Wednesday, 22 June 2016

The Room Opposite ~ F. M. Mayor

Flora Macdonald Mayor (1872-1932), the daughter of a clergyman, Rev. Joseph Bickersteth Mayor, read History at Newnham College, Cambridge, before pursuing an unsuccessful career in acting, which neither of her parents approved of. Her first published work, Mrs Hammond's Children, came out at the end of 1901, but it received little attention and didn't sell well. In 1913, her second book, The Third Miss Symons, an elaborate study of a spinster's life, was published with a preface by John Masefield, the future poet laureate. It received favourable reviews, and The New Statesman went so far as to compare her to Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell. The Daily Telegraph referred to Mayor as 'a true artist' and wrote: 'Without the slightest attempt to play upon the feelings, it reaches to the very heart of things, and leaves the reader with an aching sense of the intolerable waste of human nature' - an assessment that can also be applied to the non-supernatural tales in her posthumously published collection The Room Opposite. Her third book, The Rector's Daughter, published in 1924 by The Hogarth Press, was praised by E. M. Forster and received good reviews in the press, but like her earlier work did not sell terribly well. And the last work to be published during Mayor's lifetime, The Squire's Daughter, which came out three years before her death, received neither good sales nor glowing reviews. By the time of her death in 1932, Mayor's reputation had diminished so much that The Times refused to print an obituary for her.

The Room Opposite and Other Tales of Mystery and Imagination was published in 1935 by Longmans, Green & Co. It contains sixteen tales, ten of which are mysterious, supernatural, or fantastic. Of those, 'The Room Opposite', 'Fifteen Charlotte Street', 'The Kind Action of Mr. Robinson' and 'Miss de Mannering of Asham' are the best. I tend to leave out the non-supernatural tales when I do a write up, but in this case I'm going to make an exception and cover all sixteen.

In 'The Room Opposite', William Stanley is on his way to Cambridge to see an old college friend when he is caught in a snow-storm, loses his way, and winds up at One Tree Inn in the ugly village of Swinford. The room opposite his own is occupied by a man who, according to his two rather peculiar doctors, is at death's door, and throughout the night Stanley is disturbed by cries from the sickroom. His unease leads him to flee in the night, and an accident leaves him ill for several weeks following his departure, but he is haunted by the cries of that dying man... a stranger, yet so familiar.

In 'The Kind Action of Mr. Robinson', young Charles Marsden is waiting for a coach to London one December afternoon when he meets Mr Robinson, a man he has never met before, who offers to lend him five hundred pounds on the understanding that the debt must be paid back in fifty years' time, at the same time of day and in the same location. 'You need not trouble yourself with an I.O.U.,' explains the stranger, 'for I myself will remind you from time to time.' And remind him he does, once every ten years... until the repayment falls due.

'Letters from Manningfield' is an epistolary tale about Miss Corbett, an unmarried country vicar's daughter who, having nobody for company but her elderly parents, writes the details of her life in letters to her only friend, Hilda. She begins with descriptions of the village and its colourful population, but having discovered that Hilda likes ghostly things she begins visiting the local elderly poor to glean stories from them to pass on to her friend. She relays every detail when one of the locals reports seeing a fairy, but when she sees one herself the magical encounter leaves her feeling disenchanted and unhappy with her lot.

The comical 'Tales of Widow Weeks' is also set in the village of Manningfield and again involves Miss Corbett. Mr Laver is very good to his old aunt, Widow Weeks. But one day his wife says something unkind within the old lady's hearing, and that's when the trouble starts... because Widow Weeks knows spells and has 'sperrits'. I couldn't help wondering, when I first read this story, what on earth the pastime referred to as the 'wiggle-woggle' could be. Well, in case you are now wondering too, here it is...

In 'Fifteen Charlotte Street', James Dence has travelled from East Anglia to London in search of work. He is looking for an address and having no luck in finding it when Mr Morell offers assistance and, as it is late and pouring down with rain, offers him a room for the night at 15 Charlotte Street. Following supper, Morell declares that he is a doctor and that he is concerned by Dence's appearance. He proceeds to examine his guest, and then he whispers: 'You are now coming upstairs with me. What happens there is a secret, which no one must ever know.' Well, that's enough to put the wind up anyone, so Dence's desire to flee at this point is completely understandable. Of events that follow, Dence remembers little or nothing, until he wakes in a London hospital.

