Thursday, 27 October 2016

The 100 Greatest Ghost Stories (Part 4)

 The final twenty-five! It's the final countdown! (Oh great, now Shim will be singing Europe for days...)

Anyhow, a whole bunch of stories from The Big Five (James, Benson, Blackwood, Hartley and Burrage) fight out for the top spot, alongside one or two tales by lesser known writers which should be far better known.

The top slot won't be a surprise to anyone who knows me, but there are some fantastic stories in this final list which I heartily recommend.

25. Shamus Frazer - Florinda

 "If Daddy has the bushes cut down what will poor Florinda do?  Where will she play?  There will be no place  at all for the little traps and snares she sets; no place to creep and whistle in, and tinkle int laughter when something funny happens--like Miss Reeve caught by the leg and hopping."
Shamus Frazer, Florinda

Well, this is a grim one!

Frazer wrote only a handful of ghost stories before his untimely death in 1966, aged only 54. If Florinda is the standard throughout, then he is both unjustly forgotten, and someone who wrote some very nasty tales indeed.

The parents of Little Jane seem to think its cute that she has her own imaginary friend, a sort of talking doll only the child can see.  Although this Florinda does seem to encourage mischief to an alarming level, but then, that's children's imaginations for you. They've only just moved into this big house in the country, and the gardens need clearing up, they're choked full of weeds. There seems to be some fox like creature attacking nearby farms too.

Jane asks if her friend Florinda can join the family for Christmas dinner, but after more incidents, rescinds the offer. And that's when stuff gets really dark...

I have a toddler now. I don't foresee myself reading this story again till she's much older. I enjoy ghost stories, but there are very few which, as an adult, have given me the proper creeps. This is one, and as such, deserves its high placing.

It can be found in Chillers for Christmas (ed. Richard Dalby), Twelve Tales of the Supernatural (ed. Michael Cox), The Readers Digest Great Ghost Stories, and many other places, a highly anthologised tale.

24. AM Burrage - Warning Whispers

A fine slowburner from Burrage about a young lad who witnesses a murder, and who's testimony sent the two men involved to the gallows. Later in life, he becomes a young adult, with hopes and aspirations and a reputation of his own, and a young lady, but he seems obssessed with the place where the original murder happened.

A tale which seems almost a study in psychological failings, right up to the final few paragraphs when you realise what has happened.

23. MR James - A View from a Hill

Please see the M.R. James article.

22. LP Hartley - Feet Foremost

Another nice ghost tale by Mr Hartley. A housewarming party at a house which has been unoccupied for over a century is turned sour by the haunting of a long dead bride, who aims to kill whoever helps her across the threshold, so that they may be carried out of the house...feet foremost. With a sense of Casting the Runes, one of our party is in trouble... and someone has to die.

21. LP Hartley - Monkshood Manor

This is Hartley's highest ranked tale in my list, which is a failing of myself rather than his. I haven't read much of his work in far, far too long, and as such, I feel he is probably highly underrepresented in this list. Again, I find that I naturally think of Burrage, James, Benson and Blackwood, when the number of Hartley tales I like, and the more I have to read recommended by others, justly place him in the top echelon with the other four. His work is heavily anthologised, and it is likely that if you look up the ghost anthologies in your local Waterstones or second hand book shop, at least one will have a story by LP Hartley in it. Even now, when I outright say he is one of the five best British horror writers we ever had, here I am underrating him.

And this tale is a cracker.

"The library door was open and in I went, automatically fumbling for the switch. But no sooner had my hand touched the wall than it fell to my side, for I had a feeling that I was not alone in the room. I don’t know what it was based on, but something was already implicit in my vision before it became physically clear to me: a figure at the far end of the room, in the deep alcove of the fireplace, bending, almost crouching over the fire. The figure had its back to me and was so near to the fire as to be almost in it. Whether it made a movement or not I couldn’t tell, but a spurt of flame started up against which the figure showed darker than before. I knew it must be Victor Chisholm and I stifled an impulse to say ‘Hullo!’—from a confused feeling that like a sleep-walker he ought not to be disturbed; it would startle and humiliate him. But I wanted a book, and my groping fingers found one. I withdrew it from the shelf, but not quite noiselessly, for with the tail of my eye I saw the figure move."
LP Hartley, Monkshood Manor

A man with a terrible fear of fires goes to visit an old house which is said to have a ghost with a bit of arsonist's flair. Why you'd want to go and do a thing like that...

Anyhow, things escalate quickly.

20. MR James - Oh Whistle and I'll come to you, my lad

Please see the M.R. James article

19. Ambrose Bierce - Stanley Fleming's Hallucination

Can dogs cast themselves as sluagh? Atwell Barton was found stabbed to death, and while people may have suspected Stanley Fleming of the crime, he wisely took off to Europe for a number of months till the heat died down. Back in his home town, however, he is plagued by dreams of a large Newfoundland dog stalking him in his bed.

