Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Half in Shadow ~ Mary Elizabeth Counselman

One of the most popular short stories ever to appear in Weird Tales was 'The Three Marked Pennies', written by Mary Elizabeth Counselman (1911~1995) and published in 1934. Counselman began writing at an early age, and her work appeared in several magazines, including Weird Tales, The Saturday Evening Post, and Good Housekeeping.

As I mentioned before, I collect William Kimber books. I started buying them a little while back because I like the colourful jacket designs by Ionicus. In 1980, William Kimber published Half in Shadow, a collection of fourteen stories by Counselman (see image left).* In addition to a preface by the author, it contains: The Three Marked Pennies, The Unwanted, The Shot-Tower Ghost, Night Court, The Monkey Spoons, The Smiling Face, A Death Crown for Mr Hapworthy, The Black Stone Statue, Seventh Sister, Para-site Mansion, The Green Window, The Tree's Wife, Twister, A Handful of silver.

The tales in this collection range from rather gentle to downright disturbing. The supernatural forces in some of the tales mean no harm, such as 'The Unwanted', 'The Shot-Tower Ghost', 'The Tree's Wife' and 'A Death Crown for Mr Hapworthy'. The supernatural force in 'The Green Window' is prophetic in nature, whereas that attached to 'The Monkey Spoons' actually brings about tragedy. 'Seventh Sister', on the other hand, is a very sad story about a black albino child who is feared and neglected from birth because she has 'the Power'.

Four of the stories really stand out, one of which is the first in the collection, 'The Three Marked Pennies'. In it, the town of Branton is buzzing with excitement following the appearance of strange little signs, typed on yellow paper. The signs explain that on the 15th of April three pennies will appear. One will be marked with a cross, one with a circle and one with a square. Whoever still owned these pennies on the 21st of the same month will receive a prize: a first prize of a thousand dollars in cash, a second prize of a trip around the world, or the third prize... death. It's such a simple tale, but so clever. I can see why it was so popular when it appeared in Weird Tales.

In 'Night Court', Bob Trask's reckless driving has caused the deaths of two people, but he's walked free from court in both cases because his family pulled strings. Now, he's been involved in another collision, and he's in trouble again... but this time he'll be tried by the Night Court.

In 'The Smiling Face', Sir Cedric Harbin, a middle-aged British archaeologist, and his new wife are on an expedition in the Matto Grosso interior, in Brazil, looking for the Lost City. Sir Cedric has been crushed by a boa constrictor and is confined to his bed. Believing that his wife may have run off with their handsome guide, he consults a witch-doctor, with terrible consequences. For me, this and the following story are the most sinister of the lot.

'The Black Stone Statue' is written in the form of a letter to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Racked with guilt, the writer has decided to reveal how he has created his Symphonies in Black, the sculptures which have made him famous.

The Kimber edition of Half in Shadow, in fine condition with a fine dust jacket, costs about twenty pounds (around $30), but copies tend to turn up in less than fine condition.

I've put together a section all about the William Kimber books with jackets designed by Ionicus, and you can access it by clicking here.
* Consul Books published Half in Shadow, a paperback containing fourteen of Counselman's tales, in 1964. Arkham House issued a hardback collection with the same title, but a different line-up of tales, in 1978. The William Kimber edition contains the same stories as the Arkham House book.

Monday, 9 March 2015

In the Dark and Other Ghost Stories ~ Mary E. Penn

Nothing at all is known about the personal life of Mary Elizabeth Penn; even her birth and death dates are unknown. She was a regular contributor to The Argosy from the 1870s to the 1890s, most likely contributing anonymously before appear-ing under her own name from 1878. Her last traceable ghost story was published in 1893, though her crime stories continued to appear until 1897. After the demise of The Argosy in 1901, Penn disappeared entirely from the literary world, and she is all but forgotten today.

In 1999, Sarob Press published In the Dark and Other Ghost Stories, the second volume in their Mistresses of the Macabre series, containing eight of Penn's stories: 'In the Dark', 'Desmond's Model', 'The Tenant of the Cedars', 'Snatched from the Brink', 'The Strange Story of Our Villa', 'How Georgette Kept Tryst', 'Old Vanderhaven's Will', and 'At Ravenholme Junction' (originally published anonymously, but attributed to Penn by Richard Dalby).

