Tuesday Terror! The Murderer’s Violin by Erckmann-Chatrian

The Devilish Diet!

Last year, the porpy and I were put off the demon drink by this duo’s humorously macabre little story, The Burgomaster in Bottle. This year, it appears they’re now trying to put us off food too! Let’s see if they succeed in this week’s…

The Murderer’s Violin
by Erckmann-Chatrian

Emile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian

Karl Hâfitz had spent six years in mastering counterpoint. He had studied Haydn, Glück, Mozart, Beethoven, and Rossini; he enjoyed capital health, and was possessed of ample means which permitted him to indulge his artistic tastes – in a word, he possessed all that goes to make up the grand and beautiful in music, except that insignificant but very necessary thing – inspiration!

I know exactly how he feels! I possess everything except inspiration, talent and ability; otherwise I’m a brilliant musician! Anyway… every time Karl tries to write a piece of music, his instructor points out that it’s copied from one of the greats…

Karl cried with rage, he got very angry, and disputed the point; but the old master quietly opened one of his numerous music-books, and putting his finger on the passage, said ‘Look there, my boy.’

Karl is convinced, while his instructor is equally sure that Karl isn’t doing this deliberately. He has a theory as to why Karl has no original inspiration…

“. . . you are growing too fat decidedly; you drink too generous a wine, and, above all, too much beer. That is what is shutting up the avenues of your intellect. You must get thinner!”
“Get thinner!”
“Yes, or give up music. You do not lack science, but ideas, and it is very simple; if you pass your whole life covering the strings of your violin with a coat of grease how can they vibrate?”

Poor Karl! But he is heroic in the face of this terrible decree…

“I will not shrink from any sacrifice. Since matter oppresses the mind I will starve myself.”

He sets off on a long walking journey and, after several weeks of strenuous exercise and little food and drink, is considerably thinner but still uninspired. One evening, after a long day of walking, he is tired and night is falling…

Just then he perceived by the light of the moon an old ruined inn half-hidden in trees on the opposite side of the way; the door was off its hinges, the small-window panes were broken, the chimney was in ruins.

Karl is philosophical, murmuring to himself…

“. . . it is rather ill-looking indeed, but we must not judge by appearances.”

Eh? Why not? Yes, we must, Karl! Don’t go in!! Tchah! They never listen, do they? Still, once he gets past the thuggish axe-carrying innkeeper and his mad chicken-hugging daughter into the badly-lit half-bare room with only a small fire, things begin to look up…

“You have no cheese, then?”
“No.”
“No butter, nor bread, nor milk?”
“No.”
“Well, good heavens! What have you got?”
“We can roast some potatoes in the embers.”

In a sudden burst of enthusiasm, Karl realises this is the perfect place for him…

“I shall remain here three months – six months – any time that may be necessary to make me as thin as a fakir.”

However, later that night, in the loft that is his bedroom, he is awoken suddenly by the sound of a deep sob. He sees a man, a skeleton almost, lifting a violin and beginning to play…

There was in this ghostly music something of the cadence with which the earth falls upon the coffin of a dearly-loved friend . . .

* * * * *

Another lovely mix of humour and mild horror in this one! It feels a bit slapdash, to be sure – the story of the haunting is all kind of shoved in without enough explanation, but it doesn’t matter because it’s clearly only supposed to be an amusing entertainment rather than a meaningful psychological study. And on that level it works very well. Some of the stories in the collection are much darker and longer than the two I’ve highlighted so far, but they’re all well written and full of some great descriptive imagery. This one is a fairly standard ghost story, but Karl is a likeable hero. There’s almost a folk-tale feel to his quest and one can’t help hoping that somehow he will find his inspiration.

Good fun! The porpy and I were only a little scared – mostly we were entertained and amused.

Unfortunately I can’t find an online version, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be recommending the collection when I finish it, assuming the rest of the stories are as good as the ones I’ve read so far.

(The porpentine felt in the need of a feast after this…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀

NB The collection The Invisible Eye was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Chillers.

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The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories by Henry James

Mostly about the Other Stories…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This collection is made up of four stories – the novella length title story and three shorter ones. The Turn of the Screw is, of course, a classic of the horror genre, and since I’ve already had my say about it in a Tuesday Terror! post, here’s a brief summary of the others…

Sir Edmund Orme – Our narrator becomes fascinated by a mother and daughter, Mrs Marden and Charlotte, because of what he feels is their peculiarly strong concern for each other. Then, as he finds himself falling in love with Charlotte, the narrator begins to see a strange man, who never speaks, and his appearances seem to coincide with Mrs Marden’s “episodes”. Eventually, she takes him into her confidence and tells him the story of her one-time lover, Sir Edmund Orme.

Despite having a ghost in it, the story really isn’t scary or spooky. It’s strange, however, and a little unsettling, mainly because the narrator comes over as something of a predator who coldly uses Mrs Marden’s fear and Charlotte’s love for her mother to achieve his own ends. It’s superficially entertaining, but left me feeling rather as if I’d been made an accessory to something rather cruel.

Owen Wingrave – the title character is a young man from a military family who is being crammed for the entrance exam to get into Sandhurst, the army’s elite officer training college. However, Owen has different views – he despises war, and believes that politicians who lead their nations into war should be hanged, drawn and quartered. When he drops out of training, his family and friends put pressure on him to think again, and when the girl he loves implies that he is a coward, to prove her wrong he agrees to spend a night in the haunted room of his family castle…

The ghostly factor of this one is well-nigh non-existent, but it’s a good story for all that. It’s a rather poignant look at how military tradition forces young men to seek glory rather than choosing a more peaceful path in life.

The Friends of the Friends – another I’ve written about previously in a Tuesday Terror! post. This tells the story of two people, a man and a woman, who share the distinction of each having seen a ghost. This coincidence makes their mutual friends want to bring them together, but circumstances always seem to prevent them meeting. Eventually it seems they will meet, but it isn’t to be – one of them dies before the meeting takes place. The other one, however, as we know, can see ghosts…

Again unsettling rather than scary, this starts out quite jollily with a lot of jibes about society and so on, but gradually darkens into a story about jealousy taken perhaps to the point of madness.

