In Ghostly Company

17 Jan

The writing of ghost stories has attracted more talented amateurs than any other form of literature. By the term ‘amateur’, I mean those individuals whose main occupation in life is not writing, but those who take up their pen or sit at their typewriters in their idle hours between the demands of their normal profession. The list of candidates in the ghost story genre includes M. R. James, Sir Andrew Caldecott and A. C. and R. H. Benson. Another name to add to the list, one which is forgotten today by all but the most knowledgeable aficionado of supernatural fiction, is Amyas Northcote. Northcote remains a shadowy figure, and not a great deal is known about him or what prompted him to create this delicious collection of ghost stories. He was born on 25 October 1864 into a privileged background. He was the seventh child of a successful politician, Sir Stafford Northcote who was lord of the manor at Pynes, situated a few miles from Exeter. During his childhood years, all the great Tory politicians, including Disraeli, Lord Salisbury and Randolph Churchill, were guests at the house. Sir Stafford was a great devotee of the theatre and literature. He had an especial fascination for ghost stories and the tales of the Arabian Nights and needed little encouragement to spin yarns of magic, wizardry and the fantastic to his children. No doubt this influenced the young Amyas Northcote in his reading tastes and sowed seeds of inspiration which were not to flower until many years later. Amyas attended Eton and was there at the same time as that doyen of ghost story writers M. R. James. It is not known if the two young men knew each other at this time, but the ancient and academic atmosphere that they breathed in together finds its way into both of their writings when, it would seem, out of the blue he brought out a collection of ghost stories in 1921.

In Ghostly Company was published by John Lane, Bodley Head in November that year, just in time for Christmas, the season when it seems ghost stories come into their own. The book received mixed reviews. The Times Literary Supplement referred to the author’s ‘unemotional style’ but added ‘in several of the stories, there is a subtle didactic touch which is not overdone.’ Indeed, the key words here are ‘subtle’ and ‘unemotional’. If the reader is in search of stomach-churning, heart-stopping violent horror, he will not find it in the stories of Amyas Northcote. His style is most akin to that of M. R. James in the sense that it is measured and insidiously suggestive, producing unnerving chills rather than shocks and gasps. After reading Northcote’s tales one is unsettled and disturbed. This is partly due to the fact that the hauntings or strange occurrences in his stories take place in natural or mundane surroundings – surroundings which would be familiar to most readers but ones never before thought of as unusual or threatening. Consider for example the story ‘In the Woods’, which takes the form of a dream-like anecdote. It has no resolution and like many of Northcote’s stories no explanation either. He does not follow the path of many ghost story writers by explaining why or how the haunting has taken place. To do that, he seems to suggest, removes much of the mystery and the fear. The real point of fear is that there is no rational explanation. In essence, there is no plot to ‘In the Woods’. The central character, a girl whose name we are never told, communes with nature and at first finds peace and tranquillity. ‘The woods enthralled her’ is a phrase used several times in the text and subtly the meaning of the word ‘enthralled’ changes from the implication of enchantment to enslavement. Northcote delicately and yet tangibly transforms this pastoral idyll into something dark and sinister. The woods become a character, and a threatening one at that: ‘The firs stood dark and motionless, with a faint aspect of menace in their clustering ranks . . . ’ Nature is a living thing with hidden undercurrents of danger.

Sadly In Ghostly Company proved to be Amyas Northcote’s only collection of ghost stories – his only published volume of any kind in fact. It has been suggested that it was his family name and his connections that persuaded the original publisher to accept the book. Certainly a slim volume of ghost stories by an unknown author was not going to make them a huge profit, but we shall never know the truth regarding this theory. Amyas Northcote died very suddenly just eighteen months after the collection was published and no further stories were found amongst his papers. It is perhaps because of this brief flare on the literary scene, this limited contribution to the genre, that the book as a whole was neglected for so long. The publishers, not able to build up a readership for the author because of his untimely death, paid little attention to the volume and never republished. It was only because certain stories, ‘Brickett Bottom’ in particular, found their way into various anthologies, that Northcote’s name was remembered at all. ‘Brickett Bottom’ was championed by the great supernatural scholar Montague Summers who featured it in his classic The Supernatural Omnibus in 1931. It is typical of Northcote’s approach to the ghost story. It features, as several of his other tales do, a disappearance. It is a simple tale set in the seemingly harmless lush English countryside but before the reader is fully aware of it, the author has begun to build the tension and suspense. One of the major commentators on the British ghost story, Jack Adrian, thought that ‘Brickett Bottom’ ‘ . . . is far, far better than simply a good tale well told . . . it plumbs the most profound depths of horror and despair’. Adrian maintains that ‘there are a good many giants of the genre from that golden late-Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian period, who never wrote anything half as excellent.’