In 'The Unquiet Grave', Ellen Braithwaite is the daughter of a prosperous farmer. She fancies young Thorny, the son of a squire, but her father opposes their marriage. When another suitor attempts to molest Ellen, Thorny attacks and kills him, and he is forced to flee the country to escape the gallows. But Ellen swears she'll be true to him until he can return and marry her. And so she waits and pines, as two years pass with no word, until she falls ill and dies. But she'll never rest until she sees her love again.

'Christmas Night at Almira', like the five tales that follow it, has no supernatural element. It is set in the Almira boarding-house, where a group of women and one child are spending the Christmas holiday. It is a tale of the desperate loneliness of old age, when those you love have either abandoned you or died. In particular, it is about Millicent Gwynne, whose beloved son seldom visits her and can't wait to get away from her when he does.

'In the 'Bus' is a short tale about Rene West's stay in hospital. Though there's no weird element to it, the descriptions of the horrid nurses and doctors struck such a chord with me, bringing back memories of my own time in hospital several years back, that I felt quite uneasy after reading it.

'Mother and Daughter' is a poignant tale set in the Nookery boarding-house in Seagate, where the elderly inhabitants are made to feel like nothing but a collective nuisance by its unfeeling proprietress Mrs Pack. As with the elderly characters of 'Christmas Night at Almira', the inhabitants of the Nookery are unwanted, neglected and terribly lonely. Millicent Fairholme, still elegant at sixty-five, is rarely visited by her daughter Helen, who is too busy, too young, and too concerned with the here and now to spare time for her ageing mother, who for her is a remnant of a past she has no interest in. Helen comes to regret her unwillingness to bridge the divide between herself and her mother, but only when it is too late.

In 'Innocents' Day', four elderly friends are brought together to celebrate Christmas after not seeing each other for many years. Ethel Perrin, a teacher, lives alone with her books. Fanny Fleet, now the widow Mrs Bentley, married and had children, but the marriage didn't work and the children have all flown. Eleanor and Rosa Danvers did not marry, their father lost their fortune, and they live in a London boarding-house. All are lonely, but together they recapture something of the Christmases of their childhood together.

'A Season at the Sceptre' is about Violet Heron, otherwise known as Queen, who isn't really cut out for the rivalry and spite of theatre life. It's written in a very chatty style, as it's being told by an actress to her friend, and for me it is the least successful story of the collection.

'The Lounge at the Royal' is peopled by guests who are 'dull, elderly, or feminine, and usually all three'. A holiday romance has been blossoming between Rex Glen and Sylvia Paulet; he is preparing to propose marriage, and she's preparing to accept him. That is, until Miss Lilith Lasky arrives on the scene, with her motorbike and wide mouth of good teeth.

In 'The Dead Lady', on her deathbed Lady Wild asks her husband, Sir Harry, to bury her two rings with her when she is dead. On the back of her ruby ring, given her by Sir Harry on their wedding day, is engraved the motto: 'True love dost last for ever'. But does it? I'm saying no more, as I can't without spoiling things.

Margaret Latimer, the narrator of 'Miss de Mannering of Asham' is staying at an east coast resort with her friend Kate Ware. They decide to take a pony and cart out for a ride in the countryside and come across the park of Asham Hall, a Jacobean mansion that has passed from one hand to another since the de Mannering family died out. The hall, its park and Asham Church make both women feel uneasy, but Kate is determined to find out the story behind its one shut-up room... the story of Miss de Mannering, who was ill used by Captain Phillimore, a Wickham-like rake who wouldn't have been out of place in an Austen novel.

In "There Shall Be Light at Thy Death", old Mrs Bailey is very happy to have her great-nephew visit her, but his visit is motivated by want of money rather than love of the old lady. Desperate to get his hands on her cash to settle his gambling debts, he puts rat poison in his great-aunt's tea, but as she lies on her deathbed she fixes her eyes upon him and says: "There shall be light at thy death."

In 'Le Spectre de la Rose' it is 1821 and Lucy Davenant, a young beauty of sixteen, attends a fancy dress ball with her mother and father. While there, she meets a mysterious young man dressed in a rose-coloured doublet and is swept off her feet by him. Before leaving, he promises he will return, and it is assumed by Lucy's family that he will propose marriage, but the days pass, then weeks, then months, and they hear nothing of him. Other suitors propose, but Lucy is a changed girl, and despite the passage of time, and her failing health, her love for the rose-coloured gallant does not wane.

