Tuesday, 25 October 2016

The 100 Greatest Short Ghost Stories (part 3)

50. Algernon Blackwood - The Willows

There was a radio DJ once, possibly Tiger Tim, who said of the band Big Country that "listening to their music was like someone had opened a window on a drafty day". Blackwood's writing has much the same effect, steeped in the culture and climate of his locations, and so ethereal, that our characters are haunted by the gloomy outdoors long before any spirits appear. Here we never see a ghost, and indeed, we never get a character's name, and yet the anxiety and trepidation build. Our two men take a trip down the River Danube, and find themselves by the Austria/Hungary border. Now this area takes in Slovakia as well, but we're most likely talking about the area running along the border of the two countries south of Bratislava.

Here there are a number of inlets and small islands, many of which have been inhabited now, but others, still,  stand full of flooded trees and yes, willow banks, and if they are two degrees of separation from civilization now, it's easy to imagine them, a century ago, as desolate and unwelcoming places from beyond for two men in a canoe to find themselves. 

(Willows country)

Lovecraft said this was his favourite horror story, and you can see the influences directly. However, Lovecraft was never in this league of being able to drip tense creation from his work like this. Could you imagine Lovecraft trying to write The Wendigo? Actually, with his obvious personal flaws, let's not do that. 

The Willows stands as one of the great horror novellas, and proof that you don't need gore, and jump scares to produce effective ghost stories. You just need some lost people, in the middle of an inhospitable terrain.

"What struck me when I first started reading, more than anything, is how beautifully written it is. There are vast swaths of description of the landscape here, too, as in Lovecraft, but I found Blackwood's style more palatable. More elegant. He personifies nature like no other, turning the Danube into a living, thinking being. The willows, too, are given this lifelike personage: "Then we lay panting and laughing after our exertions on the hot yellow sand...and an immense army of dancing, shouting willow bushes, closing in from all sides, shining with spray and clapping their thousand little hands as though to applaud the success of our efforts." Taking care to make the scenery - in this case, the willows - a character itself amps up the discomfort of the story, one that the characters feel."
Melissa Baron, Critical Horror Collection: Algernon Blackwood's The Willlows, Chicago Now, 5 May 2015

What actually haunts them - perhaps the Danube was used to having a bit of private me time at that section, and didn't like being disturbed? - is never explained, which gives it greater power over The Wendigo for me. (By its very title we know what Blackwood is referring to...) Both remain great stories, however, with the quiet limits of man's sanity tested in the wilder aspects of the world.

49. WW Jacobs - The Toll House

A ghost investigation of an abandoned building which starts with skeptical nods and laughs, and ends in tragedy.  It's not as read as Monkey's Paw, which is a sad thing as Toll House has funny and flawed characters setting about their investigation. One of them doesn't even believe in ghosts, so the events as they transpire are a bit of a shock to him.

"Barnes shivered and exclaimed angrily. He got up and, walking to the half-closed door, listened.
“Go outside,” said Meagle, winking at the other two. “I’ll dare you to go down to the hall door and back by yourself.”
Barnes came back and, bending forward, lit his pipe at the candle.
“I am nervous but rational,” he said, blowing out a thin cloud of smoke. “My nerves tell me that there is something prowling up and down the long passage outside; my reason tells me that it is all nonsense. Where are my cards?”"
W.W. Jacobs, The Toll House

48. Ambrose Bierce - The Damned Thing

One of Bierce's famous tales, about the death of a man told from four different perspectives. His hunting partner claims that Hugh Morgan had seemed to have an issue with "the damned thing", but his description of the event is incredulous to the jury. Luckily we have the dead man's testimony to complete matters. This is a ghost story told in a highly atypical (for the time) way, and as such it builds in a typical way. This is a story in which a man, just seen his friend killed, enters the coroner's room with a smile and a "sorry to have kept you"! These people are highly officious, highly full of their own self-importance to the narrative, and as a result, highly funny people. Bierce may have been a cynical journalist, but his characters retain a sense of black humour through their misfortunes, which makes him stand out from the more hysterical undertones of other writers from the period.