* * * * *

While for the most part I found the writing good and certainly effective at conjuring up an atmosphere, I several times came across sentences so badly constructed that they required me to go back and read them again to catch the meaning, and sometimes they were still obscure after that. Perhaps sometimes James was doing this for effect, to add to the vagueness and ambiguity. But truthfully, I mostly felt it was simply clumsy, lazy writing that he hadn’t bothered to revise properly before publication, and as a result I’ve entirely lost the desire to read any of his novels.

Aside from that criticism, each of the four stories is well-structured, and the sense of vagueness that surrounds the narrative intention has the effect of leaving them open to interpretation. I found this tended to make them linger in my mind for longer than most spooky stories, as I mulled over what was beneath the surface. And generally speaking, I concluded that what was there was rather unpleasant – hints of child sexual abuse in The Turn of the Screw, a controlling lover in Sir Edmund Orme, family pressure taken to extremes in Owen Wingrave and extreme jealousy in The Friends of the Friends. Horror stories always tend to be based on unpleasant things, of course, but here it somehow left me feeling more uncomfortable than usual and I’m not sure I know why. Perhaps because the horror aspects are mostly low-key and so the underlying story stands out more than usual, or perhaps because James uses ambiguity to force the reader to, in a sense, fill in the blanks, making it feel as if the unpleasantness comes from inside her own mind. Whatever the reason, it meant that though I quite enjoyed them while reading I found they left a slightly nasty aftertaste – especially The Turn of the Screw. I wonder if that was James’ intention? I suspect it may have been.

Henry James

You can probably tell that I feel quite ambivalent about this collection. I rated each of the three shorter stories as four stars and The Turn of the Screw as five, but that’s mostly due to my appreciation of their impact rather than an indication of my enjoyment.

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

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Dickens at Christmas! The Chimes

The eye of a needle…

Every year in the run up to Christmas, I read, watch or listen to at least one version of A Christmas Carol – the book that exemplifies the spirit of Christmas. This year, thanks to the lovely people at Oxford World’s Classics, I have a gorgeous new edition of all five of Dickens’ Christmas books, so for a change I thought I’d read the other four for a little mini-series of…

* * * * *

The Chimes
by Charles Dickens

Old Toby “Trotty” Veck is in his usual place just outside the church-door one cold and windy winter day at the end of the year, waiting and hoping that someone will hire him to carry a letter or a parcel so that he can earn sixpence or a shilling.


Toby “Trotty” Veck
by John Leech

Of material wealth, Trotty has little – just enough to keep body and soul together, though not very securely. He has a daughter, Meg, whom he loves with all his warm heart. And the church bells are like old friends too…

For, being but a simple man, he invested them with a strange and solemn character. They were so mysterious, often heard and never seen; so high up, so far off, so full of such a deep strong melody, that he regarded them with a species of awe; and sometimes when he looked up at the dark arched windows in the tower, he half expected to be beckoned to by something which was not a Bell, and yet was what he had heard so often sounding in the Chimes.

But, even so, the hard life of the poor people of London makes Trotty wonder sometimes…

…whether we have any business on the face of the earth, or not. Sometimes I think we must have—a little; and sometimes I think we must be intruding. I get so puzzled sometimes that I am not even able to make up my mind whether there is any good at all in us, or whether we are born bad.


The original frontispiece
by Daniel Maclise

On this day Meg arrives unexpectedly, bringing a rare hot meal for her father – a delicious dish of tripe! She also brings news. Her lover, Richard, has proposed that they should marry on New Year’s Day and they have come to get her father’s blessing. While Trotty is still digesting this news and his tripe, a local bigwig stops to hire him to carry a letter. This man lectures Meg and Richard on how reprehensible it is of them to marry and bring more poor children into the world who will inevitably turn out bad. Then the recipient of the letter, another well-fed rich man, upbraids Trotty for going into the New Year owing a little money, which he had spent on the luxury of food. By now Trotty is convinced the poor are born bad and don’t deserve to live.

But, that night, as he sits pondering over this thought, the church bells seem to be calling angrily to him, and he goes to the darkened church, where he finds the door open…

Illustration by
Clarkson Stanfield

… and climbs up to the top of the steeple.

He saw the tower, whither his charmed footsteps had brought him, swarming with dwarf phantoms, spirits, elfin creatures of the Bells . . . He saw them, of all aspects and all shapes. He saw them ugly, handsome, crippled, exquisitely formed. He saw them young, he saw them old, he saw them kind, he saw them cruel, he saw them merry, he saw them grim; he saw them dance, and heard them sing; he saw them tear their hair, and heard them howl.


Illustration by
Arthur Rackham

* * * * *

Well! This is Dickens in full social justice warrior mode, showing the dire poverty in which so many people lived contrasted with the smug and hypocritical rich, who lecture when a sixpence would work better, who wallow in their own well-fed self-satisfaction as they blame the poor for cluttering up their otherwise charming and tidy world. It has little of the humour of A Christmas Carol – it is dark to the point where it had me sobbing, with starvation and death, men jailed for the crime of trying to stay alive, women driven to prostitution, infanticide and suicide. And while there is a form of redemption at the end, it feels a fairly hollow one to me – the Chimes, by showing Toby how awful life without faith can be, restore his belief that the poor are not doomed from birth to be bad. There are lots of Biblical references and warnings to spouting “Christian” hypocrites who think that lectures on morality are enough to win them a place in heaven. But the underlying message seems confused – both that the rich should do more to alleviate poverty, but that the poor should fall back on faith when there’s no food to be had. I couldn’t help feeling it must have been a long time since Dickens went hungry. There’s also some foreshadowing of his message in the later A Tale of Two Cities – that if the rich don’t deal with the poor…

…afore the day comes when even his Bible changes in his altered mind, and the words seem to him to read, as they have sometimes read in my own eyes—in jail: “Whither thou goest, I can Not go; where thou lodgest, I do Not lodge; thy people are Not my people; Nor thy God my God!”

…then the poor may rise up and deal with the rich.