Another story that features a disappearance is ‘The Picture’. This tale is particularly Jamesian in style with all its historical detail and takes Northcote away from his typical mis en scène of the English countryside to Hungary. Here we are given a wicked Count and an old castle as elements in this tale of cruel love. Like ‘Brickett Bottom’, another tale favoured by admirers of Northcote’s work, appearing in several anthologies over the years, is ‘The Late Mrs Fowkes’. This story is perhaps the least typical of Northcote’s output as it is concerned with witchcraft. It features a ceremony of Devil-worship very reminiscent of a scene in Dennis Wheatley’s classic The Devil Rides Out which was first published in 1934. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility, maybe probability, that Wheatley, who was an aficionado of supernatural fiction, was familiar with this story and, shall we say, influenced by it and the Devil-worshipping scene in particular. Northcote had the ability to take a moment, an incident, and invest it with a strangeness that at once seems inevitable and yet suddenly surprisingly frightening in its potential. For example ‘The Downs’ presents what appears to be a most mundane scenario: a man walks over the Downs as darkness falls to return to his lodgings. There is a long and seemingly inconsequential preamble before the narrator actually sets off on his journey, which lulls us into thinking that this is a very tame story. However, there are clues dropped casually into the text to alert the reader to the unpleasantness to come, like the observation that, ‘I was perfectly confident in my ability to find my way back over the Downs to Branksome at night as the path was very familiar to us, and I expected to be aided by the light of the moon which would rise about ten o’clock.’ This innocent, naïve belief is juxtaposed shortly afterwards by confession that, ‘Up to this night, I had never in the least suspected that I was possessed of any special psychic intelligence.’ These two statements inform the astute and imaginative reader that we are about to witness some very strange occurrences. Without preparing us for precisely what the narrator will encounter on his late-night journey, Northcote has clearly implied that something disturbing will happen. As it does. Out of a simple situation comes mystery and frightening consequences.

Northcote applies a similar approach in ‘The Steps’ which begins with the assertion that, ‘The following story purports to be the actual experience of one of our leading medical men.’ So much is packed into that statement: the word ‘purports’ suggests that that there are elements of this tale which we may have difficulty believing; the word ‘actual’ increases that sense that what we are about to read will be difficult to believe; but then he adds that the person at the centre of the story ‘is a leading medical man’, a character with a respectable practical scientific background who is most unlikely to have an impressionable imagination. Northcote strengthens the idea that what he is telling us is really the truth by presenting the incidents as creepy rather than sensational so that we can hear and believe in those haunted footsteps. In some stories, such as ‘Mr Mortimer’s Diary’ and ‘Mr Kershaw and Mr Wilcox’ – both, incidentally involving a feud between two men, one of whom believes he has been wronged – Northcote plays with the reader, presenting events that could simply be the result of a disturbed mind. It is possible that it is the power of guilt and the force of imagination that causes the strange outcome rather than a supernatural experience. Northcote’s technique of relaxing the reader early in the story before reaching the nerve-tingling moments, as mentioned in the comments referring to ‘The Downs’, is carried out in many of the stories using different methods. However, none is more cunning than his ploy in ‘The Young Lady in Black’. In this tale, the author states at the outset that while it is not ‘a tale of horror and woe, like the typical ghost story, still it is interesting as opening up for consideration the question of whether, after the death of a body, the spirit is able to carry on and bring to a more or less satisfactory conclusion some task commenced in the flesh.’ The prose may be cool and unemotional but nevertheless it acts as a hook to draw the reader in. The premise expressed in this apparently simple statement is in fact very frightening and tinged with horror. The idea of the dead influencing the living is also found in ‘The Late Earl of D.’ in which Northcote takes the clever notion of the image of an evil deed surviving in an ethereal form long after its execution. The narrator sees a reflection in a darkened window which reveals a terrible truth. So, in this fascinating volume we have a very varied confectionery of excellent ghost stories, which at first mislead with their ‘unemotional style’ but which eventually leave the reader with uneasy feelings and a surprising tingle of fear. This rare collection has long been out of print and is a very welcome addition to this series of all that is best and wonderful in the mystery and supernatural genre.

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