Sunday, 23 October 2016

The 100 Greatest Short Ghost Stories (part 2)

At these times, I am reminded of the warning words of one M.R. James:

"What tosh, by the way, critics do write. Here I find a passage quoted from one Loveman(2) who says "In Poe one finds (it*) a tour de force, in Maupassant a nervous engagement of the flagellated climax. To Bierce, simply & sincerely, diabolism held in its tormented depths a legitimate and reliant means to the end". This appears to me to have no meaning."
M.R. James, in letter to Nicholas Llewellyn Davies, 12 January 1928, reproduced by Jack Adrian and reprinted by Rosemary Pardoe.

More of my own "tosh" follows...

75. Ambrose Bierce - The Suitable Surroundings

When told of a manuscript which can kill you if read it in the suitable surroundings, our character has to take that bait. Bierce tended to be interested more in ideas than the nuts and bolts of extensive short story, so the idea itself sinks or swims a Bierce story in the way the prose might rescue a lesser M.R. James tale. The idea to this one's a cracker, though it is hard to have sympathy for the chap.

"The Suitable Surroundings” evokes with singular subtlety yet apparent simplicity a piercing sense of the terror which may reside in the written word. In the story the weird author Colston says to his friend Marsh, “You are brave enough to read me in a street-car, but—in a deserted house—alone—in the forest—at night! Bah! I have a manuscript in my pocket that would kill you!” 
H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

74. Arthur Conan Doyle - The Parasite

Conan Doyle rages against the Derek Acorah's of the world, long before it became a multi-TV station career move. Doyle's interest in spiritualism is well noted, and here we see the skeptic, Gilroy, take on a "noted" local psychic with the help of some academic pals. Only trouble is, our fraudulent psychic has some powers of her own, and has set her eye on riding the world of Gilroy's fiancee.

Written in 1894, by which time the great detective was already a best seller, and the creeping tension of the possession scenes build to a rapid climax.

73. Barbara Eyre - Siren Song

Shades of What Lies Beneath here, or "Danger Down Below", as my dad called it trying to get tickets at the old Muirend Odeon. The haunting takes place in, of all places, a caravan park! I knew those places had something of the night about them.

 I would call this another in the line of ghostly revenge tales, but then, is it? Eyre's story is subtle: so much so that, by the finish, we're not sure if the main character actually is suicidal, or if it is part of an elaborate murder plan. Or even if the ghost is protecting her, or using her as conduit for revenge, or even if revenge is not in the picture and we just have a malicious spirit which picks on the vulnerable.

The relationship between mother and children is sweet but realistic, there is a sense of genuine love without the saccharine schmaltz, of the children who will try to take advantage of their mother's illness, but who still genuinely care about her. The less said about the husband, but then, it's hard to say if he is the villain or victim of the piece. As I say, the entire thing is a subtle read, and my interpretation changes on each reading.

There seems to be little known about Barbara J Eyre, though she was a favourite of Chetwynd-Hayes, who used her stories regularly in his edited books. I've read her Jessica - about another ghostly woman, a regular motif of hers - and have been pointed in the direction of a few other stories - Anesthetic, for example - which are said to be well written.

72. AM Burrage - The Recurring Tragedy

Another Burrage story in which the transgressor of the original act has paid for his crime many times over. In fact, if you accept the subtext that this story is about reincarnation and predestination, then the officer has paid for his crime thousands of times over. Burrage leaves just enough in there for people to believe that the man is mad, however, and it tells you much about the tragedy that suicidal insanity would be the kinder route out.

71. LP Hartley - WS

You can tell my appreciation for a plot by when I nick pay homage to it in a DCI Sembilan story, and this is the basis of Character in Search of An Author. It is a recurring motif in horror fiction, however, but used to the best effect here. There is a long winded story I read recently, in the same anthology as a Robert Bloch story I considered for this list, which takes the motif here and stretches it out to unbearable length - yes, the tension amps up, but everyone knows the end game, and it's the least subtle variant of it. Here, Hartley knows less is more, and builds unease by only revealing as much as necessary.

