofed goat. Being Victorian, we are spared the details, but Machen manages to get his meaning across. Of course, the woman is the one who succumbs to the dark pagan powers – but then the men succumb to the equally dark force of female sexuality. (They’re called Victorian attitudes for a reason…)

Combine that with Clarke’s familiarity with the seamy side of London life, where he cheerfully admits, with no attempt at concealment, “I have always been fond of diving into Queer Street for my amusement, and I found my knowledge of that locality and its inhabitants very useful.” Even worse, that he is there on the trail of a society lady who also likes to head to the lower levels to take her pleasure. No wonder it was considered pretty shocking at the time! (So disgusted were the morally upstanding Victorians, in fact, that it apparently shot to the top of the best-sellers list…)

Guillermo del Toro acknowledges the influence of the story on his film, Pan’s Labyrinth

It might be a little less shocking now, but it’s well told and one can easily see its place in the chain that links horror writers of different generations. It’s almost like a bridging link from the older ones, – the Gothic style of Poe, for example – through his contemporaries – his dark London having much of the feel of Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde – and onto those who followed, like Lovecraft, who acknowledged his debt to Machen. Great stuff, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the collection…

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by PD James

Festive felons…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

PD James was one of my favourite crime writers for many years, so much so that for a couple of decades she was one of my elite group of “must read on publication day” authors even back when this meant paying expensive hardback prices rather than waiting for up to a year for the paperback to come out. It’s been a long time though since I revisited her, so I was keen to see if her magic would still work for me in this collection. There are four stories in the audiobook, each quite substantial in terms of length. They were originally written as special short stories for Christmas editions of magazines and newspapers and cover a wide time period from the late ’60s to the mid-’90s. As one would expect, the quality is variable, but only within the range of good to excellent.

I listened to the audiobook version, with two stories each narrated by Jenny Agutter and Daniel Weyman, both of whom give excellent performances. There is also a short introduction, narrated by Agutter, in which James considers the differences between writing in short and long form, and discusses the place of the short story in the history of crime fiction. (I believe there’s a further introduction from Val McDermid in the paper book, but that’s not included in the audio version.)

The Mistletoe Murder narrated by Jenny Agutter, first published in 1995

A country house mystery with the traditional body in the library! This is told from the perspective of a first-person narrator, a war widow who is visiting her grandmother over Christmas while WW2 is still underway. An unexpected and unpleasant guest arrives and is promptly murdered. The narrator uses her status as a family member to uncover the secrets that led to his death. While very well written, I found this a rather uneasy mix of traditional golden age style with a storyline that felt too modern in its concerns to quite fit that approach. It’s also very dark and somewhat depressing for a Christmas story, I felt. Murder is always fun, but the war aspect and the bleakness of the motivation in this aren’t. I admired this story more than I enjoyed it.

* * *

A Very Commonplace Murder narrated by Jenny Agutter, first published in 1969

This is James at her best. Gabriel, a respectable middle-aged lawyer’s clerk, witnesses something that would be vitally important evidence in a murder trial. But since he was doing something he shouldn’t have been at the time, he finds himself reluctant to come forward. This is a deliciously wicked tale where we see Gabriel twist his conscience into knots to justify his actions – a beautifully constructed psychological study of a weak and not very nice man. James maybe goes a little far at the end, but I found this added the touch of melodrama the story needed to make it into a shivery chiller – perfect seasonal entertainment!

* * *

The Twelve Clues of Christmas narrated by Daniel Weyman, first published in 1996

The first of two stories featuring James’ long-running detective, Adam Dalgleish. In this one, Dalgleish is still a young copper with his name to make. He is driving through the snow to spend Christmas at his aunt’s Suffolk house when he is stopped by a man who asks for his help. The man’s uncle, the curmudgeonly old owner of Harkerville Hall, has apparently committed suicide, but Dalgleish soon finds clues that suggest it may have been murder. Again, James is trying to reproduce golden age style here and openly nods to Agatha Christie, as she also did in The Mistletoe Murder. This one works better in that the motivation is more appropriate to the golden age era, and it’s certainly entertaining, but for me it doesn’t have the depth that James achieves when she sticks more to her own style.

* * *

The Boxdale Inheritance narrated by Daniel Weyman, first published in 1979

Dalgleish is asked to look into an old murder by his elderly godfather, Canon Hubert Boxdale. The Canon’s grandfather died of arsenic poisoning many decades ago. His young second wife was tried for the crime but found not guilty. Now she has left the Canon some money in her will, but his conscience won’t let him accept unless he is sure she didn’t acquire it by murder. Again a much more traditionally James-ian story in this one, concentrating more on the psychology of the characters than on clues and tricks, though there’s some of that too. In the short space available, James hasn’t much time to develop a cast of suspects, so Dalgleish’s detection seems a bit too slick. But this is well outweighed by the storytelling and characterisation. Another excellent one to end on.

* * *

PD James

I found it interesting that I enjoyed the two early stories considerably more than the ones from the ’90s. This chimes with my feelings about James’ novels – that she lost her spark towards the end of her career and began to get too involved in ‘issues’ or general ‘cleverness’ at the expense of her real strength – excellent psychological studies. Her ‘gentleman detective’ also started to feel rather out of place among the more realistic police officers of modern crime fiction, and her later books felt somewhat anachronistic – almost out-dated. But she retained her story-telling skills throughout, and this shows through in the later stories from this collection too. Of course, even when she may have gone off the boil a little, a writer of the stature and skill of PD James was still head and shoulders above most of the competition. A thoroughly enjoyable set of stories overall, then, that would work just as well for newcomers as established fans.

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Foreign Bodies edited by Martin Edwards

Crime in translation…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Another collection of vintage short stories from the great partnership of the British Library and Martin Edwards, this one is different in that these are all translated. Many are from European countries but there are some that range further afield – Russia, India, Mexico, Japan. As always the book begins with a highly informative and entertaining foreword from Edwards who always manages to get the tricky balance between not enough and too much information just about perfect. Each story also has its own little introduction, where Edwards gives some information about the author and in this collection also about the translation. Some of the stories were translated earlier and have appeared in magazines or other collections, but some have been translated specifically for this collection and are appearing in English for the first time.

There are fifteen stories in all, and as always the quality is variable. There are “impossible” crimes, Holmes pastiches with a foreign slant, little stories that are just a bit of fun, dark stories that linger in the mind, stories that verge on gothic horror. For me, the collection got off to a pretty poor start – I wasn’t impressed by the first two or three and began to think I’d made a mistake with this one. But as it goes on, the stories get better and better, and some of the later stories are very good indeed. One of them in particular rates as one of the best crime short stories I’ve ever read. In the end, I rated 6 of the stories as 5 stars and another 5 as 4 stars, and there were only two that I thought were complete duds that didn’t really deserve inclusion on the basis of their quality, although I could see why Edwards had picked them – one for the author’s name (Chekhov), and the other because it plays on a classic of the genre. So despite the iffy start, this ended up being one of my favourites of these collections overall.

Here are a few of the stories that stood out for me:-

The Spider by Koga Saburo translated by Ho-Ling Wong. Japanese. Part crime/part horror and definitely not one for arachnophobes! A scientist built a tower where he keeps vast numbers of spiders for study. But one day a visitor to the tower comes to a sticky end. Our narrator is looking into events after the later death of the scientist himself. This is almost Poe-ish in style in that we learn what happened mostly from the diaries of the scientist – a tale told by a man driven mad. Those spiders have haunted me for weeks now!

The Venom of the Tarantula by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay translated by Sreejata Guha. Indian. Very much a Holmes pastiche and excellently done. The detective Byomkesh Bakshi and his Watson, Ajit, apparently appeared in many stories and I’d happily read more of them. In this one, an old man is driving his long-suffering family crazy – he takes a drug that makes him impossible to deal with and they don’t know how he’s getting hold of it. The solution is very Holmesian even if it’s a little obvious, and the story is highly entertaining.

Poster from the 2015 film based on the stories

The Kennel by Maurice Level translated by Alys Eyre Macklin. French. There is a crime here, a fairly horrific one too, but mostly this is a great little gothic horror story. A man suspects his wife of having an affair, especially when he finds another man in her room. She claims it’s all very innocent but things are about to take a very nasty turn. It has a darkly twisted ending that made me gasp aloud (and then laugh). The author apparently wrote for the Grand Guignol and this story is of that type – melodramatic, gruesome and lots of fun!

