Friday, 29 May 2015

The Room in the Tower & Other Stories ~ E. F. Benson

Edward Frederic Benson (1867~1940) is probably best known these days for being the creator of Mapp and Lucia. His acute satirical novels about warring upper middle class Sussex ladies during the inter-war years never seem to wane in popularity. The TV series of the 1980s had a cult following, and the BBC aired a new adaptation only last year. But Fred, as he was known to his chums, had several strings to his bow and was a prolific writer; he was also an archaeologist, memoirist, and writer of excellent and unsettling weird short stories. His tales are genuinely creepy and sometimes pretty horrific, so it's best not to read them when you're home alone, in the dark... not a soul to hear you scream for help, etc.

Benson's first collection of weird tales, The Room in the Tower and Other Stories, was published by Mills & Boon in 1912. It contains: The Room in the Tower, Gavon's Eve, The Dust-Cloud, The Confession of Charles Link-worth, At Abdul Ali's Grave, The Shootings of Achnaleish, How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery, Caterpillars, The Cat, The Bus-Conductor, The Man Who Went too Far, Between the Lights, Outside the Door, The Other Bed, The Thing in the Hall, The House with the Brick-Kiln, The Terror by Night.

As there are seventeen tales in this collection, and I don't want to just skim over them to avoid writing an overly long post, I'm going to split this post into two. I'll cover half of the stories in this post and the other half in a second post next week.

Over a period of fifteen years, the narrator of 'The Room in the Tower' repeatedly dreams of visiting the home of Jack Stone and his mother Julia. Each time, he is given the room in the tower. The dream develops over the years, but it always ends in the same way - with a feeling of mounting terror. Then the narrator goes to stay with his friend, John Clinton, at his home in Sussex, and he finds himself in the house of his terrible dreams, where he is once again given the room in the tower.

'Gavon's Eve' falls on the 15th of September. On the bank of a pool in the vicinity of the village of Gavon in Sutherland stand the ruins of a Pict castle, 'built out of rough and scarcely hewn masonry'. At the hour of midnight in this location, 'the evil and malignant spirits which hold sway on Gavon's Eve are at the zenith of their powers', and the narrator and his friend Hugh Graham decide to go and see for themselves what ungodly things take place in that remote, wild place.

'The Dust-Cloud' put me in mind of Stephen King's Christine. The narrator's host, Harry Combe-Martin, tells the story of a ghostly automobile, a twenty-five horse-power Amédée... a brute of a car that ran over a child and killed its owner, Guy Elphinstone, a savage driver who ran over his own dog rather than brake or swerve to avoid it.

In 'The Confession of Charles Linkworth', Charles Linkworth is facing execution for having murdered his mother, but even when his appeal is rejected he refuses to confess his crime to Dr Teesdale. He continues to assert that he is innocet... at least, he does as long as he is alive.

'At Abdul Ali's Grave' is set in Luxor, Egypt. Abdul Ali, the oldest man in the village, has died, but his cache of money is nowhere to be found. During his last days, he was attended by the notorious Achmet, a practitioner of the dark arts who is partial to robbing the bodies of the recently deceased. The narrator and his friend, Weston, have a servant, Machmout, who is clairvoyant. Wanting to confirm the accuracy of one of Machmout's visions, the two Englishmen go by moonlight to the grave of Abdul Ali, where they discover just how far Achmet is willing to go to get his hands on the riches of the dead.

'The Shootings of Achnaleish' is one of my favourites of this collection. The narrator and his wife, with Jim and Mabel Armitage, rent a farmhouse in Achnaleish, in Sutherlandshire, for fishing and shooting during the summer. En route to their holiday home, as they speed through the dark landscape, enormous black hares dash before their car, one of which they run down, much to the horror of the locals. To make matters worse, Jim is determined to bag some hares when he goes out shooting. But nobody shoots hares at Achnaleish... not if they value their own lives.

In 'How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery', Church-Peveril is a house that is 'beset and frequented by spectres, both visible and audible'. Generally speaking, the Peverils are proud of their defunct family members and find them amusing, but there are two ghosts which they never laugh at - the ghosts of twin-babies, murdered by Dick Peveril in 1602, who appear in the long gallery. None who see the twin spectres live long afterwards, and the long gallery is avoided at all costs after nightfall. But Madge Dalrymple has had a bad fall and is left reading in the long gallery, where she nods off... and she is still sleeping there when the light fails.

'Caterpillars' is set in the Villa Cascana, which stands on a hill not far from Sestri di Levante on the Italian Riviera, looking out over the sea. The narrator and Arthur Inglis are staying there with Jim Stanley and his wife. But there is something not quite right about the place. During the first night of his stay at the villa, the narrator is unable to sleep and goes downstairs to fetch a book. The door to an empty bedroom lies open, so he looks inside... only to find that the bed is far from unoccupied. Personally, I've always found caterpillars to be rather cute; at least, I did until I first read this story.

