Sunday, 14 December 2014

Ghosties and Ghoulies ~ Francis C. Prevot

Francis Clare Prevot (1887~1967) was born in France, but he lived most of his life in England. Prevot was educated at Blundell’s School, Tiverton, in Devon. During the First World War, he served in the Royal Naval Air Service and the 15th London Regiment. After the war, he became a barrister and in 1922 was called to the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple.*

Ghosties and Ghoulies, Prevot's second book, was first published in 1923 by Chelsea Publishing Co., in boards with a pictorial cover by A. Wyndham Payne. All of the stories, aside from 'The Three Officers', had previously appeared in the weekly magazine Brighter London, which appears to have imposed a low word limit. All of Prevot's twenty-one tales are very short - no more than around a thousand words in length. And as M. R. James said, 'one very desirable quality in a ghost story is leisureliness', something that Prevot was not allowed by Brighter London.

The 1923 edition of Ghosties and Ghoulies is a very rare book; I've never seen a copy. But Phantasm Press issued a paperback edition in 2013, using the original cover image and interior illustrations (see image above). The tales included in both editions are: 'The Three Officers', 'Where the Dead Man Sleeps', 'The Amber Bead', 'The Skull', 'The Ring', 'The Silence at No. 15', 'The Cup of Sacrifice', 'The Shadow', 'The Mirror', 'The Wardrobe', 'The Watercolour Drawing', 'Out of the Depths', 'The Visitor', 'Nemesis', 'The Empty House', 'The Understudy', 'The Empty Box', 'The Devil's Door', 'The Galloper', 'The Devil Worshipper', 'The Tempter'.

'The Skull' is an entertaining tale. Marston, a surgeon, is bored stiff at dinner by his host's account of finding a skull with his spade whilst making the foundations for a rock garden. Having taken his host's archaeological find to his room, promising a detailed examination in daylight, Marston is almost frightened out of his wits when the skull's owner turns out to have rather more life in him than expected.

Readers of ghost stories are used to creepy sounds: creaking floorboards, the footsteps of persons unseen, bumps and bangs, scrapings at casements, and so on. But it is the absence of sound which haunts poor Miss Amelia in 'The Silence at No. 15'. It is silence that threatens Miss Amelia's sanity... a menacing stillness that hangs about the rooms of the house she rents, 'malevolent, horrible, and implacable'.

In 'The Watercolour Drawing', Bailey, a scholarly middle-aged bachelor writing a book about the Early English Watercolour Painters, discovers that when you purchase a painting you can end up acquiring rather more than you bargained for.

The narrator of 'The Visitor', having discovered a notebook in his lodgings behind Euston Station, tells the story of the previous inhabitant of the room, a medical student who was tormented by nightly visits from a stranger.

In 'The Empty Box', Keith Lovel McKenzie is exploring the library of the Scottish mansion he's just inherited when he discovers the musty old diary of his ancestor, which refers to a 'Power' being buried on an island about a mile from the mainland. Now, as all readers of ghost stories know, when you find an old diary, written by someone reputed to have dabbled in the dark arts, that refers to something being buried for good reason, you shouldn't go digging that something up and letting things loose. But McKenzie, obviously not a reader of ghost stories, goes digging things up and letting them loose to his heart's content... and suffers the consequences.

Although not every one of Prevot's ghosts are malevolent, the majority are, and they can do more than frighten their victims; they can torment them, kill them or steal their mortal bodies. As I said, Brighter London seems to have imposed a low word limit, restricting the length and scope of Prevot's tales considerably, but he did remarkably well all the same. Prevot's tales are enjoyable and entertaining, and it's a shame that he produced only this slim volume of stories. I can't help wondering what the result would have been if he'd been been allowed more space in the magazine or had gone on to produce more books.

The Phantasm Press paperback includes Prevot's article 'A Plea for the Ghost Story', whch was originally published in The Bookman’s Journal & Print Collector in November 1919. Phantasm's little volume of 96 pages costs £7.50 (plus p&p). It's available from places like Amazon's Marketplace or ebay.

You may have heard of Prevot before (although he's all but forgotten now), but you may not know that he was an artist. In 1996, Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre mounted a small exhibition of his work. The sketch above is of Bleeding Heart Yard, (which you may remember from Dickens' Little Dorrit). It was drawn in 1953, when Prevot was living in Red Lion Square.

* According to the Middle Temple Register of Admissions, he was called on the 22nd of January 1922, at which time he was living at 16 Bedford Place, Russell Square, London. He was the only son of Francis Clare Prevot.

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