The Cold Night’s Clearing by Keikichi Osaka translated by Ho-Ling Wong. Japanese again – there’s something about the Japanese approach to crime fiction that always draws me in, and this is the story I referred to above as being one of the best crime shorts I’ve ever read. It’s also by far the darkest story in the book. A teacher is called out in the middle of the night to his friend’s house, where he finds his friend’s wife and cousin dead, Christmas toys and sweets strewn around the floor, and the couple’s young son missing. Beautifully written and translated, the author uses the winter snow, the dark night and the frozen countryside to create a great atmosphere of uncanny dread, and there’s an excellent puzzle to be solved too. I was blown away by this story – a little piece of dark perfection.

So some great stories in there that well outweigh the less good ones, and make this for me one of the best of these collections… so far! Highly recommended and I hope Edwards and the BL keep ’em coming!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Willows by Algernon Blackwood

Worse than whomping…

When two young men who are canoeing down the Danube in the middle of a great flood decide to camp for the night on a tiny island, what could possibly go wrong? Time to find out in this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2The Willows
by Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood

After leaving Vienna, and long before you come to Budapest, the Danube enters a region of singular loneliness and desolation, where its waters spread away on all sides regardless of a main channel, and the country becomes a swamp for miles upon miles, covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes.

Our unnamed narrator (I shall call him Jim) and his friend, known only as the Swede, have travelled far along the Danube on a pleasure excursion in a little canoe. They have reached a place where the river splits into three branches, and know that a high flood is due. They decide to continue anyway, both being experienced rivermen and having done many journeys together before. Driven forward by the fast waters and a howling wind, they have some difficulty landing for the night on one of the small temporary islands that spring up in this swampy stretch of the river, but finally they manage it…

Then we lay panting and laughing after our exertions on the hot yellow sand, sheltered from the wind, and in the full blaze of a scorching sun, a cloudless blue sky above, and an immense army of dancing, shouting willow bushes, closing in from all sides, shining with spray and clapping their thousand little hands as though to applaud the success of our efforts.

Already Jim has shown that he feels the river as a mighty presence with its own character. At first he sees it as friendly…

How, indeed, could it be otherwise, since it told us so much of its secret life? At night we heard it singing to the moon as we lay in our tent, uttering that odd sibilant note peculiar to itself and said to be caused by the rapid tearing of the pebbles along its bed, so great is its hurrying speed. We knew, too, the voice of its gurgling whirlpools, suddenly bubbling up on a surface previously quite calm; the roar of its shallows and swift rapids; its constant steady thundering below all mere surface sounds; and that ceaseless tearing of its icy waters at the banks. How it stood up and shouted when the rains fell flat upon its face! And how its laughter roared out when the wind blew up-stream and tried to stop its growing speed!

But once on the island and with night approaching, a strange feeling of dread begins to fall over the travellers. The willows seem to give off a threatening air…

Some essence emanated from them that besieged the heart. A sense of awe awakened, true, but of awe touched somewhere by a vague terror. Their serried ranks, growing everywhere darker about me as the shadows deepened, moving furiously yet softly in the wind, woke in me the curious and unwelcome suggestion that we had trespassed here upon the borders of an alien world, a world where we were intruders, a world where we were not wanted or invited to remain—where we ran grave risks perhaps!

As night sets in, Jim finds himself unable to sleep and wanders out of the camp. By now his imagination – or is it? – is working overtime, and he has come to see the willows as somehow malevolent…

What, I thought, if, after all, these crouching willows proved to be alive; if suddenly they should rise up, like a swarm of living creatures, marshaled by the gods whose territory we had invaded, sweep towards us off the vast swamps, booming overhead in the night—and then settle down! As I looked it was so easy to imagine they actually moved, crept nearer, retreated a little, huddled together in masses, hostile, waiting for the great wind that should finally start them a-running. I could have sworn their aspect changed a little, and their ranks deepened and pressed more closely together.

The Swede seems stolidly unimaginative at first and Jim relies on this to keep his dread at bay. But it soon transpires that the Swede, far from being unaffected, is way ahead of Jim in interpreting the strange events… and has come to a chilling conclusion…

…I think I felt annoyed to be out of it, to be thus proved less psychic, less sensitive than himself to these extraordinary happenings, and half ignorant all the time of what was going on under my very nose. He knew from the very beginning, apparently. But at the moment I wholly missed the point of his words about the necessity of there being a victim, and that we ourselves were destined to satisfy the want…

* * * * * * *

Well, this is a classic for a reason! The descriptive writing is fabulous, and Blackwood gradually builds up an air of creepy menace guaranteed to send shivers down the stoutest spine. Apparently Lovecraft hailed this as the greatest supernatural tale of all, and it’s very clear to see how it influenced his own later weird tales. There is the same suggestion of ancient and malign alien beings, with men caught up as irrelevant victims of a power at which they can only vaguely guess. But, unlike Lovecraft, this doesn’t get bogged down in endless repetitive description – it is novella length but it keeps going at a good pace and builds up to an excellently chilling climax. Nature is used brilliantly, at first as something for man to admire and revel in, and then, gradually, as something immense and uncontrollable, reducing man to tiny insignificance, fumbling to make sense of forces so great that they are incomprehensible to his limited mind. Great stuff – the porpentine highly recommends it!

If you would like to read it, here’s a link, though personally I found it too long to read comfortably online, so downloaded a Kindle version.

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s a fretful porpentine!

Tuesday Terror! The Screaming Skull by F. Marion Crawford

Careless Talk Costs Lives!

First published in 1911, this is a charming little tale of murder and revenge from beyond the tomb – a warning to all of you who may be contemplating bumping off your spouses. Go ahead, by all means, but don’t keep your victim’s skull in your cupboard…

Tuesday Terror 2

The Screaming Skull
by F. Marion Crawford

F Marion Crawford

I have often heard it scream. No, I am not nervous, I am not imaginative, and I never believed in ghosts, unless that thing is one. Whatever it is, it hates me almost as much as it hated Luke Pratt, and it screams at me.

One night, an old man has a friend visiting him in his isolated cottage. The cottage used to belong to his cousin, Luke Pratt and his wife, known to us only as Mrs Pratt. The old man tells his friend of the strange and terrible scream that often disturbs the night…

Sometimes, about this time of year–hallo!–there it is! Don’t be frightened, man–it won’t eat you–it’s only a noise, after all! But I’m glad you’ve heard it, because there are always people who think it’s the wind, or my imagination, or something. You won’t hear it again tonight, I fancy, for it doesn’t often come more than once.

The old man thinks he knows why he is being haunted. Not long after a visit he had paid to the Pratts, Mrs Pratt died, apparently in her sleep. But the old man thinks there may have been a darker cause…

If I were you, I would never tell ugly stories about ingenious ways of killing people, for you never can tell but that some one at the table may be tired of his or her nearest and dearest. I have always blamed myself for Mrs. Pratt’s death, and I suppose I was responsible for it in a way, though heaven knows I never wished her anything but long life and happiness. If I had not told that story she might be alive yet. That is why the thing screams at me, I fancy.

(Illustration by mgkellermeyer via DeviantArt)

The story he had told had been…

…about a woman in Ireland who did for three husbands before anyone suspected foul play.

Did you never hear that tale? The fourth husband managed to keep awake and caught her, and she was hanged. How did she do it? She drugged them, and poured melted lead into their ears through a little horn funnel when they were asleep…

Some time after Mrs Pratt’s death, Luke Pratt also died… in mysterious and dreadful circumstances…

How? He was found dead on the beach one morning, and there was a coroner’s inquest. There were marks on his throat, but he had not been robbed. The verdict was that he had come to his end “By the hands or teeth of some person or animal unknown”…

When his body was found, there was a skull with it, which he had apparently been carrying home in a hat-box…

It had rolled out and lay near his head, and it was a remarkably fine skull, rather small, beautifully shaped and very white, with perfect teeth. That is to say, the upper jaw was perfect, but there was no lower one at all, when I first saw it.

