Tuesday, 23 April 2019

'One Dark And Stormy Night' by Steve Gladwin

Some Reflections On Reading Thirty Two Ghost Stories. 

First, let's see the sixteen authors. For those who pored over last month's blog - and there may well have been a few - here are the same sixteen pictures again, but this time in chronological order. The earliest of them is Edward Bulwe- Lytton, who wrote only one ghost story, but The Haunted and The Haunters is a fine example of the genre. Last is Walter de La Mere, best known of course for his chilling poem The Listeners, which is really a ghost story by any other name, but just happens to be a poem. 

Edward Bulwer-Lytton 1803-1873

Edgar Allen Poe 1809-1849

Sheridan Le Fanu 1814-1873

Ambrose Bierce 1842-1914

Bram Stoker 1847-1912

E Nesbit 1858-1924

Arthur Conan Doyle 1859-1930

Robert Louis Stephenson !862?

Edith Wharton 1862-1937

M.R. James 1862-1936

W.W. Jacobs 1863-1943

Arthur Machen 1863-1947

E.F. Benson 1867-1940

Algernon Blackwood 1869-1951

Oliver Onions 1873-1961

Walter de La Mere 1873-1956
What is immediately apparent is that if you take out the earlier writers at the beginning of the nineteenth century - Bulwer Lytton, Poe and Le Fanu-we see that some of the greatest writers of ghost stories were born within an astonishingly short thirty one year span, beginning with Ambrose Bierce and concluding with Walter de La Mere and Oliver Onions. M.R. James and Edith Wharton were born in the same year, 1862 and W.W. Jacobs and Arthur Machen a year later.

Taking this little further, there were at least five writers who I didn't have the time to read. Of these, L.P. Hartley and H.P. Lovecraft were born later, whereas William Hope Hodgson sits well within the forty year bracket- being born in 1877, but Guy de MaupassantO. Henry and Arthur Quiller Couch were born in 1850, 1862, (the same year as Edith Wharton and M. R. James) and 1863, (the year of the births of both W.W. Jacobs and Arthur Machen) respectively. There must surely have been something spooky in the water during those thirty five golden years of creativity.

Well I've spent a good chunk of my spare time in the last few months reading all of these authors and I've enjoyed every moment of it. I was obliged, against my principles, to do my reading on Kindle, because of its amazing collections.In the case of Bulwer-Lytton, as I have just written, there really wasn't another story to read, but I think that reading wise that would be more than made up for by the length of some of the others I read, more than one of which turned out to be novellas. Edith Wharton and Sheridan Le Fanu were particularly guilty in this, especially in the latter's Room at The Dragon Volant, which thoroughly enjoyable as it is, really is rather long. The same goes for Carmilla, but that's such a splendidly chilling account and probably the first true vampire novel, that it was well worth it. The opposite can be said for the brevity of E Nesbit, whose classic Man Sized in Marble, almost made my top five. Nesbit understands in the same way as Stoker and Conan Doyle, the power of brevity in order to make an impact. E. F. Benson's stories were a revelation. I was enthusiastically warned about this, by my good friend Stuart Croskell, who provided me with the wonderful list I had to work through. Without Stu's help and wide reading my knowledge of who to read would have been sketchy at best. There are. however, stories which have the impact of a full on collision, and one of these of Benson's, made my top five.

Rather than spend too much time on analysing all of these writers at length. I'd prefer to concentrate on plot, characterisation and above all atmosphere. Probably the most prolific of these writers was Algernon Blackwood, a recent 'rediscovery, and if there is anyone who can better conjure the deadly elemental power of the outdoors, I'd love to read him, or her. That he, uniquely, can do entirely the opposite by providing equally chilling examples of the claustrophobia and close terror of a whole variety of indoor spaces almost as well as M.R. James does, (which is saying something) shows just how good at this stuff he was. But Sheridan Le Fanu or Edith Wharton or E.F Benson wouldn't be far behind him and the same goes for Walter de La Mere.