The Room Opposite is an extremely rare book. A nice copy with the dust jacket costs anything from twelve hundred pounds upwards these days, but they certainly don't come along very often. The collection has never been republished, and as far as I know only 'Miss De Mannering of Asham' and 'The Unquiet Grave' have been published elsewhere.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Ghost Gleams ~ W. J. Wintle

William James Wintle (1861~1934) was a staunch Catholic and prominent Christian writer. His first published book was Armenia and its Troubles, which appeared in August 1896. By the close of the nineteenth century, Wintle was a regular contributor to The Harmsworth Magazine (which was later renamed The Harmsworth London Magazine and then The London Magazine), a monthly pictorial that was as popular as The Strand. He wrote a number of articles on the royal family, about which he was considered an expert, on other leading figures of the day, and on zoological subjects. In April 1903 an article by him appeared in The Harmsworth London Magazine entitled 'Can You Explain It? True Stories of the Ghost World' (which I posted the year before last).

Towards the end of the First World War, Wintle became an Oblate in the Benedictine Abbey on Caldey Island, off Tenby, on the South Pembrokeshire coast. It was there that he turned his creative talents to telling ghost tales on Sunday evenings to the boys of the Abbey's school. He also produced a small booklet entitled The Coasts of Caldey, intended as a guide for use by visitors.

Ghost Gleams: Tales of the Uncanny, Wintle's only collection of supernatural tales, was published by Heath Cranton in August 1921 and appears to have been one of the writer's last published works.* It is dedicated 'to eight dear boys', for whom the tales were first written. In his foreword, he describes the tales as 'straightforward ghost stories', which were written in response to the boys' insistent demand 'Tell us a story!'

Ghost Gleams consists of fifteen tales: The Red Rosary, When Twilight Fell, The House on the Cliff, The Ghost of the Blue Dragon, The Spectre Spiders, The Footsteps on the Stairs, The Chamber of Doom, When Time Stood Still, The Black Cat, Father Thornton's Visit, The Horror of Horton House, The Haunted House on the Hill, The Voice in the Night, The Light in the Dormitory, The Watcher in the Mill.

For the most part, the persons involved are bachelors, and all are of sound mind and little imagination, not prone to entertaining foolish ideas about spooks and the such like. The sinister ones are my favourites, so I have something in common with the boys for whom they were written, amongst whom 'the gruesome ones met with the best reception'. But I'm also very fond of one of the more comical ones, 'The Ghost at The Blue Dragon', in which Professor Latham, chair of Assyrian history at Cambridge, is staying at The Blue Dragon, a popular hotel in Saltminster, to spend a quiet holiday and revise the manuscript for his new book. He discovers on his arrival that there is a spare bed in his room, upon which he throws his belongings, only to find that they are moved every time he leaves his room. He experiences a very amusing dream - well, it's not funny for him, but it is funny for the reader - in which he engages in fisticuffs with himself.

I'm rather fond of tales about vengeful inanimate objects, so I really enjoyed ‘The Red Rosary’. Dr David Wells collects artefacts of primitive forms of worship. He is eager to acquire The Red Rosary, which is in the possession of a little known tribe on the borders of Tartary and is connected with a corrupt form of Lamaistic Buddhism. It is formed out of a string of gems, with one large jade pendant which is shaped like the head of a snake. Wells is so determined to add the rosary to his collection that he pays a man three thousand pounds to steal it from the tribe. The thief is plagued by strange happenings on his return journey to hand over the rosary to Wells, until he is finally found frightened to death. And when the rosary passes into Wells’ hands, he too is plagued by misfortune from the moment he touches it.

In 'The House on the Cliff', Cyril needs to get away from it all for a bit, as his nerves are giving him some trouble, so he decides to go and stay at a friend’s cottage. It is situated at the edge of a lonely limestone cliff, far from everything save the sea, five miles from the nearest village, and a mile from a main road. Cyril laughs off his friend’s warning that the cottage is haunted, but begins to feel watched and to hear malicious laughter that appears to have no source. And as the days pass, the Thing seems to get closer: ‘The net of evil seemed to be gathering round him; and it was only a question of time how soon it would enfold him.’

'The Chamber of Doom' serves as a warning to all treasure seekers: ignore ancient ancestral scratchings at your own peril! Glenmorris Castle is the ancestral home of Lord Glenmorris. In the old oak panelling that lines the gallery, which runs along the west side of the castle on the first floor, there is a panel that can be pushed aside. Behind that panel there was once a doorway, now filled in with stonework. If the wall is examined closely, there are letters faintly scratched into the stonework that spell out the words ‘The Chamber of Doom’, and beneath them is scratched ‘Glenmorris lasts until Glenmorris comes’. Family tradition has it that the fortunes of the Glenmorris family rest on that room being left alone.