A happy ending
by John Leech

Powerful stuff! I can see why it’s not as well loved as A Christmas Carol – it feels rushed and a little untidy, the message is not so clear and, despite the happy-ish ending, I certainly didn’t come away from it feeling as uplifted as I do when Tiny Tim asks God to bless us, everyone. In fact, I felt angry, depressed and as if I wanted to go and beat a few rich hypocrites over the head with a yule log – and I don’t mean the cake. So I think Dickens pretty much succeeded in his aim…

Festive Joy Rating:      🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀

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Tuesday Terror! Basil Netherby by AC Benson

If music be the food of evil…

Apparently the famous EF Benson had two ghost-story-writing brothers – AC and RH (their parents were clearly big on initials). This collection includes stories from both of them, turn and turn about. So in a future post I’ll highlight one of RH’s, but AC takes the stage for this week’s…

Basil Netherby
by AC Benson

AC Benson

“…for God’s sake, dear Leonard, if you would help a friend who is on the edge (I dare not say of what), come to me tomorrow, UNINVITED. You will think this very strange, but do not mind that – only come – unannounced, do you see…”

This forms the postscript to a letter our narrator, Leonard Ward, receives from his old friend, Basil Netherby. They had studied music together, and since then Netherby has been travelling from place to place working on his compositions. Now he is lodging in an old house called Treheale, in Cornwall. The main body of the letter gives a glowing account of the work Netherby is doing there – only the postscript worries Ward…

My first thought was that Basil was mad; my next thought that he had drifted into some awkward situation, fallen under some unfortunate influence – was perhaps being blackmailed – and I knew his sensitive character well enough to feel sure that whatever the trouble was it would be exaggerated ten times over by his lively and apprehensive mind.

Netherby has also enclosed a sample of the music he had been writing, and this worries Ward even more…

…what music it was! It was like nothing of which I’d ever even dreamed. There was a wild, intemperate voluptuousness about it, a kind of evil relish of beauty which gave me a painful thrill.

So Ward rushes off to Cornwall. But, to his surprise, when he gets there, Netherby is looking fine – more than fine, in fact. He has a vigour and glow he never before possessed and seems in high spirits. But Ward worries that this change in his friend is a sign of something troubling and he begins to connect it with the house. This feeling grows stronger when, while walking around the wooded grounds, he comes across a path that takes him to a strange-looking little door at a corner of the house…

I do not know what was the obsession that fell on me at the sight of this place. A cold dismay seemed to spring from the dark and clutch me; there are places which seem so soaked, as it were, in malign memories that they give out a kind of spiritual aroma of evil. I have seen in my life things which might naturally seem to produce in the mind associations of terror and gloom. I have seen men die; I have seen a man writhe in pain on the ground from a mortal injury; but I never experienced anything like the thrill of horror which passed through my shuddering mind at the sight of the little door with its dark eye-holes.

* * * * *

I’ve only read a few of the stories from each of the two brothers so far, but AC is winning hands down, not least because of this excellent tale. There’s no great mystery to it – Ward is soon told that the malign influence Netherby is suffering under is the ghost of the house’s previous owner, a dissolute man who had spent his life corrupting the youth of the village and seems intent on continuing after death.

The writing is great and soon creates a real atmosphere of evil and dread. AC uses the idea of Netherby’s music very effectively, showing it both as having resulted from corruption and of being, in itself, corrupting. As Ward says…

Heard upon the piano, the accent of subtle evil that ran through the music became even more obvious. I seemed to struggle between two feelings – an over-powering admiration, and a sense of shame at my own capacity for admiring it.

There’s a distinct but distinctly Edwardian suggestion that the corruption is of a sensual nature, turning these decent young men’s thoughts to something slightly more earthy than a well-turned ankle, and thus leading them from the path of righteousness into temptation. (All the stories so far have had a religious element underpinning them; sometimes broadly, especially in RH’s; sometimes, as in this one, rather more subtly.) The question is whether Ward will be able to save his friend and get him away from the house before it’s too late, but the ghost doesn’t take too kindly to that idea. As the story reaches its crescendo it becomes tense indeed! Good stuff!

(The porpentine became obsessed with the music…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱 😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

NB The collection Ghosts in the House was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Chillers.

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Tuesday Terror! The Burgomaster in Bottle by Erckmann-Chatrian

The Demon Drink!

The medical experts seem to give us conflicting advice about the benefits or dangers of tippling red wine on an almost weekly basis. This little tale should help to settle the matter once and for all…

The Burgomaster in Bottle
by Erckmann-Chatrian

Emile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian

I have always professed the highest esteem, and even a sort of veneration for the Rhine’s noble wine; it sparkles like champagne, it warms one like Burgundy, it soothes the throat like Bordeaux, it fires the imagination like the juice of the Spanish grape, it makes us tender and kind like lachryma-christi; and last, but not least, it helps us to dream – it unfolds the extensive field of fancy before our eyes.

Our narrator Ludwig is travelling through the vineyards of the Rheingau region, sampling the various wines produced there, when he meets up with an old friend, Hippel, who is doing the same. Feeling that companionship will add to their enjoyment, they join up and travel on together. One night, they stop at an inn and, finding it closed, peer through the window, where they see an old woman, asleep…

….“Hallo!” cried my comrade; “open the door, mother!”
….The old woman started, got up and came to the window, and pressed her shrunken face against the panes. You would have taken it for one of those old Flemish portraits in which ochre and bistre predominate.

Rheingau region

The woman welcomes them and produces a fine supper, including several bottles of local wine. First she offers them red…

We tasted it; it was a strong rough wine. I cannot describe the peculiar flavour it possessed – a mixture of vervain and cypress leaves! I drank a few drops, and my soul became profoundly sad. But Hippel, on the contrary, smacked his lips with an air of satisfaction.

Ludwig sticks to the white wine, but Hippel drinks deeply of the red. Finally, at one in the morning, they make their way to bed, Hippel staggering slightly. Ludwig finds himself wakeful but Hippel falls asleep immediately and begins to dream…

His face was red, his mouth half-open, I could see the blood pulsating in his temples, and his lips moved as if he wanted to speak. I stood for some time motionless by his side; I tried to see into the depths of his soul, but sleep is an impenetrable mystery; like death, it keeps its secrets.

Gradually Hippel becomes more disturbed and seems terrified, so Ludwig wakes him, and Hippel tells his dream. He had dreamt that he was a local burgomaster – a mean and miserly man, the opposite of Hippel’s gregarious and generous self. In the dream, the burgomaster died but Hippel dreamt that his soul stayed near the body, and that Hippel himself was that soul. He dreamt the villagers found the body…

….“Upon my word,” said the clerk. “between ourselves, he is no great loss to the parish. He was a miser and an ass, and he knew nothing whatever.”
….“Yes,” added the magistrate, “and yet he found fault with everything.”
….“Not very surprising either,” said another, “fools always think themselves clever.”