On inheriting the house after Pratt’s death, the old man is shown the skull which is now kept, still in the hat-box, in a cupboard in the bedroom. He discovers that it… rattles… as if there is something inside it…

No, I’ve never tried to get it out, whatever it is; I’m afraid it might be lead, don’t you see? And if it is, I don’t want to know the fact, for I’d much rather not be sure. If it really is lead, I killed her quite as much as if I had done the deed myself. Anybody must see that, I should think…

* * * * * * *

This is quite fun! It’s told almost entirely as a kind of monologue as the old man tells the story to his friend, and it’s pretty long. There’s no real mystery to it as my quotes, which are all from the early part of the story, will have indicated. But it builds up a nice sense of creepy anticipation as candles blow out, and the wind rattles the windows, and the occasional shriek sounds from upstairs. The old man goes on to tell of all the strange things that have happened since he moved into the house, and lots of the usual horror elements are here – servants who won’t stay in the house overnight, sextons and graves, attempts to silence the skull that just seem to make it angrier. There’s not much new here, but it’s not trying to be innovative – it’s just a good ghost story well told. It might be a little long for modern tastes, but that allows it to build up the atmosphere slowly as we wait for the inevitable to happen…

If you’d like to read it, here’s a link – it’s about 13,000 words.

Enough to give the porpy a bad hair day…

Apparently it’s loosely based on a “real” haunting of a farmhouse in Dorsetshire, called Bettiscombe Manor. The legend attached to that screaming skull is that it belonged to a slave who was brought there in the 17th century – you can read more about it here.

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀

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There’s also a 1958 film based on the Crawford story which, though they’ve changed it quite a lot, retains the basic horror elements of the original. The opening scene claims that

“Its impact is so terrifying that it may have an unforeseen effect. It may kill you! Therefore its producers feel they must assure free burial services for anyone who dies of fright while seeing The Screaming Skull!

I watched it last night – so either I bravely survived, or this post is coming to you from beyond the tomb…

(It’s actually a lot of fun too. It’s available on youtube, though as usual I don’t know whether legally or not – here’s the link: the decision is yours. It has some nicely scary moments but not gory or gross. Admittedly, the ending made me laugh rather than scream, but it was still an enjoyable way to spend an hour or so…)

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Tuesday Terror! The Minister’s Black Veil by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Repent, Ye Sinners!

First published in 1832, this isn’t a ghost story or even really a horror story as such. Nathaniel Hawthorne subtitled it “A Parable”, but despite the lack of traditional spookiness, it creates a rather unnerving atmosphere of dread…

Tuesday Terror 2The Minister’s Black Veil
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Reverend Mr Hopper is a young minister, kindly and patient, who has always tried to lead his parishioners into goodness rather than thundering to them about hell and damnation. He is well liked in his parish, often invited to the homes of the respectable parishioners, and engaged to be married to a sweet young woman. But one Sunday, as he approaches the church to give the service, his flock notice something strange. He…

…was dressed with due clerical neatness, as if a careful wife had starched his band, and brushed the weekly dust from his Sunday’s garb. There was but one thing remarkable in his appearance. Swathed about his forehead, and hanging down over his face, so low as to be shaken by his breath, Mr. Hooper had on a black veil.

Somehow this black veil, which covers his whole face apart from his mouth and chin, makes his parishioners uneasy. He gives no explanation for it and his sermon is much as usual, but the wearing of the veil causes it to sound graver, and his parishioners find themselves paying more attention than usual. He continues to wear the veil at all times, and the people of the town are left to speculate as to the reason. Some think he is hiding his face for shame of some unknown sin. Other think it may be hiding some physical disfigurement. But none of them has the courage to ask him directly why he wears it…

There was a feeling of dread, neither plainly confessed nor carefully concealed, which caused each to shift the responsibility upon another, till at length it was found expedient to send a deputation of the church, in order to deal with Mr. Hooper about the mystery, before it should grow into a scandal.

“the children fled from his approach.”
Artist: Elenore Abbott

However, once faced with the veiled minister, the members of the deputation find themselves unable to ask and leave none the wiser. Only one person is unaffected by the strange dread – Elizabeth, the woman he is engaged to marry. She asks him to explain his reasons…

“Elizabeth, I will,” said he, “so far as my vow may suffer me. Know, then, this veil is a type and a symbol, and I am bound to wear it ever, both in light and darkness, in solitude and before the gaze of multitudes, and as with strangers, so with my familiar friends. No mortal eye will see it withdrawn. This dismal shade must separate me from the world: even you, Elizabeth, can never come behind it!”

And this is as much answer as he’s willing to give. When she expresses some not unreasonable dissatisfaction, he sets out to cheer her up…

“Do not desert me, though this veil must be between us here on earth. Be mine, and hereafter there shall be no veil over my face, no darkness between our souls! It is but a mortal veil, it is not for eternity! O! you know not how lonely I am, and how frightened, to be alone behind my black veil. Do not leave me in this miserable obscurity forever!”

* * * * * * *

I’ll leave you on a cliffhanger – if you want to know whether Elizabeth dumps him, and whether we ever see behind the veil, you’ll have to read the story. Here’s a link – it’s about 5000 words.

As far as I can tell the veil is basically a metaphor for the idea of original sin. By wearing it outwardly, he reminds his parishioners of the sin they carry hidden inside themselves. I’m not religious so the finer points of why we all have to be miserable all the time have passed me by somewhat, but it seemed to me this is exactly the kind of short story John Knox would have loved to curl up with after a hard day’s work preaching hellfire and damnation and lambasting the monstrous regiment of women and suchlike. Suffice it to say, it doesn’t have what you’d think of as a traditionally happy ending (though one hopes poor old Rev Hopper got his rewards in the afterlife – one couldn’t help but feel the veil must have got very grubby after the first thirty years or so. One hopes he didn’t eat a lot of spaghetti bolognese…)

Knox haranguing Mary Queen of Scots by Robert Inerarity Herdman

More seriously, the writing is wonderfully atmospheric and hugely effective at creating a feeling of unease. Why does he suddenly start wearing the veil? Is it because of something he’s done, or something he fears he might do? Is it a sign of madness? Or is there some physical cause – what would the parishioners see if he lifted the veil? They want to know… but they are afraid to know. And so is the reader. As with most allegories, the reader is largely left to do the work – to create the meaning for herself. Even this atheist found it unsettling, thought-provoking and beautifully ambiguous. The porpentine, however, fell asleep halfway through.

An excellent story – recommended. It might not make you hide under the blankets, but it may cause you to lie awake for a bit, pondering on the mysteries of the soul…

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Continental Crimes edited by Martin Edwards

The Brits abroad…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

This is another in the British Library’s series of anthologies of vintage crime stories edited by Martin Edwards. This time, the focus is on Continental Europe as the authors take us to casinos in Monte Carlo, catacombs in Rome, castles on the Rhine, in search of the usual murder, mystery and mayhem. To be clear, this is British authors visiting the Continent – I believe there’s a new anthology coming along soon containing stories by non-Brits translated into English, some for the first time, which should be fun.

I found this collection quite variable in quality. Although there were certainly enough 4 and 5 star stories to keep me entertained, there were also several stories that didn’t quite cut it as far as I’m concerned. Partly this is to do with the settings – I freely admit I prefer the traditional English manor house or village, or the foggy streets of London, as the setting for my vintage crime fix. But also it’s because sometimes I felt the setting wasn’t really brought to life terribly well, or there was a touch too much of that British condescension towards all foreigners.