Also, this is a ghost story without a single mention of the word "ghost". Even Asimov didn't manage that one!

47: R. Chetwynd Hayes - The Hanging Tree

 Without the late Ronald Chetwynd Hayes, there is a chance we wouldn't be here today, discussing these stories. You see, Chetwynd Hayes was fond of editing ghost stories collections, and was the long time replacement to Robert Aickman as editor of the Fontana Book of Ghosts. So it was that, on my tenth birthday, my dad handed me a copy of The 14th edition, gained from the Barnardos book collection on Victoria Road. It was the book that introduced me to Hartley, Burrage, le Fanu and Timperley among others, and whilst I might well have followed from Goosebumps to the greats eventually, we can't alt-history what actually happened. (Well, we can, but that's another article entirely...)

It remains my favourite anthology, well read over the years, and seven of the tales chosen are featured on this list. Though this makes me wonder if certain tales which had long impacts on me, lesser known to the public, made such an impact based on the whim of an editor. I know for a fact one of my top ten was chosen at the last minute by Chetwynd Hayes from a number of other stories from the author! Still, that's fate for you.

Our man wrote a number of ghost stories himself, but has a reputation in modern circles for being a bit...cosy. He got into writing horror in his fifties as a well of paying the bills - a fact he never hid - and so it's often seen that he veers right up to the horrific thing, before becoming safe. When something truly terrifying comes to the forefront, he'll stick to the jokes for safety. Reviews disparagingly compared him to M.R. James (that's always the thing, isn't it - oh, it's not The Beatles - yeah, and who is?) and he's never thought of as a great horror writer, although he is as a masterful collector and was, by several accounts, a nice guy.

So this was the maelstrom of osmosis in which I approached The Hanging Tree.

It's Christmas, and there's a group celebrating with the Fortescues at their old house. There's a tree in the middle of the garden, and one of their number starts to reminisce about a suicide that happened in the very grounds of the house, as you do. This person acts stranger and stranger, until one of the other guests realises they must be possessed by the ghost of the dead person. Luckily Miss Mansfield is knowledgeable about what to do when you come across someone being possessed into committing suicide, and so strides out into the garden to confront the spirit.

At which point, I was ready for Chetwynd Hayes to pull back from the horror, to be cosy, and give a coda along the lines of The Sad Ghost.

He doesn't.

Merry Christmas!

46. Isaac Asimov and James MacCreigh* - Legal Rites

*The part of James MacCreigh is a pseudonym for the editor, Frederick Pohl!

Asimov is widely regarded as one of the finest SF authors there ever was. Here's an interesting fact for you: Asimov really, really, really didn't like ghost stories. Naturally he then wrote one of the finest ghost stories ever written. So it goes. His friend Pohl challenged him with a very specific ghost idea, and when Asimov managed to write most of it (but was unhappy with the result), Pohl finished it off.

It's a court case about a ghost's legal right to haunt a house, as a man who fled his house due to haunting fights the ghost which haunted it in court over who legally owns the property. It's very well done. It's also got a wonderful punch of a twist ending.

45. MR James - Count magnus
44. MR James - Canon Alberics Scrapbook

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

43. Ray Bradbury - The Veldt

Just how long were those kids planning what they did? There is an element, seemingly, of premeditation to their actions, which adds to the horror factor. A justly famous Bradbury tale, where a family become too accustomed to their virtual reality nursery. It takes all the stress out of parenting, just chuck the kids in there and let the room do all the hard work for you! The room can take on the likeness of anywhere in history, but purely a virtual reality simulation of it. The kids do seem to like keeping it on the African veldt though, with those realistic lions.

Written in 1950, we have the multilayered Ray Bradbury here, embodying in a few short pages not just the horror of the events which transpire, but the horror of a society which takes technology and uses it to transplant love and affection, which takes the wonder of science and uses it to dehumanise its peoples. There's also an element of belief or hatred allowing something to happen, which shouldn't otherwise happen.

