Saturday, 31 January 2015

The Blue Room and Other Ghost Stories ~ Lettice Galbraith

Lettice Galbraith seems to have appeared out of nowhere in 1892, when her story The Spin of the Coin appeared as the lead story for the 33rd Beeton’s Christmas Annual. In 1893, New Ghost Stories was published by Ward Lock and Bowden Ltd. as a ‘Popular Sixpenny’ paperback. It was one of the most popular ghost story collections of the last decade of the nineteenth century, and three editions appeared in the space of five years. The tales included were: The Case of Lady Lukestan, The Trainer's Ghost, The Ghost in the Chair, In the Séance Room, The Missing Model, The Ghost's Revenge.

In 1999, Sarob Press issued The Blue Room and Other Stories, which included all of the tales from New Ghost Stories and added 'The Blue Room', which was originally published in Macmillan’s Magazine in October 1897.

'The Case of Lady Lukestan' is a clever story about the revenge of a jilted lover. Comely Pamela Ardilaun attempts to secretly marry young Lord Lukestan in the parish church of Slumber-le-Wold, but the officiating priest, Reverend Martyn, isn't about to let the couple wed without a hitch.

In 'The Trainer's Ghost', a publican and a tout attempt to drug a rival's horse the night before a big race, but they don't bargain on coming up against old Alick Coulson, a trainer who's been dead and buried for fifteen years, and Blue Ruin, the horse who trampled the old trainer to death.

In 'The Ghost in the Chair', Curtis Yorke suffers a sudden bout of automatic writing at the end of an extraordinary board meeting. On examining the product of his scribbling, he is horrified to discover that he has penned a contract with the devil. To save his compay, the San Sacrada Mining Company, from financial ruin, Yorke has agreed to surrender his soul 'at such time and for such purpose' as may be determined.

The protagonist of 'In the Séance Room', Dr Valentine Burke, is a physician and a powerful magnetiser, not opposed to giving semi-private exhibitions of his powers. He is ambitious, but he doesn't care much for work. So, to secure a large fortune for himself, he sets his sights on marrying the wealthy Miss Elma Lang, and he won't let anything get in his way. A medium of extraordinary power is in town, and Burke is head of the test committe that is formed to find fraud, but he soon learns that a séance room is the last place a man with something to hide should be.

In 'The Missing Model', the artist Gordon Mayne is in need of a new model, as his usual sitter has gone and got herself married to a shop-walker. A young woman turns up at his studio in St John's Wood and offers herself as his new model, and he takes her on immediately, but she is not quite what she seems.

In 'The Ghost's Revenge', Katharine Deverel has put a curse upon Ravenshill hall, and no man, whether good or evil, can survive the New Year within its walls. Each is doomed to die in the same way that she and her son did: by drowning in the pond. With only hours to go before the stroke of midnight and the end of another year, Gerald Harrison must make his way back to the hall, before Katharine Deverel can claim another victim.

The housekeeper of Mertoun Towers tells the story of 'The Blue Room'. One Christmas morning in the 1840s, Miss Wood, companion of Lady Grayburn, is found dead in the blue tapestry room, which is said to be haunted. Fifty years later, Miss Edith Erristoun, a learned young woman who doesn't believe in ghosts, is dared to sleep in the same room, and in so doing helps to unravel the dark secret of Lady Barbara Mertoun, a former mistress of the house who also died there.

Lettice Galbraith certainly did know how to tell a story; I enjoyed every one of her tales. In fact, this is one of my favourite nineteenth century collections. At this moment in time, my favourite story is 'In the Séance Room', though 'The Trainer's Ghost' comes a close second. It's a terrible shame that she didn't write more. I shall have to make do with revisiting the ones she did write. If you like stylish, well-written traditional ghost stories, then you'll enjoy this book.