Barton had a much loved dog, a Newfoundland, and when he died, it starved itself to death at his grave.

Fleming is suitably agitated, and so the doctor agrees to stay the night to show his patient that there isn't really any such dog...

Other writers would have made 30 pages out of this, and amped up the tension. Bierce wasn't interested in that, so gives us the bare bones of plot in true journalistic fashion. This works, however, to leave so many blanks for the reader to fill in themselves, that the result is far more effective than any number of badly written tense scenes. Sometimes, less is more, and Bierce is the master of that.

"If there’s a genre Bierce was born to, it’s horror. He collected his supernatural tales under the title “Can Such Things Be?” — a question whose tone is cunningly ambiguous, hovering between cool skepticism and slack-jawed amazement. And that is exactly the tone of the stories themselves. Lovecraft called Bierce’s horror fiction “grim and savage,” but it isn’t, really. The style of his ghost stories is quiet, detached, oddly companionable. (That is to say, it couldn’t be more different from Lovecraft’s.) He writes as a suave raconteur of the unearthly, with just enough of the ironic in his voice to maintain his distance from appalling events while drawing his readers closer and closer to the inexplicable mysteries at their heart. The opening sentence of “One Summer Night” is typical: “The fact that Henry Armstrong was buried did not seem to him to prove that he was dead: he had always been a hard man to convince.” Poe and, later, Lovecraft, did horror in ominous, deranging close-ups; Bierce preferred the long and the medium shot, in which the nature of the terrible thing is slightly less distinct, a little harder to make out, and the more awful for it.”
Terrence Rafferty, Ambrose Bierce: The Man And His Demons, The New York Times 28 October 2011

No one knows what became of Ambrose Bierce, he moved to Mexico in 1913 - claiming, with typical Bierce temperament, that he was joining Pancho Villa - and swiftly disappeared.

"Looking squarely now into the eyes of his patient, the physician said: 'Three years ago the body of your old enemy, Atwell Barton, was found in the woods near his house and yours. He had been stabbed to death. There have been no arrests; there was no clue. Some of us had "theories." I had one. Have you?"
     'I? Why, bless your soul, what could I know about it? You remember that I left for Europe almost immediately afterward -- a considerable time afterward. In the few weeks since my return you could not expect me to construct a "theory." In fact, I have not given the matter a thought. What about his dog?"
     'It was first to find the body. It died of starvation on his grave.' 
Ambrose Bierce, Stanley Fleming's Hallucination

18. MR James - Casting the Runes
17. MR James - An Episode of Cathedral History

Please see the M.R. James article for more details.

16. Sheridan le Fanu - Carmilla

 "“I have been in love with no one, and never shall," she whispered, "unless it should be with you."
How beautiful she looked in the moonlight!
Shy and strange was the look with which she quickly hid her face in my neck and hair, with tumultuous sighs, that seemed almost to sob, and pressed in mine a hand that trembled.
Her soft cheek was glowing against mine. "Darling, darling," she murmured, "I live in you; and you would die for me, I love you so."
I started from her.
She was gazing on me with eyes from which all fire, all meaning had flown, and a face colorless and apathetic.
"Is there a chill in the air, dear?" she said drowsily. "I almost shiver; have I been dreaming? Let us come in. Come; come; come in.""

Sheridan le Fanu, Carmilla

Possibly famous for its lesbian undertones - the book is somewhat more subtle than the Vampire Lover films with Madeline Smith! - le Fanu's novella is also a great horror story.  It inspired Dracula and all vampire tales since, and le Fan wrote it towards the end of his life.

It's a story of love, not neccessarily a health one though, told by an unreliable narrator.

“Most of the men in Carmilla are oblivious and ineffectual, if not downright stupid at times. (Seriously, there are multiple episodes in the story that go like this: Laura: Hey Dad, don’t you think it’s kind of weird that the woman in this 150 year old painting looks exactly like our houseguest?; Laura’s father: Nope. End scene.) The men finally rally at the end of the novella to vanquish the vampire (rather gruesomely, I might add), but their “victory” over Carmilla is muted by her enduring effect on Laura. Laura is passive in the final scenes, but though she is no stake-wielding vampire slayer (Sorry, Buffy), she finds agency as the writer of her own story. She refuses the simple resolution that the male vampire “hunters” would seem to offer her and instead insists upon her own complicated, unresolved emotions. Even knowing of Carmilla’s vampirism and the countless people she has killed, Laura lingers upon the vampire’s duality and her own conflicted attraction: “to this hour the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations—sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend.”
Lara Rutherford-Morrison, Carmilla: The Original Female Vampire, The Toast 16 May 2014

Laura had a dream when she was six of another girl in her bedroom. When she is a young adult, a carriage brings a stranger to her and her father's door, and both the stranger and Laura recognise each other from that dream...

You know the thing about vampires, write too long about them, and you suddenly get a hell of a pain in the neck... 

15. Algernon Blackwood - Accessory Before the Fact

A very clever title.