It's a cracker of a horror story, and Bradbury wrote it when he was thirty. We don't get a Ray Bradbury coming along that often, thank goodness we got to cherish this one for such a long and beautiful career.

42. Marghanita Laski - The Tower

Marghanita Laski was a journalist, a campaigner for CND, and a strong atheist ("God can stand being told by Marghanita Laski that he doesn't exist" as JB Priestley once quipped).

I knew none of this when I first read The Tower at school, and perhaps it would have helped for an RPR. You know, the post-modern outlook of the ardent atheist, and how counting the steps downwards was a sub-textual adherence to an inner paranoia. Or other such bollocks you write in school stuff.

The Tower is a fine story, however, for its understated qualities. A tourist,  fearful of heights, on living in Italy is determined to visit a 16th century tower. She finds the best way to climb to the top of the narrow staircase is to shut her eyes, and count each step.

Helen Grant, who wrote about the story in 2014, suggests that to spoil anymore would be to do the story a grave disservice, so I bow to the author of The Glass Demon on this one. It is a fine story, however, with nay a spook or slice of gore in view.

41. Robert Louis Stevenson - Markheim

I loved this story when I first read it in Third Year, despite the school's attempts to distill the tale of predestination  into a game of "spot the assonance, the anaphora and the alliteration, and tomorrow we'll start on the B's". This story is entirely a metaphor of the killing of Jesus, apparently, at least, that was the Jesuit stance on the tale!

It rather depends on your seeing the ghostly figure as an angel, however! Alternate takes are open for the reader.

(originally written for The Spooky Isles in 2015)

John Betjeman, the British poet exempler, was a polymath.

He wrote the finest satirical poetry of the 20th Century (Westminster Abbey is a favourite, as is Diary of a Church Mouse). He campaigned against the fiendish Dr Beeching, and that we still have St Pancras Railway Station is a testament to his struggles. (Hence why there is a statue of the poet in the station!)

He was also, however, a man who believed in predestination.

You see, while living with the future Diana Mosley (nee Mitford) in the 1920s at Biddesden House, Betjeman had a dream in which cloaked figures handed him a card on which was enscribed his date of death. The poet spent the rest of his life convinced this was the date he would go on, and worked accordingly. He never told anyone the date he was given, so we shall have to assume it was the 19th May 1984, otherwise he got a hell of a surprise.

Predestination is a recurring theme in British horror, however, and one of the finest dabblers in the art was Robert Louis Stevenson. Of his Treasure Island and Kidnapped, much is known. His Bodysnatchers are becoming better known. His Jekyll and Hyde have become one of the standard textbooks of horror, adapted and performed nearly as often as Shakespeare.

But the first hints of Jekyll appeared in a short story written for Pall Mall Magazine in 1884.

Markheim is a tale which doesn’t so much focus on predestination as wrestle with it. A desperate man kills a pawn shop dealer, and just as he is about to make good his escape, from the scene of his first impulsive crime, he comes face to face with a character who he takes to be the Devil. An argument on the nature of good or evil, as Markheim fights for the essential character of his own soul against the idea that his entire path has been set without free will, forms the basis of a short but intriguing tale. In the end, Markheim shuns the shackles of predestination, finding the third way. Or does he? Readers often assume that Stevenson’s final paragraph opening suggests that the visitor is in fact an Angel and not a Devil.

“The features of the visitor began to undergo a wonderful and lovely change: they brightened and softened with a tender triumph, and, even as they brightened, faded and dislimned.”

But then, what if the great free will decision of Markheim was in fact already predestined, and what we have is a demon happy? Stevenson leaves it blank, he would explore the nature of good and evil more thoroughly through Mr Hyde and the doomed Jekyll, but in Markheim we find the whole crux of the issue, distilled into 10 pages.

Predestination is not an element solely the domain of Victorian horror. Modern horror likes to play on it, the popular and visceral Final Destination series being a case in point.

