The Squire’s Story (1855) by Elizabeth Gaskell

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The problem with short stories, I sometimes find, is that they don’t always have enough time to lodge themselves in your memory. I read this particular tale, number 5 in my old ghost stories collection, on my lunch break two weeks ago and then I reread the whole thing again just now so that I could write this review. In the intervening period the plot and the characters had vanished right out of my head and I was left with just a vague memory of a house and a bad man and a bit of hunting.

Now that I’ve refreshed my memory I can tell you that this is the tale of Mr Robinson Higgins who moves to a small town where nobody has heard of him and takes up residence in the grandest house he can find. He ingratiates himself with the locals and even marries the daughter of a local squire.  In spite of his occasionally reckless behaviour he’s admired by everyone – except wise old spinster Miss Pratt, of course – but the source of his wealth, and the real reasons behind his occasional absences from the town, remain a mystery.

This is my first time reading anything by Elizabeth Gaskell (I know, right?) and I was a little disappointed to find that this particular story hasn’t aged too well. I like the way that Gaskell plays on that age old suspicion of outsiders by showing how a quiet, rural community welcome a stranger into their midst without realising what a monster he really is. It’s a sinister tale. On the other hand, I wonder whether the final reveal just isn’t as shocking today as it would have been a hundred and fifty years ago. Maybe it’s because few of us have quite such a close relationship with our neighbours these days or because murders are old hat; we see real and fictional accounts of them all the time on TV and in the press. Either way, it’s a little sad that Gaskell’s story has lost something of its power to alarm now.

On a slightly more pedantic note, while I appreciate that this is a gothic horror story and may have been fairly creepy to her contemporaries, it doesn’t actually feature a ghost (as far as I noticed, anyway).

 

The Tell-Tale Heart (1843) by Edgar Allan Poe

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Harry Clarke [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Harken! and observe how healthily, how calmly, I can tell you the whole story…”

This story is number four in my Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories anthology which, I must say, I’m enjoying immensely. This particular tale is the most well-known of the four but it’s also one of the shortest. I found that it can be read in about the time it takes to consume a jacket potato and a cup of hot tea in the staff canteen. It’s also, I think, the edgiest of the four I’ve read so far.

The unnamed narrator of this tale tries to persuade the reader of his sanity whilst simultaneously describing his decision to murder an old man in his bed. It’s a carefully planned murder but not one motivated by hatred or greed, at least not according to our narrator who is clearly mad and not worth trusting. Considering the time in which it was written there’s an unusually frank description of his efforts to dismember the body and hide it under the floorboards. Unfortunately, however, these diligent attempts to cover his crime are thwarted when three policemen arrive to investigate the strange noises reported by a neighbour. It’s at this point that the tale takes a supernatural turn although it’s unclear whether the events that follow are genuine or whether they are simply the paranoid hallucinations of a guilty man.

Unlike the other three stories, there’s no scene setting here; Edgar Allan Poe jumps straight in with the deranged ramblings of the murderer and his insistence that the events he’s about to describe are the actions of a sane, rational human being. It means there are a lot of unanswered questions but, unlike with The Botathen Ghost, the air of mystery worked really well here. I also really like the fact that the precision with which the murderer plans and carries out his crime is at such odds with his behaviour after the murder and with the tone of his narration. It makes him all the more menacing. This is a simple story but Poe’s clever timing and his tension building are pretty perfect. Within a few short pages he’s whipped his narrator, and the reader, into such a frenzy that you feel like a lot more has happened. I think this might be my favourite one so far.

The Botathen Ghost (1867) by R. S. Hawker

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By Richard Budd (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons

She floated along the field like a sail upon a stream, and glided past the spot where we stood, pausingly. But so deep was the awe that overcame me, as I stood there in the light of day, face to face with a human soul separate from her bones and flesh, that my heart and purpose both failed me…

After swearing a few weeks ago that I’d tackle some of the old unread books on my shelf, I diligently picked up Malcolm Bradbury’s To The Hermitage, which I’ve been hoarding for years. Sadly, within a couple of pages I quickly discovered that I wasn’t really in the mood for such a wordy, convoluted book right now. It’s not the fault of the book – I’m sure on some other occasion we’d have gotten along just fine – but at this moment it just felt like a bit of a chore. This seems to be happening to me quite a bit recently and I never know whether it’s best to persevere or just give up and move on to something else. On this occasion I laboured on for another two weeks, so unenthusiastically that I managed to read just thirty more pages, before deciding that enough was enough. Time to move on. To be brutally honest, I don’t know whether I’ll go back and finish To The Hermitage as this isn’t the first time I’ve given up on it. Maybe it’s just not meant to be.