Novelist Walter Streeter begins to get postcards, starting with one from Forfar. Each time, the place the postcard is from comes closer and closer to his home, and each time, the solitary signature W.S. appears at the bottom of the message. A poison pen letter campaign, perhaps, or a fan with a crush, but Streeter feels better with the police protection sent to watch his house.

"About ten days later arrived another postcard, this time from Berwick-on-Tweed. ‘What do you think of Berwick-on-Tweed?’ it said. ‘Like you, it’s on the Border. I hope this doesn’t sound rude. I don’t mean that you are a border-line case! You know how much I admire your stories. Some people call them other-worldly. I think you should plump for one world or the other. Another firm handshake from W.S.’
L.P. Hartley, W.S.

70.  Algernon Blackwood - The Wendigo

Highly atmospheric. John Hadfield called it the most terrifying story ever written, and you can see why he felt that way. Blackwood's greatest horrors are all the more for how little he tells you. He is the master of the feeling of otherworldly-ness, without the need to show or even tell you it exists. It's there, in the willows and the Canadian outback, or in the small Scottish valleys and Alpen retreats his ghouls lurk away in.

Here, Blackwood refers to one of the ancient ghost traditions, and uses it to great effect, describing it's appearance during a hunting expedition. Blackwood's three great joys in life were writing, mysticism, and the great outdoors - here, he combines the three.

"But for all that the journey through the gathering dusk was miserably haunted. He heard innumerable following footsteps; voices that laughed and whispered; and saw figures crouching behind trees and boulders, making signs to one another for a concerted attack the moment he had passed. The creeping murmur of the wind made him start and listen. He went stealthily, trying to hide where possible, and making as little sound as he could. The shadows of the woods, hitherto protective or covering merely, had now become menacing, challenging; and the pageantry in his frightened mind masked a host of possibilities that were all the more ominous for being obscure. The presentiment of a nameless doom lurked ill-concealed behind every detail of what had happened."
The Wendigo, Algernon Blackwood

John Probert notes on Vault of Evil that Blackwood's landscape is so haunting, the story doesn't even need the ghost itself.

There is a great debate among fans as to which of Blackwood's great novellas is better. The fact that this appears now, and the other is *yet* to appear probably tells you which one I prefer.

69.  Roald Dahl - The Landlady

Roald Dahl's adult stories are great, but this is the only one that fulfills the prospect of being a true horror tale, to my mind. There is a great horror morale to Poison, and a queasy twist in the tale to Skin, but The Landlady is the out and out horror. A student looking for digs finds a hostel with a most kind landlady...

68. Edgar Allan Poe - The Oval Portrait

I love this typical Poe tale of madness and becoming more engrossed in one's art than is healthy. In the space of three pages, our artist strives for weeks on end to capture the beauty of his wife in portrait, not looking up once, as we rapidly head towards the delicious, but extremely OTT, final line.

67. MR James - The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral

See the MR James article.

66. HG Wells - The Moth

It's a revenge tale, but I don't think there's been any like it. Academic entomologists Pawkins and Hapley have a long running feud, which climaxes with Hapley's public humiliation of Pawkins.

"The world of entomologists waited breathlessly for the rejoinder from Pawkins. He would try one, for Pawkins had always been game. But when it came it surprised them. For the rejoinder of Pawkins was to catch influenza, proceed to pneumonia, and die."
 H.G. Wells, The Moth

The matter of factness of the above always made me laugh.  Hapley, however, is blamed for the death, and soon starts being plagued by a singular moth.

Trust Wells to come up with one of the most unique hauntings I can recall.

65. Elizabeth Jane Howard - Three Miles Up

A strange tale soaked in atmosphere which I'm still not sure I know what I think of, but which has never left my mind. Some friends take a canal trip, pick up a lost woman, who never seems to speak much, and then take the wrong turning - and that's when it all goes a bit weird.

64. Penelope Fitzgerald - The Axe

An amusing tale of office politics, right up till the moment the ghost arrives, in all its visceral form. The tale is so amiable and enjoyable that child me, while knowing a ghost was on its way, didn't foresee the gory details, and they hung long in the memory.