To be continued...

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Cold Harbour ~ Francis Brett Young

Francis Brett Young (1884~1954) was born in Halesowen (historically in Worcestershire, now in the West Midlands), the eldest son of Dr. Thomas Brett Young. He was educated at Iona Cottage High School, a small private school in Sutton Coldfield, and then Epsom College in Surrey, where he edited the Epsomian school magazine and won the Rosebery Prize for English Literature. He studied medicine at the University of Birmingham and went on to become a general practitioner in Brixham in 1907, but continued writing whilst working as a doctor. He achieved popular success in 1927, when he was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel Portrait of Clare, and he was at the height of his fame during the 1930s. Brett Young wrote thirty novels, four short story collections, and three volumes of poetry. These days, however, he is all but forgotten by most readers.

Cold Harbour was published by W. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1924. The novel begins on the island of Capri, where a party of four is enjoying an evening on the terrace after dinner. There is the unnamed narrator, his old college friend Ronald Wake, who he hasn't seen for a long time, Ronald's wife Evelyn, and the clergyman Harley. As the topic of conversation turns to the existence of evil, the Wakes appear to be troubled by something and are encouraged to tell their story. The tale that follows is told in part by Ronald Wake, and in part by his wife, with the thread passing back and forth from one to the other as the story progresses.

A fortnight earlier, having been caught in a downpour on the way back home, with a flat tyre to boot, the Wakes stop at an inn for the night. Whilst there, Evelyn meets the strange Mr Humphrey Furnival, who invites her and her husband to his home, Cold Harbour, to view his manuscripts and Roman artefacts. And so they visit the following afternoon, but Ronald takes an instant dislike to both Mr Furnival and his house.
'There it stood, with its dark, grimy brick, a steely light reflected from its windows. It seemed to rise up in front of us monstrously, malignantly, as though it hated us. And God knows I hated it too. If this place were mine, I thought, I'd never rest till I'd got rid of it.' 
As soon as Evelyn is alone with Furnival's wife, the latter confides in her that she fears for Mr Furnival's life and his immortal soul, because he is possessed. The house, she explains, is full of forces of active evil, and many have been touched by its influence whilst staying in it; some have been frightened almost out of their wits, and priests have found themselves unable to pray. And Mrs Furnival sees blood everywhere.

Young constructs an atmosphere of suspense and dread so brilliantly that I don't blame the Wakes for wanting to get away as quickly as possible from Humphrey Furnival, with his terrible laugh and aggressive outbursts, and his oppressive, sinister house.
'We walked away beneath the ghostly autumnal trees. We went like ghosts, the leaves were so thick under our feet. It was as though death hung in the air. Something worse than death. I know death, and this was infinitely worse. Evelyn was tugging at my arm, like a child who is cold and wants to run. I knew what she meant. We began running together. Down the drive, into the road, running away from Cold Harbour, and feeling, all the time, the house behind us, lying there, like a stormy monster, crouched, ready to strike.'
Having placed the facts of the case before their audience, the Wakes ask the narrator and Harley, the clergyman, to offer their opinions. And then Ronald Wake puts forward his own theory regarding the happenings at Cold Harbour and their root cause.

But it's at this point that the novel changes direction and heads back towards the rational: 'the darkness of another world was lifted from us, and the story, which had carried us into regions where our imaginations shuddered and were lost, returned to the familiar plane of human reason'. That might well be a relief for the narrator and his clergyman friend, but it's a bit of a let down for readers like me; I rather enjoy my imaginations shuddering. And the ending is wrapped up far too quickly. So, the end, to my mind, is a disappointment. But the rest of the book is so utterly wonderful that it is still one of my favourites.

A fine copy of the first UK edition of Cold Harbour, complete with dust jacket, is pretty much impossible to find. A near fine copy without the jacket costs about £150 (approx. $120), but it's such a rare book that copies don't turn up very often.

The first American edition was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1925, and that's easier to get hold of. You can pick up a very good copy for about £25, without the jacket.

Ash-Tree Press republished Cold Harbour in 2007, but that edition's out of print and not all that easy to get hold of. Fine copies sell for about £30. I think it's got a rather nice dust jacket (see image left).

House of Stratus published a paperback in 2008, and that's available for a mere £8.99, but as I've never seen a copy of the book I can't pass comment on whether it's a good or bad production. There is, as far as I am aware, no Kindle version available at the moment.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Antique Dust: Ghost Stories by Robert Westall

Antique Dust by Robert Westall (1929-1993), first published by Viking in 1989, has just been republished by Valancourt Books as a paperback. It contains seven stories: 'The Devil and Clocky Watson', 'The Doll', 'The Last Day of Miss Dorinda Molyneaux', 'The Dumbledore', 'The Woolworth Spectacles', 'Portland Bill', and 'The Ugly House'.