A chap hiking comes across a hideous crime, but then stumbles across the victim, alive and well...

"And he became aware, then, of the exceeding loneliness of the country about him. The road for a hundred yards went straight, then curved like a white river running into space; the deep blue-green of heather lined the banks, spreading upwards through the twilight; and occasional small pines stood solitary here and there, all unexplained. The curious adjective, having made its appearance, haunted him. So many things that afternoon were similarly—unexplained: the short cut, the darkened map, the names on the sign-post, his own erratic impulses, and the growing strange confusion that crept upon his spirit. The entire country-side needed explanation, though perhaps “interpretation” was the truer word. Those little lonely trees had made him see it. Why had he lost his way so easily? Why did he suffer vague impressions to influence his direction? Why was he here—exactly here?"
Algernon Blackwood, Accessory Before the Fact

14. Algernon Blackwood - Max Hensig

A lesser known but wonderfully tense Blackwood novella about a journalist who is stalked by a serial killer who he knows he is guilty, who the serial killer knows he knows, but whom the police and public don't suspect. He was on trial, you see, Mr Hensig, and Williams the journalist wrote articles which basically admitted the journalist's own bias against Hensig's innocence. Only, Hensig was acquitted, and he did do it. These two facts combine to make things very difficult for our poor writer.

"“He’s after you, no doubt,” repeated the Senator. “I guess he never forgot your report of his trial. Better keep your eye peeled!” he added with a laugh.
But Williams didn’t feel a bit inclined to laugh, and the thought that it certainly was Hensig he had seen on the steamer, and that he was following him so closely as to mark his check ulster and make an attempt on his life, made him feel horribly uncomfortable, to say the least. To be stalked by such a man was terrible. To realise that he was marked down by that white-faced, cruel wretch, merciless and implacable, skilled in the manifold ways of killing by stealth — that somewhere in the crowds of the great city he was watched and waited for, hunted, observed: here was an obsession really to torment and become dangerous. Those light-blue eyes, that keen intelligence, that mind charged with revenge, had been watching him ever since the trial, even from across the sea. The idea terrified him. It brought death into his thoughts for the first time with a vivid sense of nearness and reality — far greater than anything he had experienced when watching others die."
Algernon Blackwood, Max Hensig

We have lots of tension in the scenes where Williams feels haunted by the ever presence of this  killer doctor, until it becomes clear, like the climax of Pyscho, there will need to be some confrontation.  Blackwood didn't enjoy his time as a journalist in New York, and this story is positively festering with an unease about the big city. Blackwood's outdoors are out to get you with unbearable tensity, as much in a large city as in the willow swamps of the Danube or the Canadian outback.

And so, after all his great ethereal unknowns, my favourite Blackwood story is one set in the everyday, with no hints of supernatural, and with a villain who could fit into the Rear Window era of Alfred Hitchcock's portfolio. So it goes!

13. Muriel Spark - The Portobello Road

A funny and well written tale by the writer of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I'm afraid I accidentally killed Muriel Spark. Back in 2006, I had to give a tutorial on Spark, whose ghost stories I am a big fan (and who uses the same slight of hand irony in them which she did in Brodie). I started with the words "Muriel Spark is one of our greatest living writers" - but, alas, we ran out of time, and I had to continue the talk a week later. And, would you know, in the intervening week, Spark only went and died!

I humbly apologise.

This is a wonderous tale, however, a sad one which is never allowed to be sad, because Spark's style is to see the black humour in everything. You can't have a young girl murdered in a jealous rage in Muriel's world without the comic stupidity of the world being provoked.  And Needle is a highly enjoyable narrator, with a great turn of phrase.

12. AJ Alan - My Adventure in Norfolk

One of the funniest horror stories I've ever read, and it was responsible for my winning a bet at school. You see, on one of her rare occasions doubting my vocabulary,  Mrs Walker said she would only allow me to use the word "cadaverous" in a story if I could define it. "Being very thin and looking like a dead body" was allowed, with the comment that "you are a strange child, sometimes..."

Only sometimes?

This is the story that brought the word to me.

"The engine I'd already seen, so I squeezed past along the wall and opened the door in the body part of the car. At least, I only turned the handle, and the door was pushed open from the inside and—something—fell out on me. It pushed me quite hard, and wedged me against the wall. It also knocked the candle out of my hand and left me in the dark—which was a bit of a nuisance. I wondered what on earth the thing was—-barging into me like that—so I felt it, rather gingerly, and found it was a man—a dead man—with a moustache. He'd evidently been sitting propped up against the door. I managed to put him back, as decorously as possible, and shut the door again.
After a lot of grovelling about under the car I found the candle and lighted it, and opened the opposite door and switched on the little lamp in the roof—and then—oo-er!
Of course, I had to make some sort of examination. He was an extremely tall and thin individual. He must have been well over six feet three. He was dark and very cadaverous-looking. In fact, I don't suppose he'd ever looked so cadaverous in his life. He was wearing a trench coat.
It wasn't difficult to tell what he'd died of. He'd been shot through the back. I found the hole just under the right scrofula, or scalpel—what is shoulder-blade, anyway? Oh, clavicle—stupid of me—well, that's where it was, and the bullet had evidently gone through into the lung. I say "evidently," and leave it at that."
AJ Alan, My Adventure in Norfolk