The first edition of New Ghost Stories is virtually impossible to find. The Blue Room and Other Ghost Stories was issued as a limited edition hardback (the first volume in Richard Dalby's Mistresses of the Macabre series), and a fine copy will cost around £150 upwards (that's about $240), though it can be a bit hard to find. Wordsworth Editions issued a paperback in 2007 entitled The Shadow on the Blind and Other Stories, which includes all of the tales from the Sarob Press volume, along with the tales of Louisa Baldwin. That costs only £2.99 at the moment. I've been unable to find any kindle edition of Galbraith's tales.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Couching at the Door ~ D. K. Broster

Dorothy Kathleen Broster (1877-1950) was a successful historical novelist, best known for her popular Jacobite Rebellion Trilogy, the first volume of which, The Flight of the Heron, was published in 1925. Little is known about Broster's private life, as she was an incredibly private person. Some resources claim that it came as a surprise to critics and readers to find out, when she died in 1950, that Broster was a woman. That's not exactly true; in the 'Can You Tell' quiz in the Dundee Evening Telegraph, in July 1929, Broster's full name and sex was the answer to one of the questions, and newspapers as far back as 1919 were referring to her as 'Miss Broster', so the information wasn't top secret. There was a charming article in the Dundee Courier in June 1928 entitled 'Miss Broster Comes to the Highlands', in which the reporter comments on the writer's lovely speaking voice. As he also points out, she was 'by nature and by education a historian', having studied history at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, from 1896 to 1900.

Couching at the Door was published in 1942 by William Heinemann Ltd., under wartime economy restrictions. A slim volume of just 130 pages, the stories in the collection are: Couching at the Door, The Pestering, From the Abyss, Juggernaut, The Pavement.*

In 'Couching at the Door', it is the summer of 1898. Augustine Marchant, a scandalous, decadent writer with a reputation for being wicked, has not long returned from a trip to Prague. Whilst abroad, though not truly a believer in the dark arts, Marchant played at sorcery and dabbled in black magic, with disastrous consequences. Now, back home in England, he discovers that something has followed him home.

In 'The Pestering', Evadne and Ralph Seton have purchased an old cottage at Timpsfield known as Hallows. Evadne decides to start offering teas as a way of making an income from the local tourists, as the couple are a little short on cash. But late one afternoon, as the light is fading and Evadne is home alone, a strange old man, who she takes for a visitor wanting tea, shows up asking for a chest. 'Have pity on me, sweet lady,' he says, 'and let me come in and fetch it away!' Though Evadne manages to turn him away, she soon discovers that he's not one to give up easily.

In 'From the Abyss', Stephen Ellison's fiancée Daphne Lawrence is involved in a motoring accident in the south of France. Daphne returns home with nothing more than cuts and bruises, and it is thought that she was thrown clear of the car before it plunged down a precipice, but she remembers going down with the vehicle to the bottom of the gorge. And on her return home, Daphne is not quite herself.

In 'Juggernaut', Miss Flora Halkett writes thrillers under the male pseudonym Theobold Gardiner. She has sprained her ankle badly and is staying with her niece, Primrose, in the seaside town of Middleport for a short change of air. Wanting to hire a bath-chair for her aunt, Primrose approaches an old bathman by the name of Cotton, but he won't carry anyone in his chair, as Mrs Birling, who died two years ago, wouldn't like it.

'The Pavement' is a Roman one at Chasely, the mosaic flooring of a triclinium, uncovered by a ploughshare during the late seventeenth century. The elderly Lydia Reid has been its custodian for fifteen years and she has come to think of the figures depicted within it as her friends. She is particularly fond of the image of a young woman, thought to be Hebe, and she converses with her regularly. But Lydia is not just fond of the pavement, she is quite obsessed with it, in the end much to its detriment.

I really enjoyed this collection of stories. 'Couching at the Door' is the most well-known of the tales, and it's probably my favourite one too. I go back and forth between that one, which is very crepy, and 'Juggernaut', which is funny. Here's an example from 'Juggernaut' regarding the boarding house at Middleport.
'Miss Flora Halkett looked appraisingly round the comfortable ornament-bedecked sitting-room of Bêche-de-Mer - for Mrs Wonnacott's husband, after reading a novel about some Pacific island, had bestowed this singular appellation upon his dwelling under the impression that it was the French for 'sea-beach'.**
Couching at the Door had quite a low print run and is now a rare book. A fine copy in a similar dust jacket is incredibly difficult to find and will cost around three hundred pounds at the moment (that's about $500).

