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.