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.

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