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The Black Reaper

14 Mar

Literary fame seems almost like a lottery; ghost story writers in particular seem to pick losing tickets more than any other kind of author. It is an interesting exercise to ponder why certain authors and their works in this vein, just as well equipped to stand the test of time as their contemporaries, fall into speedy obscurity, while others stay in the public eye. The Victorian era is a fine example of this – for every tale of terror that has survived in print today, there are a hundred languishing in undeserved obscurity. Bernard Capes is a case in point. During his writing career, he published forty-one books, contributed to all the leading Victorian magazines, and left behind some of the most imaginative tales of terror of his era – yet within ten years of his death, he had slipped down the familiar slope into total neglect. Until the early 1980s, Capes seldom appeared in reference works in this (or any other) field of literature, and even histories of Victorian writers published in his lifetime give him scant mention. He was overlooked by every anthologist in this genre from his death in 1918 right up until 1978: sixty years of lingering in the dark while many of his contemporaries were brought back to light. I would place Capes among the most imaginative writers of his day. He turned out plot after plot worthy of the recognition accorded to such contemporaries as Stevenson, Haggard, and Conan Doyle, all of whom are still in print today. This selection of his stories help put Capes in his deserved position with the leading talents of Victorian fantasy.

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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.

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A Plague on Both Your Houses

13 Sep

Susanna Gregory is the pseudonym of Elizabeth Cruwys, a Cambridge academic who was previously a coroner’s officer. She writes detective fiction, and is noted for her series of medieval mysteries featuring Matthew Bartholomew, a teacher of medicine and investigator of murders in 14th-century Cambridge.These books may have some aspects in common with the Ellis Peters Cadfael series, the mediaeval adventures of two men, a highly intelligent physician and a Benedictine monk who is senior proctor of Cambridge University. Matthew Bartholomew’s activities as a healer, including examination of corpses, embroil him in a series of mysterious crimes, both secular and monastic, and he reluctantly assumes the role of an amateur sleuth. Sceptical of superstition, he is somewhat ahead of his time, and much accurate historical detail is woven into the adventures. But there any resemblance to the comparatively warm-hearted Cadfael series ends: the tone and subject matter of the Gregory novels is far darker and does not shrink from portraying the harsh realities of life in the Middle Ages. The first in the series, A Plague on Both Your Houses (1996) is set against the ravages of the Black Death and subsequent novels take much of their subject matter from the attempts of society to recover from this disaster. These novels bear the marks of much detailed research into medieval conditions – many of the supporting characters have names taken from the documentation of the time, referenced at the end of each book – and bring vividly to life the all-pervading squalor of living conditions in England during the Middle Ages. The deep-rooted and pervasive practice of traditional leechcraft as it contrasts with the dawning science of evidence-based medicine is a common bone of contention between Matthew and the students he teaches at Michaelhouse College (now part of Trinity College, Cambridge), whilst the conflict between the students of Cambridge and the townsfolk continually threatens to escalate into violence.

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The Enid Blyton Affair

16 Aug

Enid Blyton (1897-1968) was an English children’s writer whose books have been among the world’s best-sellers since the 1930s, selling more than 600 million copies. Blyton’s books are still enormously popular, and she is probably best remembered today for her Noddy, Famous Five and Malory Towers series. She is the world’s fourth most-translated author, behind Agatha Christie, Jules Verne and William Shakespeare with her books being translated into 90 languages. Despite this popularity, Blyton’s work became increasingly controversial among literary critics, teachers and parents from the 1950s onwards, because of the alleged unchallenging nature of her writing and the themes of her books, particularly the Noddy series. Some libraries and schools banned her works, which the BBC had refused to broadcast from the 1930s until the 1950s because they were perceived to lack literary merit. Her books have been criticised as being elitist, sexist, racist, xenophobic and at odds with the more progressive environment emerging in post-Second World War Britain, but they have continued to be best-sellers since her death in 1968. After her death and the publication of her daughter Imogen’s 1989 autobiography, A Childhood at Green Hedges, Blyton emerged as an emotionally immature, unstable and often malicious figure. Imogen considered her mother to be “arrogant, insecure, pretentious, very skilled at putting difficult or unpleasant things out of her mind, and without a trace of maternal instinct. As a child, I viewed her as a rather strict authority. As an adult I pitied her.” Blyton’s eldest daughter Gillian remembered her rather differently, however, as “a fair and loving mother, and a fascinating companion”. A H Thompson, who compiled an extensive overview of censorship efforts in the United Kingdom’s public libraries, dedicated an entire chapter to ‘The Enid Blyton Affair,’ and wrote of her in 1975: “No single author has caused more controversy among librarians, literary critics, teachers, and other educationalists and parents during the last thirty years, than Enid Blyton. How is it that the books of this tremendously popular writer for children should have given rise to accusations of censorship against librarians in Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom?” How indeed?