Ash-Tree Press published a limited edition hardback in 2001 (shown left), which added stories from Broster's earlier collection A Fire of Driftwood. A fine copy costs around thirty pounds upwards ($50). Wordsworth Editions published a paperback version in 2007, and that costs a few pounds. To the best of my knowledge, there isn't currently any Kindle version available.
* 'Couching at the Door' (Dec 1933) and 'The Pavement' (Jan 1938) first appeared in the Cornhill Magazine. 'The Pestering' was originally published in Good Housekeeping (Dec 1932). 'From the Abyss' (Dec 1940) and 'Juggernaut' (Jan 1935) were originally published in Chambers's Journal.
** Bêche-de-Mer is French for 'sea cucumber'.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Off the Sand Road ~ Russell Kirk

American writer and thinker Russell Amos Kirk (1918~1994) was the author of thirty-two books, hundreds of periodical essays, and numerous short stories. He is best known for his book The Conservative Mind, published in 1953. In addition to his scholarly historical and political works, Kirk had a relish for the uncanny and penned a number of ghost stories. Kirk grew up with the ghostly. He believed that there are 'thin places', through which we may glimpse the supernatural as though through a veil. His ancestors made regular attempts to peer through those thin places, and his great-grandmother was said to have conversed with the dead. Kirk himself was witness to an apparition at the age of eight or nine.

Off the Sand Road, published in 2002, was the first of two volumes of Russell Kirk's ghost stories issued by Ash-Tree Press; the second being What Shadows We Pursue, published the following year. The tales included are: 'The Surly Sullen Bell', 'Behind the Stumps', 'Sorworth Place', 'Balgrummo's Hell', 'There's a Long, Long Trail A-Winding', 'Saviourgate', 'Off the Sand Road', 'Fate's Purse', 'The Princess of All Lands', 'An Encounter by Mortstone Pond', and 'Lex Talionis'. There's also an afterword entitled 'A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale'. It should be noted that the final four paragraphs of 'Fate's Purse' were omitted from this book. In the second volume, What Shadows We Pursue, the full story appears as an appendix, with the ending restored.

There isn't a ghost in 'The Surly Sullen Bell', but it's sinister all the same. Frank Loring is surprised to be invited to visit the St Louis home of Godfrey and Nancy Schumacher. He hasn't seen the couple for a decade, not since Nancy chose to marry Godfrey instead of him, and it's obvious that he still carries a torch for his old sweetheart. So, why is Nancy's husband so eager to have her old flame over for coffee?

'Behind the Stumps' is a seriously creepy tale. Cribben is an intolerable, over-zelous census-taker, sent to a rural backwater called Bear City to gather information about its inhabitants, 'with the majesty of Government at his back' and 'the hauteur of a censor in his mien'. Having successfully interrogated the majority of the local population within a week, Cribben sets his sights on the Gholsons of Barrens Mill, despite being warned by the local postmaster to stay well away from the place. Nobody wants to fuss with the Gholsons. Of course, Cribben won't listen to local stories and superstitious nonsense... much to his own detriment.

In 'Sorworth Place', Ralph Bain draws his pension cheques wherever he may be and travels wherever the fancy takes him. One morning he spies the fair Ann Lurlin, a young Scottish widow, the owner of Sorworth Place, and falls for her. But Mrs Lurlin's husband, though dead a year, isn't about to let go of his living wife, or let some other man get in the way of his return.

In 'Balgrummo's Hell', Balgrummo Lodging, located near Edinburgh, is the home of Alexander Fillan Inchburn, the wicked and aged tenth Baron Balgrummo, confined for five decades under perpetual house-arrest - trapped in his own living hell - for the 'Trouble' that took place in 1913. Rafe Horgan, a professional thief, attempts to steal the paintings of decaying Balgrummo Lodge from under the old man's nose, with terrible consequences.

