Sunday, 8 February 2015

A Handful of Ghosts ~ George H. Bushnell

George Herbert Bushnell (1896~1973) was librarian at St Andrews University from 1924 to 1961, and he lived in St Andrews throughout that time. He wrote a number of non-fiction books, mainly concerning the history of the book. The ghost stories contained in his only published fiction collection, A Handful of Ghosts, all of which are set in and around St Andrews, were written for the entertainment of the Celtic Society, to be told 'by candlelight on winter night' during the blackouts of the Second World War.

A Handful of Ghosts was originally published by the University Press of St Andrews in 1945. A paperback edition, which is the one shown here, was published by St Andrews Preservation Trust in 1993. It's a slim little volume of just sixty-one pages and includes only five tales.

The narrator of 'The Closing of the Cloisters' is researching the history of the book-trade in St Andrews when he comes across some information, from the 18th century, relating to the closure of the Cloisters behind the Chapel College. In 1750, a student who had taken to pilfering books was hauled before the Senatus for his crimes and found guilty. One member of the Senatus, referred to as Professor X, was all for forcing the student to spend the night tied by a rope to a hook fixed in the Cloisters. The other members of the Senatus rejected the idea, but challenged Professor X to spend the night there himself. The professor, who wasn't a nice man, had no fear of the dark, but as the lights went out and silence fell he heard creak... creak...

'The Closing of the Cloisters' appears to have been inspired by events which took place in 1707, when David Murray, the University messenger, took his own life by hanging. As punishment for his sin, the University Court decreed that the poor man should be dissected, and his skeleton articulated. The skeleton was put on display in the spot where its owner had committed suicide, but by 1889 it had been hidden away. Bushnell was one of two men who located the skeleton and reopened its box for the first time in many years in 1941.*

'The Tenement' concerns the history of a building known as 'the murder house'. A 'gaunt and skeleton-like' property that stood on an ugly corner where two roads met, the local children crossed to the other side of the road to avoid passing by it, and they certainly wouldn't play within a hundred yards of the place. 

In 'The screaming Horsemen', a book comes into the possesson of the University library, and in it are a number of seventeenth century letters and papers relating to the Earl of Lauderdale. One document purports to be a copy of a charter granting lands in Angus to an ancestor of Lauderdale, and on the back of it is a note in what looks to be the hand of Sir Walter Scott, referring to events in 1793, when he saw four horsemen at the bottom of the loch... screaming.

'The Shadow Man' is based on real events that took place in 1779, when, at the height of the American War of Independence, a flotilla of  American Navy vessels under the command of Scottish-born John Paul Jones arrived in the Firth of Forth and found it entirely undefended. In Bushnell's story, Reverend Mr Robert Shirra and his congregation, including Henry the Precentor, who has been dead these past ten years, go in procession down to the sands to ask for divine assistance in seeing off their foe.

In 'I Shall Take Proper Precautions!', it is Christmas Eve in the first year of the Second World War. Fiona Proctor, an assistant at the University Library, is shelving returned books when she discovers that one of the volumes does not belong to the library. As the owner's name and address is inscribed on the fly-leaf, she decides to take the book away with her. Unable to sleep that night, she ends up reading the strange book, with its account of Harry Dairsie, otherwise known as the Wizard of Kemback, due to his meddlings with magic. She discovers, however, that the last few pages are missing. The following day, she attempts to return the book to its owner and experiences 'a gap in space and time'.

I like Bushnell's conversational style and his sense of humour, especially in the last of the stories. But the best story, to my mind, is the first, 'The Closing of the Cloisters', which is the only one of the five tales that is actually creepy. It's a shame that this small volume was Bushnell's only venture into the realms of fiction.

The first edition of A Handful of Ghosts is almost impossible to find, and I haven't a clue how much one would go for. The 1993 paperback edition is amazingly difficult to get hold of too. I stumbled across my copy by accident. The only copy I can find for sale at the moment is fifty pounds (that's about $80).

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