The narrator of 'In the Dark' is John Dysart, a widower with one child, Ethel, with whom he has recently moved to an old fashioned riverside villa, The Cedars, situated between Richmond and Kew. Ethel dreams that she can hear knocking sounds coming from the closet adjoining her bedroom, and the sound of a child crying 'Let me out, let me out!' She awakes to find that she can still hear the knocking sounds and sobs. A doctor is called and the situation is explained to him, but he confirms that previous tenants have heard the exact same noises. The sounds have been heard for the past three or four years, ever since Captain Vandeleur occupied the house with his fragile young nephew.

In 'Desmond's Model', two English artists, Desmond and Thorburn, are on their way to San Giovanni-della-Rocca one June day in Tuscany. Thorburn is too fatigued to venture further in the heat and refuses to go any further, so the two men agree to separate and meet up in San Giovanni later that day. Desmond, taking a short cut instead of keeping to the main road, heads off determined to find a model for his painting of 'Lucretia Borgia', but gets more than he bargained for in the process.

In 'The Tenant of the Cedars', Percival Wilford, barrister-at-law, decides to rent The Cedars, a cottage in the village of Ranstone Park in Berkshire. He is woken one night and hears the sound of the previous tenant, Léonie Lestelle, the renowned French singer, singing in the room below. But Léonie Lestelle was murdered in the house three years earlier.

The narrator of 'Snatched from the Brink' is Catherine Dane, who is looking after her niece, Sidney, while the young woman's father is away in India. Sidney's father, Colonel Dane, has forbidden any relationship between his daughter and Captain Fred Forrester, a fast living cad, but Sidney is haughty and headstrong and determined to go her own way, no matter the consequences.

In 'The Strange Story of Our Villa', the narrator is wintering in Nice, along with Miss Lucy Lester, Mrs Brandon, and Mrs Brandon's thirteen-year-old daughter, Georgie. They are sharing one storey of a villa, and they are very happy with their rental, until they begin hearing the sound of a woman pacing the floors of the unoccupied rooms above them.

In 'How Georgette Kept Tryst', Georgette is a young flower girl who is in love with a writer called Etienne. The two have become engaged, but Etienne's father opposes the match, so Georgette leaves her lover rather than see him ruined. She promises, however, that if his feelings towards her have not changed in two years' time, she will meet him at Versailles on the first Sunday in September, and it turns out that nothing will prevent her from keeping her word.

In 'Old Vanderhaven's Will', Nicolas Vanderhaven is rather put out because his young grandson, Bernhardt, refuses to join the family firm in favour of pursuing a career as an artist. Bernhardt goes off to Rome to paint, and the old man makes a will leaving everything to another relative. Over time, however, his anger fades and he writes a new will, but he dies before he can lodge it with his solicitor, and he's done rather too good a job of hiding it.

'At Ravenholme Junction' put me in mind of Dickens' 'The Signalman'. The narrator and his friend, Harry Luscombe, visit the signal box at Ravenholme and witness the reenactment of a tragedy that took place two years earlier, when the night mail collided with a coal train after being directed onto the wrong track by an overworked signalman.

These are gentle supernatural tales. Penn's ghosts aren't the sort to give you nightmares. Her spectres appear to warn or guide those they care about, or to call to account those who've harmed them, and they don't set out to harm the innocent. The first three and the last one are the best. Penn was an accomplished writer, and she was very good at setting the scene. A few of the stories are quite atmospheric.

In the Dark and Other Ghost Stories was issued as a limited edition of 250 copies. Fine copies in their dust jackets sell for about £85 upwards (around $130) at the moment.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Friends of the Dead ~ James Doig

You may have the impression, if you frequent this site, that I only read books written by dead authors. It is very true that I do my best to ignore the modern world, which for me is everything that happened following the close of the Second World War, but every now and then I do read something written by a non-dead writer. You'll notice that I said non-dead, not undead. Though, that's not to say that I wouldn't read books by undead writers if any were ever written.

Friends of the Dead was published last month by Sarob Press, in a limited edition of 200 copies, with an excellent dust jacket by Paul Lowe. It contains ten tales: Malware, Wolfer-ton Hall, The Kindness of Strangers, Math-rafal, Threads, The Wild Hunt, The Land Where Fairies Linger, Out of the West, The Dead Heart, Friends of the Dead.