Our narrator (ostensibly AJ Alan himself, who wrote the stories to read aloud on the BBC Radio) goes on a trip to  Norfolk on business, and gets caught up in a strange woman's crimes. It's deliberately over the top, has more than the odd ghost, and large elements of Afterward, if Afterward was a tell of would be gangsters just outside Norwich!

All through his incredible adventures, our narrator's spirits never drop. Good luck to the guy, he'll never get his wife to believe this one.

11. MR James - The Residence at Whitminster

Please see the M.R  James article.

10. EF Benson - How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery

A typical Benson tale in many ways, and an atypical one in many others.  This is a story about a family house which is so full of ghosts that the family are positively laisse-faire about the whole concept of being haunted, and yet there are two ghosts, in the house's long gallery, which even they refuse to face.

We start with humour:

" I myself, when staying there, have seen the present Mrs. Peveril, who is rather short-sighted, peer into the dusk, while we were taking our coffee on the terrace after dinner, and say to her daughter:
“My dear, was not that the Blue Lady who has just gone into the shrubbery. I hope she won’t frighten Flo. Whistle for Flo, dear.”
(Flo, it may be remarked, is the youngest and most precious of many dachshunds.)
Blanche Peveril gave a cursory whistle, and crunched the sugar left unmelted at the bottom of her coffee-cup between her very white teeth.
“Oh, darling, Flo isn’t so silly as to mind,” she said. “Poor blue Aunt Barbara is such a bore!”
“Whenever I meet her she always looks as if she wanted to speak to me, but when I say, ‘What is it, Aunt Barbara?’ she never utters, but only points somewhere towards the house, which is so vague. I believe there was something she wanted to confess about two hundred years ago, but she has forgotten what it is.”
EF Benson, How Fear Departed From The Long Gallery

Then we take a dovetail, by degrees, into typical Benson territory. The murder, long ago, of two children in the house leads to anyone who sees them - the haunt the Long Gallery and anyone who sees them dies a horrible death. Madge Dalrymple really does want to spend the night there, and the family matriach can't stop her.

(A Long Gallery at Syon House, By Grahamec (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

"She took a long breath, partly of relief, partly to satisfy the demands of her galloping heart. But the breath was only half-taken when she was stricken once more into the immobility of nightmare. There came a little whisper, it was no more than that, from the door opposite which she stood, and through which the twin-babies entered. It was not quite dark outside it, for she could see that the door was opening. And there stood in the opening two little white figures, side by side. They came towards her slowly, shufflingly. She could not see face or form at all distinctly, but the two little white figures were advancing. She knew them to be the ghosts of terror, innocent of the awful doom they were bound to bring, even as she was innocent."
EF Benson, How Fear Departed From the Long Gallery

And then... well, we end in territory entirely unlike nearly every single other horror story written by EF Benson. This is his Empty Child, and all the more rewarding for it. Here we have Lost Hearts, with a heartwarming finish, and only the man who wrote The Face and Negotium Perambulans could one time stop at the horror and say - no, for once, good will overcome.

On re-reading just there, I give this a top ten slot, but I feel I could have given it more. All the great ghost stories give a frission of chills down the spine. Few give a glimour of hope to the reader, and that is an emotion needed more often in this heartless world.

Benson died in 1940, after a battle with throat cancer, and his work is now mostly out of copyright. As a result, this story can be found to read with the most minimal of Google searches.

9. MR James - Lost Hearts

Please see the M.R. James article

8. Robert Louis Stevenson - The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

One of the most adapted novellas of all time, Stevenson's story is a masterclass of horror. Everyone knows the famous twist now, but its remarkable how late in the day Stevenson reveals it, and how long this seems a case of blackmail.

7. EF Benson - Negotium Perambulans

Benson's family were highly religious, as you might guess from his having a father who became Archbishop of Canterbury, and a brother who was a Monsigner.

In a sleep coastal village, chap lives in the old church. His hedonistic lifestyles conjure up a hideous creature from beyond to do away with him, and any other inhabitant of the former church. You don't need to look hard for the religious subtext here, but even with it, this is a highly effective horror story about ghostly monsters from beyond. Also, as Benson doesn't outright say "this is God", then, depending on your reading, it could be as religious as The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral.

I prefer to just think of it as a thing that kills people, myself.