"The modern and domestic stories are, if anything, the less substantial - even if insubstantiality is part of the point of one such story with a contemporary London setting ('The Axe'), specifically the inadequacy of institutional language to accommodate reality. An office manager writes a memo to his boss about the actual effect of redundancy (the axe of the title, though the story has an element of horror) on a long-term employee. After a paragraph, the tone of voice modulates: 'From this point on I feel able to write more freely, it being well understood, at office-managerial level, that you do not read more than the first two sentences of any given report. You believe that anything which cannot be put into two sentences is not worth attending to, a piece of wisdom which you usually attribute to the late Lord Beaverbrook." 
Adam Mars-Jones, Observer book review, The Means of Escape by Penelope Fitzgerald, 29 October 2000

"Less adventurous writers of ghost stories might let their plots cower unadventurously in run-of-the-mill cobwebby castles or creaky manor houses, but a modern setting can make a good ghost genuinely unsettling, as the unfamiliar becomes the uncanny. (The Freudian concept of the uncanny, das unheimliche, is that of the familiar turned strange.)"
Emily Cleaver, The Axe by Penelope Fitzgerald, Litro  11 April 2010

63. Sheridan le Fanu - Green Tea

Easily one of the finest of le Fanu's works, a novella about a vicar who might be going mad after drinking green tea - or is he? Dr Hesselius, the noted occult detective, is on the case, and yet le Fanu is careful. The story is told from the detective's point of view, so we never see the monkey in the room. We are only told about it from the experience of Jennings, and then, never told if there is actually a haunting or if the man is suffering a dying insanity.

"In Le Fanu’s fiction, the verdict remains open. In his story Green Tea, we meet Reverend Jennings, a vicar who first notices that something evil has entered his life as he sits on a crowded omnibus and clocks a pair of burning red eyes staring at him over the seats. They belong, he claims, to “a small monkey, perfectly black,” with a “character of malignity - unfathomable malignity.” Years of torment follow: the black monkey disrupts his sleep, interrupts his sermons, snarls blasphemies as he kneels at prayer. When Jennings seeks the help of a specialist, the animal is enraged by the interference and intensifies its campaign of terror, bullying the cleric into cutting his throat with a razor. “It had happened,” notes the narrator, “as the immense pool of blood on the floor declared, at some distance between the bed and the window.” But the narrator is Jennings’s doctor – who never sees this creature with his own eyes. Did the monkey exist? It’s impossible to decide. Just as, at the climax of Val Lewton’s cult horror film Cat People, we are unsure whether we’ve seen anything more than shadows rippling across a swimming pool."
Matthew Sweet, Sheridan le Fanu, the father of modern horror, at 200, The Telegraph 28 August 2014

62. Guy de Maupassant - The Hand

Yes, it's one of de Maupassant's weakest tales. Yes, the translation is awful. Yes, he rewrote it later in his life as a "better" tale.

But I love The Hand. It was one of the first horror stories I ever read, after being given a synopsis of the tale by Andrew McIntyre on the bus back from Millerston one day in First Year.

"The horror-tales of the powerful and cynical Guy de Maupassant, written as his final madness gradually overtook him, present individualities of their own; being rather the morbid outpourings of a realistic mind in a pathological state than the healthy imaginative products of a vision naturally disposed toward phantasy and sensitive to the normal illusions of the unseen. Nevertheless they are of the keenest interest and poignancy; suggesting with marvellous force the imminence of nameless terrors, and the relentless dogging of an ill-starred individual by hideous and menacing representatives of the outer blackness."
H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

In the island of Corsica, locals are fascinated by an Englishman who moves into one of the countryside villas. He calls himself Sir Rowell, but the suspicion is that it is a false name given by a man with something to hide. He becomes friendly with a local judge, and on a tour of his estate, the judge becomes fascinated with a severed hand, chained to the wall. "It always wants to go away" says Rowell, who has three loaded revolvers in the room. The Judge scoffs. One of them was more accurate than the other.

61. Saki - The Wolves of Cernogratz

A famous story by Saki. When anyone in the castle which belonged to the Cernogratz family dies, the animals of the forest howl all night in the build up. The noveau riche new owners of the castle scoff at this idea, but then, one of their own is not very well...

60. EF Benson - The Bus Conductor

Adapted to great effect in the famed British horror film, Dead of Night. "Room for one more..." Man has a nightmare in which he looks out of his window to see a hearse on the driveway, with it's driver calling out "just room for one inside, sir".