In 'Malware', a chap called Campbell, who works in information security, is hired by i-GenWorks (a genealogical company) to find out how records from the 1840s are being deleted from their system, and to discover who is responsible for their deletion. Those who read antiquarian ghost stories know that ferreting around in old books and in ancient places in an attempt to unlock the secrets of the past is a dangerous business, but it turns out that delving into the past via utterly modern technology is just as risky.

In 'Wolferton Hall', Hugh Terne, a doctoral student, is researching the Throgmorton family of Norfolk, and travels to their ancestral home to consult the family archive. Some evidence suggests that Sir Charles Throgmorton, a fifteenth century lawyer, obtained Wolferton Hall and had its rightful owner, Thomas Shackleton, removed by means of a forged deed. And apparently Shackleton dabbled in necromancy and other black arts. Terne is determined to find the truth, and ultimately comes away from Wolferton Hall with much more than notes for a Ph.D thesis.

'The Kindness of Strangers' is a very creepy, very sinister tale. The narrator is playing with his daughter Alexandra at an empty playground when he spies four young girls, 'four cadaverous scarecrows', in the distance. As one, the emaciated children notice the narrator and his small daughter, then make their way purposefully towards the playground... towards little Alexandra. This story is quite short, but so effective. I shivered involuntarily when I read it - I could feel my skin creep - and that doesn't happen very often.

In 'Mathrafal', the narrator purchases a book at a second-hand bookshop and discovers, on arriving home, that someone has left some papers inside it, relating to excavations at Mithrafal Castle in Powys. Two important things had happened during the dig: a figurine was discovered and then disappeared, and a student was killed by falling masonry. His curiosity piqued, the narrator decides to pay a visit to Mathrafal Castle, but he gets rather more than he bargained for when he does so.

'Threads' is a poignant tale of family secrets and the evils of colonial misrule in Australia. It's a difficult story to describe without giving too much away, but it reminds us that we don't really need supernatural spectres to haunt us... human history is horrific enough to get that job done.

In 'The Wild Hunt', Thomas LLewellyn is working on a study of Welsh folklore in the middle ages, exploring the relationship between folklore and popular politics. Whilst studying in the library after dark during a terrible storm, looking for proof that Welsh prophecy was used as a tool for propaganda, LLewellyn uncovers much more than material for his thesis.

The life of the narrator of 'The Land Where Fairies Linger', and that of his girlfriend, has been forever changed by an encounter with a strange, mysterious creature. I'm not quite sure that it's possible to describe this tale any further without telling you exactly what happens in it, so I shall say no more. The same can be said of 'The Dead Heart', a tale of loss that spans only one and a half pages.

The narrator of 'Out of the West' comes across an account of a massacre in a fifteenth century chronicle and sets about finding its location, in the hope that it will point the way to the final resting place of Owain Glyndwr. He finds an entry in a manuscript catalogue that leads him to Penterry church to examine a grimoire, and there sets in motion something that cannot be stopped.

'Friends of the Dead' begins with a lost manuscript, which is always a promising start for an antiquarian ghost story. Dr Thornley, our narrator, comes across a reference to the Arcanum Arcanorum whilst looking through the papers of Adam Welford, a vicar who went missing mysteriously in 1854. The manuscript was written by Sir Thomas Dagre of Salop, a fifteenth century alchemist who dabbled in necromancy, and Dr Thornley decides to go in search of it at St Dunstan's Church in Malling, Shropshire, a couple of weeks before Christmas, with particularly sinister consequences. The ending of this rather creepy tale came as something of a surprise to me, and that doesn't happen very often these days.

Some of these tales are genuinely frightening. I'd be highly surprised if anyone read this collection without experiencing any chill at all. I found four of the stories - the best of the collection, in my opinion - particularly creepy: 'Malware', 'Wolferton Hall', 'The Kindness of Strangers', and 'Friends of the Dead'. All of them lingered with me long after I'd read them, and thinking about them now, particularly 'The Kindness of Strangers', still makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

Friends of the Dead is available directly from the publisher, Sarob Press. The price is £30, but the last time I checked there were less than a dozen copies left, so you'd better be quick about it if you want a copy.