"That night, for some reason, I could not sleep. It was very hot and airless; I dare say you will think that the sultry conditions accounted for my wakefulness. Once and again, as I went to the window to see if I could not admit more air, I could see from it the quarry-house, and I noticed the first time that I left my bed that it was blazing with lights. But the second time I saw that it was all in darkness, and as I wondered at that, I heard a terrible scream, and the moment afterwards the steps of someone coming at full speed down the road outside the gate. He yelled as he ran; 'Light, light!' he called out. 'Give me light, or it will catch me!' It was very terrible to hear that, and I went to rouse my husband, who was sleeping in the dressing-room across the passage. He wasted no time, but by now the whole village was aroused by the screams, and when he got down to the pier he found that all was over. The tide was low, and on the rocks at its foot was lying the body of Mr. Dooliss. He must have cut some artery when he fell on those sharp edges of stone, for he had bled to death, they thought, and though he was a big burly man, his corpse was but skin and bones. Yet there was no pool of blood round him, such as you would have expected. Just skin and bones as if every drop of blood in his body had been sucked out of him!" 
EF Benson, Negotium Perambulans

6. E Nesbit - Man Size in Marble

Nesbit is more famous for her childrens novels like The Railway Children, but if this is anything to go by, her ghost stories were her finest work.

A young couple move into a cottage in a small village, adorned with an old church in which there stood marble statues of knights.

" The church was a large and lonely one, and we loved to go there, especially upon bright nights. The path skirted a wood, cut through it once, and ran along the crest of the hill through two meadows, and round the churchyard wall, over which the old yews loomed in black masses of shadow. This path, which was partly paved, was called" the bier-balk," for it had long been the way by which the corpses had been carried to burial. The churchyard was richly treed, and was shaded by great elms which stood just outside and stretched their majestic arms in benediction over the happy dead. A large, low porch let one into the building by a Norman doorway and a heavy oak door studded with iron. Inside, the arches rose into darkness, and between them the reticulated windows, which stood out white in the moonlight. In the chancel, the windows were of rich glass, which showed in faint light their noble colouring, and made the black oak of the choir pews hardly more solid than the shadows. But on each side of the altar lay a grey marble figure of a knight in full plate armour lying upon a low slab, with hands held up in everlasting prayer, and these figures, oddly enough, were always to be seen if there was any glimmer of light in the church. Their names were lost, but the peasants told of them that they had been fierce and wicked men, marauders by land and sea, who had been the scourge of their time, and had been guilty of deeds so foul that the house they had lived in — the big house, by the way, that had stood on the site of our cottage — had been stricken by lightning and the vengeance of Heaven. But for all that, the gold of their heirs had bought them a place in the church. Looking at the bad hard faces reproduced in the marble, this story was easily believed."
E. Nesbit, Man Size in Marble

There is a local legend that once a year, these statues come to life to terrorise the local area. Our man has no belief in superstitution, so scoffs. Perhaps too loudly in their presence...

"Having thus remembered the legend, and remembered it with a shiver, of which I was ashamed, I could not do otherwise than walk up towards the altar, just to look at the figures — as I said to myself; really what I wanted was to assure myself, first, that I did not believe the legend, and, secondly, that it was not true. I was rather glad that I had come. I thought now I could tell Mrs. Dorman how vain her fancies were, and how peacefully the marble figures slept on through the ghastly hour. With my hands in my pockets I passed up the aisle. In the grey dim light the eastern end of the church looked larger than usual, and the arches above the two tombs looked larger too. The moon came out and showed me the reason. I stopped short, my heart gave a leap that nearly choked me, and then sank sickeningly.
  The "bodies drawed out man-size" were gone, and their marble slabs lay wide and bare in the vague moonlight that slanted through the east window.
  Were they really gone? or was I mad? Clenching my nerves, I stooped and passed my hand over the smooth slabs, and felt their flat unbroken surface. Had some one taken the things away? Was it some vile practical joke? I would make sure, anyway. In an instant I had made a torch of a newspaper, which happened to be in my pocket, and lighting it held it high above my head. Its yellow glare illumined the dark arches and those slabs. The figures were gone. And I was alone in the church; or was I alone? 
E. Nesbit, Man Size in Marble

Also, the cottage the couple bought might be the last surviving part of the houses that the knights owned when alive.

Things move to a grim climax.

5. James Turner - The St Christopher Medallion

Most likely the least read ghost story in my top twenty-five, and the one most unjustly forgotten.

(with aide of an article previously written for The Spooky Isles in 2015)

When I was 10, I received a copy of The 14th Fontana Book of Ghosts, edited by the late R. Chetwynd Hayes. Having just started to devour the Goosebumps range, the stories in this collection stayed with my mind. A lifelong love of Burrage, Hartley and Timperley arrived from that book. But in the middle of it, the tale that shaped my young mind. The one that made me think – “I can write these”.

The story no one seems to have ever heard of.

The St Christopher Medallion, by James Turner.

In it, our main character returns to his old public school, on the day he takes his son there for his first day. Recently widowed, our main character is perhaps susceptible to the elements, and begins to see the ghosts of two former school friends who died tragically while all three were at the school. Our main character thinks they are crying out for help, and so tries to help. Unfortunately, he’s misread the genre of this horror story – they are not looking for help, but a foreshadowing omen of horror to come.

