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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 Case of Gervase Fen

17 May

The detective Gervase Fen and his creator ‘Edmund Crispin’ were born (or, to be more accurate, conceived) sometime in April 1942, when a twenty-one-year-old Oxford undergraduate named Robert Bruce Montgomery was arguing about books over a congenial pint at a pub. His friend, the actor John Maxwell, was astonished that Montgomery had not read the detective stories of John Dickson Carr, famous as the creator of Dr Gideon Fell and master of locked-room mysteries and seemingly impossible crimes. Montgomery later recalled that in those days he was ‘a prig and an intellectual snob,’ but he agreed to read Carr’s shuddery novel of witch cults and rational detection, The Crooked Hinge. ‘I went to bed with it not expecting very much,’ Montgomery said. ‘But at two o’clock in the morning I was still sitting up with my eyes popping out of their sockets at the end of one of the sections—I think the third [actually it was the second]—with the doctor looking after the nerve-racked maid, saying, “You devil up there, what have you done?” And of course I finished the book that night. It was to be the seminal moment in my career, and to alter it entirely, for although subsequently I read and enjoyed other detective-story writers, in particular Michael Innes and Gladys Mitchell, it was Carr primarily who induced me to try my hand at one myself, thus creating Edmund Crispin.’

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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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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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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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