Oddly there were also a couple of stories where the attitude towards (lower-class) women goes well over the out-dated line towards outright misogyny – not a thing I’m normally aware of in vintage crime. Something about going abroad seems to bring out the worst in Brits, I think! I hasten to add that one of these stories was written by a woman, Josephine Bell, who clearly felt that her young female murder victim had brought her fate on herself by her unladylike behaviour in pursuing a man – it actually contains the line “She was asking for it!” The other one was by Michael Gilbert who rounds his story off with the equally astonishing line: “Many a successful marriage has been founded on a good beating.” Well, Mr Gilbert, should you ever propose to me, I’ll be sure to give you a sound thrashing before I reply…

There’s also plenty of good stuff, though. There’s the usual mix of well known and more obscure names among the authors, and a nice mix of crimes, from ‘impossible’ mysteries to revenge murders, blackmail, theft, greed and even the occasional haunting. Here’s a little selection of some of the ones I enjoyed most…

The New Catacomb by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – I know I nearly always select the Conan Doyle story, but that’s because he’s such a great storyteller. This one is a lovely little revenge tale which climaxes in a catacomb in Rome. An interesting story well told, and with some effective touches of horror – make sure you don’t read it if there’s any danger of a power outage…

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A Bracelet at Bruges by Arnold Bennett – While Kitty is showing her new expensive bracelet to another woman, it somehow gets dropped into a canal in Bruges and is lost. Or is it? This is more of a howdunit with a neat solution and has a rather charming little romance thrown in. But the reason I enjoyed it so much is that it reminded me of the sheer quality of Arnold Bennett’s writing – an author I loved when I was young, though for his fiction rather than crime, and had more or less completely forgotten. Must revisit him!

….‘What an exquisite bracelet! May I look at it?’
….It was these simple but ecstatic words, spoken with Madame Lawrence’s charming foreign accent, which had begun the tragedy. The three women had stopped to admire the always admirable view from the little quay, and they were leaning over the rails when Kitty unclasped the bracelet for the inspection of the widow. The next instant there was a plop, an affrighted exclamation from Madame Lawrence in her native tongue, and the bracelet was engulfed before the very eyes of all three.

* * * * *

The Room in the Tower by J Jefferson Farjeon – our narrator, a writer, goes to stay in a castle on the Rhine looking for inspiration and atmosphere for his book. Perhaps he gets more atmosphere than he anticipated though when he gets lost in the gloomy corridors and ends up in the haunted tower. The story in this one is a bit weird but Farjeon builds up the tension well and there are some genuinely spooky moments.

* * * * *

So even though this isn’t my favourite of these anthologies, there’s still plenty to enjoy. And I haven’t even mentioned the Agatha Christie story…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! Lot No. 249 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Beware the Mummy!!

As autumn nights grow darker, the fretful porpentine has poked his little nose out of his hibernation box and demanded new stories to get him through the winter months. Or old stories – like this one from the master storyteller Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Who better to kick off a new season of horror…?

Tuesday Terror 2Lot No. 249 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

…when we think how narrow and how devious this path of Nature is, how dimly we can trace it, for all our lamps of science, and how from the darkness which girds it round great and terrible possibilities loom ever shadowly upwards, it is a bold and confident man who will put a limit to the strange by-paths into which the human spirit may wander.

Three students live in a corner turret in Old College in Oxford. Our hero is Abercrombie Smith, a medical student studying hard for his final exams, and a man of both robust physical attributes and a steady, unimaginative mind. On the floor below is Edward Bellingham, a strange and rather repulsive man with a pasty complexion and rolls of loose skin as if he had lost a lot of weight at some time. He is a student of Eastern languages and has spent much time amongst the people of Egypt and the arab lands. Below him is William Monkhouse Lee – a friend of Bellingham, who is engaged to be married to Lee’s sister. They are connected by an ancient staircase…

Life has flowed like water down this winding stair, and, waterlike, has left these smooth-worn grooves behind it. From the long-gowned, pedantic scholars of Plantagenet days down to the young bloods of a later age, how full and strong has been that tide of young, English life. And what was left now of all those hopes, those strivings, those fiery energies, save here and there in some old-world churchyard a few scratches upon a stone, and perchance a handful of dust in a mouldering coffin? Yet here were the silent stair and the grey, old wall, with bend and saltire and many another heraldic device still to be read upon its surface, like grotesque shadows thrown back from the days that had passed.

Abercrombie Smith is warned by his friend James Hastie to steer clear of Bellingham. Hastie says Bellingham’s character is as unpleasant as his appearance, and gives an example to back up his claim…

“Well, you know the towpath along by the river. There were several fellows going along it, Bellingham in front, when they came on an old market-woman coming the other way. It had been raining–you know what those fields are like when it has rained – and the path ran between the river and a great puddle that was nearly as broad. Well, what does this swine do but keep the path, and push the old girl into the mud, where she and her marketings came to terrible grief. It was a blackguard thing to do…”

Despite this tale, Abercrombie Smith suspects that Hastie is in love with Bellingham’s fiancée and that it’s the green-eyed monster talking, so dismisses his warnings.

However, later that night, after Hastie has left, Abercrombie Smith hears a stange hissing noise from the room below. Then suddenly…

…there broke out in the silence of the night a hoarse cry, a positive scream – the call of a man who is moved and shaken beyond all control.

Lee bursts into his room asking for assistance – Bellingham has apparently been taken ill. Abercrombie Smith rushes down to find Bellingham in a dead faint. His room is more like a museum – filled with curiosities from the East and strange relics from the tombs of Egypt, and a stuffed crocodile suspended from the ceiling. But there’s one thing in particular that sends chills down Abercrombie Smith’s spine…

…a mummy case, which had been conveyed from the wall, as was evident from the gap there, and laid across the front of the table. The mummy itself, a horrid, black, withered thing, like a charred head on a gnarled bush, was lying half out of the case, with its claw-like hand and bony forearm resting upon the table. Propped up against the sarcophagus was an old, yellow scroll of papyrus, and in front of it, in a wooden armchair, sat the owner of the room, his head thrown back, his widely opened eyes directed in a horrified stare to the crocodile above him, and his blue, thick lips puffing loudly with every expiration.

Boris Karloff as The Mummy (1932)

Soon Abercrombie Smith will be locked in battle against an evil beyond his wildest imaginings…

* * * * * * *

Did you know Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the first person to create a story about a mummy being brought back to life for evil purposes? No, neither did I. Isn’t that fascinating? So every time you watch a mummy movie, it was inspired either directly or indirectly by this story.

Sometimes the problem with these old originals is that each generation of descendants adds something to them until eventually the originals can seem a bit bland. I must say I think this story stands up very well for about 95% of it, and then has a rather anti-climactic ending in comparison to what we’d expect now. The old college and winding staircase give it all a nicely gothic feel and of course Conan Doyle’s writing is perfectly suited to that kind of style. There are some genuinely creepy moments, and a particularly scary scene when our hero is pursued through the night by the murderous mummy.

I do like my horror stories to include the old battle between good and evil thing, and this has that to perfection. So it’s not just interesting for its place in the history of horror, it’s also still a very enjoyable tale of terror in its own right. The porpentine and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

But the wisdom of men is small, and the ways of Nature are strange, and who shall put a bound to the dark things which may be found by those who seek for them?

Who indeed?

If you’d like to read it, here’s a link. It’s quite a long short story – maybe about an hour’s worth.

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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NB For the benefit of new readers since it’s the porpy’s first appearance for the season, the fretful porpentine reference comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine

So the Fretful Porpentine rating is for the scariness factor, whereas the Overall Rating is for the story’s quality.

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The Accusation by Bandi translated by Deborah Smith

Hidden behind the curtain…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a collection of seven short stories written between 1989 and 1995 under the regimes of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in North Korea. The author’s identity remains secret, since he still lives in the country – his pseudonym means “firefly”. He is, or perhaps was, part of the official writers’ association, writing articles approved by the regime, but in his own time he began secretly to write these stories, showing a different version of daily life under this extreme form of totalitarianism. When his niece decided to defect to the West, he asked her to take the stories with her, but she wisely said she would instead send for them once she reached safety. She later enlisted the help of a human rights worker to have them smuggled out of the country.

The stories are strongly polemical, as would be expected under the circumstances, and highly critical of the dehumanisation under the regime, where every aspect of people’s lives and even thoughts are dictated and controlled through fear, and truth is manipulated in true Orwellian fashion.

The quality of the stories is distinctly variable, with some of them being too polemical to make for good fiction. They are often worthy but obvious, occasionally over-wrought, and not always very well-written. However, some of them, especially the middle ones, reach a higher level, full of power and emotion. But the interest of this collection is not so much the literary side of it, but the glimpse it gives us of what it’s like to live under this regime which seems, if anything, to be getting even more extreme with each passing year.