The new earl, a bookish sort of twenty-three, fresh from Oxford, has little time for superstition. His father is dead and his mother is off visiting relatives, and, being a bachelor, he finds himself alone in the castle. He is cataloguing documents found in the muniment room, and has come across one relating to the hiding of treasure about the castle during the Civil War. It refers to the hiding of valuables in ‘Chamber D’, which the earl believes to be ‘The Chamber of Doom’. He decides to open the room up, and, not wanting to alert the servants to what he is doing, as they have promised to leave en masse if he attempts such a thing, he sets to work at night. He succeeds in making a hole in the wall on the second night, and releases more than trapped air in the process.

The chap in 'The Horror of Horton House', would get on well with Glenmorris’ unfortunate young earl, for he too goes about poking around in places that should be left unpoked. Horton House is a roomy old place that stands on the borders of a wood in Wiltshire. Following the death of his father, John Horton has the place thoroughly restored, and in the process a secret passage is found, hidden in the wall of the dining room. The passage, however, leads nowhere. In the course of works, he also discovers an inscription above the fireplace in the neighbouring room, now used as a library: ‘Let Horton live, let Horton die; Pray God the horror come not nigh.’

One chilly evening in October, Horton is sitting before the fire in the library, when his attention is drawn towards the inscription. He is horrified to see that the two letters ‘o’ in the word ‘horror’ are now a pair of eyes. A week or two later, he is sitting in the same room when he hears a chuckling sound coming from the dining room. When he goes to investigate, the panel leading to the secret passage is open. A few days later, he discovers what he thinks at first are dirty fingerprints at the side of the panel leading to the passage. But they are not simply fingerprints; they are scorch marks made by a hand with a thumb and five fingers. The consequences of Horton’s renovations prove that no bachelor should ever open up a hidden room or passage; those places are sealed up for good reason!

In 'The Watcher in the Mill', Edward Sinclair prides himself on being a no nonsense fellow. A relative has died and left all of his property to Sinclair, including an old house in the lonely parish of Marshtown-in-the-Hole and an income sufficient to enable him to live in comfort. There is a dilapidated mill on the property, visible from the house. Though it has been left to fall into disrepair, his relative expressed a wish in his will that it should not be pulled down. When visiting the mill, though he is a no nonsense fellow, Sinclair experiences a sense of impending danger, especially when trying to open a boarded up cupboard. Each time he visits, he experiences the same feeling of dread. Then, as he observes the mill from his house one evening, he sees that there is a light on inside, though there is no sign of anyone having been there when he goes to inspect the place. As the days pass, the mystery deepens and Sinclair’s peace of mind becomes more and more disturbed. Finally, he decides to pull the mill down. Now, as anybody who reads ghost stories knows, pulling anything old down, especially if you are a bachelor, is a very dangerous thing to do (almost as dangerous as poking things that should be left unpoked).

My favourite tale of the collection is 'The Spectre Spiders', in which Ephraim Goldstein is a Scrooge-like character, ‘silent by nature and unfriendly by profession’. He is a middle-aged moneylender who lends at a rate of five percent per week, usually secured against the borrower’s home. He is extremely wealthy, though thoroughly opposed to spending money, and naturally unattractive, ‘and where nature had failed to complete her task, Ephraim had brought it to perfection.’ For some time he has been worried about his eyesight. He visits a noted oculist in Cavendish Square, but the specialist finds nothing wrong with his eyes, or any other part of him for that matter, and prescribes rest. His sight is fine during the day, but during the dark evenings he fencies ‘ that a number of shadows streamed forth from his chair and ran across the carpet to the walls.’ Each time his vision is disturbed, it is on a day when he has insisted upon his pound of flesh from a client, and as time passes the shadows grow in size. He wakes at night to find that his head is covered in a mass of silky threads like the web of a giant spider. But he dismisses the connection between his daytime activities and his nighttime disturbances, much to his own disadvantage.