It seems that, be we a Poet Laureate, a modern horror film, or a Victorian deep in the angst of existentialism, the theories of what in life was preordained live onwards.

What it shows, at the very least, is that people love a good horror tale. And the helplessness of being unable to change course, due to outside events being mapped out for you, adds to the horror of inevitability.

"Time had some score of small voices in that shop, some stately and slow as was becoming to their great age; others garrulous and hurried. All these told out the seconds in an intricate chorus of tickings. Then the passage of a lad's feet, heavily running on the pavement, broke in upon these smaller voices and startled Markheim into the consciousness of his surroundings. He looked about him awfully. The candle stood on the counter, its flame solemnly wagging in a draught; and by that inconsiderable movement, the whole room was filled with noiseless bustle and kept heaving like a sea: the tall shadows nodding, the gross blots of darkness swelling and dwindling as with respiration, the faces of the portraits and the china gods changing and wavering like images in water. The inner door stood ajar, and peered into that leaguer of shadows with a long slit of daylight like a pointing finger. From these fear-stricken rovings, Markheim's eyes returned to the body of his victim, where it lay both humped and sprawling, incredibly small and strangely meaner than in life. In these poor, miserly clothes, in that ungainly attitude, the dealer lay like so much sawdust. Markheim had feared to see it, and, lo! it was nothing. And yet, as he gazed, this bundle of old clothes and pool of blood began to find eloquent voices. There it must lie; there was none to work the cunning hinges or direct the miracle of locomotion—there it must lie till it was found. Found! ay, and then? Then would this dead flesh lift up a cry that would ring over England, and fill the world with the echoes of pursuit. Ay, dead or not, this was still the enemy. "Time was that when the brains were out," he thought; and the first word struck into his mind. Time, now that the deed was accomplished—time, which had closed for the victim, had become instant and momentous for the slayer."
Robert Louis Stevenson, Markheim

40. AM Burrage - Smee

Burrage's most famous tale, which has seen adaptations and near adaptations by the bucket load. A variation of hide and seek in an old manor house brings about it memories of a previous game many years before in which a young woman died. 

39. Arthur Conan Doyle - Horror of the Heights

(previously published in The Spooky Isles, 2016)

The Horror of the Heights, an early 20th century horror tale by Arthur Conan Doyle, has one of the greatest last lines in all of horror. But to speak of it now, in the manner of those who write Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd, would be to not only spoil the piece, but to rob it of its context. The Heights is a modern (by its time) tale of a pilot who finds something troublesome high up in the clouds and meets his maker.

It is a curious tale of Elementals striking upon the mere mortals who stumble into their lair. It is, if you will allow, a prime example of a Lovecraftian universe story, from before HP Lovecraft even began to write. Here we have creatures of some sort living over 40, 000 feet above the ground, which can only be stumbled upon by curious and doomed peoples with monoplanes. [40, 000 feet is twice the horror for William Shatner, incidentally…]

Not only does Conan Doyle invent Lovecraftian horror (though one could claim they were both inspired by the more macabre of Arthur Machen’s works), he also decides to play with the tropes of the found footage genre. For this tale is told in the excerpts of a blood-stained diary (I love that, not only is the diary found, it’s blood-stained!) found torn and lost in a field in the middle of nowhere, England.

The Joyce-Armstrong Fragment was found in the field which is called Lower Haycock, lying one mile to the westward of the village of Withyham, upon the Kent and Sussex border..he caught sight of a flat, canvas-backed book, which proved to be a note-book with detachable leaves, some of which had come loose and were fluttering along the base of the hedge. These he collected, but some, including the first, were never recovered, and leave a deplorable hiatus in this all-important statement. The note-book was taken by the labourer to his master, who in turn showed it to Dr. J. H. Atherton, of Hartfield. This gentleman at once recognized the need for an expert examination, and the manuscript was forwarded to the Aero Club in London, where it now lies.”