The current sad little nutter tyrant, Kim Jong-un, and a few of his toys…

Here’s a flavour of a couple of the ones that most impressed me:

Life of a Swift Steed – this tells the story of a man who believed in the revolution in its early days, and to celebrate the beginnings of this new world, planted an elm tree, around which he gradually created a fable that he passed on to the children in his area. As the tree grew to maturity, he believed, so would the socialist state. Everyone would eat meat and white rice, and wear silk. He clung to the fable even when reality turned out to be vastly different. But now he’s old and poor, the weather is freezing and there is no fuel. And the state wants to chop down the tree to make way for power lines. This one is very well written, and makes its point through emotion rather than overt polemics – I found it a moving read, reminding us that these regimes arise out of hopes and dreams, making their subsequent distortion into totalitarianism even more tragic.

So Near, Yet So Far – a man has received news that his mother is dying, but the state will not give him the travel permit he needs to visit her for one last time. Having spent his life obeying every dictate of the regime – doing his military service, then being told where he should live, what he should work at, etc. – he is finally provoked into breaking the rules, and tries to make the journey illicitly. As the rather trite title suggests, he gets heartbreakingly close to his mother’s village when he is caught. The punishment is harsh, but it’s the guilt and shame that cause him most pain. The feeling of utter helplessness of the individual caught up in an uncaring and faceless system is very well done, and again makes this story a deeply emotional and powerful one.

So there’s plenty here to make the book worth reading for its content as well as its origins. Like many collections, I found reading the stories one after the other meant that they gradually began to acquire a sameness which made the later ones lose power. Had I not been reading for review, I would have left longer gaps between reading each one, to avoid this effect. But they provide a unique insight into this regime from a personal level – so often we are only aware of the high level politics, and it’s easy to forget how each decision we make in dealing with dictators, in terms of sanctions or military action, impacts profoundly on those much further down the social order. An interesting little collection, the importance of which transcends the stories themselves.

Picture credit: Reuters
When the Great Leader says clap, you clap…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.

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Tuesday Terror! Death in December by Victor Gunn

Don’t go into the Death Room!!

crimson-snow

Each time I’ve reviewed one of the British Library anthologies of vintage crime stories, I’ve commented that several of the stories have a touch of horror. The latest collection, Crimson Snow, is no exception. This story is taken from the collection and would be perfectly suitable for a Tuesday ‘Tec post, but instead I’ve decided that it should be this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2Death in December by Victor Gunn

Victor Gunn
Victor Gunn

“Christmas Eve, now, and sundry log fires awaiting us,” said Johnny gaily, as he turned the Alvis’s long nose into the lane. “Ironsides, old sourpuss, we’re going to have the time of our lives. No routine – no murders – no crooks. Nothing but jollity and laughter.”

Johnny Lister and his boss, Chief Inspector Bill Cromwell, affectionately known as Ironsides, are on their way to a Christmas house party at Johnny’s father’s place. General Lister has only recently inherited Cloon Castle to add to his existing collection of mansions, so this is Johnny’s first visit there. Johnny’s high spirits aren’t shared by grumpy old Ironsides…

“The name’s enough to give you a fit of depression,” growled the Chief Inspector. “It’s a wonder they didn’t call it Gloom Castle, and have done with it.”

ironsides-sees-red

There’s snow on the ground and the look of the sky says there’s more on the way as they drive along the entrance road to the castle. Suddenly, a strange figure appears out of the gloom – a man in a “queer, old-fashioned cape, and a high-crowned wide-brimmed hat”. He is staggering and Johnny thinks he must be ill, but by the time the car gets to where the man was standing, he has gone. Johnny shrugs and drives on, but Ironsides growls at him to stop and go back. Johnny protests, but Ironsides insists…

“I don’t know what I think,” interrupted Bill Cromwell. “Either I’m mad, or blind – but I’ll swear that there were no footprints in the snow. Didn’t you notice?”

Back they go, but find no trace of the man nor any footprints. They shrug it off because they are stout Englishmen, but secretly they’re both a little spooked. And the spookery gets worse when, after dinner on the first night, General Lister is persuaded by the assembled guests to tell the story of the Death Room, prompting his guests to ask who’s been given that room…

“Nobody is sleeping in the Death Room,” interrupted the general, almost curtly. “The Death Room is downstairs, and it is always kept heavily locked, so there’s no sense in discussing it at all. It has been locked for over a hundred years.”

the-dead-man-laughs

Naturally, this is too tempting to resist. Although the general is unwilling, one of his guests, a rather obnoxious young man, Ronnie Charton, becomes determined to spend the night in the Death Room and eventually the general is forced to give way. A decision Ronnie soon begins to regret, when he is wakened in the middle of the night by a horrible cry. By the light of the moon he sees a dreadful sight…

Panic seized him – an awful, crazy, nightmare panic. He flung himself round towards the door, his shoes slipping and slithering on the floor, so that he lost his balance and crashed into the end of the heavy table. Rebounding from this, he tottered to the door, and managed to turn the key in the lock. He was breathing in great sobbing gulps, his face turned over his shoulder, staring… staring…

* * * * * * *

Despite the fact that this is actually a crime mystery, it has some brilliantly atmospheric horror writing in it, and Ronnie’s experiences in the Death Room genuinely raised the hair on the back of my neck! The castle is a great setting – only parts of it have been modernised, so there are long unlit cobwebby passages, dark gloomy corners and a family crypt complete with disturbed coffins, not to mention the legend of the Death Room itself. It’s up to Ironsides, with Johnny’s help, to find a rational explanation of events, in which they get no help from poor Ronnie, whose nerves are so badly affected that, after incoherently babbling out his story, he collapses into a state of shock and semi-consciousness. And you remember the snow? Well, it fell… and it fell… and it fell… so no hope of assistance from the outside world for a while…

three-dates-with-death

Johnny’s general air of lightheartedness is a nice foil for Ironsides’ grumpiness, and provides plenty of humour to offset against the horror. Together they make an excellent team. The whodunit part is perhaps easier to work out than the fiendishly plotted howdunit of the ghostly goings-on, and the eventual solution depends on a nice bit of detection. I’d love to read more of the adventures of Johnny and Ironsides – I may have to start a petition to force the British Library to bring some back from the bookish Death Room…

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It's a fretful porpentine!
It’s a fretful porpentine!

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Crimson Snow: Winter Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards

Deep and crisp and even…

😀 😀 😀 😀

crimson-snowThe latest addition to the British Library themed anthologies of classic crime, this one includes eleven stories all set around the festive season. A great time for people to get together in family gatherings or country house parties, and bump each other off. Who amongst us hasn’t thought that the one thing that would improve Christmas would be the quick dispatching of one of our nearest and dearest, or that the only way to pay for all those gifts would be to hasten the inheritance from one of our much loved rich relatives? Or is that just me? On the basis of the evidence in this book, I’m not alone in thinking Christmas is a particularly jolly time for a murder…

As with the earlier anthologies, this one is introduced and edited by Martin Edwards who also gives a short introduction to each story telling a little about the author. There’s the usual mix of well-known authors – Margery Allingham, Edgar Wallace – and forgotten ones, and as always the quality of the individual stories varies. However, overall I thought this was a more consistent collection than the last couple – none of the stories rate as less than three stars for me and there are plenty of fours and a sprinkling of fives. The lengths also vary from a few pages to a couple of the stories being what I’d think of as novelette length – taking an hour or so to read.

chalk-outline

There’s a nice variety of whodunits and howdunits, some dark and serious, others lighter and more quirky, and a few with ghostly aspects to add to the winter chills. And there’s fog and feverish policemen, and wicked carol-singers, and isolated houses with all access cut off by snow… perfect accompaniment to a mug of hot chocolate and a seat near the fire!

Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most…

The Ghost’s Touch by Fergus Hume – when the narrator is invited to spend the festive season as a guest in a haunted country house, one feels he should have swiftly invented a prior engagement. However, clearly he doesn’t read crime novels, because off he goes, all cheerful and expecting to have a good time. Hah! After the fire, the ghost, and a meeting with the murderer at the dead of night, I suspect he changed his mind… The plot in this one is totally obvious, but nevertheless the author manages to get a nice atmosphere of tension going, and it’s very well written.

crime-scene-tape

Death in December by Victor Gunn – a great cross between ghost and crime story, this one is probably going to appear on a future Tuesday Terror! post so I won’t go into detail. It’s one of the longer stories in the collection, giving time for a bit more characterisation than usual and both the detectives, grumpy Bill “Ironside” Cromwell and his sidekick, lovely Johnny Lister, are well drawn and fun. There are aspects of both who and how in this one, not to mention some genuinely scary bits, all topped off with a lot of humour. And a nice little bit of detection too…

Mr Cork’s Secret by Macdonald Hastings – When Montague Cork’s firm insures a valuable necklace, Montague begins to worry about its safety. So off he goes with his wife to a top London hotel where the owner of the necklace is expected to be staying. He’s lucky to get a room at such short notice, especially at Christmas time. Not so lucky for the person who vacated the room, though – since he was carried out feet first by the police, headed for the morgue. Could the murder have anything to do with the necklace? It’s up to Montague to find out… This has a nice twist in that when it was originally published the author held one fact back as part of a competition. Edwards has left it like that, but at the end of the book, gives the solution as provided by the author, along with the prize-winners’ suggestions.

handcuffs

Deep and Crisp and Even by Michael Gilbert – PC Petrella is covering for his boss over Christmas, and takes his duties seriously. So it’s unfortunate that he develops a feverish cold leaving him weak and a bit confused. But when he suspects a house in the neighbourhood has been burgled, he’s determined to track the perpetrator, even when he’s near collapse himself. Complete with carol-singing, dreadful weather and seasonal illness, this is a fun little story with a neat twist.

* * * * *

So plenty of good stuff here, and a lot of the stories make excellent use of either weather or the holidays to add to the atmosphere and tension. I’m thoroughly enjoying these anthologies – even the less good stories are always fun for seeing the different attitudes and writing styles of the time, and the little author bios add a bit of context, putting each story into its appropriate place in the development of crime fiction. I also like the way they’re themed, and this theme in particular works well – I suppose that these would mostly have originally been published in Christmas editions of magazines, and perhaps that inspired the authors to show off their best. Next to the London-themed one, this is probably my favourite of the collections so far. I do hope there will be more…

blood-spatterNB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.

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Tuesday Terror! The Mezzotint by MR James

An artistic haunting…

the-mezzotint

Last week I featured Rosy Thornton’s deliciously spooky story Mad Maudlin, and to my great pleasure she popped in to the comments afterwards. She confirmed that the pub in the story is indeed The Ship Inn, Blaxhall, as I had surmised, but she then went on to tell me that “At the risk of sounding pretentious, I wrote the story as a sort of homage to M.R. James’s ghost story The Mezzotint in which figures mysteriously appear and disappear from an engraving.” So that seemed like the natural choice for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

The Mezzotint by MR James

MR James
MR James

Mr Williams is the curator of the art department of a university and is responsible for acquiring new items. He often does business with a reliable dealer, Mr Britnell. One day he receives the new catalogue from Mr Britnell, together with an accompanying note…

Dear Sir,

We beg to call your attention to No. 978 in our accompanying catalogue, which we shall be glad to send on approval.

Yours faithfully,

J. W. Britnell.

Trusting the man’s judgement, Mr Williams asks him to send the item on approval. When it arrives, it turns out it is a mezzotint of a house…

It was a rather indifferent mezzotint, and an indifferent mezzotint is, perhaps, the worst form of engraving known. It presented a full-face view of a not very large manor-house of the last century, with three rows of plain sashed windows with rusticated masonry about them, a parapet with balls or vases at the angles, and a small portico in the centre.

There is a torn off label on the back which was clearly once the address, but now shows only — ngley Hall,ssex. Disappointed at the ordinariness of the mezzotint, not to mention the ridiculously high price Mr Britnell is asking for it, Mr Williams lays the picture aside, meaning to return it the following day. But that evening Mr Williams has a visit from a friend who, during the course of the conversation, picks up the picture. Mr Williams confirms it’s from Mr Britnell and remarks on the poor quality of it, and the lack of any figures to give it some interest…

‘It’s not worth two guineas, I should think,’ said Binks; ‘but I don’t think it’s so badly done. The moonlight seems rather good to me; and I should have thought there were figures, or at least a figure, just on the edge in front.’

ghost-stories-of-an-antiquary

Mr Williams looks again, and sure enough…

…indeed there was — hardly more than a black blot on the extreme edge of the engraving — the head of a man or woman, a good deal muffled up, the back turned to the spectator, and looking towards the house.

Assuming he had simply missed the small figure earlier, Mr Williams agrees it makes the mezzotint a little more interesting, and again lays it aside. Later that evening, after dinner, Mr Williams (clearly a sociable creature) has a few more friends in for drinks. He casually hands the picture to a colleague who is also interested in art, without looking at it again himself. So he’s a little surprised when his friend comments…

It’s really a very good piece of work, Williams; it has quite a feeling of the romantic period. The light is admirably managed, it seems to me, and the figure, though it’s rather too grotesque, is somehow very impressive.’

But he thinks no more about it, till he’s later preparing for bed by the light of a single candle…

The picture lay face upwards on the table where the last man who looked at it had put it, and it caught his eye as he turned the lamp down. What he saw made him very nearly drop the candle on the floor, and he declares now if he had been left in the dark at that moment he would have had a fit. But, as that did not happen, he was able to put down the light on the table and take a good look at the picture. It was indubitable — rankly impossible, no doubt, but absolutely certain. In the middle of the lawn in front of the unknown house there was a figure where no figure had been at five o’clock that afternoon. It was crawling on all fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.

Image by mcsorley
Image by mcsorley

* * * * * * *

Well, this is a good little story with some spooky moments! The picture continues to change, gradually revealing a rather horrific story, and when Mr Williams manages to track down the history of the house, he finds that it tells of a tragic crime that took place there some years earlier. It’s well written, with quite a lot of humour as well as the spooky stuff.

I must be honest and say that it didn’t tingle my spine much. It’s imaginative and he tells the story well, but there’s no sense of peril – the picture appears to present no threat to Mr Williams. So while the story behind the picture is scary, it’s distanced from the reader by being seen at a remove, if that makes sense. And all the humour and friendly interactions between Mr Williams and his colleagues take away from any build-up of tension. I know lots of people think of MR James as one of the best writers of ghost stories, and admittedly I haven’t read a lot of him, but his style never leaves me quivering although I do enjoy the imagination and the writing. Truthfully, I found Rosy Thornton’s story much spookier, especially the ending where she leaves it beautifully ambiguous, whereas MR James wraps everything up all nice and neat. So, for me, this is a case where the homage works better than the original…

If you’d like to read The Mezzotint (about 4,500 words), here’s a link.

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The propentine took a bit of time out from fretting this week...
The porpentine took a bit of time out from fretting this week…

Tuesday Terror! Mad Maudlin by Rosy Thornton

Buffering…please wait…

sandlands

When I reviewed Rosy Thornton’s collection of short stories set in the Suffolk sandlings, I mentioned that there was an air of mild ghostliness about some of them, and that one of them, in fact, is a “proper” ghost story. So I thought it would be perfect for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

Mad Maudlin
by Rosy Thornton

Rosy Thornton
Rosy Thornton

The unnamed narrator of the story is staying in The Ship, a pub that features more than once in the stories. (Intriguingly, there’s nothing to identify whether the narrator is male or female, but for pretty vague and possibly sexist reasons, I thought of him as male while reading, so for ease I’m going with he/him throughout.)

I’m looking at a piano. That is, I’m looking at the video image of a piano, because I’m in the half-light of a rented bedroom at the back of a pub after closing and it’s just me and the laptop.

That afternoon, the narrator had filmed in the bar of the pub where locals and regulars had been having a folk session, playing and singing centuries-old traditional songs. Later, in his room, he had found two earlier videos of folk nights in the same pub on a local historical website – one from 1954, and the second from 1979. He has been comparing the three, noticing how little has changed over the years in the bar, and that the same songs are still being sung.

The Ship Inn, Blaxhall - I can't be sure, but I reckon this is the pub the story is set in.
The Ship Inn, Blaxhall – I can’t be sure, but I reckon this is the pub the story is set in.