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The Travelling Grave

12 Apr

Leslie Poles Hartley has been credited with writing some of the most sophisticated ghost stories in the English language, and was once quoted as saying that this type of story was “if not the highest, certainly the most exacting form of literary art.” Hartley was born in Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire, England, on 30 December 1895. His father was a solicitor who invested his money in local brickmaking businesses, eventually becoming one of the directors of a prosperous company. Harry Hartley was a busy and respected public figure in his locality: the personification of the self-reliant and god-fearing Victorian businessman. Harry’s wife Bessie was very different, a soft-spoken woman who delighted in poetry. She was also consumed by worry about her health and that of her three children – and was never to let them forget it. Nevertheless, Hartley’s parents complemented each other, and by all accounts enjoyed a long and happy marriage. Hartley’s biographer Adrian Wright quotes Bessie as telling her husband, “I have never seen you come in without pleasure, and I have never seen you go out without regret.” Their only son was never to find such requited fulfilment, except, perhaps, in aspects of his close friendship with David Cecil – but even then Hartley’s feelings were not to be returned in the way that he seemed to have longed for. Once Hartley started to write, his short stories would frequently feature single men who were always somewhat on the edge of things, outsiders who could never quite be at home, who could never quite be themselves, even in the most apparently pleasant settings and comfortable situations.

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The Demon Barber

15 Mar

Sweeney Todd—the ‘demon barber’ who is alleged to have slit the throats of his unsuspecting customers before dropping their bodies into a cellar that connected to a nearby pie shop—is one of the most famous Londoners of all time. Since he first entered the public scene in the mid-nineteenth century, his exploits have chilled and fascinated readers and audiences all the world over. Whether in print, on the stage, or in films, the name of Sweeney Todd has become so ubiquitous that it has entered the English dictionary. The general outline of his story, as it first appeared in the pages of nineteenth-century periodicals, and as it subsequently played itself out in a seemingly endless succession of melodramas on the Victorian stage, is straightforward enough. A prosperous London barber in the days when men were compelled regularly to bare their throats to be shaved by comparative (and often disreputable-looking) strangers, Todd routinely murders the unsuspecting patrons of his Fleet Street ‘tonsorial parlour’. Making use of an ingeniously constructed barber’s chair, he dramatically hurls his victims head over heels into the basement of his shop before robbing them. Occasionally, if the drop from the chair to the stone floor below has not already done the job for him, Todd is compelled to ‘polish them off’ with his razor. He then drags their bodies (via an ancient network of subterranean passageways) to the convenient cellar of the nearby premises of Mrs Margery Lovett, who transforms the fresh corpses into succulent meat pies. The clothes, walking sticks, hats, and other personal items belonging to Todd’s unlucky customers are hidden in the barber’s house; their otherwise ‘unusable’ remains are secreted within the mouldering and long-disused vaults beneath the neighbouring church of St Dunstan’s. Todd’s greed and increasing bloodlust inevitably gets the better of him, and his murderous activities spiral out of control. Thanks to the combined efforts of a well-known local magistrate, a team of Bow Street Runners, and an enterprising pair of star-crossed young lovers, the pair are eventually captured and brought to justice before the bar of the Old Bailey. The relatively simple outline provided by this frankly ghoulish tale of terror has demonstrated itself to be peculiarly accommodating, however. Each generation has been compelled to make use of what might best be described as the ‘mythic’ elements inherent in the macabre story—its resonant themes of avarice, ambition, entrepreneurial capitalism, and cannibalism—effectively to mirror its own particular concerns. Todd’s presence continues to haunt our storybooks, novels, plays, and our airwaves and works of musical theatre; his figure can often be found creeping, only barely disguised, through related collections of folklore and local legend.

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Dead of Night: The Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions

22 Dec

Oliver Onions’s ghost stories are as unusual as his name. Indeed he is unique in the realms of writers of the supernatural in that his tales are so far-ranging in their background and substance that they are not easily categorised. Remarkably for a writer born in the mid-nineteenth century his style is very modern and his approach is as psychological as it is supernatural. One of the well-regarded commentators of the ghost story genre, Mike Ashley, observed: “Onions’s best stories are powerfully charged explorations of physical violence, their effects heightened by detailed character study and a preparedness to challenge the accepted.” Onions’s fiction is also graced with a powerful poetic elegance often missing in even the best of ghost stories. While other writers may create moods and images designed to chill, Onions is able to add a richness to the prose giving it a depth and beauty which enhances the development of the plot and cultivates living, breathing characters who are more than just pieces to be moved about the chessboard of a plot. In simple terms Oliver Onions goes for the cerebral rather than the jugular. However, make no mistake, his ghost stories achieve the desired effect. They not only unnerve the reader, but disturb him also and stay with him long after the book has been closed.

