Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Phantoms and Fiends ~ R. Chetwynd-Hayes

Phantoms and Fiends by Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes was published by Robert Hale in 2000. It contains twenty-one stories and an afterword, 'On Writing and Wraiths'. It has an excellent cover design by Edward Miller (Les Edwards).

When the narrator of 'Moving Day', David Greenfield, moves from his flat into the home of his three great-aunts, he finds that they are obsessed with all things related to death, and especially to moving... the thing that has locals hiding behind tightly closed curtains at night and will, according to the local clergyman, bring the newspaper lot beating a trail to their doors if nobody puts a stop to it.

In 'She Walks on Dry Land', it is the year 1812 and Charles Devereux, Fourth Earl of Montcalm, having arrived in the village of Denham with his servant Patrick, demands rooms for the night at The Limping Sailor inn, but the landlord refuses him. Village elder Josiah Woodward warns, 'come nightfall it bodes ill for any stranger found within the confines of this village', but Devereux is far too stubborn to listen.

In 'The Bodmin Terror', James, an artist, is told by his doctor that he must have peace or face a nervous breakdown, so he decides to go on a motoring holiday to Cornwall with his wife Lydia, who is anything but peaceful. When the car breaks down on the way to Lizard, an old woman emerges from the ice-chilled mist and beckons them to follow her, but the old crone has an ulterior motive for coming to the couple's aid.

'A Chill to the Sunlight' is set in Jamaica. The narrator, Harry Masters, is in a rum-shop eyeing up the local ladies of the night, trying to choose one to fulfil his needs, when he encounters Lydia... who works out of room 7 and daren't take anyone back to her house.

In 'The Catomado', Martin is quite determined to murder his wife, Myna, to get his hands on her insurance money and avoid having to eat any more sausages. But unfortunately for him, she's a Catomado. And Catomado can't be hurt and don't age; they just fade away at the age of one hundred and four.

In 'Regression', David Masters has decided to commit suicide. Whilst waiting for the pills he's taken to have the desired effect, he wonders aloud what he would choose if he were given a choice of afterlife. He decides he would like to go back to the period in his life when he was most happy, then finds himself sitting at his desk at school in 1936, in the period just prior to his father being killed by a ten-ton truck. Is he being given a second chance so that he can prevent his father's death and change the course of history?

In 'Matthew and Luke', Matthew Bayswater, a go-ahead young man, almost drowns in a swimming accident. He is given the kiss of life by a passing stranger and survives, but he has been dead for seven and a half minutes. And seven and a half minutes is all it takes to release Luke, his doppelgänger.

The narrator of 'Growth', Henry Broadfield, a man of unquenchable curiosity, persuades the physical medium Helen Watkins, who is able to produce ectoplasm that takes the form of the dear departed, to grant him a private sitting. Being unquenchably curious, Henry lops off a six-inch piece of living ectoplasm during the sitting, then begins feeding it live worms. But the 'ectop', as he calls it, has an insatiable appetite.

For me, the next three stories (and 'Shipwreck') are the weakest in the collection. In 'Born This Night', Gerald Smollet finds himself at a party, witnessing the black birth. 'The Sad Ghost' is a young man who, having been crossed in love, took his own life and now haunts the house that John Smith and his family have just moved into. And the narrator of 'The Thing' is in a bar, knocking back whiskies in the company of a young prostitute, when Rodney enters, bringing with him the Thing, a tall black-robed phantom that feeds off the young man's experiences.

In 'The Underground', Laura Munro, a middle-aged spinster who has always been a bit afraid of the Underground, is drawn to the shade of a young Second World War soldier she first encounters on the platform at Charing Cross tube station one snowy night. While her father tries to push her into a loveless marriage, Laura begins seeking out the soldier, uncovering a secret about her own family history in the process.

In 'Shipwreck', Sarcan's spaceship crash lands on Earth after being shot by an enemy craft. Sarcan, officer of the Imperial Ulterian Galactic Space Force, comes from a race of beings that are able to take on the form of any living thing, by sucking the life out of it like a vampire. He takes on the form of a gorse bush, then a hare, and then he encounters Sydney J. Beecham, a junior advertising executive from London.

The 'Strange People' are George Bramfield and his wife Alice, the couple who become the narrator's foster parents when his mother and father are killed in a car accident. Uncle George, as the narrator calls him, has to have his leg amputated, but after the operation he decides he wants his leg back.

When the fragile young narrator of 'Fog Ghost' ventures out into the foggy night and is taken ill, a dirty and somewhat demented woman saves his life by dragging him out of the cold air and into her filthy home. She begs him to stay with her, but once the fog clears he flees home to what he mistakenly assumes is safety.

In 'The Frankenstein Syndrome', Morris Smith is a genius who wants to create a new life form. And create one he does... a life form that slithers and jumps, goes for the mouth, sucks the warmth from any living creature in its vicinity, and shouldn't ever be allowed to attach itself to 'anything that protrudes'. This particular story is too gruesome for me... surprisingly graphic. I have a delicate constitution.

In 'My Dear Wife', Henry Parkington has affairs with women he isn't particularly fond of in order to torment his wife Georgina. He derives pleasure from her pain, knowing that no matter how many times she leaves him she will always return. As will all the women who get tangled up with him, including his latest little indiscretion, Sheila Mayfield.

In 'A Sin of Omission', Mr Faversham is accosted by a man in a cloth cap who claims to have a dicky ticker and wants to borrow a fiver. When the cloth-capped man becomes menacing, Faversham makes a run for it. And when, in hot pursuit, the cloth-capped man collapses on the pavement, Faversham leaves him to die. At the subsequent inquest, the examining doctor can give no explanation for the disappearance of a tattoo of a large black snake from the dead man's body.

In 'Feet of Clay', John Broadfield becomes obsessed with Josie Wagnor, a girl with whom he works at Elder Hawkins' greengrocer's shop. Fearing she is involved with another man, he follows her when she leaves work, setting in motion a series of events that lead to tragedy.

In 'Non-Paying Passengers', Percy Fortesque is quite taken aback when he sees the face of his dead wife, Doris, staring at him from the window of the five-forty-five train from Waterloo. He seeks advice from Madame Orloff, Medium Extraordinaire, who tells him that he is being haunted because, having narrowly avoided death, he is overdue... something that Doris aims to put right, with the help of her dead parents.

In 'It Came to Dinner', Herbert comes across a dilapidated old house, with uncurtained windows and open front door, and assumes it must be uninhabited. He decides to spend the night. But the isolated house is not empty; it is owned by the Carruthers family, and Herbert is invited to stay the night. At dinner, Herbert notices uncomfortably that his hosts enjoy their food to the point of gluttony... especially their meat. Being a vegetarian, this story made my knees a bit weak.

There are a few stories in this collection that I really like, such as 'Moving Day', 'Regression' and 'The Underground', and a couple that made my stomach do somersaults - 'The Frankenstein Syndrome' and, even more so, 'It Came to Dinner'. Mr Chetwynd-Hayes doesn't appear to have liked mothers-in-law... or wives... or women in general. Or, if he did like them, he didn't think they were all that bright. And his tales certainly aren't a positive advertisement for the institution of marriage. But many are funny, some are sad, and most are entertaining.

It's not all that easy to find a decent copy of this book. I managed to get hold of a fine copy a couple of years back for forty pounds, but I haven't seen another one since, and the only one on Abe at the moment is a reading copy for over a hundred pounds (more than $150). However, all but two of the tales - 'Born This Night' and 'Feet of Clay' - have been published elsewhere.

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