In 'There's a Long, Long Trail A-Winding', Frank Sarsfield, a vagrant prone to pilfering church collection boxes, is caught in a driving snowstorm in the middle of January and ends up in the derelict, uninhabited town of Anthonyville. There, he comes across Tamarack House, once the home of Jerome Anthony, architect of Anthonyville State Prison, who died in 1915. Looking for shelter for the night, Frank gains entry to the empty house via a slanting cellar door. But Frank Sarsfield is no stranger to Tamarack House or its long dead inhabitants, and as memories of his connection to both begin to surface he is forced to replay horrific events of a past long forgotten.

In 'Fate's Purse', we are back in the vicinity of Bear City. Fate Brownlee is a miserly old farmer who is found dead in a stream, trapped under his own tractor. His brother Virgil, who is equally miserly, inherits the old farmer's stump-country property, but becomes consumed with fear that old Fate, unwilling to part with his money even in death, will seek vengeance from beyond the grave.

Russell Kirk was a Catholic, and his religious beliefs do filter through into his supernatural tales. I am not a religious person, I never have been, but I do understand the workings of Christian religious belief, and I don't have any objection to mildly religious undertones in supernatural tales. I do, however, sometimes get a bit frustrated by overly religious stories, and I did find 'Saviourgate' a bit hard going. I didn't much take to 'The Princess of All Lands' either. Too much specific religious thought or doctrine can exclude (or bore) readers of a different faith, or readers, like me, who don't have any; it can also add too many boundaries. Supernatural tales shouldn't be flooded with religion, politics or sex. Of course, that's just the opinion of little ol' irreligious me.

That said, the tales that aren't in-your-face-religious are very good indeed, and very atmospheric. 'Behind the Stumps' is my favourite, with 'Balgrummo's Hell' coming second. 'Off the Sand Road' isn't a supernatural tale, but it has a creepy atmosphere all the same. This collection is a bit of a mixed bag for me, but it's well worth reading, even if only for my two favourites.

Off the Sand Road was issued as a limited edition hardback of five hundred copies. It's not the easiest book in the world to find, and a fine copy will set you back a hundred pounds or more (around $150 at the moment).

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Margery of Quether & Other Weird Tales ~ S. Baring-Gould

Sabine Baring-Gould's novella 'Margery of Quether' first appeared in two parts in the Cornhill Magazine in 1884, accompanied by drawings by Harry Furniss (1854-1925). It first appeared in book form in 1891 (more than a decade before the collection A Book of Ghosts), when Margery of Quether and Other Stories was published by Methuen & Co.

In 1999, Sarob Press republished 'Margery of Quether' along with five other tales and one religious poem (see the cover image on the right). 'Master Sacristan Eberhart' (December 1858), 'The Fireman' (March 1860), 'Easter Eve' (April 1860) and 'The Dead Trumpeter of Hurst Castle' (May-June 1860) were originally published in the Hurst Johnian, the journal of St John's College, Hurstpierpoint. 'The Devil's Mill' (1908) and 'Crowdy Marsh' (1910) first appeared in The Storyteller.

In 'Margery of Quether', George Rosedhu is a yeoman of Brinsabatch,* in the parish of Lamerton, Devon. On Sundays, he worships at the little church of S. Michael de Rupe, atop an extinct volcanic cone called Brentor. It is a custom that on Christmas Eve the sexton and two others climb Brentor and ring the bells of the church at midnight, but the sexton has fallen ill, so George offers to do the ringing. He climbs Brentor alone with nothing but a dim lantern to light his way, enters the church, and rings the first bell. He is just about to ring the tenor bell when he sees 'something dark, like a ball of dirty cobwebs, hanging to the cord'. The creature, which has a human form but is only the size of a baby, descends to the floor below.
'In colour the object was brown, as if it had been steeped in peat water for a century, and in texture leathery. It scrambled, much as I have seen a bat scramble, out of the puddle on the pavement to the heap of broken timber, and worked its way with its little brown hands and long claws up a rafter, and seated itself thereon, holding fast by a hand on each side of what I suppose was the body.'
The creature explains that she is Margery of Quether, once a living woman, now a dried up old crone who cannot die. George is so moved by her story that he takes her in his arms and carries her home. She drives her one remaining tooth into his flesh and clasps him so tightly with her claws that he is unable to remove her... until she drops off of her own accord. At which point she appears less dried up, a little rosier, and a little heavier.