They take the body off to bury it, the soul/Hippel following sadly behind…

As a dream, this was bad enough, but the next day as Hippel and Ludwig travel on, suddenly Hippel begins to recognise the scenery as that of his dream. They find themselves in the village he saw and indeed, the burgomaster there had died a few years before just as Hippel dreamt! Still Hippel is haunted by the terror and sadness of the dream, and seems to believe that in some way he truly is the burgomaster’s soul. Ludwig suggests they must visit the grave to free him from the impressions he has been left with…

“No!” he exclaimed – “no, never! Do you want to see me in Satan’s clutches? I stand upon my own tombstone! It is against every law in nature. Ludwig, you cannot mean it?”

But Ludwig insists…

* * * * *

I’ve only read a few of the stories in this collection so far, but am thoroughly enjoying them. They don’t stick to one particular aspect of horror – there are touches of Gothic in some, hints of mad science in others, but there are also fairly light-hearted traditional hauntings like this one and darker, more Satanic tales. They are very well written, although sometimes the rather archaic style can take a bit of concentration. So far, none have involved anything too gory or gruesome for my moderate tastes.

This one is an excellent little story with a great mixture of mild horror and humour. The ending has a touch of the macabre but counterbalanced by an amusing and, in my experience, entirely original way of trying to rid oneself of a ghostly possession! The moral of the story isn’t so much to avoid the perils of wine-bibbing, but rather to be aware of where the grapes might have come from…

(The porpentine had a little too much wine…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

NB The collection The Invisible Eye was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Chillers.

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The Green Lady of Crathes Castle

A True* Scottish Ghost Story

(*Well… partially…)

Near Banchory in Aberdeenshire sits Crathes Castle, ancestral seat of the Burnetts of Leys since the 16th century, built on lands gifted to them centuries earlier by Robert the Bruce.

In one of the towers of the castle is the Green Lady’s Room, so called because it is here that the Green Lady of Crathes walks, clutching to her breast an infant, and hovering close to the ancient fireplace as if to warm the child. It is said that she once appeared to no less a personage than Queen Victoria. Her manifestation is considered to be a harbinger of doom to the Burnett family.

The Green Lady’s story is shrouded in the fog of history. Some say she was a maidservant who bore an illegitimate child and was killed by her outraged father.

This doesn’t ring true to me though. If that was her story, then what would be her link to the fate of the Burnetts? I imagine a different, darker tale – one hidden, perhaps, for shame…

🎃 🎃 🎃 🎃 🎃

The Green Lady’s Room

It was early in the 17th century and the Laird of Crathes was looking for a new wife. His first wife had died in childbirth – some say it was a blessing for both mother and child to escape life with the brutal, tyrannous Alastair Burnett. Now the young daughter of a neighbouring family had caught the eye of the Laird – the beautiful Fiona, she of the dark hair and lissome limbs, as wild and free as the eagles that soar in the summer skies.

But Fiona loved another, a young soldier who had gone off to war, leaving, though he knew it not, a token of his passion swelling in his lover’s belly. Those days were harsh, and when Fiona’s father announced she would marry the Laird, Fiona could not tell her secret, for the shame to her family would have surely meant her death.

And so the marriage took place, and the Laird was delighted with his youthful bride, taking his pleasure with her despite her reluctance. She would warm to him in time, he thought, and if she didn’t, no matter – she would learn to behave as he willed. His happiness grew on learning that she was to bear a child – an heir for the great estate of the Burnetts and a future leader of the clan, should it be a boy.

Fiona’s time came early, and the child was born healthy – a beautiful boy indeed. Alas! Too early! The Laird knew that this child was no puling seven-month infant but a lusty well-grown babe that had spent his allotted time in his mother’s womb. This cuckoo in his nest could never inherit, and this woman – this wife – could never be allowed to shame him again. Before Fiona’s eyes, the Laird crushed the child with one mighty blow and told her the same fate would be hers should she ever mention her murdered son again.

Broken in spirit, Fiona complied, but though she bore many more children to the Laird she never forgot this lost child, the token of her first and only love. And when she in her turn donned the garb of death, she returned to find her poor baby and to nurse him lovingly as she had never been allowed to do in life. Ever since, her appearance has foretold doom to the Lairds of Crathes…

🎃 🎃 🎃 🎃 🎃

Of course, this is entirely made up, and I’m sure the real Lairds of Crathes were all fine gentlemanly men who’d never have behaved in such a way! But…

…according to legend, when the Green Lady’s Room was being refurbished in the early 1800s, the bones of an infant child were found buried beneath the ancient fireplace…

🎃 🎃 🎃 🎃 🎃

Not scared enough yet? Here are a few stories the Fretful Porpentine recommends

The Music of Erich Zann
by HP Lovecraft

The Body-Snatcher
by Robert Louis Stevenson

Boris Karloff in the 1945 film…

The Great God Pan
by Arthur Machen

The Tell-Tale Heart
by Edgar Allan Poe

Sredni Vashtar
by Saki

 

HAPPY HALLOWE’EN!

Tuesday Terror! The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Dreadful dreadfulness…

I’ve seen about a million adaptations and derivations of this classic tale, but have never before read the original. Time to rectify that in this week’s…

The Turn of the Screw
by Henry James

Henry James
by John Singer Sargent

A house party has spent a happy evening swapping ghost stories, when one man, Douglas, tells them that he has a tale given to him by a woman he once knew…

….“Nobody but me, till now, has ever heard. It’s quite too horrible.” This, naturally, was declared by several voices to give the thing the utmost price, and our friend, with quiet art, prepared his triumph by turning his eyes over the rest of us and going on: “It’s beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it.”
….“For sheer terror?” I remember asking.
….He seemed to say it was not so simple as that; to be really at a loss how to qualify it. He passed his hand over his eyes, made a little wincing grimace. “For dreadful—dreadfulness!”

