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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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Marjorie Bowen’s Twilight Tales

23 Dec

A writer whose life was as fascinating as her output, Marjorie Bowen was born Margaret Gabrielle Vere Campbell Long in 1885 on Hayling Island, Hampshire. Her mother had literary aspirations; her father was an alcoholic who died on the London streets. She spent the early years of her career writing prolifically to support her extravagant mother and sister. She used a variety of pen names to conceal her huge output of over 150 novels, using the Bowen pseudonym on her supernatural stories, starting with Black Magic (1909), a tale of a medieval witch that became a best seller. Despite this productivity, the best of her books brilliantly conjure up haunted landscapes along with a unique mixture of cruelty and pathos among her characters. The best of the Bowen short stories – or ‘twilight tales,’ as she liked to call them – were collected in several volumes between 1917 and 1932, her own favourites appearing in The Bishop of Hell (1949).

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Smoke Ghost and Other Apparitions

20 May

Fritz Leiber deserves the accolade as the writer who introduced the ghost of the tough city centre. His stories postulated a modern post-industrial aesthetic of horror, emerging spontaneously from the urban landscape. In a 1940 essay he argued: “The supernatural beings of a modern city would be different from the ghosts of yesterday, because each culture creates its own ghosts.” The son of a noted Shakespearean actor, Leiber toured with his father’s road company for several years and secured parts in a few films before turning to authorship in the Forties. He hit a rich vein of form with tales about the supernatural in contemporary America, notably Conjure Wife, about witchcraft in a modern university, and a series of short stories, The Automatic Pistol, The Girl With Hungry Eyes and Smoke Ghost with its grimy phantom. He later reworked this concept into a novel, Our Lady of Darkness, set in San Francisco and proffering reasons why so many of the city’s coterie of writers, including Ambrose Bierce and Jack London, had met such tragic deaths. Several critics regard this work as Leiber’s homage to the horror of Edgar Allan Poe and the supernaturalism of M R James.

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M R James’s Suffolk

18 Feb

The macabre beneath the landscape is not dispelled by nearness to the sea. What Henry James knew, and described in English Hours (1905) – the strangeness present on a flattened seashore – M R James (no blood relation, although the two were acquainted) expressed in two of his best-known ghost stories: Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad (scrambling over the groynes around Cobbold’s Point at Felixstowe, on a bleak, seemingly wintry, evening) and A Warning to the Curious, which leads to a remorseless killing on the beach near Aldeburgh’s martello tower. In his brief excursion to Aldeburgh in 1897, in “the glimmering of a minute,” Henry James responded to “the conditions that, grimly enough, could engender masterpieces.” MRJ was massively more a scholar than a fiction-writer, the settings of his stories were usually authentically antiquarian. But their “engendering” was perhaps as much instinctive as academic.  “A very pleasant man he is,” wrote MRJ of HJ, “talking just as he writes with punctilious effort to use the words he wants.” As with Henry James, MRJ’s greatness was recognised in his own day by the award of an Order of Merit.

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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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The Waxwork: A M Burrage

17 Sep

A M Burrage was the type of man who might very well have walked out of one of his own stories. He commenced yarn-spinning as a boy of fifteen at St Augustine’s, Ramsgate, writing stories of school life to provide himself with pocket money. Since then he won his spurs as one of the most popular of magazine writers – everything he did had charm and reflected his own romantic spirit. Dorothy Sayers was the editor at Victor Gollancz for anthologies of ghost and horror stories, which included tales by Burrage. In one of her letters she said of Burrage’s story The Waxwork, a piece beyond the nerves of the editors, “what you say about The Waxwork sounds very exciting, just the sort of thing I want. Our nerves are stronger than those of the editors of periodicals, and we will publish anything, so long as it does not bring us into conflict with the Home Secretary.” Happily of Burrage, as a result of being featured in one of Sayers’ anthologies, The Waxwork (click to read!) became one of his best-known stories and it would grab the attention of the film companies several times down the years, even becoming an episode in the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Several questions remain unanswered about his personal life. It is unclear whether he was still supporting a family, or whether he spent the majority of his money on alcohol, or whether he chose to conceal his true fortunes from those around him. Perhaps most incongruous is the apparent absence of a wife; though his death certificate indicates that he had one, listed as H. A. Burrage, he seems never to have mentioned her to anyone else.