I like Wintle's conversational writing style. When reading his tales you feel as though he's sitting there telling them to you. And even the sinister tales have generous smatterings of wit. His descriptions of people can be very biting, such as that of the narrator's landlady in 'The Haunted House on the Hill': 'She was one of the most sensible women I have ever met. She was also one of the homeliest - to use the Yankee term which sounds so much prettier than ugliest - that ever captured a husband.' Wintle's stories seem to have been well received when they were first published. The reviewer of the Aberdeen Journal wrote on the 12th of September 1921:
'There is a matter-of-factness about them that impresses; we seem to be horrified lookers-on at the events related; and Mr Wintle does not make the mistake of solving every mystery. No one afflicted with "nerves" should attempt these tales at any time; certainly not at night, if he values his rest. In Mr Wintle we have discovered a genuine successor of Poe in the sphere of the occult.'
The first edition of Ghost Gleams is one of the most difficult to find supernatural titles out there (or rather, not out there). The dust jacket is so rare that I've only ever seen one copy 'in the flesh' that retained it, and that copy was not for sale (see image above). I imagine that one with the jacket would cost a packet if it did come up for sale. A fine copy without the jacket goes for about nine hundred to a thousand pounds if you can find one (that's about $1300-1500).

Ash Tree Press republished the collection in 1999 as a limited edition hardcover. That also contains the The Harmsworth London Magazine article entitled 'Can You Explain It? True Stories of the Ghost World'. A fine copy costs about forty-five to fifty pounds at the moment (that's about $65-75).

There is a Kindle version of the Ash Tree press book, and that costs £5.29. Or there's the Black Heath Kindle version for a mere ninety-nine pence.

* According to the Catalogue of the Books, Manuscripts, Maps and Drawings in the British Museum (Natural History), Volume III, Supplement P-Z, published in 1940, The Coasts of Caldey was reprinted from Pax: The Quarterly Review of the Benedictines of Caldey, December 1922. 'Some Caldey Birds, &c.', was published in Pax in the summer of 1924. These appear to have been Wintle's last published writings.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Six Ghost Stories ~ T. G. Jackson

Thomas Graham Jackson (1835-1924) was a one of the most distinguished architects of the late Victorian period. He was educated at Brighton College, before being awarded a scholarship at Wadham College. Following his graduation, in 1858, he became articled to George Gilbert Scott, the architect largely responsible for the mid-Victorian Gothic Revival. Jackson was a friend of William Morris, and he was a pivotal figure in the Arts and Crafts Moment. He was a keen traveller, an antiquarian, a scholar, and an accomplished writer; his histories were read in Britain, on the Continent and in the States. But he waited until he was eighty-four years old before publishing his only collection of ghost stories.

Six Ghost Stories was published in 1919 by John Murray. The tales it contains are: 'The Lady of Rosemount', 'The Ring', 'A Romance of the Picadilly Tube', 'The Eve of St John', 'Pepina', and 'The Red House'.

In 'The Lady of Rosemount', Henry Charlton is spending the long vacation at Rosemount Abbey, the recently acquired home of his uncle, Sir Thomas Wilmot. The abbey dates from the twelfth century and was once home to Benedictine monks, so old Henry, being an Oxford chap with antiquarian interests, is excited by its architecture. While exploring the ruined abbey-church with his cousins, he discovers a hidden tomb beneath overgrown weeds and brambles, on top of which is the alabaster figure of the Countess Alianora. And in the dead of night, Henry is drawn back to that alabaster beauty... fascinated by her and repelled by her in equal measure.

'The Ring' is set in Tuscany. Dr Morton, an Oxford Don and well-known antiquary, is in Tuscany to study the local folklore - la vecchia religione of the Etruscans. He and his companion, Archie Bryant, a Fellow of the same college, dream of discovering an untouched Etruscan tomb. One moonless night, with the aid of a local woman, they enter such a tomb, but Bryant comes away with a souvenir and lands himself in no end of trouble.

In 'A Romance of the Picadilly Tube', old Mr Markham adds a codicil to his will just prior to his death, and in doing so cuts out his eldest son, George, in favour of his youngest son, James. When the solicitor, Mr Harvey, falls under a tube train at Picadilly and is killed, the signed codicil falls into George's hands, which leaves the disinherited fellow in a quandary.

In 'The Eve of St John', Cecil Maynard, who has only recently inherited Castle Maynard, discovers the hidden diary of Roger Trumball, steward to his disreputable seventeenth-century ancestor, Sir Everard Maynard, who it seems did away with his wife, Hilda Tiptoft. According to the diary, Hilda asked Trumball to get word of her husband's abuse to her family, and the good steward swore to do so, whether living or dead. And when, three hundred years later, Sir Henry Tiptoft pays a call to Castle Maynard, the loyal steward has his chance.

