Thursday, 28 August 2014

A Book of Ghosts ~ Sabine Baring-Gould

Sabine Baring-Gould (1834 ~ 1924) was a man of numerous talents. He was an Anglican priest, a respected archaeologist, a folklorist, and one of the most prolific writers of both fiction and non-fiction of the Victorian era. There are in excess of twelve hundred publications listed in his bibliography, and his works enjoyed a substantial readership during the second half of the nineteenth century; he was considered one of the top ten novelists of his day. A contemporary provincial newspaper said of him, 'There can hardly have been a moment of Baring-Gould's life which was not in one way or another turning itself into 'copy' of some kind, and occasionally into copy that is destined to a long popularity' (quoted in the Western Gazette, 8th of June 1906, in a premature obituary ~ but that's another story, and one which I'll come back to in a future post). Sadly, the newspaper was wrong. Nowadays most people have never heard of Baring-Gould or his books and articles, and if he is remembered at all it is usually for the hymns that he wrote, especially 'Onward, Christian Soldiers'.

A Book of Ghosts was published by Methuen in October 1904, one month before M. R. James' Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. It sold out almost straight away, and a second edition was put out in the December of the same year, just in time for the usual Christmas rush. The illustrations for the book were produced by the Scottish artist David Murray Smith (three of which I have included below). Extremely popular when it first appeared, A Book of Ghosts has been somewhat neglected ever since; before the appearance of the Ash-Tree Press limited edition in 1996, it had been republished in its entirety only once (in a limited run by Books for Libraries Press, in 1969).

The Spectator reviewed A Book of Ghosts in its issue of the 3rd of December 1904, but it was less than complimentary. It accused Baring-Gould of creating ghosts that were 'easy, familiar, and therefore disgusting'. According to the reviewer, 'Mr. Baring-Gould apparently takes an exceedingly low view of the human soul, and he shows it as concerned after death with the most trivial affairs, and as a slave to its place of burial.' The reviewer did not find the ghosts alarming, and reassured readers that A Book of Ghosts 'may be read even late at night without any unpleasant consequences'. It is true that the ghosts themselves aren't likely to frighten the life out of any modern reader, but some of the tales are quite creepy, and I find it hard to believe that the reverend intended to frighten anyone when writing several of his stories. His spooks are often very human, full of character, and very entertaining. His apparitions are not the malevolent spectres of M. R. James.

For example, in 'McAlister', the narrator, whilst taking a drop of whisky in a French churchyard, is confronted by the ghost of Captain Alister McAlister of Auchimachie, the upper half of whom is perched atop a wall (his legs having been interred in Scotland). The narrator tells us:
'Having somewhat recovered from my astonishment, I was able to take a further look at him, and could not restrain a laugh. He so much resembled Humpty Dumpty, who, as I had learned in childhood, did sit on a wall.'
Being confronted by an apparition in a graveyard doesn't appear to disturb the narrator in the slightest. As is generally the case in Baring-Gould's stories, spooks are quickly accepted as being spooks, they are conversed with as though such a thing is absolutely commonplace, and they rarely seem to incite fear in the narrator of the tale, so it's not surprising that they don't inspire any in the reader. As McAlister explains how his lower half came to be interred in Scotland, the narrator asks if his body was embalmed. McAlister responds:
'Embalmed! no. There was no one in Bayonne who knew how to do it. There was a bird-stuffer in the Rue Pannceau, but he had done nothing larger than a seagull.'
In 'H. P.', an archaeologist finds himself trapped in a cave with the ghost of a man killed eight thousand years earlier. 'H. P.', as the ghost is named by the narrator, 'stands for Homo Praehistoricus, not for House-Parlourmaid or Hardy Perennial'. H. P. objects to having his bones transferred to a museum on the grounds that spirits cannot travel far from their mortal remains and he is no great fan of museums. Being stuck inside one would be an insufferable torture. He prefers the conversation of commercial travellers to scientists, so he wants to remain buried beneath a tavern. The ghost, being determined to point out the unfair advantages afforded a man living in the modern age, proceeds to share details of prehistoric life. His description of the invention of butter is hilarious. On the subject or getting milk from a reindeer, H. P. tells the narrator, 'whenever we desired a fresh draught there was nothing for it but to lie flat on the ground under a doe reindeer and suck for all we were worth.' This is not dialogue intended to chill the reader's blood.

"Who are you?" from 'Colonel Halifax's Ghost Story'.

'Glámr' is a different matter. There'd be nothing to laugh about if you found yourself alone with him after dark. Glámr is actually a character from the Icelandic Grettis saga; a godless Swedish stranger who is killed, becomes undead, then wreaks havoc upon the household who once employed him. Baring-Gould refers to him as a vampire in the story, but he was actually a draugr, an animated corpse capable of swelling to an immense size.

I found 'A Dead Finger' to be very creepy for the most part. A man visiting the National Gallery takes home more than he expects and finds himself the victim of a dead, but very animated, finger. The tale lost its chill when the spectre began to speak, which it did right at the very end, but the descriptions of the finger itself, and what it did to its intended victim, were very chilling.
'The finger was attached to a hand that was curdling into matter and in process of acquiring solidity; attached to the hand was an arm in a very filmy condition, and this arm belonged to a human body in a still more vaporous, immaterial condition. This was being dragged along the floor by the finger, just as a silkworm might pull after it the tangle of its web.'
There are twenty-two tales in total, one of which, 'A Professional Secret', has nothing approaching a ghost in it, and some of the stories are more successful than others. The least successful of the lot is 'The Mother of Pansies', in which a young woman keen to avoid motherhood enlists the services of a witch and destroys her unborn children before they are even conceived. Whilst keeping watch over her husband's dead body, the woman, Anna Arler, is visited throughout the night by the ghosts of children who could have been, not unlike Scrooge's Christmas visitations but without the chance for redemption. There is too much moralising in the tale to make it enjoyable.

Left: "Mammy," said he. "Mammy, my violin cost three shillings and sixpence, and I can't make it play noways," from 'Little Joe Gander'. Right: "I believe that they are talking goody, goody," from 'A Happy Release'.

To my mind, the humorous tales are more successful than those intended to be serious. 'The Merewigs' is very funny. It includes a ghost who rips open his victim's nightclothes in order to hunt for moles, and the dialogue between the narrator and his boating companion is very entertaining. And the first story of the collection, 'Jean Bouchon', is also funny. In it, a long dead waiter makes a nuisance of himself at a Paris café by pilfering all the tips. If I had to choose a favourite, it would be a toss up between 'Jean Bouchon' and 'H. P.', and the caveman's description of prehistoric butter making might just swing it the latter's way.

Fine copies of the first edition of A Book of Ghosts appear to be going for anything between five and seven hundred pounds at the moment (that's about $850-1200). The Ash-Tree Press edition, which is long out of print, sells for £120-150 ($200-255) in fine condition; this includes two stories that were not in the original edition: 'A Dead Man's Teeth', which was published in Monsieur Pichelmere in 1905, and 'The Old Woman of Wesel', which was published in Cornhill magazine in June 1905. There are a few Kindle ebooks that cost up to a couple of pounds, but I haven't road tested them so I don't know if they're any good. There's also Leonaur's The Collected Supernatural and Weird Fiction of Sabine Baring-Gould. It doesn't include 'Jean Bouchon', 'The Red-Haired Girl' and 'A Dead Finger', but it adds seven other stories (including Baring-Gould's vampire tale, 'Margery of Quether', which was first published in 1891).

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Ghosts and Their Garments

Berkshire Chronicle - Saturday 15th of August 1863.

'An amusing controversy has been going on in the Athenaeum for a week or two past on the subject of ghosts and their clothes. Mr. Hein Friswell, and Mr. George Cruikshank both claim that they were the first to suggest the impossibility of ghosts wearing clothes, although these etherial beings are always represented as attired. The Athenaeum, however, would seem to settle the question in the following remarks:- "As regards the question of ghosts and the clothes of ghosts, Mr. Cruikshank, also in another column, defends himself; but we may warn both Mr. Cruikshank and Mr. Friswell that several correspondents claim a prior occupancy of the field. The author of The Youth of Shakespeare, published in 1839, sends us the following extract from that work:- "Garments have no souls as I have ever heard, and, therefore, neither hose, nor trunks, nor cloaks, nor hats, nor apparel of any kind, can be ghosts; and how can they be worn of a ghost, being of a substance, as they must needs be - not being the immaterial nature of a spirit? If the latter, as hath been credibly affirmed, can slide through the crack of a door with ease, there is no clothing of ever so fine a fabric but what cannot help staying behind at such a time, and so leave the poor ghost without a thread to cover him. And when a ghost standeth before any person, the garments being heavy and he so exceedingly light, they must needs fall to his heels for lack of proper support, to the horrible scandal of all decent spectators." '

Friday, 15 August 2014

Nine Ghosts ~ R. H. Malden

'How many readers have regretted that there were no more of M. R. James's ghost stories to come? Yet Dr James has found his successor in the Dean of Wells. No more need be said than that the connoisseur will find in these stories a draught of the genuine vintage with its own subtle flavour.' (Publisher's blurb from the inside flap of Nine Ghosts)

Richard Henry Malden's collection of nine ghost stories is a slim volume, published by Edward Arnold in 1943 under wartime economy restrictions. The very striking cover (one of my absolute favourites) was produced by Rowland Hilder, a talented landscape artist who, in addition to producing commissions for the Ministry of Information during the Second World War, produced book illustrations and designs for greeting cards. Malden wrote a number of books, but Nine Ghosts was his only book of ghost stories and, as far as I can tell, following the three wartime editions the collection didn't appear in print again until Ash-Tree Press issued a limited edition in 1995.

Malden knew M. R. James for more than thirty years; like James, he was educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge, which is where they met. He wrote in his preface (dated Michaelmas 1942), that his own tales were 'in some sort a tribute to his [James'] memory, if not comparable with his work.'

I don't believe that Malden ever intended to imitate James, though; I don't think that was the intention of any of the early Jamesians. And I don't think it's fair to judge his work simply by comparison with James, though that's not to say that it doesn't compare well. Malden has his own individual voice; his tales are written in the tradition of M. R. James but, as the publishers say in their blurb, with their 'own subtle flavour'.

When The Spectator reviewed the book on the 3rd of June 1943, the reviewer wrote 'Dr Malden has not been altogether successful in the very difficult task of presenting evil convincingly, and is likely in consequence to start few shudders among his readers.' Well, all I can say is that the reviewer must have been reading a different book, because Malden's tales certainly are capable of producing shudders. They are subtly unsettling in a way that stays with you long after you finish reading, and they continue to do that after subsequent readings too.

The nine tales included in this collection are: 'A Collector's Company', 'The Dining-Room Fireplace', 'Stivinghoe Bank', 'The Sundial', 'Between Sunset and Moonrise', 'The Blank Leaves', 'The Thirteenth Tree', 'The Coxwain of the Lifeboat', and 'The Priest's Brass'.

A painting can have an extremely unsettling effect upon its viewer, and the one at the centre of Malden's 'The Dining-Room Fireplace' certainly does that. The painting is a portrait of an unknown man, seated with his back to the viewer, with his head turned left to reveal the side of his face, in a pose that is unnatural and seemingly impossible to achieve. I certainly wouldn't want to end up in a room alone with it, with nothing to light my way but a soon-to-be-snuffed-by-a-gust-of-wind candle flame.

'Stivinghoe Bank' is a very creepy tale. The description of Stivinghoe Bank itself, with its sinister ruined chapel, is very atmospheric. The apparition in 'The Blank Leaves' sent a shudder up my spine when I first encountered it, as it crouched upon the grass, its protruding head 'perfectly bald and lolling horribly as if the neck were broken'.

'Between Sunset and Moonrise' is one of the two most atmospheric, unsettling and genuinely frightening stories of the collection. But the best tale of the lot, for me at least, is 'The Sundial'. In it, the narrator is repeatedly confronted with a particularly frightening apparition, whose neck is abnormally long and 'so malformed that his head lolled sideways on to his right shoulder in a disgusting and almost inhuman fashion'. Having begun a chase around a hedge with this creature, he finds, much to his horror (and mine) that he has gone from being the pursuer to being the pursued!

Aside from the fact that Malden was very good at creating an unsettling atmosphere and building a sense of dread in his readers, he also had a rather good sense of humour. I particularly like the beginning of 'The Coxwain of the Lifeboat', in which a rather hot and bothered sexton, having chased a chuckling ghost from pillar to pillar all down the nave and then up the tower too, asks, 'Hey, what are you a sniggerin' at?' The ghost replies, 'It's not funny enough for two'.

It does seem that ghosties and other night-bumpers are attracted to these scholarly-batchelor-theologian-types like moths to a flame. It's a wonder that anyone chooses to be ordained in the Church of England or remains unmarried at all, considering the dangers. As a married female who is not prone to wearing a cassock, I consider myself to be fairly safe from hauntings of a malevolent nature.

Malden's first edition isn't easy to get hold of and is usually expensive, especially if you want a nice copy with the dust jacket intact, but the subsequent wartime printings are a bit easier to find (and tend to be a lot cheaper without the wonderful jacket). Ash-Tree's limited hardback is now out of print (copies cost around the £100-£150 mark), but the Kindle edition is available for $6.99 from the  Ash-Tree Press website.

R. H. Malden (1879 ~ 1951) and Mrs Malden in the beautiful 18th-century drawing room of Wells deanery.  Published in Life magazine on the 24th of January 1944, the year following publication of Nine Ghosts.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Woman Ghost That Swears

Referred to Sir Conan Doyle and Sir O. Lodge
The Evening Telegraph ~ Thursday 6th of January 1921.

A short elderly woman, evidently in a very perturbed state of mind, complained to Mr Rooth, the Magistrate at Thames Police Court, that there was a ghost at the house in which she lodged and that it annoyed her.

"I don't know who it is," she said, "but it is a woman, and she swears - uses the most awful language. And then it seems some one has put a battery on me, and it goes all over my head and works all through me."

The Magistrate - She uses bad language? That is very interesting, because we have recently been told that the next world is not so perfect as we had been led to believe it might be. What else does she say?

Applicant - She says put Smith on it.

Magistrate - Not an uncommon name. She doesn't say "Robinson," does she? If she does it would be rather good advice, as there is a solicitor of that name in Court who would have been able to deal with the matter. What do you want me to do? Do you think I ought to go and lay the ghost - exorcise it?

Applicant - Something should be done, because for six months past I haven't been able to sleep and have had to walk about all day.

"But Metropolitan magistrates," Mr Rooth continued, "do not deal with this subject. They have no jurisdiction over ghosts at all. There are, however, several societies and eminent men with whom you could get into touch - for instance, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Oliver Lodge. They take great interest in all these matters.

The applicant (apparently much relieved) - Oh, thank you, Sir.