The story is of a young governess who is engaged to look after two children, the orphaned niece and nephew of her employer. He makes it clear he sees the children as a nuisance and tells her…

“…that she should never trouble him—but never, never: neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything; only meet all questions herself, receive all moneys from his solicitor, take the whole thing over and let him alone. She promised to do this, and she mentioned to me that when, for a moment, disburdened, delighted, he held her hand, thanking her for the sacrifice, she already felt rewarded.

ENO open-air production of Britten’s opera – If the ghosts don’t make you scream, the singing might…

This gives the reader an early indication that she’s certifiably nuts, something that becomes ever clearer as the tale progresses. Luckily, this means she’ll fit well in at the house in Bly where she will be living, since all the inmates could do with some urgent psychiatric intervention. But first, we must meet her young charges…

The little girl who accompanied Mrs. Grose appeared to me on the spot a creature so charming as to make it a great fortune to have to do with her. She was the most beautiful child I had ever seen, and I afterward wondered that my employer had not told me more of her.

Possibly her employer had sussed that a child of such unnatural beauty and charm must be the spawn of Satan… but I anticipate! The brother is equally uncanny…

…I felt, as he stood wistfully looking out for me before the door of the inn at which the coach had put him down, that I had seen him, on the instant, without and within, in the great glow of freshness, the same positive fragrance of purity, in which I had, from the first moment, seen his little sister. He was incredibly beautiful…

Michelle Dockery in a BBC adaptation from 2009

Our governess soon learns of the strange unexplained deaths of the two people who had previously cared for these unnatural monstrosities, but even that doesn’t make her hand in her notice and seek alternative employment. Not even the appearance of dead people around the old homestead is enough to make this woman run for the hills…

I was there to protect and defend the little creatures in the world the most bereaved and the most lovable, the appeal of whose helplessness had suddenly become only too explicit, a deep, constant ache of one’s own committed heart. We were cut off, really, together; we were united in our danger. They had nothing but me, and I—well, I had THEM.

Jodhi May in a TV adaptation from 1999.
Good heavens! Is that?… can it be??… the ghost of Darcy behind her???

* * * * *

Well, my goodness! This didn’t terrify the porpy and me exactly, but it chilled us to the bone. Its ambiguity is its major feature, with nothing clear or explained and with deliberate gaps in time and explanations that leave the reader to make her own interpretations. The great introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition tells me that debate has raged ever since publication over whether the ghosts are real or a figment of the governess’ disordered imagination. I’m in the middle – I could argue for or against the reality of the ghosts. However, I’m decidedly of the opinion that, either way, the governess is crazy and disturbingly obsessed by the beauty of the children. Maybe it’s a symptom of today’s world, but every time the story hinted at corruption or evil I saw it as a euphemism for sexual abuse, and wondered whether the original readers would have thought that or if they’d have seen the evil as a more satanic thing. Had the children been abused by their former guardians? I suspected so. Was the governess sexually abusive? Hmm, perhaps not, but her overwhelming need for the love of the children and her constant physical hugging and kissing of them felt smothering and extreme. Had the children, as victims of abuse sometimes do, become abusers in turn? I don’t want to stray too far into spoiler territory but we are left to wonder why young Miles had been expelled from school…

Deborah Kerr in a movie adaptation, titled The Innocents, from 1961.

I can’t say I wholeheartedly enjoyed the story – it stank too deeply of corruption and vice to be entertaining, especially with the involvement of such young children, and I searched in vain for someone I could trust. Of course this is clearly the intended effect, so full marks to James for creating something so disturbing. There are references to some of the Gothic classics and particularly echoes of Jane Eyre, but in this case I had to feel that it was the governess who should have been locked in the attic. Generally speaking, I shrug off written horror as soon as I close the book, but I found myself thinking of this story when I woke in the dark reaches of the night, and I had troubled dreams…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱 😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The porpy was chilled to the bone by this one…

NB I read this in The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories, provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. I’ll review the full book later.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! Haunted Houses by Charlotte Riddell

Entertainingly shivery…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

For those who prefer a rather more gentle haunting experience comes this delightful pair of novels from another “forgotten” Victorian, the Irish-born Charlotte Riddell.

The second novel, The Uninhabited House, seems to be rather better known than the first, Fairy Water, and I would agree it’s the stronger of the two, especially in terms of the ghostly aspects. But Fairy Water is full of charm with a delightful first-person narrator who grows ever more likeable as the book progresses.

Fairy Water

Charlotte Riddell

Our narrator is Mr H Stafford Trevor, a bachelor of independent means who has made it his life’s work to dine out. His natural habitat is the foggy London of good society but he often visits his cousin’s country house, Fairy Water, especially in strawberry season since he’s rather fonder of fresh strawberries than he is of his cousin. Mr Trevor is a delightful combination of self-satisfication and self-deprecation – a man who claims to live for pleasure only, but whom we come to realise is a staunch friend to those he loves. His voice is what makes this story special – he is deliciously snobbish and a little wicked about the society in which he moves…

Old friends welcome me for the sake of Auld Lang Syne, to speak in the hideous idiom of a people whose accent I detest, and whose ways are abhorrent to me – one degree less abhorrent only than their primitive ballads, always suggestive of the screech of a bagpipe. Young couples welcome me for the sake of the dead and gone; people whose position is assured, because, like dear Lady Mary, who plays a little part in this story, it is quite safe to whisper secret scandals, and the latest and most wicked bon mot in my ear; and the nouveau riche, because, poor wretches, they believe I must be somebody.

When the rather boorish, bullying cousin marries a girl young enough to be his granddaughter, Stafford finds himself befriending her; and later, when the cousin dies, he becomes a kind of surrogate father to Mary, the young widow, and unofficial guardian to her several children. He is also attached to a young man, Valentine Waldrum, the son of a woman he once loved. Valentine has become the owner of Crow Hall – the haunted house – following the tragic death of his father who had been driven mad by the ghostly presence there. To help Valentine, Stafford will attempt to rid Crow Hall of its resident spectre.

The ghostly stuff is very mild and often humorous, and is something of an add-on to the story of poor Mary, left in a difficult position because of the iniquitous will of her dead husband, and Valentine, who fears his father’s insanity may be hereditary. The perceptive among you may suspect that romance ensues – I couldn’t possibly comment. But while Stafford tries to do his best for the young people, he still has time for plenty of humorous commentary on the various characters involved in the story. Scare factor very low – entertainment factor very high!