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Out of the Deep: Walter de la Mare’s Supernatural Tales

27 Oct

What qualities contribute to the making of a really good ghost story? A deftly crafted air of unease and suspense is essential. A well-defined sense of place is also an advantage – the isolated mist-shrouded mansion, or the forest landscape never penetrated by the sun. Then you need a protagonist, someone who is haunted as much by loneliness and doubt as by the spirits of those departed. All these qualities help to shape a good ghost story, but the best ghost stories, and those by Walter de la Mare are certainly among the best, have something else in their favour – an enduring sense of mystery and a solution or explanation that remains tantalisingly out of reach. Take for example perhaps the most famous ghost story of them all, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898). James’s tale certainly has the atmosphere, the location and the troubled protagonist, but it also raises numerous tantalising questions. Are the ghosts in the story ‘real’, or do they only exist within the mind of the governess? Do the children within her care see the ghosts but refuse to admit it, or are they totally innocent and merely bewildered by events? Is the governess malevolent or mad, or is she rather the only hope of salvation in a story that deals almost exclusively with evil? James’s ability to weave ambiguity into the fabric of the tale makes it a sublime ghost story. Walter de la Mare possessed a very similar ability to create narratives in which many interpretations are possible, something which – taken together with his perfectly pitched sense of place and his elegant prose – made him one of the finest writers of supernatural tales in the language.

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Lovecraft Country

21 Apr

Matt Ruff’s novel, Lovecraft Country, is set in Jim Crow America, long after Lovecraft’s death in 1937. Despite drawing the title from a term coined by Keith Herber to describe the fictional New England landscape in which Lovecraft set many of his stories, Ruff’s novel takes place primarily in Chicago; though there are excursions afield to locales both terrestrial and celestial, very little of the story is actually set in the eponymous Lovecraft Country. Nor do Ruff’s characters resemble the typical Lovecraftian protagonist — white, male, and with antiquarian tendencies. Atticus Turner, a 22-year-old African American Korean War vet, has just returned to his hometown of Chicago only to find his father, Montrose, has gone missing under mysterious circumstances. Montrose and Atticus never got along very well, mostly due to the friction caused by how each man navigated the racial tightrope of living in Jim Crow America. Guided by his Uncle George’s self-published ‘The Safe Negro Travel Guide’, Atticus, George, and Letitia, his friend from childhood, set off for the east coast to track down Montrose. Their trip takes them to a rustic white enclave in the backwoods of Massachusetts run by the wealthy Braithwaite family. The chaos that ensues from Atticus’ subsequent choices ensnares two black families and their friends into a centuries-long battle of freedom and oppression, hope and hatred, racial intolerance and violent magic.

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November Night Tales: H C Mercer

12 Nov

There are very few creative endeavours to which Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930) was a stranger. Mercer, a collector, archaeologist, historian and tile-maker, took time out from his scholarly, historical and architectural pursuits – and the pressures of operating his tile business – to engage in a variety of other artistic ventures. Often these were pleasant diversions – rest and relaxation for the mind. He played the fiddle, composed poetry, sketched and painted, produced etchings, and listened to and fancied himself a connoisseur of Irish dance music. Leaving nothing undone, or unexplored, he also tried his hand at writing ghost stories. Originally published in 1928, near the end of his life, November Night Tales drew together a collection of stories that Mercer had written and reworked over several years. Another tale, The Well of Monte Corbo, though not included in the original volume, was discovered among his papers and published posthumously. All the stories are set in a world of the fantastic, the mysterious, the horrific, and the magical. In his writing, Mercer found inspiration in the romantic, gothic fiction of the nineteenth century. Authors like Poe, Shelley, Stoker and Conan Doyle were his muses. Along with many other aspects of emergent modernism, it was the writers of the early 1900s that Mercer disdained – Hemingway, for example, was a particular target of Mercer’s scorn The publication of November Night Tales seems to have been an important item on Mercer’s ‘bucket list,’ something he wished to accomplish that would enable him to feel complete at the close of his life, his personal ambitions fulfilled.

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