Sunday, 19 July 2015

"Number Ninety" & Other Ghost Stories ~ B. M. Croker

Bithia Mary Croker (1849~1920) was one of the most well-known novelists of her day. She produced more than forty novels and seven short story collections. In 1871, she married John Stokes Croker, of the 21st Royal Scots and Munster Fusiliers, and, as was customary at the time, accompanied her husband to India, where she remained for fourteen years, and where six of the fifteen tales in this collection are set. Nowadays, as with so many talented Victorian and Edwardian writers, she is all but forgotten by most of the reading public.

"Number Ninety" and Other Ghost Stories was published by Sarob Press as a limited edition of 250 copies in 2000. It is the third volume in their Mistresses of the Macabre series. The tales it contains are: "Number Ninety", The Former Passengers, "If You See Her Face", The Red Bungalow, The Khitmatgar, Her Last Wishes, The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor, "To Let", The North Verandah, The First Comer, Trooper Thompson's Information, Who Knew the Truth?, La Carcassonne, Mrs. Ponsonby's Dream, The Door Ajar.

The first tale, 'Number Ninety', is taken from the Christmas Number of Chapman's Maga-zine of Fiction for 1895. At a rowdy bachelor's party, the discussion turns to ghosts and John Hollyoak, the most outspoken and derisive of the non-believers, declares that he wishes to spend the night in a haunted house. So, the host of the party, who is a believer and a tad ruffled at being ridiculed for it, arranges for him to do just that.

'The Former Passengers' originally appeared in To Let, published by Chatto & Windus in 1893. Mr Lawrence is on his way to Singapore to give his sister away at her wedding and, having missed the steamer he intended to catch, persuades Captain Blane to take him in his cargo boat, the Wandering Star. His accommodation is fine and he thinks he's rather lucky to be travelling on the Star, until they steamer hits bad weather.

"If You See Her Face" first appeared in To Let. Daniel Gregson, political agent to a Rajah, and his assistant, Percy Goring, are travelling to the Delhi durbar when their train is prevented from going on by a break in the line. Gregson decides they should head for the Raja's isolated hunting palace in Kori on foot. They are warned by an old woman not to enter the Khana palace, as it's a place where 'If you see her face - you die!'

'The Red Bungalow' first appeared in Odds and Ends, published by Hutchinson in 1919. In it, Netta Fellowes, newly relocated with her husband to Kulu, India, decides to move into the Red Bungalow, which has been unoccupied for years. Her cousin tries to persuade her against the move, as the place has a bad reputation, but Netta will not listen and takes the bungalow regardless... with terrible consequences.

'The Khitmatgar' first appeared in To Let. The Jacksons' finances are at a very low ebb and they have travelled to Panipore in search of employment. The only lodgings they can find are at the long-uninhabited bungalow in the Paiwene road, but the bungalow is haunted by a murdered servant.

'Her Last Wishes' was published in In the Kingdom of Kerry (Chatto & Windus, 1896). Rev. Eustace Herbert is sent off travelling around India, after having a physical breakdown, and is invited to stay at the home of an old school friend, Mr St. Maur, who has a coffee estate in the Madras Presidency. He is settled in the guest bedroom, but finds that he is not its only resident.

'The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor' was first published in To Let. Mrs Goodchild and Mrs Lloyd are travelling from Karwassa to Chanda to see their husbands for Christmas. After a bit of bullock trouble, the two women are forced to stay the night in a travellers' bungalow at Dakor that hasn't been used for seven years, where experiences after nightfall lead to the solving of an old crime.

"To Let" first appeared in To Let. Having left it very late in the season to travel into the hills from Lucknor, to escape the terrible summer heat, Aggie Shandon asks for a friend's help in locating accommodation for herself, her two children and her sister-in-law, Susan. There is only one property available - Briarwood - and it is amazingly cheap. The two women are incredibly pleased with their summer home, until they hit monsoon season and the reason for the low rent makes itself apparent.

'The North Verandah' was first published in Odds and Ends. It's a rather gory tale set in Kentucky. A chance meeting in a Swiss hotel brings together the English Dormer sisters, Marion and Lucy, and their distant relations the American Washington-Dormers. Following their European trip, Marion and Lucy travel to Kentucky to visit their American cousins' home, Rochelle, but the house has a bad history and Marion experiences rather more than an afternoon's quiet reading when she decides to sit alone on the north verandah.

'The First Comer' was published in In the Kingdom of Kerry. Miss Janet MacTavish and her sister Matilda are a couple of well-to-do Edinburgh spinsters. Matilda is ill with bronchitis and wakes in the wee small hours wanting a cup of tea. Her sister makes her way down towards the kitchen in the dark, preparing to light the fire and boil the water for the tea, but someone is already in the kitchen, raking the coals in the pitch black of the night.

'Trooper Thompson's Information' was published in Jason, and Other Stories (Chatto & Windus, 1899). The narrator, Thompson, is a trooper in the Australian mounted police. A fellow trooper, Ned Martin, goes missing and Thompson is charged with finding him. The days pass and he is no nearer finding out what has happened to his comrade, until he receives a night visit from Martin's ghost.

'Who Knew the Truth?' was published in The Old Cantonment and Other Stories (Methuen, 1905). The narrator, Vernon, travels to South Carolina with his brother-in-law and two other men. After a day of shooting in sweltering heat, the party is guided to a nearby house for the night, during which the narrator is woken by a soft, repeated knocking... the sound of an 'empty rocking chair, in vigorous motion!'

'La Carcassonne' was published in The Old Cantonment and Other Stories. Mrs Letty Wagstaff and her companion Miss Fanny Tarr are spending the season on the French Riviera. Miss Tarr purchases an opal ring, and it has a considerable effect upon her character, turning an ordinarily timid, quiet, teetotal spinster into a chatty, reckless, champagne-swilling gambler and reader of notorious novels.

'Mrs. Ponsonby's Dream' was published in Jason, and Other Stories. In it, Mrs Sally Ponsonby has a prophetic dream concerning a planned visit to her brother's house and the criminal intentions of his new butler.

'The Door Ajar' was published in The Old Cantonment and Other Stories. In it, the narrator and her brother, Hubert, are staying in the south of France. Along with fellow inmates of their hotel, they visit Chateau de la Vaye, near the Spanish border. While looking at the paintings within the old house, the youngest member of the group remembers events from a previous life.

"Number Ninety" and Other Ghost Stories isn't all that easy to get hold of now. A fine copy in a similarly fine jacket will cost about £90 (around $135), if you can find one. It's not easy to get hold of Croker's stories anywhere else either, but 'Number Ninety' appeared in Richard Dalby's Ghosts for Christmas, 'To Let' was published in The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, and 'The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor' can be found in Late Victorian Gothic Tales, published by Oxford University Press, which is available as a Kindle ebook or a paperback.

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