We can see even within this introduction (and how Holmesian that the piece is called a fragment) that Doyle is working within the context of how academics wrote horror at the time. Think of M.R. James. They start by explaining how the facts were ascertained by learned colleagues and institutions, so as to give a verisimilitude of truth to the spooky goings on. Here in, Doyle shows that he is a great fan of the short horror story, as he can work not only with its tropes, but also poke gentle fun at them, and casually use things (such as the “found footage” style of narration) which would become clich├ęs and stereotypes, long after his death, thanks in no small part to his own work.

The man Joyce-Armstrong finds that curiosity most certainly killed this particular cat. Though given he narrowly escapes the first encounter, and then returns to the air to find them again, one can’t say he wasn’t given ample warning! Even if he was prone to taking a shotgun with him, how do you think a shotgun would do against Cthulhu? Spoiler warning: not very well.

Doyle was on record as much preferring his own horror and ghost tales to the works of the great detective, and there is verve to much of his written horror. But one certainly feels that the horror helped the detective tales come along, and the detective tales helped improve the horror. You can prefer one genre to the other, but you can’t have The Dying Detective without the story it directly succeeded.

38. MR James - Wailing Well

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

37. Sheridan le Fanu - Mr Justice Harbottle

Another fine tale from le Fanu, as a nasty judge meets his comeuppance in ghoulish style.

"Whenever the Judge fell into a brown study he was always conning over the terms of the sentence pronounced upon him in his vision--"in one calendar month from the date of this day"; and then the usual form, "and you shall be hanged by the neck till you are dead," etc. "That will be the 10th--I'm not much in the way of being hanged. I know what stuff dreams are, and I laugh at them; but this is continually in my thoughts, as if it forecast misfortune of some sort. I wish the day my dream gave me were passed and over. I wish I were well purged of my gout. I wish I were as I used to be. 'Tis nothing but vapours, nothing but a maggot." The copy of the parchment and letter which had announced his trial with many a snort and sneer he would read over and over again, and the scenery and people of his dream would rise about him in places the most unlikely, and steal him in a moment from all that surrounded him into a world of shadows. The Judge had lost his iron energy and banter. He was growing taciturn and morose. The Bar remarked the change, as well they might. His friends thought him ill. The doctor said he was troubled with hypochondria, and that his gout was still lurking in his system, and ordered him to that ancient haunt of crutches and chalk-stones, Buxton. The Judge's spirits were very low; he was frightened about himself; and he described to his housekeeper, having sent for her to his study to drink a dish of tea, his strange dream in his drive home from Drury Lane Playhouse. He was sinking into the state of nervous dejection in which men lose their faith in orthodox advice, and in despair consult quacks, astrologers, and nursery story-tellers. Could such a dream mean that he was to have a fit, and so die on the 10th?"
Sheridan le Fanu, Mr Justice Harbottle

36. MR James - A School Story

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

35. LP Hartley - The Waits

A family sit down to Christmas dinner, the father is most pleased with some business he attended to recently which will save him money. Their festivities are interrupted by a knock at the door.  Carol singers. Only, they are not the words of any carol the family has heard of, and the people at the door seem very insistent they get to talk to the father. For some reason, the father really doesn't want to go to the door.

Another nice, jolly, friendly, revenge tale by L.P. Hartley. You get the impression there is a man who could turn a family Christening into a blood curdling tale of vengeance!

34. Edith Wharton - Afterward

Many people see the ghost, they just never realise they had seen a ghost till afterward. So says the start of this tale, with the narrator thinking about the disappearance of her husband. Sure enough, she met  a ghost, and never realised until far too late.

I've never been much of a fan of Wharton, as I found The Age of Innocence a right slog to get through at uni. However, her ghost stories are another complexion altogether, and this is the finest.

33. WW Jacobs - Three Sisters

Three aged sisters. The eldest is dying. The youngest has a weak heart. The middle sister feels unloved and wants the inheritance money. The dying sister leans forward and asks for this room she is dying in, her room in the house, to remain untouched and locked up after her death, because who knows when she might wish to visit her old possessions from beyond the grave. The youngest sister is terrified at the thought, the middle sister disbelieving and cynical, and with a shriek on a dark night, the oldest sister dies...