It's sort of a cliche now, as it's been re-done so many times (Twilight Zone also comes to mind here), but this tale by Benson was quite well written, and if it loses its original punch due to repetition en masse by others, then, that's not his fault.

"“Then I heard suddenly and not very far away the sound of some approaching vehicle; I could distinguish the tread of two horses walking at a slow foot’s pace. They were, though not yet visible, coming up the street, and yet this indication of life did not abate that dreadful sense of loneliness which I have spoken of. Also in some dim unformulated way that which was coming seemed to me to have something to do with the cause of my oppression.Then the vehicle came into sight. At first I could not distinguish what it was. Then I saw that the horses were black and had long tails, and that what they dragged was made of glass, but had a black frame. It was a hearse. Empty.”"
E.F. Benson, The Bus Conductor

59. Edgar Allan Poe - The System of Dr Tarr

An underrated story by Poe which seems to have inspired parts of the film Asylum. (The one with Geoffrey Bayldon!)  It's also meant to be a comedy about a man who goes to an insane asylum to uncover new methods used there.

58. Shirley Jackson - The Lottery

When I first read this a decade ago, I wrote: "why did this cause such an effect? The twist was obvious." Just goes to show what a prick the young can be!

It's the annual lottery in a small American town. Each head of the house draws a lot, and one of them gets to draw lots of his own family. It's all to select one person, for a very special task to help the whole village. The story, which took two hours to write, caused a stir when published in The New Yorker - Jackson later wrote that even her parents hated it, asking her why she couldn't write about nice things!

"It’s a bucolic mid-summer day in a small town much like any other. The town villagers, three hundred in all, have gathered in the square for some kind of traditional ceremony. So begins Shirley Jackson’s "The Lottery,” perhaps the most controversial short story The New Yorker has ever published. After it ran, in the issue of June 26, 1948, hundreds of readers cancelled their subscriptions or wrote letters expressing their anger and confusion over what the story meant. Jackson, who contributed twelve short stories to the magazine, became a literary sensation almost overnight."
Erin Overbey, Eight-Five from the Archive: Shirley Jackson, The New Yorker 24 March 2010

"Among those who were confused about Jackson’s intentions was Alfred L. Kroeber, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “If Shirley Jackson’s intent was to symbolize into complete mystification, and at the same time be gratuitously disagreeable, she certainly succeeded,” he wrote. In an e-mail to me, Kroeber’s daughter, the novelist Ursula Le Guin, who was nineteen years old when “The Lottery” appeared, recalled her father’s reaction: “My memory is that my father was indignant at Shirley Jackson’s story because as a social anthropologist he felt that she didn’t, and couldn’t, tell us how the lottery could come to be an accepted social institution.” Since Jackson presented her fantasy “with all the trappings of contemporary realism,” Le Guin said, her father felt that she was “pulling a fast one” on the reader. There were some outlandish theories. Marion Trout, of Lakewood, Ohio, suspected that the editorial staff had become “tools of Stalin.” Another reader wondered if it was a publicity stunt, while several more speculated that a concluding paragraph must have been accidentally cut by the printer. Others complained that the story had traumatized them so much that they had been unable to open any issues of the magazine since. “I read it while soaking in the tub … and was tempted to put my head underwater and end it all,” wrote Camilla Ballou, of St. Paul."
Ruth Franklin, The Lottery Letters, The New Yorker 25 June 2013

Now that's what I call a public reaction! Jackson was depressed by it and said she could have given  up writing - she died very young, but this would still have robbed us of nearly two decades of writing, including The Haunting of Hill House, so thankfully she kept going.

In the style of a Flannery O'Connor - there are similarities with A Good Man is Hard to Find - The Lottery is one of the more memorable American gothic stories. 

57. The Sutor of Selkirk

Written in period style by a writer of unknown origin, as Chetwynd-Hayes puts it, this is variation on an old Scottish legend. Even the chaps at Vault of Evil can't source the author, but it remains a fairly interesting, if heavy on dialect, story about a strange customer who appears at the door of the local shoemaker in Selkirk (a small town in the Borders area of Scotland), wanting new shoes.