The Uninhabited House

This time our narrator is a young man, Harry Patterson, who works as a clerk in the law firm of Mr Craven. On their books is River Hall, the property of a young girl orphaned when her father took his own life in the library. The girl’s aunt, Miss Blake, is a great comic character – rude, somewhat uncouth, and an opportunity for Riddell to poke fun at her own Irish background. Mr Craven keeps letting the house, but tenants never stay long. Eventually one aggrieved tenant complains bitterly that he should have been warned that the house was haunted. With his reputation at stake, Mr Craven is reluctant to continue letting the house, but our intrepid clerk offers to live in River Hall himself and lay the ghost, if he can. (The perceptive among you may wonder if he’s inspired by feelings of romance for the young owner – I couldn’t possibly comment.)

….It is as well to confess at once that I was for the moment frightened. Subsequently I saw many wonderful sights, and had some terrible experiences in the Uninhabited House; but I can honestly say, no sight or experience so completely cowed me for the time being, as that dull blackness to which I could assign no shape, that spirit-like rapping of fleshless fingers, which seemed to increase in vehemence as I obeyed its summons.
….Doctors say it is not possible for the heart to stand still and a human being live, and, as I am not a doctor, I do not like to contradict their dogma, otherwise I could positively declare my heart did cease beating as I listened, looking out into the night with the shadow of that darkness projecting itself upon my mind…

The spookiness aspect of this is stronger than in Fairy Water but still of the mild shiver variety rather than the hiding behind the sofa kind. It’s soon clear there’s also a mystery surrounding the haunting, and as the book goes on it actually becomes as much a mystery novel as a ghost story. Again our narrator is extremely likeable – brave but not to the point of arrogance, and as amusingly observant of society’s eccentrics as Mr Trevor in Fairy Water. The storytelling in this one is more direct, giving it a better flow overall, and while the mystery might not be the hardest in the world to work out, it gives an added element of interest to the plot.

I found both of these to be highly enjoyable page-turners, with enough spookiness to entertain but mild enough for the scaredest of scaredy-cats out there. The quality of the writing is excellent, with a touch of Victorian sentimentality but not too much, and the warm humour makes both books pleasingly amusing. Apparently Riddell wrote lots of short ghost stories too, and I look forward to seeking them out.

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😱 😱

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The porpentine was amused too…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link (I’m afraid it’s not due out till April 2019 in the US)

The Hound of Roslin Castle

A true Scottish ghost story

Roslin Castle circa 1820 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

The ruins of Roslin Castle sit on the bank of the North Esk river just a few miles south of Edinburgh. The castle dates back to the 14th century, and is built on the site where an even earlier battle was fought between the Scots and English in 1303, during the First War of Independence.

The Battle of Roslin 1303

As the battle hung balanced, an English knight and his great hound fought bravely, but at last the knight was slain by a Scottish warrior. The hound attacked his master’s killer but was slain in its turn by other Scottish soldiers wielding swords and axes. The battle turned – the Scots were victorious and the remnants of the invading English army were sent scuttling homewards…

Later that night as the triumphant Scots caroused, the hound appeared again, howling into the darkness, till the soldiers panicked and fled. Each night the hound returned, howling, searching… until finally one night it came face to face with the man who had slain its master…

No one knows what happened when they met, though no one who heard them ever forgot the terror in the warrior’s screams. All that is known is that the warrior never spoke again… and three nights later, he died.

They say that, when storms are abroad and the wind blasts through the ruins of the castle, the phantom hound can still be heard… howling for vengeance into the darkness of the night…

🎃🎃🎃🎃🎃

Not scared enough yet? Then here are a few the Fretful Porpentine recommends…

The Old Nurse’s Story by Elizabeth Gaskell

Illustration by mgkellermeyer via Deviant Art

The Apple Tree by Daphne du Maurier

Click-Clack the Rattle Bag by Neil Gaiman

The Last Séance by Agatha Christie

The Polar Express – the movie

The Monkey’s Paw by WW Jacobs

The Body-Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson

Boris Karloff in the 1945 film…

Mad Maudlin by Rosy Thornton

Three Blind Mice by Anonymous

Silence: A Fable by Edgar Allan Poe

HAPPY HALLOWE’EN! 🎃

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!

Highland Horror!

A ‘true’ Scottish ghost story for Hallowe’en…

.

Battle of Bannockburn by Brian Palmer
Battle of Bannockburn by Brian Palmer

 

Back in the olden days, any time there were no English around to be slaughtered (see above), the Scots used to practice by massacring each other. (This rarely happens today, except after a Rangers-Celtic football match.)

 

The 1980 Scottish Cup Final
The 1980 Scottish Cup Final

 

In the early 15th century, Clan Cumming and Clan Mackintosh had been feuding for decades. The Cummings had driven the Mackintoshes from their lands in Meikle Geddes and Rait, but the Mackintoshes had bloodily retaliated and the fighting had gone back and forth ever since. In 1442, both sides agreed to down arms and the Cummings invited the Mackintoshes to a feast of reconciliation at Rait Castle, a place that had been at the centre of the feuding between the two clans since the days of Robert the Bruce.

 

 

Things were not as they appeared, however, for the Cummings secretly proposed to murder their guests. All the Cummings were under an oath not to reveal the plot, but the daughter of the Chief had fallen in love with the young leader of the Mackintoshes. Sneaking out from the castle, she met her lover by a stone, known to this day as the Stone of the Maiden, where she revealed her father’s plot.

 

The Stone of the Maiden alastaircunningham07.blogspot.com
The Stone of the Maiden
alastaircunningham07.blogspot.com

 

As the feast came to its end, a toast was announced to ‘The Memory of the Dead’. This was the signal for the Cummings to rise up and slay their guests but, forewarned, each Mackintosh drew his dirk and killed his Cumming neighbour with a strike to the heart.

Only the Chief survived. Realising that his daughter had betrayed them, he rushed in rage to the tower where she was hiding. Terror-stricken, she tried to escape through the tower window, but as she hung from the ledge, the Chief drew his sword and chopped off both her hands, crying that never again would she use them to embrace the young Mackintosh!