"So the boy who was so much in advance of us all in intelligence, lay in the rictus of death by poisoning under the blackberry bushes. He who found few difficulties in Homer or Virgil had easily planned his own destruction. He made an electric impression on the school for the few weeks he was there. His death made everyone gasp for five minutes. And then he was forgotten. His sad ending was not allowed to make the slightest dent in school routine. But for me, for the rest of the term, he was still standing under the cloister arches as the clock in Upper Quad struck three, still wearing the St Christopher medallion and working it about in his fingers. I was glad he had it with him when he died. I could not bear to think of his despair and loneliness beneath the bushes on Wimbledon Common."
James Turner, The St Christopher Medallion

Turner’s disturbing tale lasts long in the mind. Yet the who, why and what remained a mystery for some time. RCH refers to Turner in his introduction as “no longer with us”, which suggested a death prior to 1978. That the Fantastic Fiction database referred the story to the late Arkham House editor Jim Turner, who died in 1999, had suggested that even Chetwynd-Hayes has his errors. But the story of the Medallion is such an English tale, being written by an American Lovecraftian seemed odd. And it would make no sense of a man so connected as Ronald to announce the death of a contemporary without having known of it firsthand.

"When the coffin was in place one of the undertakers opened the lid to see that everything was in order inside. I stood there and looked down at the face of Bryant, serene and quiet. I noticed that the St Christopher medallion, which i had last seen round Hildreth’s neck the day i called Bryant out to him for their walk on the Downs, now lay in the folded hands of the corpse. It was not possible. It had been round Hidlreth’s neck still when he was found dead on Wimbledon Common. It had, presumably, been buried with him. The papers, as I’ve said, published a very clear picture of it and discussed its value. I would certainly have known it anywhere. At the time, there, in the emotional atmosphere of the Chapel, the coffin and Bryant’s corpse, I explained it by saying to myself that Hildreth’s parents must have given it to Bryant, knowing of the deep attachment he had for their son. Any other explanation for me, at that time, would have been unthinkable. But now i know why Bryant was swimming in the River Adur, and it is not knowledge that I am proud of possessing."
James Turner, The St Christopher Medallion

Having come to believe there was an error online, I went to look for the actual James Turner. The one who died in the 1970s, I presumed, and whose most English horror, with its sympathetic portrayal of the LGBT character (well, as sympathetic as you can get from a bullied victim who dies and becomes a malevolent spirit – maybe he created a Sluath?) had made such an impact on me.

This is where long time visitors of the site might recognise the name. In fact, my other half recognised the name, yet I hadn’t connected it to my own personal search.

James Turner, writer of the St Christopher Medallion, was the same James Turner who owned Borley Rectory.  His “My Life with Borley Rectory”, and friendship with Harry Price and Peter Underwood, give him a known status in the case of one of the UK’s most notorious alleged hauntings.

A collection of his fictional horror, Where Shadows Fall, was published in 1975 on the occasion of his death.

All roads, in the end, seem to lead back to Borley.

The Medallion is meant to be his best hit, the masterpiece among lesser. Not a view point that Chetwynd-Hayes  seemed to agree with, but even so, he might have easily chosen yet another James tale to round out his collection. The choice of the lesser known tale, and its evocative atmosphere of school and Cornwall, was a far better choice.

And so, in short, that's the tale of one of the finest ghost stories most folk have never heard of, by a man best known, when found, for entirely other reasons.

4. EF Benson - The Room in the Tower

"Before long, Mrs. Stone, who, like the rest of the party, had sat in absolute silence, said to me, "Jack will show you your room: I have given you the room in the tower."
 Quite inexplicably my heart sank at her words. I felt as if I had known that I should have the room in the tower, and that it contained something dreadful and significant. Jack instantly got up, and I understood that I had to follow him. In silence we passed through the hall, and mounted a great oak staircase with many corners, and arrived at a small landing with two doors set in it. He pushed one of these open for me to enter, and without coming in himself, closed it after me. Then I knew that my conjecture had been right: there was something awful in the room, and with the terror of nightmare growing swiftly and enveloping me, I awoke in a spasm of terror."
E.F. Benson, The Room in the Tower

When Dad handed my his latest bought anthology in 1995, he specifically warned me against reading The Room in the Tower. "You are nine, and it even managed to creep me out", he said. And my Dad is an unshakeable man. Naturally, what did nine year old me do but immediately read it, in the sunny confines of a holiday in La Palmyre, and often in the rest of the trip, had dreams of Mrs Stone stalking around the holiday camp.

Never tell a child not to do something, they'll do it, I guess!