I was feeling a bit demoralised by the whole experience so I reached for my Penguin volume of Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories for comfort. It’s been nearly a year since I last read any of the short stories in this anthology and it was really quite relaxing to jump back into them. The first of the two stories I read this week was R. S. Hawker’s The Ghost of Botathen. Hawker, I’ve discovered, was an eccentric Cornish clergyman (he apparently excommunicated his own cat) whose works were relatively popular in his time, although they don’t appear to be very widely known today. This particular story is based on a local legend and takes the form of extracts from a diary kept by seventeenth century clergyman, Parson Ruddle. Ruddle describes being called to comfort a teenage boy who claims to have often seen the spectre of an old woman at Botathen, an isolated spot on the Cornish moors. The woman is none other than Dorothy Dinglet who has been conspicuously deceased for several years already so Ruddle blithely trots off into the wilds to witness this vision for himself.

The setting of Ruddle’s encounter with the woman is wonderfully atmospheric although not particularly threatening. This being the seventeenth century he’s unable to exorcise the phantom without express authorisation from a bishop so there’s a bit of a lull in the middle of the story while Ruddle trots off to ensure all the administrative boxes are ticked. In the end, however, the exorcism itself is wrapped up in a few brief, rather unsatisfying sentences that don’t really illuminate things a great deal. It’s all very vague, presumably because the dead woman’s reappearance in the physical world was caused by unfinished business so shocking to Victorian readers that it couldn’t be spelt out in black and white on the page. You can make some guesses, of course, but some cold, hard facts would leave you feeling less cheated. It’s a little austere, this one, but I quite liked the atmosphere and the setting.

The Visitor’s Book (2015) by Sophie Hannah

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Sophie Hannah gave a talk at my local library back in October. I’ve not read much of her work (one novel and a handful of poems) but I was intrigued enough to go along, despite the fact that it was at a really awkward hour after work and I didn’t have enough time to go home first. In the end my colleague and I retired to a pub round the corner, drank a bottle of wine, waltzed into the talk half-tipsy and proceeded to wolf down all the complimentary tea and biscuits we could lay our hands on before it started. Ho hum. That’ll teach ‘em for holding an event at seven o’clock on a school night.

It’s been ages since I last went to an author event, mainly because there’s a part of me that wonders whether they’re a bit self-indulgent whilst the other is all indignant and secretly gets a thrill from hearing authors reading aloud from their own works. I’m so indecisive. It’s a wonder I make up my mind about anything. Thankfully this talk was exactly what I hoped it would be and Hannah was really funny and engaging. She spoke a little about her love for murder mysteries and ghost stories, where she gets her ideas from and how she ended up being commissioned to write the new Hercule Poirot novel.

Quite near the beginning she read an extract from The Visitor’s Book, her newest release, and I was hooked pretty much instantly. I needed to know the secret of that visitor’s book. Unfortunately the same need seems to have gripped everyone else and I wasn’t quick enough to purchase a signed copy at the end (although Hannah did sign another book for me). Thankfully my colleague was luckier and lent me her signed copy last week. I didn’t need to borrow it for long because it’s a really short read, equating roughly to two twenty minute commutes, a cup of tea and a lunch break. Perfect.

The Visitor’s Book is a collection of four supernatural stories. The first of these, the one that inspired the title, is about a young woman who’s unnerved to find that her creepy new boyfriend is a bit obsessed with getting her to sign the visitor’s book in his suburban terraced house in Walthamstow. It’s the best of the four stories I think and I really enjoyed all that to-ing and fro-ing between the couple about whether it’s a bit pretentious to have such a book in a rather ordinary home. The dialogue feels really natural and easy. I liked it.

The other stories feature a small boy left behind at a party, a woman who starts seeing living dead people and a resentful mum plotting her revenge on the other women gathered in a school playground. Two of these were a little predictable and I didn’t particularly enjoy them but I quite liked the lady who saw dead people who were really alive (or live people who were really dead if that’s a better way of putting it). It was weird but that’s probably the reason why I liked it.

I’ve read a few ghost stories recently and I’ve found all of them disappointingly unspooky. These weren’t an exception, although that’s not to say I disliked them. Is it just me? Maybe the problem is that they’ve all been short stories? Perhaps you need a bit more time to build up some tension. Or maybe it’s because so many of them have been classics and the things we find scary now are probably different to the things that terrified the Victorians. I don’t know. I should say, though, that I hate being spooked and I never watch or read horror for this reason. But still there’s a little bit of me that wants to be scared by one of these books… How’s that for indecision?