 

Rait Castle tower www.saveraitcastle.org
Rait Castle tower
saveraitcastle.org

 

From that dreadful bloody night the castle has been untenanted, but for the ghost of the young handless maiden who wanders mournfully still through the ruins looking for her lost love…

 

Rait Castle by jeaniblog http://www.pxleyes.com/profile/jeaniblog/
Rait Castle by jeaniblog
pxleyes.com/profile/jeaniblog/

* * * * * * *

This story is based on true events – namely, the feud and the massacre really happened, and the legend of the handless maiden is a real one, though the story seems to be told differently depending on the source. I’ve mingled a couple of versions – from wikipedia and from saveraitcastle.org – plus little bits from other sources around the ‘net.

Who knows whether it really happened? But still people claim to see the ghost…

* * * * * * *

(This lament has nothing to do with the story but frankly, I couldn’t find a good recording of the appropriate one, The Lament of the Little Supper.)
.

* * * * * * *

Happy Hallowe'en!

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

dark matterI dare you…

😮 😮 😮 😮 😮

It’s 1937 and war clouds are gathering over Europe. Jack Miller is poor and struggling in a job he hates, so he jumps at the chance to join an expedition to Gruhuken, an abandoned mining settlement in the Arctic. Part scientific expedition, part adventure for the group of upper-class men who are arranging it, for Jack it is an escape and a possible way back into the scientific studies he had to abandon when his father died. But the expedition begins to hit trouble even before they leave London, with a couple of the men having to drop out at the last moment. And the troubles don’t end there – once they are in Gruhuken a series of events mean that eventually Jack is left alone to keep the expedition alive…and the long dark Arctic winter is beginning…and Jack begins to feel he may not be as alone as he thinks…

This is billed as a ghost story, and like the best of those it’s totally amibiguous, not to mention totally terrifying! Is there a malevolent presence haunting Gruhuken, or is it all a product of Jack’s mind? Since the story is told through his journal, his is the only perspective we have, and we see his mind being affected by the vastness of this empty landscape and the ever-deepening darkness. And the loneliness. And the silence. And the ice beginning to freeze his only escape route – the sea…

husky

Did I mention it’s terrifying? There was actually one point late at night where I thought ‘Nope! Not reading that till the sun’s shining tomorrow!’ And yet, what happens? Very little – no gore-fest, no clanking chains or shrieks (except mine), no werewolves, vampires or zombies. It’s all done by a brilliantly executed build-up of psychological terror – from ‘don’t go there’ warnings from the captain of the ship to things barely glanced from the corner of the eye, sensations of a presence, distorted perspectives, and mysterious legends of barbarous cruelty. And all added to some fabulous descriptive writing that puts the reader right into this cold, dark, threatening landscape where the only contact with the outside world is through the fragile valves of Jack’s wireless, and where help would take days to arrive, if at all.

The depiction of Jack’s growing loneliness is superb. At first resentful of his companions’ effortless social superiority, he gradually begins a tentative friendship with Gus, the leader of the group – a friendship that borders on hero-worship. And it’s for Gus’ sake that he tries to keep the failing expedition alive. As a natural loner, he thinks he’ll be fine on his own, but soon learns the difference between being alone in the midst of the teeming city streets of London and the total solitude of his new surroundings. Well, maybe total solitude – or maybe not. (Cue spooky music.)

arctic night

Any regular visitor will know of my aversion to first person present tense narratives. I’ve explained in the past that the reason I usually hate these is because they are used when they’re not appropriate or else they are handled clumsily. This book is an example of how FPPT should be used – Paver handles both person and tense brilliantly, slipping in and out of present and past at exactly the right moments and never once allowing herself to be trapped into a particular tense when it doesn’t suit the narrative. As a result, this achieves its aim of reading like a genuine contemporaneous journal, and should be a compulsory text in all creative writing classes. But only ones that are held in daylight because – did I mention it’s terrifying?

Michelle Paver
Michelle Paver

There are lots of other things I’d love to praise but really this is one where every incident adds to the overall effect so I’ll restrict myself to saying cryptically – loved all the stuff about Jack and the huskies, and loved the way Paver used human contact to increase the effect of the all-pervading loneliness. If you’ve read it you’ll know what I mean, and if you haven’t – do!

I dare you…

* * * * *

Thanks yet again to Lady Fancifull whose brilliant review talked me into this one. (Though I’m deeply concerned that she tried to get me to read it on a dark winter night with the snow whirling and the wind rattling the windows. I thought she liked me…)

Book 1 of my 20 Books of Summer
Book 2 of my 20 Books of Summer

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! Afterward by Edith Wharton

Ghostly retribution…

 

delphi whartonA few weeks back, Ethan Frome won the People’s Choice Poll for a place on my TBR (it’s still to be read). Rather than buy that book alone, I did as I always do for the classics and downloaded The Complete Works of Edith Wharton from my favourite Kindle publisher, Delphi. As I perused the Contents, I was reminded that, like so many writers of her generation and before, Wharton had made her own contribution to the horror story field with a collection entitled Tales of Men and Ghosts. My next trip was to Goodreads where each of the six top reviews named the story Afterward as being one of the best – which makes it a natural choice for this week’s…

TUESDAY TERROR!

“Oh, there is one, of course, but you’ll never know it.” The assertion, laughingly flung out six months earlier in a bright June garden, came back to Mary Boyne with a sharp perception of its latent significance as she stood, in the December dusk, waiting for the lamps to be brought into the library.

Ned Boyne has made his fortune in a mining speculation in America, and now he and his wife Mary have moved to England. As they search for their ideal home, they want a house with a bit of history and atmosphere – and preferably its own ghost. Eventually they settle for Lyng, a Tudor house in remote Dorsetshire. No electric lights, antiquated plumbing – just the thing to suit the Boynes’ romantic ideas; and as their friend tells them, there is indeed a ghost, but they won’t know it’s a ghost – not till ‘long, long afterward’.

There is a ghostly aspect to this story, but there’s also quite a strong mystery element. Why is Ned Boyne showing all the signs of being worried and anxious? What’s the truth of how he made his money in the mine? Why is one of his erstwhile colleagues suing him – and why has that lawsuit now been withdrawn? As Mary gradually finds out the answers to these questions, the ghostly and the real world collide, shattering all her certainties…

“But who was the gentleman?” Mary gasped out, with the sharp note of some one trying to be heard through a confusion of meaningless noises.