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Dark Entries: Robert Aickman

13 Aug

Robert Aickman was the grandson of Richard Marsh, a leading Victorian novelist of the occult. Though his chief occupation in life was first as a conservationist of England’s canals he eventually turned his talents to writing what he called ‘strange stories’. Dark Entries was his first full collection, the debut in a body of work that would inspire Peter Straub to hail Aickman as “this century’s most profound writer of what we call horror stories”. So elegantly and comprehensively does Aickman encompass all the traditional strengths and available complexities of the supernatural story that, at times, it’s hard to see how any subsequent practitioner could stand anywhere but in his shadow. True, there is perhaps a typical Aickman protagonist – usually but not always a man, and one who does not fit so well with others, temperamentally inclined to his own company. But Aickman has a considerable gift for putting us stealthily behind the eyes of said protagonist. Having established such identification, the way in which he then builds up a sense of dread is masterly. His construction of sentences and of narrative is patient and finical. He seems always to proceed from a rather grey-toned realism where detail accumulates without fuss, and the recognisable material world appears wholly four-square – until you realise that the narrative has been built as a cage, a kind of personal hell, and our protagonist is walking toward death as if in a dream.

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They Return at Evening: H R Wakefield

16 Jul

When Herbert Russell Wakefield’s first collection of supernatural stories, They Return at Evening, was published in 1928, it would not have been apparent to contemporary readers that the book marked the start of a new era. Wakefield’s appearance on the ghost story scene came at a time when many of the great names in the field were nearing the end of their careers as writers of supernatural fiction. M R James, E F Benson and Algernon Blackwood, who had dominated the field, had either published their last new stories or were within a few years of doing so. That his first two collections of ghost stories, They Return at Evening (1928) and Old Man’s Beard (1929) have not been reprinted since is little short of a crime, albeit one that may be partly explained by the popularity of the two anthologies which were published by Jonathan Cape in their Florin Books series, which used many of the best stories from Wakefield’s first three collections. Such neglect places Wakefield in distinguished company: E G Swain, R H Malden, A N L Munby and L T C Rolt are all authors of fine collections of ghost stories, which for many years after their publication were not easily available, and consequently more talked-about than read by ghost story enthusiasts. Wakefield, however, differs from the others in that he wrote several collections of weird tales, over a period of thirty-three years – Messrs Swain, Malden, Munby and Rolt wrote one collection each. They Return at Evening thus marked a turning point – away from the last century and on into a brave new world whose boundaries seemed limitless.

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Sleep No More: L T C Rolt

11 Jun

The first half of the twentieth century was a golden era viewed in terms of the English ghost story. We may trace the real foundation of that era to the early years of the century, when M R James set the standard by which his successors would be judged. Successors there were: those whose stories, because they exhibited similarities to the style of the maestro, are often classed as ‘Jamesian’. This classification simplifies matters too much and tends to deny the author credit for his or her own particular talent. However, bearing in mind that some of these successors were friends and associates of James, sharing an academic background and an interest in manuscripts, it is hardly surprising that there should be some similarity in subject matter. Nor should it be overlooked that James utilised several excellent plot devices, which would naturally appeal to anyone attempting to write ghost stories at a later date. There are a limited number of plots available to writers in any genre, and often the best an author can hope is that he or she may be able to bring an exciting new twist to a plot that has been used several times before. Writers like R H Malden, A N L Muny, E G Swain and Arthur Gray succeeded in doing that (to a great extent). Others, like H R Wakefield, succeeded when they ‘borrowed’ plots from James, but also developed their talent to a much greater extent, with the result that their work stands very much on its own, and has its own distinct style. L T C Rolt (1910-1974) is one author whose work very clearly displays an individual style. True, there are ‘Jamesian’ touches here and there in his stories, but Rolt’s background and environment were very different from that of the traditional ‘Jamesians’ mentioned previously.

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Mist: The Ghost Stories of Richmal Crompton

16 Apr

Richmal Crompton’s adventurous, scruffy and rumbustious schoolboy William Brown remains a celebrated and immortal creation in children’s literature after almost a century, widely recognised as one of the most popular fictional characters of all time. The author’s many adult novels and short story collections have always been relatively overshadowed, although they once achieved a wide and appreciative readership. Several of these stories have a macabre and ‘secret world’ quality, and richly deserve to be rediscovered. Crompton’s only supernatural novel is The House (1926), which achieved a much more suitable title – Dread Dwelling – in the US edition. This features a fine old Tudor mansion which is the setting of a long succession of suicides and great unhappiness over the centuries. Presaging later classics like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, the mansion proves to be the chief monstrous occult creation itself, detailing the almost total destruction of the newest inhabitants, the Crofton family. Crompton even brought ‘ghostly’ situations into her Just William stories, inevitably resulting from William’s skulduggery and crazy schemes. He is even mistaken on one occasion for an evil spirit, and becomes the subject of an improvised exorcism!

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