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.

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