'Pepina', before throwing herself into the canal in Naples, sends a note to Philip Cranston: 'Tell the traitor, I'll see you again at the right time'. The traitor is Sir Edward White, who had his way with the poor peasant woman and then deserted her. Three years later, Cranston's dying words, when he is murdered by Sir Edward, are: 'I leave you to Pepina'. And so the trouble begins.

In 'The Red House', William Hetherington, nephew to Sir Richard Hetherington, has got in with a bad lot and turned to highway robbery. When he robs Dicky Dawes, who is on his way to the home of Sir Richard, he is recognised. And one crime leads to another, and that leads to a haunting.

Jackson's tales have a Victorian feel. A few of his characters have antiquarian leanings, but his ghosts aren't the stuff of M R James' terrifying tales. Two of Jackson's spectres are intent on inspiring those still living to do the right thing, and one is determined to make the truth of a crime known. Only a couple of them intend harm. But despite the benevolent leanings of his phantoms, the tales are not short on atmosphere, and his living humans in some cases are bad enough to make up for the goodness of his ghosts. Also, as you'd imagine considering his profession, his architectural descriptions are excellent. In my opinion, the first two tales are the best ones.

A fine copy of the first edition of Six Ghost Stories is not a terribly easy thing to find, and if you do locate one it will most likely set you back about five hundred pounds (that's about $750).

Ash Tree Press published a limited edition hardback in 1999 (see cover right), and a fine copy of that costs forty to fifty pounds at the moment (around $55-75).

Leonaur issued The Collected Supern-atural and Weird Fiction of Thomas Graham Jackson in 2009, and that includes the six stories described here, along with 'Two Novelettes and Four Shorter Tales to Chill the Blood'. That is available as a hardback (£16.99) and paperback (£8.99).

Then there are the two Kindle editions: the Ash Tree Press edition for £4.49, and the Black Heath version for a mere ninety-nine pence. For once, readers are actually spoilt for choice with this particular book.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Fires Burn Blue ~ Andrew Caldecott

Fires Burn Blue, Andrew Caldecott's second book of supernatural tales, was published by Edward Arnold & Co. in 1948. As I said in my post about his first collection Not Exactly Ghosts, I like Caldecott's sense of humour. I can't help but like a collection in which one of the characters, the victim of an intellectual vampire, claims to have been sucked like an orange.

In 'An Exchange of Notes', Rev. Septimus Tardell is attempting to bridge the divide between 'the old people' and 'the new set' in the town of Telmington. He decides to unite the town by reviving the Tel-mington Philharmonic Club and asks Dr Wrenshall, retired organist of Winton-bury Cathedral, to take charge. Mrs Parlington of Telming Hall, who is averse to anything toshy, is asked to be the club's patroness. But Mrs Parlington is used to getting her own way, and when the club performs Sir Cuthbert Kewbridge's latest work, Northern Lights, she is determined to change one note in the composition. And she's not about to let anything stop her from doing so.

In 'Cheap and Nasty', Tom and Kathleen Cromley have purchased their new home, Thurbourne Manor, for a song. But following a visit by the writer Aubrey Roddeck, Mrs Cromley becomes nervous and is less than happy with the house. For Roddeck claims that he can sense in the atmosphere of a house reflections of its past or future. In the former, it can be called 'haunted', and in the latter it can be called 'waiting', and in the case of the Cromleys' house, according to Roddeck, it is definitely 'waiting'.

In 'Grey Brothers', Hilary Hillbarn is Assistant Entomologist to the Takeokuta Museum, Kongea; he is responsible for collecting specimens to add to the museum's collection. When complaints are made against Hillbarn regarding his choice of location for his explorations - the Nywedda valley, which is said to be the home of devils and disease - and an assistant dies whilst in the field with him, an enquiry into the matter is instituted, after which Hillbarn disappears into the jungle. When Hillbarn declares himself king of Nywedda, a band of four men are dispatched to retrieve him.

'Quintet' is a comical tale about a party of five who are waiting to see in the new year at Brindlestone Manor and decide to tell ghost stories. Aunt Susan goes first with a story about her ghostly bedside companion. Uncle Philip tells a tale of a reappearing gravestone. And Vernon Ruthwell's amusing story concerns a secondhand suit that appears to have a life of its own.

In 'Authorship Disputed', Eustace Amberlake and Terrence Terrison have been virtually inseparable since their days at Oxford. Amberlake was thought destined for great things. However, it is Terrison who has experienced success instead. But when Terrison dies suddenly, at the age of thirty-four, Amberlake explains the true cause of his old friend's success.

