If you’re looking for a ghost story to elicit a pleasurable shudder this Christmas, then you could do far worse than read the work of that oft-overlooked Edwardian scribe of the supernatural, Richard Henry Malden. His book of short stories Nine Ghosts (1942) was compiled over many years and issued as a tribute to his long friendship with the writer M R James, who had of course been one of the most celebrated authors in this particular genre. One of the most appealing features of R H Malden’s ghost stories is that we are always conscious of the presence of Malden the narrator. We may be sure that it is Malden and not some fictional persona because of the brief and entertaining, if not always actually necessary, fragments of his own experience that are mentioned in his ghostly tales. This is also most likely a natural result of the fact that the tales were written to be read aloud – Malden was among those present at the auspicious first readings of the ghost stories of M R James at the celebrated meetings of the Chitchat Society at King’s College, Cambridge and remained forever affected by the experience. As Malden notes in his introduction to Nine Ghosts, “It was my good fortune to know Dr James for more than thirty years”.
Malden’s life had many parallels to that of M R James. Brought up in East Anglia, like James, he was educated at Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, where James himself was Provost. It was here that Malden became acquainted with both the ghost stories of James and the man himself. Importantly, he also shared the love James had for antiquarianism and biblical apocrypha – this was hardly surprising, for he was to become a distinguished member of the clergy. During the First World War he served as Acting Chaplain of HMS Valiant. His next appointment was as Vicar of St Michael and All Angels Church, Headingley, Leeds, 1918–33, later becoming Honorary Canon of Ripon, 1926–33, and Dean of Wells, 1933–50. He was also Examining Chaplain to the Bishop of Norwich from 1910; Chaplain to the King, 1926–1933 and President of the Somerset Archaeological Society, 1943–44. He clearly loved his calling for not only did he write many theological treatises, on a lighter note he also wrote a guidebook to Wells Cathedral and many aspects of his detailed knowledge of churches and their history decorate his supernatural fiction.
Nine Ghosts is Malden’s one and only venture into fiction and it is interesting that a man of such august learning chose the humble ghost story as his medium. It should be noted however that Malden, like James, was writing ghostly tales rather than out-and-out horror; he aimed to chill the spine, not turn the stomach, and perhaps to leave the reader wondering a little. Creating an atmosphere of unease is the signature of Malden’s fiction, and as a writer he is very good at building up a fabric of convincing normality and then puncturing it with a telling image. What makes Malden perhaps more accessible to modern readers is his writing style, which is both literate and easy to follow without being facile. He is also able to reproduce the natural rhythms of conversational speech convincingly and is almost as good as James himself at indicating dialect without resorting to impenetrable phonetics. Like James, again, Malden shows a talent for highlighting the unease of his tales by contrasting it with humour.
Few of Malden’s stories have been anthologised since Nine Ghosts (click to read!) was first published, but it is reproduced here in its entirety. The stand-out stories in this anthology are probably The Sundial and Between Sunset and Moonrise. In the former a particularly nasty apparition is engaged by the narrator in a round-the-hedge chase in which, horrifyingly, the pursuer becomes the pursued. The latter tale builds up a superb atmosphere of crumbling reality – aided, perhaps, by the fact that the two Biblical references made are both to books in the Old Testament Apocrypha and therefore, to an extent, suspect – culminating in the tremendously powerful description of a genuinely frightening apparition. Incidentally, there is clearly something about Wells Cathedral itself that inspires a sense of supernatural dread. After Malden died in 1951, one of his successors, Christopher Woodforde had an almost equally fine anthology of ghost stories – A Pad in the Straw – published. Like the tales of his predecessor as Dean of Wells, Woodforde’s work owed a not insignificant debt to that of M R James.
Happy Christmas from Ghost Cities!