The perennial trope of the Haunted House is well illustrated in the stories I've read, but possibly the respective versions of it by Bulwer-Lytton in The Haunted and the Haunters - if you write only one ghost story, best make it as good as this one, or Oliver Onions, the quite stunningly disturbing The Beckoning Fair One which reads at times like Psycho long before Robert Bloch conceived the idea. And no matter how much W.W Jacob's The Monkey's Paw has become a parodied cliche everywhere, that doesn't take away from it's wonderful building of it's three act structure, or that telling moment at the end when you say don't,  just don't answer that door. Ambrose Bierce's well known 'Incident at Owl Creek' is written in a manner well ahead of its time and is hauntingly evocative in its time slipping narrative as much as Edith Wharton's eerie All Souls. M. R. James The Ash Tree is another masterpiece of chilling construction, with the dark sentinel of the old tree and it's resident witch terrifying it's way through three generations.  And if you don't want to be terrified out of your wits and are also squeamish as I am about incidents and instruments of torture, I beg you to avoid Conan Doyle's The Leather Funnel and Bram Stoker's The Squaw. The former takes you to places neither you nor the narrator wishes to go, whereas the latter manages to evoke the tormenting practices of two very different cultures either side of the Atlantic and throw in a sinister black cat for good measure. Of course the most famous black cat came from the pen of Edgar Allen Poe, and really, no-one writes in the same feverish half madness he creates in both The Black Cat and The Tell-Tale Heart.

Before listing my top ten in reverse order, I should explain that I'm only allowing myself to include two stories from each author that I hadn't read before, (with the obvious exception of Bulwer Lytton) and my summing up and grading is based only on these thirty one stories, (co-incidentally the same number as the years span in which nearly all of these authors were born).

So here, in reverse order, are the results. In one or two cases I have read many more of the author's stories than I originally set out to do, Apart from Blackwood, Le Fanu, Edith Wharton, E Nesbit and E.F. Benson had somewhat of an advantage.

10. The Black Cat by Edgar Allen Poe.This is the story I've known the longest, so I thought it a good idea to visit it again, It could easily have been number one on a different day. Poe's ability to not only reduce a story to the tortured meanderings of a disturbed mind, but to actually render that mind on paper is masterly. No-one has ever captured the disordered mind as well.

9. Seaton's Aunt by Walter de La Mere. When I read the first of my two tales, All Hallows, I was a little confused by the author's 'hands-off' and somewhat ambiguous approach', I was somewhat confused. The evocation of the old cathedral by the sea with something evil at its heart in the former is brilliantly done, but it is nothing to the depiction of the evil personage that is Seaton's Aunt. The feeling of discomfort and creeping dread is in the background all the way through. And yet the mind is left to play with both reality and memory just as its hero in obliged to do. If there is such a thing as leaving a nasty taste in the mind, this story has it in spades. De La Mere's most famous poem The Listener has exactly the same quality.

8. The Haunted and the Haunters by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. There appear to be two creative sides to Edward Bulwer-Lytton. On the one hand his prolific output is balanced by a reputation of being one of the worst writers ever - it being he incidentally who first came up with the title line which is the title of this blog! But notwithstanding 'one dark and stormy night', if Bulwer Lytton had only written one story, his classic haunted house story is worthy of celebration. Of course his very dates must make him one of the originators of this type of story. He and Poe are the only writers in this group to share such eas rly nineteenth century origins, but both the theme and execution of The Haunted and the Haunters feel very modern. It is also very scary.

7. The Monkey's Paw by W.W. Jacobs. This story has undergone so many parodies, (most memorably) as a Simpsons Treehouse of Horror Halloween special) and references and jokes not worthy of the original, that it comes as a bit of a shock to discover just how good it is. What hits you first is how it is a classic three act structure, used to perfection. Secondly and somewhat uniquely when we are used to the worlds of James, Blackwood and Machen, say, here are two characters who you come to care enough about to say 'don't answer the door' with feeling. This is one of the most well loved of all ghost stories and fully deserves to be. The other obvious debt The Monkey's Paw has is to folk-tale, of which much more anon. Read it!

6. The Ash Tree by M.R. James. M.R. James is quite possibly the best writer of ghost stories that ever lived and he is often people's first experience of the genre - especially those of us who grew up or saw on later repeats the chilling black and white Christmas ghost stories. Michael Hordern and the terrifying 'sheet monster' is always the stated example, but for me it it was seeing the pale ghosts of the gypsy children, a hole where there hearts should be, with the demonic sound of the hurdy-gurdy in the background.So  Lost Hearts would be high on my list, had I chosen it as one of my reads, but I decided to return to The Ash Tree. This is masterly venture into the power of both nature and stored memory worthy of Blackwood. As in so many of James stories, the ghost or demon is not seen, being evoked instead either by reportage, or the appearance of the many mini Shelobs which are her off-spring. The Ash Tree is another classic example of the three act structure, with the most disturbing of off-stage witches. 

5. The Room in the Tower by E.F.Benson. Entering the top five I will say in advance that any one of these stories could have ended up at number one. No more so than with so with this story, which has a continuous refrain that stays with you for a long time afterwards. If, unlike the protagonist, you don't want the lines 'Jack will show you to your room:I have given you the room in the tower.' to continue into your sleep, I suggest you skip through them when they occur. Part recurring dream come true terror, part meditation on class and place in society, and above all part tale of sheer terror. The Room in the Tower, Benson's most famous tale, has a distinctive power, which despite the deceptively simple prose, which is almost impossible to ignore. Definitely one to put on your ghost story bucket list.