This is the tale of a chap who has a dream about a house with a very distinct tower, and a mysterious woman in the tower, and then he stumbles across the house in real life, and naturally has to spend the night there. Where does he have to stay? The room in the tower, of course. You may see the similar motif from The Face, and yet, here's Benson's great tale. Ghosts of blood, travelling graves, manifestation via dreams (an element of Nightmare on Elm Street, if you want to look further that way), and evil paintings. An evil painting which, when people lift it, they find their hands covered in blood. It's at turns gothic, and terrified nine year old me.

A glance online shows it terrifies full grown adults, even to this day, so really child me didn't stand a chance!

 "My awaking was equally instantaneous, and I sat bolt upright in bed under the impression that some bright light had been flashed in my face, though it was now absolutely pitch dark. I knew exactly where I was, in the room which I had dreaded in dreams, but no horror that I ever felt when asleep approached the fear that now invaded and froze my brain. Immediately after a peal of thunder crackled just above the house, but the probability that it was only a flash of lightning which awoke me gave no reassurance to my galloping heart. Something I knew was in the room with me, and instinctively I put out my right hand, which was nearest the wall, to keep it away. And my hand touched the edge of a picture-frame hanging close to me.
  I sprang out of bed, upsetting the small table that stood by it, and I heard my watch, candle, and matches clatter onto the floor. But for the moment there was no need of light, for a blinding flash leaped out of the clouds, and showed me that by my bed again hung the picture of Mrs. Stone. And instantly the room went into blackness again. But in that flash I saw another thing also, namely a figure that leaned over the end of my bed, watching me. It was dressed in some close-clinging white garment, spotted and stained with mold, and the face was that of the portrait.
  Overhead the thunder cracked and roared, and when it ceased and the deathly stillness succeeded, I heard the rustle of movement coming nearer me, and, more horrible yet, perceived an odor of corruption and decay. And then a hand was laid on the side of my neck, and close beside my ear I heard quick-taken, eager breathing. Yet I knew that this thing, though it could be perceived by touch, by smell, by eye and by ear, was still not of this earth, but something that had passed out of the body and had power to make itself manifest. Then a voice, already familiar to me, spoke."
E.F. Benson, The Room in the Tower

I'd like to point out that the sudden "oh shit" double take of his friend who wants to reassure him that there is no haunting is a lovely piece of comic timing, which was lost in the midst of the horror on the younger me, but which raises a smile to me nowadays.

It's the standout tale in a career of stand out horror tales.

It's funny how we have three Benson's in our top ten, and each from a different subsection of his style. He's certainly my second favourite, and if my undisputed champion lacks more of his tales at the top end, that's because I only found my copy of his Jack Adrian anthology this morning. (There's a clue, he says, pretending anyone reading this doesn't already know...)

Benson was one of the world's great horror writers, I don't care if he was a dilettante who wrote to pay the bills, his end product speaks for itself.

3. Charles Dickens - The Signalman

""Halloa! Below there!" 
When he heard a voice thus calling to him, he was standing at the door of his box, with a flag in his hand, furled round its short pole. One would have thought, considering the nature of the ground, that he could not have doubted from what quarter the voice came; but instead of looking up to where I stood on the top of the steep cutting nearly over his head, he turned himself about, and looked down the Line. There was something remarkable in his manner of doing so, though I could not have said for my life what. But I know it was remarkable enough to attract my notice, even though his figure was foreshortened and shadowed, down in the deep trench, and mine was high above him, so steeped in the glow of an angry sunset, that I had shaded my eyes with my hand before I saw him at all.""
Charles Dickens, The Signalman

And so begins one of the most famous ghost stories ever written. Yes, it's almost cliche to be so high on the list, but then, it's famous for a reason... (even if you believe, as Andrew Lang wrote in the Puzzle of Dicken's Last Plot in 1905, that Dickens "overcooks the premonition"...)

There is no puzzle of Dicken's Last Plot, incidentally. Jasper did it. Dickens said as much in a letter he wrote shortly before his death. Does that count as a spoiler when the text is both over one hundred and forty years old, and the writer died before writing the actual reveal?

(paraphrased from an article written in 2008)

Dickens and ghost stories are synonymous: A Christmas Carol has become the Christmas tale. However, the Carol is but the most famous of a greater Dickens sub-genre. When it comes to haunting warnings, days of reckoning and unbridled terror, there is one Charles Dickens story mentionable: The Signalman. The Signalman is not the only Dickens story to feature the supernatural, indeed, it may be easier to count all the stories of Dickens that do not have any supernatural elements at all.

From the very start there is little warning of the danger ahead. Our narrator begins the story by describing his first view of the Signalman. Even at this early stage, Dickens hints that things are not quite as they should be. The reader becomes aware of “vague vibrations” and a train passes: the narrator heads down to the signal box to meet the man. He is taken aback by the appearance of the Signalman, this “dark, sallow man”, and at this point the reader could be forgiven for not realising the impending supernatural elements to come.

The men talk. We learn this is a “lonesome spot”, that the Signalman rarely receives guests, but we also have foreshadowing. The friendly greeting did not go down too well at the beginning, now the narrator finds out why.