In 'Final Touches', Ridley Prandell retires to the old mill-house at Boldrington. His family once belonged to area, and he discovers that there is an ongoing feud between the Perrandales (a variant spelling of Prandell) and the Farribals, as each family once cursed the other. No Perrandale will take the bridle-path to Knapton at night, and no Farribal will use the footpath to the north of the village green, for fear of being 'touched'. Prandell, curiosity getting the better of him, decides to walk to Knapton by moonlight, to find out for himself what being 'touched' is like.

In 'What's in a Name?', when Mr and Mrs Transome name their baby boy Ronald Austin Transome, Uncle Charles insists that a child with such initials will eventually be nicknamed 'Rat', and he turns out to be right. When Rat is six years old, he is given a white rat by the gardener, and he names the little fellow Snattajin. Fond of the idea of witches, Rat thinks of Snattajin as his familiar. And there is indeed an unusual bond between the boy and his furry little companion. This is one of my favourites from this collection.

In 'Under the Mistletoe', Jim Wrightaway, manager of the Liston estate in Kongea, refuses to disturb a number of Tebanco trees because his Kongean labourers believe the mistletoe-like clumps that attach themselves to the trees are inhabited by evil spirits. Craigley, his neighbour, believes it is Wrightaway himself who is afraid of ghosts and plans to play a prank on him. Hearing about this, Atterside, another neighbour, decides to play his own prank on Craigley, with terrible consequences.

In 'His Name Was Legion', Reverend Vernon Vinetree is rather put out that Mr Tresdale, a wealthy local, is putting out a magazine called the Kidbury Notebook. It is not just the title of the magazine, which is too similar to the reverend's own Kidbury Parish Notes, that is causing the trouble. It isn't just the atheistic tone of some of the pieces. It is the fact that the magazine contains articles and verses which Tresdale claims are written by spirits. I rather like the last three sets of verses in this story, especially 'Five-Fingered Exercise'.

The fire burns blue with caves of green,
A Hand amid the coals is seen,
A shrivelled hand with fingers charred:
The three who watch are breathing hard...

'Tell Tale but True' consists of two stories, 'A Phantom Butler' and 'Diplotopia', both of which the narrator claims to be true. In the first, Tertius Holyoak Burnstable is British Officer-in-Charge of the small Malay state of Penyabong. His butler, Ahmad, is away and down with malaria, but when Lord Lettiswood pays a visit Ahmad isn't about to let his master down by remaining absent. The second tale is about odd goings on at the old Fort house in Sialang, which is said to be haunted.

'A Book Entry' concerns the mysterious signing of the name 'U. Nomi' in the Government House calling-book in Takeokuta. Toby Lushmoor, private secretary to Sir Oscar Sallerton, the governor of Takeokuta, starts an investigation into the identity of the mysterious scribbler and receives proof that past crimes always catch up with you in the end.

In 'Seeds of Remembrance', Eustace Brayne has just inherited Sheldrake Hall from his Uncle Malcolm. Going through his uncle's accounts, he finds certain discrepancies and decides to investigate them further. Then, reading his uncle's diary, he discovers that the old man was sent a packet of seeds by a woman who claimed he had killed her husband... seeds that assisted him in remembering and settling his debts.

Whilst 'Seated One Day at the Organ', Mr R. Fulstowe, the organist, collapses and falls over the instrument during evensong, creating such a loud and discordant sound that the Abbey pews quiver. The cause of his collapse is a replacement mirror above the organ console, or rather what it reflects back at the viewer. This is another of my favourites.

The first edition of Fires Burn Blue is rather difficult to find in fine condition, and a copy will set you back about fifty pounds if you do find one (that's around $75). Ash Tree Press published a limited edition hardback in 2002, and that includes both this and Caldecott's first collection, but that's long out of print. A fine copy with the jacket costs around thirty pounds upwards at the moment (about $45), but there aren't many of those about now. Wordsworth Editions published the paperback Not Exactly Ghosts and Fires Burn Blue in 2007, but that's also out of print. I haven't come across a Kindle edition.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

November Night Tales ~ Henry C. Mercer

Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930) was a man of numerous talents. He was a lawyer, archaeologist, antiquarian, ceramist, curator, author and historian, amongst other things. He was founder of the Mercer Museum, which houses Mercer's vast collection of objects from the pre-industrial age, and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, both of which are located in his hometown of Doylestown, Pennsylvania. He was also the author, at the end of his life, of an incredibly neglected book of uncanny stories, November Night Tales, which was first published by Walter Neale in 1928.