Our unknown writer makes reference to the sutor's "cadaverous appearance", which, one might say, was probably just as well...

56. Peter Tremayne - Buggane

A ghost story set on the Isle of Man, and using its terrain to great effect. Writer comes to the Island to work on his latest job, and takes a small cottage in the middle of the terrain to work from. It's apparently haunted, once a year, by the family of a young women dumped by an English soldier, but not to worry, the only person who can be truly hurt by that sort of thing is someone who was related to one of the people involved...

55. Edgar Allan Poe - The Masque of the Red Death

Another Poe classic, as Prince Pospero hides his friends in a walled abbey to escape the plague striking the country, and how they have hedonistic parties while the poor die elsewhere.

They hold a masquerade ball, and yet, who is this new, masked person who has joined in the fray? He looks like he's on his wall to a funeral, and the Prince gets more and more furious...

54. Robert Arthur - The Believers

A little known horror story by Arthur, who wrote The Three Investigators novels of the 1960s, and edited a number of ghost story collections before his death in 1969. I have a copy of this in Richard Dalby's Mammoth Book of Ghosts volume 2.

The old house by the swamp, perfect place for our radio host to run a special live ghost tour, broadcast on radio nationally. Here he can fight all kinds of supernatural beings which lurk in the waters and attics of this old house, and it doesn't matter that none of them exist, for the audience will believe him. The old Acorah trick, only, there's something about that house. And mass audience belief...

53. LP Hartley - Fall in at the Double

Home to one of Hartley's finest comic creations, Alfred the Butler, who is nearly entirely unflappable at the entire series of events. Just as well for the demobbed Osgood, as otherwise he might have met a rather wet end. He - Osgood - has bought a nice manor house for a cheap price, as it was used to house soldiers during the Second World War, and home to a vicious officer who mysteriously drowned. Only, the ghosts of the squad seem content to repeat history.

Hartley wrote this around 1970, towards the end of his life. Nearly forty years on from the likes of The Killing Bottle and Feet Foremost, we see a writer still at the top of his faculties in how to write the expertly crafted ghost story. Whilst the youngest of The Big Five, by a decade, it is still incredible to think that a contemporary of Burrage, James and Benson was still writing stories after the Beatles split up.

52. Philip K Dick - Beyond the Door

This story manages to build up a fair bit of tension to it, and I agree with its main idea: cuckoo clocks are evil. Larry buys his wife a cuckoo clock from an antiques shop owner who is having it off with his wife. The wife is convinced the creature inside is alive, and what's more, it prefers her new beau to the unloving husband.

51. Algernon Blackwood - Keeping His Promise

A famous tale by one of the masters. It is a late night in Edinburgh, and Marriot, a student, is resting during his Finals exams, when there is a knock at the door. An old friend has shown up, out of the blue, looking hideously ill and not speaking, but very hungry and dreadfully tired. Wasn't he at the other side of the country?

The story of a promise kept, beyond mortal means, between school friends. 

"The acoustic properties of a spiral staircase seem to be peculiar. Marriott, standing by the open door, book in hand, thought every moment the owner of the footsteps would come into view. The sound of the boots was so close and so loud that they seemed to travel disproportionately in advance of their cause. Wondering who it could be, he stood ready with all manner of sharp greetings for the man who dared thus to disturb his work. But the man did not appear. The steps sounded almost under his nose, yet no one was visible. A sudden queer sensation of fear passed over him--a faintness and a shiver down the back. It went, however, almost as soon as it came, and he was just debating whether he would call aloud to his invisible visitor, or slam the door and return to his books, when the cause of the disturbance turned the corner very slowly and came into view. It was a stranger. He saw a youngish man short of figure and very broad. His face was the colour of a piece of chalk and the eyes, which were very bright, had heavy lines underneath them. Though the cheeks and chin were unshaven and the general appearance unkempt, the man was evidently a gentleman, for he was well dressed and bore himself with a certain air. But, strangest of all, he wore no hat, and carried none in his hand; and although rain had been falling steadily all the evening, he appeared to have neither overcoat nor umbrella."
Algernon Blackwood, Keeping His Promise

And there lies the first fifty. Next up, the top fifty, while I keep remembering stories I might have included. Ah well, there's always next year...

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