Pubs, I’ve always thought, can be divided into two camps according to the stability of their décor. There are those that undergo a complete refit once or twice a decade, reinventing themselves from Haywain kitsch through ebony veneer and mirrors and back again in accordance with the latest fashion (or in spite of it) like the shifting political colours over some volatile town hall. Then there are others, the ones you’ll generally find me drinking in, where change is so incrementally slow as to be almost imperceptible, as gradual as the softening of the contours of a familiar face.

Even the photos on the wall of The Ship have stayed unchanged over the years – the old football team in their baggy shorts and moustaches…

One or two of the eldest players could be grandfather to the youngest, a grinning lad of twelve or thirteen, as if every able-bodied male in the village had to turn out to make up the eleven – and perhaps it was the case, it occurs to me with a bit of a shiver as I spot the date inscribed below the picture: 1919.

Drinking in the bar of the Ship Inn, Blaxhall - can't find a date.
Drinking in the bar of the Ship Inn, Blaxhall – can’t find a date.

One of the photos he spots in the 1954 video is of a woman dressed in the clothes of an even earlier era – a woman with a distinctively cleft chin, giving her a heart-shaped face. The face seems familiar to him…

I’m sure I’ve seen it, or an echo of it, very recently. Just this afternoon, in fact. That’s it: a woman with the same chin sat in the corner seat… and sang ‘Tom o’ Bedlam’ in a soft but sure contralto.

A strong family resemblance, he assumes, not unusual in a small village. Clicking through to the 1979 video, he is astonished to see the same face again, sitting in the same corner seat, singing…

For to see poor Tom o’ Bedlam
ten thousand miles I’d travel;
Mad Maudlin goes on dirty toes
for to save her shoes from gravel…

Daughter, mother and grandmother? But the resemblance is so strong. Hastily he opens up the file of the video he took himself that evening and searches for the woman he had listened to singing…

I let the tape roll on. But as the teenagers linger on their final major chord, modulating to a plaintive minor, and applause stutters around the bar, the scraping chairs and rumbling voices are interrupted not by the woman with the cleft chin, but by the piano again…

The Ship Inn, Blaxhall, circa 1900.
The Ship Inn, Blaxhall, circa 1900.

He runs through the tape again, but the woman isn’t there. Had he stopped recording before she sang for some reason he’s now forgotten? He hastens back to the 1954 video to look again at the photo…

The camera swings round, and my stomach lurches. The corner chair is no longer empty…

There the woman sits, singing…

So drink to Tom o’ Bedlam,
he’ll fill the seas in barrels.
I’ll drink it all, all brewed with gall,
with Mad Maudlin I will travel.

Now trembling, he clicks again to reopen one of the other files, but now the connection is playing up and all he gets is the maddening rotating circle that tells him it’s buffering. And yet, somehow, he can still hear the singing…

buffering* * * * * * *

Ooh, this is a creepy one! It starts out as if it’s simply going to be an interesting look at the three videos, with some musings perhaps on unchanging traditions in small communities where generations of families still live in close proximity. And even just as that, the quality of the writing and observations make it interesting. But then, gradually at first, Thornton sneaks in a couple of things that are a little odd and a gentle air of unease begins to develop. She reminds us subtly that the narrator is alone in unfamiliar surroundings, in a room above the bar that appears in the films.

Then gradually, as the woman begins to shift from photo to video, sometimes appearing, sometimes not; and then when the buffering begins, and the only lights in the room are the laptop screen and the winking bulbs of the router, and the only sound is the singing… and it still goes on even when the screen freezes… ooh, I say! The ending is left beautifully ambiguous, adding much to the spine-tingling feeling of dread.

A first-class ghost story that relies on tension and atmosphere rather than chainsaws and gore. I loved that Thornton managed to use modern technology so effectively in what feels nevertheless like a traditional style of tale. Great stuff! I wonder if she could be persuaded to write an entire collection of ghost stories…

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It's a fretful porpentine!
It’s a fretful porpentine!

Sandlands by Rosy Thornton

A fine collection…

😀 😀 😀 😀

sandlandsThis is a collection of loosely linked short stories based in the Suffolk sandlings, an area the author clearly knows and loves well. Although each story stands by itself, locations reappear frequently, and occasionally characters at the centre of one story are referred to peripherally in another, which gives the collection a feeling of wholeness – the individual pieces gradually fitting together to create a complete picture of the landscape and community of this place. Many of the stories include the wildlife of the region, either actually or symbolically – foxes, deer, owls, et al.

There is a tone of nostalgia running through the collection. Although most of the stories are set in the present day, they are often looking back at events in the past, and there is a general theme of connections across the generations. This allows Thornton to look at how the region has changed, with the collapse of many of its traditional ways of life, such as fishing; and also to look forward with a kind of fear to an uncertain future, as sea rises due to climate change threaten this low-lying coastal land.

suffolk-fox

The writing is excellent, especially when she is writing about the natural world…

As he stood he closed his eyes and let his mind trace out the melody as it rose and fell. He knew no other bird which could combine within a single phrase that round, full-throated tone like a thrush or blackbird before soaring up as impossibly high as the trilling of a skylark. But his favourite of all was a low, bubbling warble, a note so pure and liquid clear you felt refreshed to hear it, as if you had actually drunk the spring water the sound resembled, welling fresh from the rock.

Several of the stories have an air of ghostliness about them, usually mild and not the main focus, though there is one that I feel counts as a ‘proper’ ghost story, and beautifully creepy it is too! (It may well appear on a future Tuesday Terror! post.) Lots of them also read almost like folk tales, or rely on superstition for their impact. But there’s also humour in the collection, which prevents the nostalgia from becoming overly melancholic.

Rosy Thornton
Rosy Thornton

These are stories with an ending, rather than the more fragmentary style so often employed in contemporary short story writing. Normally I prefer stories with endings, but to be honest sometimes the endings here feel a little contrived, almost amounting to the dreaded “twist” on occasion. But this is my one criticism of a collection which I otherwise thoroughly enjoyed and recommend, from an author I am now keen to investigate further. As with any collection, I enjoyed some of the stories more than others – here are a few of the ones that stood out for me…

The White Doe – the first story in the collection, this tells of a woman grieving the death of her mother. The doe of the title refers both to an old folk tale and to an actual white doe, that Fran spots in the woods near her home. As the story unfolds, we learn that Fran has a personal history that in a strange way mirrors the folk tale. I found this story excellently written and frankly rather disturbing, and it set the tone of gentle unease that runs through much of the collection.

white-doe-2

The Interregnum – this is a delicious and wickedly funny tale of village life. The local parish priest is on maternity leave, so the parish brings in a ‘temp’ to cover – an unordained but highly qualified woman, Ivy. We see the story develop through the eyes of Dorothy, the elderly secretary of the parish council. Ivy, the stand-in, keeps telling the parishioners of the pagan rituals that pre-dated and were often absorbed into Christianity. Although some of her ideas seem a bit strange, the parishioners are a kind lot who go along with her ideas, until they gradually find themselves performing rites that feel, somehow, vaguely pagan. The ending of this one is also a twist, but in this case it works perfectly and left me laughing. Well-told, and a nice indicator of how Thornton can write in a variety of styles.

The Watcher of Souls is a beautiful story about Rebecca, an elderly lady in remission from cancer. During her regular walks in the woods, she becomes fascinated by a barn owl that roosts in an old, split oak tree. One day, she finds an old tin buried within the hollow of the tree, and within it are some old love letters…. The ending was one of those that felt a little too contrived for my taste, but otherwise this is a sad little story made lovely by the subtlety of the writing.

suffolk-barn-owl

Mackerel – the final story in the collection and one that in many ways sums up the themes of the book. An old woman is cooking mackerel for her favourite granddaughter, and as she does, she reminisces about the differences between her own life when she was young and her granddaughter’s life – both with entirely different aspirations and expectations, but both finding life fulfilling in their own ways. The story also talks of fishing, back when it was a way of life rather than an industry, and when mackerel was still plentiful before it was overfished almost into local extinction. A very nostalgic tale, this one, almost elegiac, as of a lifestyle lost forever. And a fine one to end on.

NB This book was kindly provided for review by the author.