The collection has just been republished by Swan River Press, with the additional tale 'The Well of Monte Corbo', which was first published by the Bucks County Historical Society in 1930.

In 'Castle Valley', one summer day the narrator, Charlie Meredith, encounters his old friend Pryor, an artist whom he hasn't seen for years, painting in the vicinity of Castle Valley Hill. Pryor has painted a view of the hill, and upon the top of it he has placed a castle, without knowing that there once was one, or the beginnings of one at least, in that very spot. A few days later, the two men go exploring the site, and they spy something glittering in the brambles. The object turns out to be a large piece of rock crystal - a scrying stone. But using the crystal brings about unforeseen consequences.

In 'The North Ferry Bridge', the narrator is a young doctor only recently arrived in Bridgenorth. He occupies the house that was once tenanted by the great chemist Dr. Gooch, who killed his assistant, turned rats into cholera-carrying murder weapons, and vowed revenge upon the judge and the town who condemned and imprisoned him. This tale is the inspiration for the dust jacket design.

Pryor, the artist, reappears in 'The Blackbirds'. It is his birthday, but he's been warned by his spiritualist advisor that a calamity will befall him on this very day. Charles Carrington, a dramatist, and his friend Arthur Norton are surprised to bump into Pryor in the street, as they think he's fled town to avoid his calamity. The three men decide to head off to Deadlock Meadow together. But once there, poor old Pryor disappears.

'The Wolf Book', is the story of the discovery, by a certain professor, of a precious but unholy manuscript at the Monastery of Jollok in the Carpathian mountains. In search of lost treasures, the professor purchases what he thinks is a worthless farm ledger, contained within a two foot long cylinder. Upon opening the ledger, however, he discovers a second manuscript - a Wolf Book - which he then has sealed up in a tin for safekeeping. But the professor isn't the only one interested in this manuscript, and werewolves are said to be able to sniff them out... even if they are concealed inside tin cans.

Charles Carrington, the dramatist, returns in 'The Dolls' Castle'. Carrington takes his friend George Westbrook to see an uninhabited house in Belbridge Street that has the reputation of being haunted, and whilst there he is approached by a man and a little girl, whom he later believes to be ghosts. Westbrook, however, is not convinced. A year passes, and all thoughts of ghosts disappear, until Carrington bumps into his old friend Dorrance, the lawyer responsible for letting the house on Belbridge Street. Having secured the keys, Carrington invites Westbrook to investigate the house with him, with terrible consequences.

The narrator of 'The Sunken City' is a mining engineer who, travelling back from the Vars-Palanka mines at Borsowitz to the city of Ragusa in southern Italy, finds a leather-bound volume by the historian Ammianus, which refers to a statue of Aesculapius being lost when the city of Epidaurus sank. The purchase from a local fisherman of an ancient bronze lamp, which appears to bear an image of Aesculapius, sets our narrator off on a quest to find out more about his relic, and about the old book and the sunken city, but he's not the only one interested in such things.

In 'The Well of Monte Corbo', the narrator is taking a holiday in Frankfort-on-the-Main when he encounters his old friend Theodoric Barron. Barron introduces him to Doctor Lysander, who believes he has found a castle that was sketched by Dürer. According to the Doctor, while sketching the castle, Dürer was attacked by robbers, and he threw a valuable relic, rescued from a church burned by Hussites and said to have belonged to John the Baptist, into the castle well in order to keep it safe. When a similar print by Titian is uncovered, a search for the castle and its treasure ensues in Monte Corbo.

Not all of the tales in this collection have a supernatural theme, and the supernatural elements when present are understated, even in 'The Dolls' Castle' with its rather shocking conclusion. But fate (or coincidence, depending on your viewpoint) is a connecting thread throughout. And the standard of writing is consistently high; there isn't a bad tale here. Mercer was a very learned fellow, but he never allows his knowledge of any subject to swamp a story, as some clever folks are wont to do; the information he imparts is always necessary for the development of the tale. He also seems to have had a limitless imagination, and if the contents of this collection are anything to go by he could have produced many more fascinating stories if he'd chosen to. Unfortunately, this one collection is all he left us, which is a sad shame. I enjoyed it immensely, especially 'The Wolf Book'.

November Night Tales was published as a limited edition of three hundred hardback copies and is available from the Swan River Press web site for thirty euros. Coincidentally, (or was it fated?) Valancourt Books has released a paperback edition of the same collection, and that costs £10.99. Or there's the kindle edition which currently costs £4.61.