Robert Westall is best known as a writer of books for children and young adults; he was awarded the Carnegie Medal twice, for The Machine Gunners and The Scarecrows, and won the Dracula Society's Children of the Night Award for his book The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral. The current volume, Antique Dust, is Westall's only collection of supernatural stories written specifically for an adult audience.

The narrator of each story is Geoff Ashden, an antique dealer whose stomping ground is the market town of Muncaster. Westall's tales truly do capture the atmosphere of the antiques trade, with its unusual characters, some of whom can be decidedly less than honest. In an environment where so many old objects are passng from one pair of hands to another, picking up who knows what along the way, the possibilities for hauntings seem limitless.
'Dealers are undertakers of a sort. When a man dies, the undertaker comes for the body, and quite often the dealer comes for the rest... I deal in dead men's clocks, pipes, swords and velvet breeches. And passing through my hands, they give off joy and loneliness, fear and optimism... I have known more evil in a set of false teeth than in any so-called haunted house in England.'
In 'The Devil and Clocky Watson', Clocky Watson isn't a very nice man; he's not a very honest one either. He used to hang around the antique-sales after the War, tampering with the Viennese clocks so he could get them for next to nothing. Then he set up in old Joe Gorman's shop, which collapsed and burnt to ashes one night; Gorman died from the shock. Ashden's always known that Clocky's a bad lot, and he wants to bring him down. And the means to that end comes in the form of a haunted eighteenth century ebony and ormolu bracket clock.

In 'The Doll', Ashden puts a permanent advertisement in the local paper for china-headed dolls. He hates china dolls (as do I, they give me the heebies), but there's profit in them. Mrs Westover, the widow from the manor house at Westover, has a collection of dolls for sale, but when Ashden arrives to view them they've all been dismembered... for being naughty.

'The Last Day of Miss Dorinda Molyneaux' is a very atmospheric and genuinely creepy tale. Ashden and Miss Molyneaux, who's a teacher at Barton Road Primary, take class 4C to visit Tattersham church. Ashden, who has a feeling that there is something not quite right about the church, takes photographs of the children taking brass rubbings and tracing various architectural features, but when he develops them there is a face in the shadows in one of the snaps that belongs to neither himself, Miss Molyneaux nor any of the children. Then the eighteenth century tombs inside the church are vandalised... by someone who appears to have known their occupants.

'The Dumbledore' is the only tale in the collection that is not supernatural. It's a poignant tale about the effects of the War on the men who fought in it, and on the women who lost the men who fought. We learn more about Ashden's history in this story, that he served in the RAF, and that his marriage isn't terribly happy. The ghosts in this story may not be supernatural, but the people in it are still haunted.

'The Woolworth Spectacles' is about, well, a pair of spectacles from Woolworth's. Before the Second World War, you could go and buy a pair of used spectacles from the spidery black mass of them on Woolworth's counter for just sixpence. Ashden's cousin, Maude Cleveland, is slightly short-sighted, so she goes and gets herself a pair of specs from Woolies... an antique pair with a chain attached. When wearing them, even if only around her neck, she experiences such clarity of vision and such an alteration in perception that nothing looks quite as it did before. And the thoughts she has... oh, she's never thought anything quite like that before.

'Portland Bill' is a ;promontory at the southern tip of the Isle of Portland, which forms the southernmost point of the county of Dorset. Ashden's there, killing time while his wife is visiting an old friend, when he encounters a young woman who has lost her little boy. He does everything he can to help her, to the point of putting his own life in danger, but there's more to the missing boy's story than initially meets the eye. Ashden is definitely a man driven by his nethers, and they do get him into trouble sometimes. Whilst reading these stories I repeatedly thought of Lovejoy, though I don't think Ashden quite has that character's charm and easy manner.

'The Ugly House' is a tale told to Ashden by a chap from the Council called Dave Dobson. Besingfield Council's putting in an approach road to the new hypermarket, but the road can't be completed until the Ugly House is demolished. Old Burridge, the tenant, won't shift. And Dobson, the new Chief Technical Officer, is determined to use every trick in the book to get him out. But it doesn't pay to cross old Cunning Burridge.

I really enjoyed reading this book. There are no false phantoms conjured up by over excited imaginations or an undigested lump of cheese, or spectres that can be reasoned out of existence by some neat, rational, last minute explanation. Westall's spooks are real, they don't have your best interests at heart, and they can be pretty darned nasty.

Antique Dust costs a mere £10.99 (or $15.99 in the States), and there's a Kindle version for £4.99 (or $7.99). And it's worth every penny. Well done to Valancourt Books for republishing this excellent collection.