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The Mozart of the English Ghost Story

12 Jul

How does William Wymark Jacobs earn the title “The Mozart of the English Short Story”? Because his prose is exquisite and translucent, and his plots – like Mozart/Da Ponte operas – are full of fun and mischief, as anti-romantic as they are romantic. Just as in the last act of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, if you blink you risk missing a sublime, or a sublimely comic moment, if your attention lapses when reading a Jacobs story, you risk missing sly irony, wry innuendo or a mordant remark – more often than not about marriage! In fact, the simple pleasure of reading Jacobs’s perfectly paced prose – in Evelyn Waugh’s words, his “exquisite precision of narrative” – is often more enjoyable than following the actual plots of his stories, which are often intricate and sometimes seem only to hang by a thread, which require the reader’s alertness, if not participation, and which are often not resolved until the very last word, sometimes leaving the reader vexed, or even disappointed, however charmed by the telling of the story itself. An example of this is the delectable The Bequest, from Ship’s Company, about late-middle-age second marriage and – inevitably with Jacobs – money. Even the end of The Monkey’s Paw requires some reader participation. The fact is that Jacobs’s invisible craft of narration often cannot be matched even by the ingenuity of his plots. That the lasting satisfaction of a Jacobs story lies less in its plot than its telling means that, like Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Jacobs is infinitely re-readable. His sentences always have buoyancy and air. Knowing the plot of a Jacobs story – but not perhaps fully understanding its denouement – does not spoil the pleasure of reading and re-reading him. Open any Jacobs story and you will receive a lesson in how to write English prose and dialogue. Jacobs sustained this prose style, seemingly entirely natural to him – but he always worked hard and slowly – over some 150 stories and six novels. This means that making a selection from his stories is extremely difficult, because they almost all offer the same degree of pleasure.

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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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The Curse of La Llorona

19 Jan

La Llorona is a legendary figure with various incarnations. Usually translated into English as ‘the wailing woman’, she is often presented as a banshee-type: an apparition of a woman dressed in white, often found by lakes or rivers, sometimes at crossroads, who cries into the night for her lost children, whom she has killed. The infanticide is sometimes carried out with a knife or dagger, but very often the children have been drowned. Her crime is usually committed in a fit of madness after having found out about an unfaithful lover or husband who leaves her to marry a woman of higher status. After realising what she has done, she usually kills herself. She is often described as a lost soul, doomed to wander the earth forever. To some she is a bogeywoman, used by parents to scare children into good behaviour. This folk story has been represented artistically in various guises: in film, animation, art, poetry, theatre and in literature aimed at both adults and children alike. The legend is deeply ingrained in Mexican culture and among the Chicano Mexican population of the United States. The legend of La Llorona has supposedly haunted Mexico since before the Conquest. Her story is one of violence, much like the country whose suffering she is often taken to represent. So beware the woman in white…

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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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The Dark Origins of Creepypasta

22 Sep

Creepypastas are horror-related legends or images that have been copied and pasted around the Internet. These Internet entries are often brief, user-generated, paranormal stories intended to scare readers. They include gruesome tales of murder, suicide, and otherworldly occurrences. The age-old tradition of telling ghost stories around a campfire has gotten a digital upgrade with creepypastas — scary stories or pictures that spread across message boards, becoming internet lore that are discussed both on and offline. People around the word share their bizarre and terrifying creepypastas, hoping that the tales will gain popularity and become classics, often quoted or cited by horror fans and frightened netizens. Like with the ghost stories of old, not all creepypastas are particularly scary or good, even if they are frequently passed around. Reading a long story with an interesting title or image is no guarantee of a frightening payoff, and the writers often forget that just having someone meeting a quick and unfortunate fate does not an interesting story make. When a real gem of a creepypasta is found, it makes all the searching and scavenging worth it (at least until it’s time to fall asleep). So grab a friend, turn off the lights, and prepare to be scared to scroll any further. Scary stories aren’t the stuff of campfires and sleepovers anymore. For adults who still enjoy a good spook, the internet is the place to turn for tales of horror and the supernatural.

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Devilishly Good: The Best of Dennis Wheatley

21 Jul

Dennis Wheatley was an English writer whose prolific output of thrillers and occult novels made him one of the world’s best-selling authors from the 1930s through the 1960s. His Gregory Sallust series was one of the main inspirations for Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories but he is probably associated first and foremost with the Black Magic series of novels, among them The Devil Rides Out. Wheatley mainly wrote adventure novels, with many books in a series of linked works. Background themes included the French Revolution (the Roger Brook series), Satanism (the Duke de Richleau series), World War II (the Gregory Sallust series) and espionage (the Julian Day novels). Over time, each of his major series would include at least one book pitting the hero against some manifestation of the supernatural – making them into Fantasy and specifically Contemporary Fantasy. He came to be considered an authority on Satanism, the practice of exorcism, and black magic, toward all of which he expressed hostility. During his study of the paranormal, though, he joined the Ghost Club. Wheatley himself once said: “Should any of my readers incline to a serious study of the subject, and thus come into contact with a man or a woman of Power, I feel that it is only right to urge them, most strongly, to refrain from being drawn into the practise of the Secret Art in any way. My own observations have led me to an absolute conviction that to do so would bring them into dangers of a very real and concrete nature.”

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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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Locke & Key

24 Feb

Locke & Key is an American comic book series written by Joe Hill, son of Stephen King and a noted horror author in his own right, and illustrated by Gabriel Rodríguez. Quite simply, the series stands as one of the greatest works of modern horror in any medium. It begins with the brutal murder of the Locke family’s father and then moves the survivors of the attack back to their ancestral home, Keyhouse, in Lovecraft, Massachusetts. It may sound a bit hokey and contrived, but the reality is far different. After that shaky little pitch, the comic book series becomes a spellbinding reading experience, demanding page turns as the family comes to terms with its haunted past. The Keyhouse has magical keys that allow their users powers. These keys start revealing themselves to the Locke kids, who use the keys not only for their special powers, but in various attempts to deal with their trauma and to aid them in the struggles of adolescence and fitting in, as a malevolent force bent on unleashing demons long buried hounds them. That concept allows for some incredibly gripping moments throughout the series, which make reading the series’ finale a bittersweet experience.

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