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Tuesday Terror! The Old Nurse’s Story by Elizabeth Gaskell

Revenge is a dish best served Gothic…

the-old-nurses-story-cover

I had no idea Mrs Gaskell had written ghost stories till I read about it on Helen’s great blog, She Reads Novels. Helen said “I love Gaskell’s writing and this is an excellent example of a Victorian ghost story.” So of course I had to seek it out, since it sounds perfect for these dark nights and for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

The Old Nurse’s Story
by Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell
Elizabeth Gaskell

The old nurse Hester is telling the children in her care a story about their own mother, whom she also nursed back when she herself was a young girl.

There never was such a baby before or since, though you’ve all of you been fine enough in your turns; but for sweet, winning ways, you’ve none of you come up to your mother. She took after her mother, who was a real lady born; a Miss Furnivall, a grand-daughter of Lord Furnivall’s, in Northumberland.

Sadly, little Miss Rosamond was orphaned when she only about four or five. On her death-bed, her mother made Hester promise never to leave the child, to which Hester willingly agreed since she was devoted to Rosamond. Now Rosamond’s guardians have arranged for them to go to live with an elderly relative of Rosamond’s mother, Miss Grace Furnivall, in a rambling old house in Northumberland…

…we saw a great and stately house, with many trees close around it, so close that in some places their branches dragged against the walls when the wind blew, and some hung broken down; for no one seemed to take much charge of the place; – to lop the wood, or to keep the moss-covered carriage-way in order. Only in front of the house all was clear. The great oval drive was without a weed; and neither tree nor creeper was allowed to grow over the long, many-windowed front; at both sides of which a wing projected, which were each the ends of other side fronts; for the house, although it was so desolate, was even grander than I expected.

the-old-nurses-story-house

At first, all is well. Miss Furnivall is old and rather grim and sad, as is her servant and life-long companion Mrs Stark, but they grow to love the child, and the servants of the house are warm and friendly, welcoming both Hester and Rosamond into their lives. But gradually strange things begin to happen…

As winter drew on, and the days grew shorter, I was sometimes almost certain that I heard a noise as if some one was playing on the great organ in the hall. I did not hear it every evening; but, certainly, I did very often, usually when I was sitting with Miss Rosamond, after I had put her to bed, and keeping quite still and silent in the bedroom. Then I used to hear it booming and swelling away in the distance. The first night, when I went down to my supper, I asked Dorothy who had been playing music, and James said very shortly that I was a gowk to take the wind soughing among the trees for music; but I saw Dorothy look at him very fearfully, and Bessy, the kitchen-maid, said something beneath her breath, and went quite white.

The servants keep up the pretence that nothing is wrong, and Hester is young and brave, so she doesn’t let it bother her. But then, one cold, snowy winter’s evening, Hester returns from church to discover that Rosamond is missing, the only clue to where she has gone her little footsteps in the snow.

the-old-nurses-story-snow

When Hester tells Miss Furnivall what has happened, she is shocked and terrified by the old lady’s reaction…

…she threw her arms up – her old and withered arms – and cried aloud, “Oh! Heaven forgive! Have mercy!”

Mrs. Stark took hold of her; roughly enough, I thought; but she was past Mrs. Stark’s management, and spoke to me, in a kind of wild warning and authority.

“Hester! keep her from that child! It will lure her to her death! That evil child! Tell her it is a wicked, naughty child.” Then, Mrs. Stark hurried me out of the room; where, indeed, I was glad enough to go; but Miss Furnivall kept shrieking out, “Oh, have mercy! Wilt Thou never forgive! It is many a long year ago”

Illustration by mgkellermeyer via Deviant Art
Illustration by mgkellermeyer via Deviant Art

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Another great one this week! As soon as we get the description of the crumbling old mansion, dark and gloomy because of the crowding unkempt trees and with, of course, a wing sealed off, we know we’re in for a Gothic treat. The writing is excellent as you’d expect, perfectly suited to this style of storytelling. The story starts off slow, giving us time to grow to care about Hester and little Rosamond; and then Gaskell starts to build the tension, gradually at first with the mysterious organ playing, then bit by bit getting creepier and scarier till it reaches its dramatic climax. Along the way, it tells a dark story about pride, jealousy, sibling rivalry, guilt… and awful revenge! The moral of the story is clear…

“Alas! alas! what is done in youth can never be undone in age! What is done in youth can never be undone in age!”

So true! Thank goodness I was perfect in every way in my youth, but the rest of you must be so worried!

If you’d like to read it, (about 10,000 words), here’s a link. And thanks, Helen, for pointing me in this direction!

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It's a fretful porpentine!
It’s a fretful porpentine!

Tuesday Terror! Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Oh, ye of little faith…

young-goodman-brown-cover

For this spookiest week of the year, where best to head but to that town whose name will be forever associated with witchcraft and devil-worship. Salem! Birthplace to Nathaniel Hawthorne, himself descended from one of the men who interrogated the Salem witches and helped send them to their death. So this story seems like a perfect choice for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

Young Goodman Brown
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne

“Dearest heart,” whispered she, softly and rather sadly, when her lips were close to his ear, “prithee put off your journey until sunrise and sleep in your own bed to-night. A lone woman is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts that she’s afeard of herself sometimes. Pray tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all nights in the year.”

Young Goodman Brown resists this pathetic plea from Faith, his pretty, loving young wife, and heads off into the forest just outside the town. We soon learn that evil is afoot…

“Poor little Faith!” thought he, for his heart smote him. “What a wretch am I, to leave her on such an errand! She talks of dreams, too. Methought, as she spoke, there was trouble in her face, as if a dream had warned her what work is to be done to-night. But, no, no! ‘twould kill her to think it.”

He begins his journey through the dark and gloomy trees…

It was all as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity in such a solitude, that the traveller knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead; so that with lonely footsteps he may yet be passing through an unseen multitude.

spooky woods

Suddenly he sees a man sitting beneath a tree. They recognise each other, and it transpires the meeting is not by chance. They are both going to a meeting in the middle of the forest in the dead of night. (It doesn’t really bode well, does it? And it gets worse…) The older man, it appears, is the Devil himself, in human form…

But the only thing about him that could be fixed upon as remarkable was his staff, which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent. This, of course, must have been an ocular deception, assisted by the uncertain light.

…and Goodman Brown is on his way to be taken into communion with those who worship him. But the Goodman is doubtful. He thinks of all the good people of the town and how hard it will be to look them in the eye on the morrow – and he thinks of his Faith, sweet, gentle creature, waiting anxiously for him to come home.

But the Devil tells him he will not be alone in the town, and reveals the sins of many of those Goodman Brown has looked up to all his life…

“…here are they all, in my worshipping assembly! This night it shall be granted you to know their secret deeds; how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widow’s weeds, has given her husband a drink at bed-time, and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youth have made haste to inherit their father’s wealth; and how fair damsels – blush not, sweet ones – have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest, to an infant’s funeral.”

young-goodman-brown
Illustration by Micah Clegg

Still Goodman Brown holds out, the thought of Faith holding him firm in his resolve. But the Devil has more to tempt him with yet…

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Well! This is a great little story, very well written and full of wickedness and evil. But the message! What exactly is the message? It appears that if one goes over to the dark-side one might be damned for eternity but otherwise everything will be quite jolly. But if one rejects the Devil and all his works, one is destined to be a miserable old so-and-so for the rest of one’s life and die in gloom and despondency! I was expecting it all to end either horrifically or with a big dose of uplift. Instead it’s totally depressing! Oh dear!

“Lo, there ye stand, my children,” said the figure, in a deep and solemn tone, almost sad with its despairing awfulness, as if his once angelic nature could yet mourn for our miserable race. “Depending upon one another’s hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream. Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race.”

Yeah, fine, Hawthorne, but you could have put up a bit of an argument, surely! I mean, he’s the Devil, for goodness sake! He’s bound to have a slightly skewed outlook on life!

Illustration by Corinna Roberts
Illustration by Corinna Roberts

Well, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to do a bit of sinning. No point wasting any more time trying to be good…

(Having got that off my chest, actually I think it’s a great story – but have some medicinal chocolate on hand to aid recovery. That’s where I made my mistake!)

If you’d like to read it (about 5000 words), here’s a link.

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

No wonder the porpentine's praying!
No wonder the porpentine’s praying!