"You look at me," I said, forcing a smile, "as if you had a dread of me."
"I was doubtful," he returned, "whether I had seen you before."”.

They could not have met before, and they had not met before, not even in the supernatural context. Dickens brings back the seemingly innocuous beginning, ensuring it is left in the readers mind for further development. It is difficult to ascertain Acts in a story ten pages long, but Chekhov was right: if you put a gun on the wall in Act One, it must be used in Act Three. Here, Dickens has given us our friendly beginning, reminded us of it, and with the way The Signalman pans out, it acts as his gun on the wall. And, like Chekhov assures us, Dickens does use it in his final Act.

And whilst I quote a long buried article, I keep the reference to Chekhov here, so I can quote The Man We Call Whiskers's response from many years back to my claims:

"In this instant Dickens doesn't so much put the gun on the wall in Act One as oil it, polish it, hand it round to the guests, explain its purpose and life-history and then with much pomp and ceremony hang it up on a jewelled mounting with the words 'Look, this is a gun, a gun, it's a gun, one of those things that are usually fired!!!' written on it."

It is, as he points out, a decent use of the false payoff method, but even so, if you ignore the pomposity of youth above, it is a fine ghost story.

"This," he said, again laying his hand upon my arm, and glancing over his shoulder with hollow eyes, "was just a year ago. Six or seven months passed, and I had recovered from the surprise and shock, when one morning, as the day was breaking, I, standing at the door, looked towards the red light, and saw the spectre again." He stopped, with a fixed look at me.
"Did it cry out?"
"No. It was silent."
"Did it wave its arm?"
"No. It leaned against the shaft of the light, with both hands before the face. Like this."
Once more I followed his action with my eyes. It was an action of mourning. I have seen such an attitude in stone figures on tombs."

Charles Dickens, The Signalman

2. MR James - A Warning to the Curious

Please see the M.R. James article.

1. AM Burrage - One Who Saw

Well, what else could it be?

Widely known by my friends and long time readers as my favourite ghost story ever written, Burrage's 1931 tale of the woman in the garden of a small hotel in Rouen thrills and chills in equal measures.

Some at a party asks about Crutchley, who few have seen in a number of years. Used to be much liked, and frequently at parties. He's now very ill, and frail, says a person there.

"I had rather liked Crutchley, although he wasn’t exactly one of my own kind. He was one of those quiet fellows who are said colloquially to require a lot of knowing. In social life he had always been a detached figure, standing a little aloof from his fellow men and seeming to study them with an air of faint and inoffensive cynicism. He was a writing man, which may have accounted for his slight mannerisms, but he didn’t belong to the precious, superior and rather detestable school. Everybody agreed that he was quite a good scout, and nobody troubled to read his books which consisted mainly of historical essays."
A.M. Burrage, One Who Saw

Our narrator travels home with the chap who saw Crutchley, and knows what happened to him. Turns out, there's a hotel in Rouen, off one of the main streets, with a garden locked off from the public. At night, a woman is seeing to be crying in it. Ever the dashing type, Crutchley wants to go and comfort her, yet the realisation of this is enough to fill the hotel staff with horror. So much so, they even move him to another hotel.

Yet, he feels drawn to that garden, to the woman, to look upon her obscured face...

"As his eyes grew more used to the darkness the huddled form took the shape of a woman. She sat with her head turned away, one arm thrown along the sloping back of the seat, and her face resting against it. He said that her attitude was one of extreme dejection, of abject and complete despair. Crutchley, you must understand, couldn’t see her at all clearly, although she was not a dozen yards distant. Her dress was dark, but he could make out none of its details save that something like a flimsy scarf or thick veil trailed over the shoulder nearest him.
He stood watching her, pricked by a vague sense of pity and conscious that, if she looked up, he would hardly be visible to her beyond the window, and that, in any event, the still glowing stub of cigarette would explain his presence. But she did not look up, she did not move at all while Crutchley stood watching. So still she was that it was hard for him to realize that she breathed. She seemed to have fallen completely under the spell of the garden in which nothing ever stirred, and the scene before Crutchley’s eyes might have been a nocturnal picture painted in oils."
A.M. Burrage, One Who Saw

It's all the more horrible when it strikes, for how little we're told.  Even those who consider Burrage a bit of a hack - perish the thought - consider this his great gift to British horror, and those of us who adore his works think of it as the greatest. 

Now here's a thing. I have, in the course of research over the years, looked into the location of this story, with use of what we are given (a loose location) and other things like the tram maps of the time period, and have actually found the street area of Rouen in which this haunting is based. It even has a group of hotels now, and buildings which don't seem to have been disturbed in centuries - a laymans view, not an architecture precise, I admit.

And yes, in the centre court....there's a garden inaccessible from the streets! 

Am I going to go check one day to see if a woman's ghost can be seen at the midnight hour?

You've got to be kidding me!