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!
Here’s a real festive treat. In 2000 the BBC produced a series called Ghost Stories for Christmas, with Christopher Lee in which Lee played M R James reading four of his own stories. Lee, who actually once met James, obviously enjoyed making this series and A Warning to the Curious is a real highlight – enjoy!
Robert Westall (1929-1993) was best known as a writer of books for children and young adults, often involving cats and themes surrounding his experiences growing up during World War II. He was twice honoured with the Carnegie Medal, the foremost British award for children’s literature. He was only the second author ever to win the medal twice, and no one has ever won a third. Westall’s most famous work is probably The Machine Gunners – for which he won the Carnegie Medal in 1975 – but he also produced a substantial body of ‘ghostly’ tales throughout his life, starting with his third novel The Watch House. It was the infinite strangeness of the supernatural that fascinated Robert Westall, not the horror, and in the opinion of some he remains one of the best and most undersung practitioners of the genre, and an obvious successor to that godfather of the English ghost story, M R James. Westall’s 1989 collection of supernatural short fiction Antique Dust was dedicated “To M R James, most economical of writers, who could coax horror out of a ragged blanket.”
I have been haunted by the writings of M R James since childhood but when asked what is my favourite of all his ghostly tales I’ve never fully been able to answer. Lost Hearts, an early tale which apparently James didn’t much care for, and which only appeared in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary to fill up the collection at the request of his publisher, does however retain a special corner in my affections. This was my first introduction to James and ever since I have always been surprised at the author’s seeming negative attitude to this particular story, which remains one of the classic short chillers in whatever guise it has assumed, on the page or on the screen. The plot is well known. Abney, an elderly scholar, reclusive and of independent means, invites his young cousin Stephen, recently orphaned, to live with him. His secret intention is to kill the boy in order to obtain his heart, which he believes will give him magical powers and, possibly, immortality. Two murders have already been committed for this purpose, and the young victims’ corpses carefully concealed, but their whereabouts are frighteningly disclosed to the intended next victim, and their intrusion back into the world of the living occurs in a series of disturbing incidents that culminate in the story’s horrifying denouement.
Click to read my short story Ghost Walk in Aphelion, the Webzine of sci-fi and fantasy!
Here’s a real treat to conclude the series of Christmas ghost stories that I’ve been posting for the last few weeks – the BBC adaptation of The Tractate Middoth from just a couple of years ago. Fingers crossed they do another one this year!
Last week’s ghost story video seemed to go down pretty well, so here’s another M R James classic filmed by the BBC for your delectation:
One of the joys of the festive season for me is enjoying a good, old-fashioned, spooky tale so, in the run-up to Christmas, I will be posting ghost stories from years past. The first of these is a masterly BBC adaptation of M R James’ classic Number 13:
The Great God Pan is an 1890 novella by the controversial Welsh ghost story writer Arthur Machen. On publication it was widely denounced by the press as degenerate and horrific because of its decadent style and sexual content, although it has since garnered a reputation as a classic of horror. In many ways the story reflects the author’s absorption with the wondrous, the uncanny and the unknown. “In every grain of wheat there lies hidden the soul of a star” Machen writes in an early page of The Great God Pan, which might be said to be the mystical doctrine that informs all of his principal writings. Machen’s novels and tales possess a thematic unity in that running through them all are two polarised strands – terror and wonder – and occasionally they meet and intertwine. Indeed, while the necromantic fantasies produced by Machen in the 1890s later led to him being labelled the ‘laureate of evil’, he had by then already assumed another mantle – that of the ‘apostle of wonder’, for the diabolic and the divine lie at the heart of his fiction. But Machen’s own life is perhaps his greatest creation; for it is exactly the life we might expect such a poet and visionary to have lived.
Although it is far from the best known of his ghost stories, The Ash-Tree is perhaps the most explicitly grisly of all M R James’ tales of the supernatural. This particular short story is also very personal, for it is the one that most powerfully reflects his near-pathological fear of spiders, hints of which also appear in The Tractate Middoth. In European folklore the ash tree does have occult significance, but it is generally positive: there is Yggdrasil, the World Tree in Norse mythology; the Christmas log was of ash and was thought to bring prosperity to the family that burned it; tools made of ash were thought to allow the persons using them to do more and better work etc. Conversely, witches were believed to ride through the air on ash branches – a point of relevance in that witchcraft plays a critical role in the story.