“That I couldn’t say, Madam.” Trimmle, standing there by the lamp, seemed suddenly to grow less round and rosy, as though eclipsed by the same creeping shade of apprehension.

Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton

This is a beautifully crafted story where the actions of the living are as chilling as those of the spirit world. It reminded me very much of the style of Conan Doyle, in fact – one of those Holmes’ stories where some crime that has happened in a far away land comes back to haunt the characters years later, when they have settled into a seemingly blameless and respectable existence. In this case, the haunting takes on a ghostly aspect, but guilt and revenge are at the root of the story as much as they ever are in Holmes. Mary is a great female character – strong and intelligent, and although she does almost swoon at one point it’s justifiable under the prevailing circumstances. The old house adds a touch of Gothic to the story, and Wharton very effectively uses the idea of all the things the house must have witnessed over the years to give a feeling almost of inevitability to the plot. And the whole thing is told in a nicely understated manner that in no way detracts from the underlying tension.

Then of a sudden she was seized by a vague dread of the unknown. She had closed the door behind her on entering, and as she stood alone in the long, silent, shadowy room, her dread seemed to take shape and sound, to be there audibly breathing and lurking among the shadows. Her short-sighted eyes strained through them, half-discerning an actual presence, something aloof, that watched and knew…

More chilling than terrifying, but very well written with an interesting plot and some excellent characterisation – this has whetted my appetite very nicely for reading more of Wharton’s work.

Fretful porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:         😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Face by EF Benson

A Nightmarish Tale…

 

Having (just about) recovered from last week’s spookily terrifying story, I have summoned up all my courage to venture once again into the world of…

TUESDAY TERROR!

“I shall soon come for you now,” it said, and on the words it drew a little nearer to her, and the smile broadened. At that the full, hot blast of nightmare poured in upon her. Again she tried to run, again she tried to scream, and now she could feel the breath of that terrible mouth upon her…

hauntings and horrorsHester Ward is a cheerful, contented young woman, happily married and with two small children. But one night she has a dream – not a bad dream in itself, but one that she remembers from her childhood. And she remembers too that this dream was always followed the next night by another, much more terrifying nightmare. Despite her attempts to convince herself she is being silly, as soon as she falls asleep, the nightmare begins. In her childhood, the face that haunts her dreams used to tell her ‘I shall come for you when you’re older’. But now the horrible vision tells her ‘I shall soon come for you now

This is a well-written story and though it’s quite short we have enough time to get to know and like Hester, so that we empathise with her growing fear. Refreshingly, there is no suggestion that Hester is ‘hysterical’ – in fact, she is a down-to-earth, sensible, fun-loving person, which leads the reader to feel that there must be some substance to her fears. Perhaps by the time EF Benson wrote the story (late 1920s) the fashion for implying that all women were constantly on the verge of insanity was beginning to pass. Benson relies on some good descriptive writing to create an atmosphere and build the tension – a woodland path leading to a ruined church on the edge of an eroding cliff, which is encroaching on the surrounding graveyard. And then, of course, there’s the face…

Her heart hammered in her throat, and then seemed to stand still altogether. A qualm as of some mental sickness of the soul overcame her, for there in front of her was he who would soon come for her. There was the reddish hair, the projecting ears, the greedy eyes set close together, and the mouth smiling on one side, and on the other gathered up into the sneering menace that she knew so well.

EF Benson
EF Benson

Did it scare me? Well…no, to be honest. Not a hair was raised. Perhaps the ending is a little too clear-cut – there’s none of that feeling of uncertainty that can leave a reader feeling uneasy. However, I enjoyed the quality of the writing and characterisation, and thought it was a well-told tale. Although there are a lot of the usual clichés – church, graveyard etc – the story feels quite fresh, with some original features and even a few touches of humour. It will certainly encourage me to read more of Benson’s stories – perhaps they won’t terrify me, but I suspect they will entertain me.

 

Fretful porpentine rating: 😯 😯

Overall story rating:         🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Bah! Humbug! A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens narrated by Tom Baker

Christmas starts here…

santasantasantasantasanta

 

 

This little pre-Christmas Dickens mini-series started with one version of A Christmas Carol and is now ending with another. (Think yourselves lucky – I could be recommending the Complete Works. 😉 ) If none of the previous choices have tempted you, let me try one last time to persuade you to…

HAVE A DICKENS OF A CHRISTMAS!

 

51CWXmZKCgL._SL300_Like King Lear, every actor reaches a point in his career where he wants to stamp his mark on this classic, so you have to be really quite special to compete with the crowd. Fortunately, this reading by Tom Baker IS really quite special!

Forget your Peter Capaldis, your Matt Smiths, even your David Tennants – Tom Baker was THE Dr Who and there will never be a better! Who else could carry off a hand knitted stripy scarf and make it a cool fashion trend? But when he wasn’t saving the planet, Baker had time to play many other roles, including a stint at the National Theatre – not to mention being a very fine Puddleglum the Marshwiggle, beloved of Narnia fans everywhere. He is also an accomplished voice-actor both on radio and as narrator of several animated series.

Puddleglum the Marshwiggle
Puddleglum the Marshwiggle

I approached this recording of A Christmas Carol with some trepidation because, much though I like Baker, for me the definitive version is Patrick Stewart’s and I doubted Baker could match him. I was wrong – Baker brings drama, fear, sorrow and ultimately joy to the story just as much as Stewart does. As with all of the best of the Dickens’ narrators/performers, Baker has a huge personality and a powerful voice – necessary to fill the shoes of Dickens’ larger-than-life creations. Although this is a straight reading, Baker uses his fine acting skills to give each character an individual identity. Unlike the Stewart version where we hear only his voice, this one has occasional background music and other sound effects at the more dramatic points, and these work well with Baker’s performance.

tom1

I intended to listen in instalments but by the time the first disc ended, I was so hooked I ended up listening to the whole thing in one session. Not better than Stewart (not possible!) but as good, and of course this is the unabridged version. Three hours of pure listening pleasure – this set has now joined my select collection of Christmas Carols, to be brought out and savoured time and again over many Christmases to come. Just the thing to ensure that you Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

NB This disc set was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon US Link
Audible UK Link
Audible US Link
Currently not available as discs on Amazon UK.