4. The Beckoning Fair One by Oliver Onions. So many classic ghost stories depend on the mind and whether or not it can be entirely relied on.The Beckoning Fair One is a novella moves without warning from the tale of a recluse with a lady friend to whom he shows no romantic interest in, to her replacement by another kind of female presence, which gradually comes to obsess him, until his alienation from the outside world becomes total and his mind trips into madness. The ending is shockingly unexpected and reads more like something by Val McDeirmid, Taken from his first ghost story collection, 'Widdershins' the story has a shockingly modern, ahead of its time feel to it and a startlingly bleak message underneath its diary like surface.

3. The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen. Talking of bleakness, there is no story more bleak and unforgiving than this one. The Great God Pan has the feel of the rule book not so much being torn up, as flushed down the toilet. It begins with a suitably risky and sinister experiment, followed by the shockingly cruel and dismissive act of a guardian. After this, we can only be fools if we believe that such a callous act can have no consequences, but the cleverness of the narrative causes us to forget, only to be brought back to the shocking reality at the end. To my huge surprise this tale made no great impact on me when I read it three years ago, only for me to be stunned by its power and implications on my recent re-read. Stephen King has called it one of the greatest of all stories. I'm not about to disagree with him, but maybe I'll give it a while before re-reading it!

2. The Wendigo by Algernon Blackwood. I make no bones about my rekindled enthusiasm for the stories of Algernon Blackwood and so I deliberately read The Wendigo late on. The result was that it could have made number one, but instead I reviewed all the others and still felt it should come this high, if not at the top. When I read Blackwood's story The Willows, I thought it elementally scary and powerful enough, but nothing prepared my for the power of The Wendigo, another story with a repeated refrain, this time  one terrified and desperate, the voice of the old trapper who has accompanied the narrator on a moose hunting journey in the Canadian wilderness, and found what he most feared and dreaded in The Wendigo, a terrifying monster and animal presence which has the power to lift its victim high into the air while somehow still allowing your tired, tormented feel to walk for hour after hour and even in your sleep. 'Oh, my feet of fire' indeed. One of the great things about Blackwood is that he was so prolific with his dark tales, but this one, like The Willows. The John Silence stories, The Wood of the Dead and May Eve, is one of his very best.

1. At the top comes a story first encountered in another form, many years ago, which I finally read. I left it until last, knowing that in order to make the top of the list, it had to be really, really good. And Sheridan Le Fanu's,Strange Event in the life of Schalken the Painter truly is that, a story so chilling and with such terrifyingly disturbing off-stage implications that its best not to try to get your head round them. I say I'd not read the story, but I had seen the well-known and much praised TV adaptation by the BBC, adapted and directed by Leslie Megahey as part of the series Omnibus, in 1979, in the days when they still did that sort of thing! It was conceived along the lines of an earlier series called A Ghost Story for Christmas and along with the adaptation of James Lost Hearts is one of the most terrifying things I've ever seen. You can see it on youtube, if you don't believe me. It's the story of a corpse who buys a wife - if you want the plot put simply - the mysterious Mr Vanderhausen desires the hand of the lovely Rose Verlderkaust,, ward of the Painter Gerard Douw, much to the consternation of his pupil, Godfrey Schalken. The suitably venal Douw sells out poor Rose to her doom in the disturbingly easy way of such unenlightened times. The most terrifying scene in the adaptation, (especially to an impressionable twenty year old) comes when Jeremy Clyde's callow Schalken meets Cheryl Kennedy's Rose in the cathedral and dreadful the nature of her marriage becomes all too clear. Vanderhausen incidentally is interestingly cast in the form of the actor John Justin, once the handsome, blind prince in the Alexander Korda classic, The Thief of Baghdad, now made up with the kind of face which could haunt your dreams. It also has the great Charles Gray as narrator, and you can't say better than that!. Needless to say, none of this would be possible without the power of the original and some wonderful and at times empathetic writing. So it's Sheridan Le Fanu's Strange Event in the life of Schalken the Painter which takes the number one slot.

Except ---

its not quite as simple as that --

because I've cheated --

and -

- I'm about to tell you how.

The Mystery of Stephenson's Cousin

In the pictures above you'll see that the one of Robert Louis Stephenson is highlighted and has a question mark next to the date of 1862 and nothing further. Well the reason for that is although RLS would make any great writers of horror list because of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, is that the only reason I included him is because there is no picture of his less famous cousin Mabel/Marie Balfour. In fact Mabel Clothilde Balfour's name and legacy is hardly known, but to the world of ghosts and terror it really should be a major one.

