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.

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