And that is not only the start of WW Jacobs' story The Three Sisters, but also the friendliest and cheeriest thing to happen within. Chetwynd-Hayes called it the most chilling ghost story he ever read, and it easily stands well above The Monkey's Paw as finest of Jacobs' horror tales.

""Nothing is to be changed, Tabitha," gasped Ursula to the other sister,
who bore a striking likeness to her although her expression was harder
and colder; "this room is to be locked up and never opened.
"Very well," said Tabitha brusquely, "though I don't see how it can
matter to you then."
"It does matter," said her sister with startling energy. "How do you
know, how do I know that I may not sometimes visit it? I have lived in
this house so long I am certain that I shall see it again. I will come
back. Come back to watch over you both and see that no harm befalls
"You are talking wildly," said Tabitha, by no means moved at her
sister's solicitude for her welfare. "Your mind is wandering; you know
that I have no faith in such things."
Ursula sighed, and beckoning to Eunice, who was weeping silently at the
bedside, placed her feeble arms around her neck and kissed her.
"Do not weep, dear," she said feebly. "Perhaps it is best so. A lonely
woman's life is scarce worth living. We have no hopes, no aspirations;
other women have had happy husbands and children, but we in this
forgotten place have grown old together. I go first, but you must soon

W.W. Jacobs, The Three Sisters

Kindly Eunice is given the bulk of the inheritance money, which she wishes to give to a children's hospital! Kindly, doomed Eunice. Tabitha wants all the money for herself, and plots to do away with her own sister to get it. All that stands in her way is the old nurse maid and... is that footsteps heard on the floor of Ursula's old bedroom?

A master class.

32. AM Burrage - The Acquittal

We know from the start our character did away with his wife, but he has been acquitted of murder. Sure, everyone bar the jury seems to think he got away with one, but at last, he can go home to his bed. His Kingsize bed. And then there's footsteps...

31. MR James - Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance
30. MR James - The Tractate Middoth

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

29. AM Burrage - Playmates

As friend of this blog, Whiskers, put it, nice to see a "positive ghost story". Not that there aren't spooks along the way, but Burrage's child ghosts are of an atypical nature to the cause. An atmospheric piece which winds up both chilling in places, and also heart warming. Few could do them better.

28. Rosemary Timperley - Masks and Voices

The highest ranked of Timperley's tales, and the nastiest. We are never hid from the fact that our main character has murdered her husband, but she is a beaten woman who flicks out in self-defense rather than a cold blooded murderer. Probably why she suffers the moment so much, and seems to her sadistic dead husband everywhere. Even here, out in Guyana, away from anyone who knew her. She's free from everyone except her own mind, and her husband, even out here, is waiting. How the ghost manifests, through snippets of other people's conversations, is a fine one, and we have much sympathy for our doomed, flawed heroine.

It's noted how in domestic abuse cases, the mental toll is as much if not more than the physical in many cases. Timperley, a writer who seems permanently in tune with how the world treats women, takes this and transforms it into a ghost story.

A great story, albeit a harrowing one.

27. E Nesbit - Power of Darkness

At the midway point, I thought to myself: it's going to be a repeat of The Waxwork. (She wrote first, but discount that for a second.) Then the reveal happened and I've never been so happy to be wrong. What felt like it might become a cliche becomes a far superior tale, about a man with a weak heart and frail nerves bet to spend the night in a horror exhibit.

It's set up the way you think, but then we dovetail spectacularly.

Nesbit was wasted writing kids novels, quite frankly.

26. Charles Dickens - The Trial for Murder

A lesser known Dickens ghost story, but then most of his which aren't Signalman or A Christmas Carol are. Here a murderer finds himself on trial, but the jury seem to have advice from another man, whom only the alleged murderer can see...

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