The Spectre of Tappington (1840) by Richard Harris Barham

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Image courtesy of Wikmedia

Evenin’ all.

I’ve been absent from the blog for a couple of weeks so I’m a bit behind on reviews and updates and all that jazz. I’ve read three books in this time (all very short) so I really need to get some posts up here. I’m beginning with this (equally short) review of The Spectre of Tappington, which is the second in my Classic Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories collection. The first was Scott’s The Tapestried Chamber which was neither Victorian nor Edwardian. This one is at least Victorian but strictly speaking it’s not really a ghost story. What a great way to confuse your readers!

The Spectre of Tappington is apparently part of a larger collection of stories by Barham featuring Tappington Hall and Tom Ingoldsby. In this particular story an old friend, Charles Seaforth, a soldier, has returned to England from India and is staying at the Hall with his distant cousins, the Ingoldsbys. Thus far the plot is really quite similar to The Tapestried Chamber, especially as Seaforth is then given a room that appears to be haunted. Each night he awakens to witness a skeletal figure parade through the room and steal his trousers. The first time it happens he convinces himself that it’s all a dream but he soon changes his mind:

“He came to the bed’s foot, stared at me in a manner impossible to describe – and then he – he laid hold of my pantaloons, and whipped his long bony legs into them in a twinkling…”

“Absurd, Charles! How can you talk such nonsense?”

“But Caroline, the breeches really are gone!”

By the third night Seaforth’s getting annoyed – and running out of trousers – so it’s up to his friend Tom Ingoldsby to investigate.

The blatant thievery is comical rather than spooky but it feels much more substantial than The Tapestried Chamber. There’s more story, more witty conversation and a good description of Seaforth warming his arse before a fire that I quite enjoyed. It’s a trifle silly, and I felt a little cheated by the ending, but there’s not much else to complain about with this one.

What I find particularly interesting about this story – more than the story itself in fact – is that Barham used the pen name Tom Ingoldsby and Tappington Hall was his real home. You could, if you wished, stay in the room that inspired this tale. It’s the kind of literature/real-life cross over that I always like.

I’ll do my best to get a couple more reviews up here this week so I’m properly up to date, otherwise I’ll start forgetting what I’ve read. I’m tinkering with the idea of reading War and Peace next but I might talk myself out of that one in a day or two!

The Tapestried Chamber (1828) by Sir Walter Scott

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Courtesy of WikiMedia

After my last post I didn’t read The Sot Weed Factor at all for the best part of two weeks. I thought about it it several times but just couldn’t work up the enthusiasm, so when I finally picked it up again on Tuesday night I couldn’t find my place, or even remember where I’d reached (a stable in Plymouth I think?). What’s more, I couldn’t say that I cared much. Reading isn’t supposed to be a chore so I took P’s advice and decided to call it a day.

It’s the first book I’ve given up on all year. I’m disappointed but so relieved to be moving on to books I might enjoy more. I celebrated by going to bed early with a cup of tea and my copy of Classic Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories, which I’ve been intending to start for a while now. The Tapestried Chamber is the first story in the book and it’s only twelve pages long so not too challenging after my two weeks of book fasting. I thought a ghost story would be perfect for a cold, autumn night in bed but in truth it was a pretty inauspicious start to the anthology.

General Browne, newly returned from the revolutionary wars in America, is travelling home when quite by accident he comes across the ancient home of an old school friend. He’s invited to stay and is given a bed in a beautiful chamber decorated with tapestries in the oldest part of the house. The next morning Browne appears from the chamber visibly stricken. He describes to his host an apparition that appeared in the night, the ghostly figure of a haggard crone in old fashioned dress.

“Upon a face which wore the fixed features of a corpse were imprinted the traces of the vilest and most hideous passions which had animated her while she lived.  The body of some atrocious criminal seemed to have been given up from the grave and the soul restored from the penal fire in order to form, for a space, a union with the ancient accomplice of its guilt…”

Understandably he’s a bit pissed to hear that his host was fully aware of the chamber’s past all along. Quite rightly. I would be too.

As I said, it’s not the most promising start. The plot is flimsy and there isn’t a great deal of time given to explanations of who the apparition represents or why she’s there. It’s all very brief and unsatisfying.

After reading The Tapestried Chamber I finally began Lady Audley’s Secret which has been lurking at the top of my book pile for months. I’m wondering if I should have gone with this book instead of The Sot Weed Factor three weeks ago, it’d have saved me a lot of time and disappointment. Oh hindsight is a wonderful thing.

I’m enjoying Lady Audley so far anyway.