Reading The Monkey's Paw and one or two others I came to the conclusion that a great many of our classic ghost stories might have been created either quite consciously, (such as Algernon Blackwood and his wide travels and understanding of Native American and Canadian myths and tales), or through trace memories of folk -tales, as they have many of their types and motifs.

Mabel Balfour supposedly collected a series of Tales of the Lincolnshire Carrs, nearly all recorded from their tellers in suitably unintelligible dialect, (best illustrated in Neil Philips's collection of English Folk Tales. The Lincolnshire Carrs are as close to Fenland as makes no difference and of course Norfolk is the next county down. Many have questioned whether Marie Clothilde Balfour actually did record this series of bleak, relentless and frankly terrifying tales, but in the unlikely event that she didn't, their possible independent creation would have made her one of the greatest writers of ghost/horror stories. You only have to read something like Long Tom and The Dead Hand or Samuel's Ghost or the best known tale, Yallery Brown, in which the narrator gets involved with the sort of spirit who turns out-, all too late-to provide bad luck disguised as good luck. With the addition of a terrifying, often repeated refrain of the sort beloved by E.F. Benson and Algernon Blackwood, you'll want to push these stories to the top of any list like this. For my money for sheer raw, visceral power, invention and above all shock, they really should be my number one. With the exception of the most well known of them A Pottle Of Brains, they are all of them quite both bleak and shattering and make a few of the nasties in my top ten seem a bit half-hearted.

The best way of exploring these tales without the considerable barrier of the dialect, (I'm from Lincolnshire, so I should know) is through Kevin Crossley Holland's wonderful collection of Fenland tales, The Old Stories. In a future blog I may explore them further. In the meantime here are the stories which just missed the cut.

An Incident at Owl Creek by Ambrose Bierce, The Wood of the Dead by Algernon Blackwood, The Leather Funnel by Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, Man-Sized in Marble by E Nesbit, Jerry Bundler by W.W. Jacobs, All Souls by Edith Wharton, Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fan, and The Squaw by Bram Stoker.

I'd like to acknowledge Amazon Kindle for making every one of these stories available in a whole series of almost free and sometimes actually free online collections - as long as you don't mind typos.

You can find Leslie Megahey's classic adaptation of Schalken the Painter on youtubehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fw81RHCjiVI

You can also find new and used copies of Kevin's The Old Stories on Amazon, which has nearly all
  the Lincolnshire Carrs tales in it and a whole load more folk tale delights, but in the meantime here's a good site for the Tales. http://tellinghistory.co.uk/content/legends-carrs

Steve Gladwin
'Tales From The Realm' - Story and Screen Dream
Connecting Myth, Faerie and Magic
Author of 'The Seven' - Shortlisted for Welsh Books Prize, 2014


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Stroppy Author said...

An excellent run-down! Thank you, Steve. There are definitely some here that I don't know and will have to look. (But not by giving money to Amazon...)

Abbeybufo said...

Sorry to be picky, but it's Walter de la Mare (with an A, not Mere with an E). This may be your autocorrect's fault, rather than yours, of course!

Steve Gladwin said...

Or it may just be me in a hurry, as I've used both versions! I seem to remember I was concentrating on getting the 'de' right. Typical. Glad you liked it, Anne. I'd recommend E.F Benson and Edith Wharton - both of which were new to me.

Penny Dolan said...

An excellently informative post, Steve, and interesting to see all the photographs behind the names.

The national mood after Prince Albert's death in 1861 must have been a strange experience and certainly saw the establishment of mourning emporiums to supply fashionable black outfits for funerals. (The funeral couldn't wait until your dressmaker/tailor had hand-stitched your clothes as usual.)

Also, during the thirty/forty year period you mention, there was a growing interest in spirituality and spiritualism and the powers of the human mind - leading towards Freud and psychology - plus a greater number of magazines catering for the literate public, possibly travelling by train.

Besides, publicly performed readings, both by authors and as amateur events were popular outings - and ghost stories do grip an audience, in a hall or at home, as well as - I suspect - being "moral", ie suitable for audiences that might include younger listeners.

I shall certainly follow up on your Top Ten, but maybe when the year turns and the nights get darker! A wonderful list of suggestions - and maybe worth resurrecting on ABBA around Halloween? Thanks.

Steve Gladwin said...

Thanks, Penny. That's certainly a thought provoking idea about my thirty five year period. Of course there was so much I wasn't able to read. Certainly as well, ghost stories always go down with a young storyteller audience - and element of that in literature can grip the young mind - as we all remember.