Sir Andrew Caldecott only turned to fiction after retiring from the civil service but, having done so, he allowed his lifelong fascination with the supernatural full rein in a collection of simple yet remarkably chilling tales penned in the 1940s. Taking his inspiration from the master of the ghost story, M R James, who chilled by implication rather than by gory description, Caldecott created believable but unsettling scenarios which effectively produced a sense of unease in the reader. In Caldecott’s hands the mundane became horrific; the everyday became unnerving; and the commonplace became utterly terrifying. And yet – if this doesn’t seem like too much of a contradiction in terms – there is something strangely cozy and comfortable to me about reading a Caldecott ghost story today. The passage of years has really brought out the charm and intrinsic quality of these particular supernatural tales, which are almost like miniature works of art compared with a lot of fiction that’s out there these days. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the stories Caldecott wrote and had published during the festive season. Christmas, with its combination of cold dark nights and spiritual significance, seemed to somehow bring out the very best in Caldecott as a writer, for this was the theme of some of his most famous stories, among them the oft-anthologised Christmas Re-union.
Andrew Caldecott (knighted for his services to king and country in 1937) was born in 1884 and educated at Uppingham and Exeter College, Oxford. His intelligence, industry and charm led him to an illustrious career in the British civil service – among the appointments that he held was the post of Governor of Hong Kong. The question of what a successful civil servant was doing writing ghost stories is not an easy one to answer. For a start, they are not exactly ghost stories (this was actually the title of his most famous anthology of tales). There are no ghostly monks or spectres rattling chains to be found in Caldecott’s fiction – he was far too sophisticated a writer for that. Caldecott’s stories mostly involved characters who were haunted in their own particular way. Indeed, part of the cleverness and appeal of his tales is their variety and the surprising ways in which he allowed the supernatural to invade the lives of his characters. It is clear from his writings that Caldecott was familiar with the forms and traditions of the ghost story, and the influence of other noted authors from the genre – particularly M R James – can be perceived in his stories. Like James, Caldecott’s skill was to bring menace to the mundane. The background and the details in each story are presented in an unemotional, practical fashion – which of course only makes the inevitable interjection of a malign supernatural entity even more unnerving.
His first anthology, Not Exactly Ghosts, was published in 1947 and the title said it all. There were no gibbering spooks or headless horsemen in this collection of tales, but instead sets of facts, coldly and critically presented with authentic background and detail, which nevertheless left the reader with a slight chill in their stomach. Caldecott’s stories are far more than merely forays into the world of the supernatural, however; the rich detail and deftly drawn characters make them absorbing in their own right and often, when the creepy supernatural twist comes at the end, it is all the more disturbing in view of their author’s earlier restraint. Generally speaking it is possible to categorise Caldecott’s short fiction into two distinct strands. The first strand of stories very much has the spirit of M R James hovering over it ominously. Tales such as A Room in a Rectory and An Exchange of Notes present us with wry impressions of middle-class society riven by troubling supernatural undercurrents and feature dark secrets, locked chambers and all manner of horrors hidden beneath the genteel surface of suburban England. Then there are the tales set in Caldecott’s own fictional Far Eastern country of Kongea, such as Grey Brothers, which provide a pleasing contrast with those stories set in the rather stuffy, rarefied British middle-class world with which most of his readers at the time would have been familiar. Drawing on his own considerable experiences in exotic parts of the world, Caldecott presents the made-up Kongea as a country with only a veneer of civilization, beneath which there were mystical dark powers, fuelled by legend, superstition and magic.
The one story of Caldecott’s that has been anthologised the most, however, as I said at the start of his post, is Christmas Re-union. From internal references within the narrative, it is clear that the story was inspired by a statement made by M R James in his famous article, Stories I have tried to write, which dealt with plot ideas that James had sketched out but was unable to fashion into successful stories. In the article James at one point stated that: “There may be possibilities, too, in the Christmas cracker, if the right people pull it, and if the motto which they find inside has the right message on it”. Caldecott took up the challenge and succeeded where even the great James failed. Christmas Re-union (click to read!), with its mysterious Father Christmas figure, stays long in the mind after one has laid the book down. Unfortunately the full story is copyrighted and impossible to find on the internet so what I’ve included in this post is only an extract. Hopefully that will be enough to convince you to seek out the story in its entirety, which is just about the perfect read for this time of year! Caldecott passed away in 1951, not long after the publication of his second anthology of spooky tales, Fires Burn Blue. Whether this second volume had satiated the author’s desire for writing ghost stories is something of which we will never be sure. One thing that can be said for certain is that readers of supernatural fiction should be glad that we have this much of the great man’s work left for all of us to enjoy.