Margery is a vampire, though not one of the sparkling variety (she doesn't go to highschool either). She increases her own vitality by draining that of her victim, increasing in youth as her victim increases in age. And she appears to inspire willingness in poor old George to be complicit in his own sapping. Baring-Gould's tale is satirical (with a great deal of social commentary), and yet his church-going vampiric creation is no less dangerous than Stoker's Dracula. The Spectator wrote (3rd of May, 1884):
'We hardly know in what the power of the little tale consists, unless it is in the realistic simplicity with which the horrible "facts" are related; but there is something about it positively uncanny. There is nothing to revolt at, but one would much rather not have read it.'
'Master Sacristan Eberhart' lives in the tower of the ancient church of S. Sebaldus, above the big bells. He rarely descends to the world below, save to attend Mass in the morning, and rarely speaks to another living soul, aside from the birds. On the top of the church tower there are four life-size carved figures, one of which is a monk squatting on his haunches, and Master Eberhart is very fond of him. Having noticed that there is a crack at the back of the figure, and having been told by the mason that the church won't pay for repairs, Eberhart vows that he will pay for them himself, no matter the cost. The monk repays his kindness in a gruesome and dramatic manner.

In 'The Fireman', Peter Lundy, an iron puddler, is not a nice man; he is not averse to a bit of robbery, or a bit of attempted murder for that matter. An elderly man arrives at Lundy's hut and asks for lodging for the night. Then the elderly stranger explains that he is after some curious crystals that can only be obtained by wading into molten iron. He will pay twenty pounds for each specimen procured, he explains, and he gives Lundy a special ointment to protect his lower body from the immense heat of the molten metal. But each time Lundy enters the fiery molten iron, there is a price to pay...

The setting for 'The Dead Trumpeter of Hurst Castle' is the same Hurst Castle in which Charles I was imprisoned in 1648, before being taken to London for his trial and execution. It concerns the King's time at the castle, the appearance of the ghost of a trumpeter that protects Charles during his stay there, and an apparition within the King's room at the moment of his execution.

In 'The Devil's Mill', the narrator, who has an interest in both botany and archaeology, is engaged in research on the coast, when the night draws in suddenly and he loses his way. He comes across a windmill and inside it meets a miller who makes psychosopic lenses. The miller explains, 'he who wears these glasses can see into a man's soul and read all that passes therein.' The narrator takes a bagful of the lenses away with him to sell, but there are consequences to spying on the innermost thoughts of others.

The narrator of 'Crowdy Marsh' is out shooting with his friend Richards on the moor around Brown Willy.** With the light beginning to fail, they set out for a hotel in Camelford, but lose their way and become separated. The narrator comes across a stone house, in which three haggard old women are sorting through unused, neglected and misused 'faculties', left for them by the Wild Hunt.

Unlike A Book of Ghosts, this collection is more serious in tone, aside from 'Margery of Quether', which is satirical in nature. These tales are more creepy. If I had to pick a favourite, it would be 'Master Sacristan Eberhart'. The only tale I don't much care for is 'The Dead Trumpeter of Hurst Castle', which is too sentimentally monarchist for my liking (though I have nothing particular against Charles I, and would have preferred it if Oliver Cromwell had been decapitated instead).

Sarob Press issued Margery of Quether and Other Weird Tales in a limited edition of 250 copies. A fine copy in a fine dust jacket costs between sixty and eighty pounds at the moment (that's about $100-130). Leonaur published The Collected Supernatural and Weird Fiction of Sabine Baring-Gould in 2012, and that is available as a hardback or paperback, the former costing just over twenty pounds.
* In the Cornhill Magazine, George Rosedhu is a yeoman of Brinsabatch. In Methuen's Margery of Quether and Other Stories the location of George's home was changed to Foggaton. The Sarob Press volume utilises the text of the Cornhill Magazine.
** From the Cornish 'Bronn Wennili', meaning 'Hill of Swallows', it is the highest peak on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall.