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.

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