"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Sunday, November 26, 2017

No hills, and precious little horror: The Horror from the Hills by Frank Belknap Long

The Horror from the Hills 
by Frank Belknap Long.

Originally published in Weird Tales, January-March 1931.

Arkham House 1963.

This novel, which I started last night and finished this morning before yard chores, is a bitter disappointment.

The Horror from the Hills, like Strange Eons, was a title rolling around in my head for thirty-two years. First heard of in the early 1980s, when Lovecraftian books were unknown in my small Ohio town. It was probably mentioned in an article or interview in my first university: Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Magazine.

The words horror from the hills struck a deep chord with me. I have always prized rural/sylvan settings above urban in choices of genre fiction: Blackwood, M.R. James, E.F. Benson, Mundy and Rolt and their aesthetic issue.

Long's title evoked images of black barren limbs against Cadmium Yellow Deep sunsets, menacing shadows descending steep hillsides, and shunned barrows.

Later I learned that Long's novel was inspired by an anecdote from Lovecraft himself, which has come to be called "The Very Old Folk."  This was a fragment from one of Lovecraft's letters, a perfect "pastel in prose" which only served to whet my appetite for The Horror from the Hills.

Had I but known...

Like most tyros who mined Lovecraft's notes and letters (looking at you, threshold-lurker August Derleth), it is a work not only tiresome and tedious in itself, it casts a shaming backward shadow. I am reminded of Karl Marx's dismissive summation of many "Marxists" when he wrote: 'I have sown dragon's teeth and harvested fleas.'

There are no hills in The Horror from the Hills, and precious little horror. Instead we have Manhattan and a coastal highway on the New Jersey shore. "The Very Old Folk" is relegated to the status of dream anecdote experienced by psychic detective (and Entropy-Reversing Machine inventor) Roger Little, to whom Long's protagonist Algernon Harris turns in his struggle againt cosmic Heffalump Chaugnar Faugn.

Most of The Horror From the Hills is taken up with a catalogue of Long's (and most genre writers of the era generally) misunderstandings of physics. Creative misunderstandings, I'm sure they would protest. But mentioning transcendental mathematics and hyperdimensional physics, Long prepares the ground for pages of stupefying pseudo-scientific rationalizational:

....Yet despite the transcendental nature of even its incarnate shell, despite the fact that even in its earth-shape it was fashioned of a substance unknown on the earth and that we can form no conception of its shape in the multidimensional sphere it now inhabits, it is my opinion that it is inherently, like ourselves, a circumscribed entity—the spawn of remote worlds and unholy dimensions, but a creature and not a creator, a creature obeying inexorable laws and occupying a definite niche in the cosmos.

....It was neither beneficent nor evil, but simply amorally virulent—a vampire-like life form from beyond the universe of stars strayed by chance into our little, walled-in three-dimensional world. One unguarded gate may be standing ajar…”

....“With a concrete embodiment of the concepts of transcendental mathematics,” corrected Little. “And such concepts are merely empirically scientific. I am aware that science may be loosely defined as a systematized accumulation of tendencies and principles, but classically speaking, its prime function is to convey some idea of the nature of reality by means of an inductive logic. Yet our mathematical physicist has turned his face from induction as resolutely as did the mediaeval scholastics in the days of the Troubadours. He insists that we must start from the universal assumption that we can never know positively the real nature of anything, and that whatever ‘truth’ we may deduce from empirical generalities will be chiefly valuable as a kind of mystical guidepost, at best merely roughly indicative of the direction in which we are travelling; but withal, something of a sacrament and therefore superior to the dogmatic ‘knowledge’ of Nineteenth Century science. The speculations of mathematical physicists today are more like poems and psalms than anything else. They embody concepts wilder and more fantastic than anything in Poe or Hawthorne or Blake.”

....Little shook his head. “I mean simply that Chaugnar Faugn and its hideous brethren were joined together hyperdimensionally and that we destroyed them simultaneously. It is an axiom of virtually every speculative philosophy based on the newer physics and the concepts of non-Euclidean mathematics that we can’t perceive the real relations of objects in the external world, that since our senses permit us to view them merely three-dimensionally we can’t perceive the hyperdimensional links which unite them...."

In short: no cosmicism, no suspense, not even a whiff of the uncanny.

26 November 2017

I read the novel in:

The Second Cthulhu Mythos MEGAPACK® - H.P. Lovecraft, Avram Davidson, Darrell Schweitzer, Lin Carter, Frank Belknap Long - Google Books

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Executor and Other Ghost Stories by David G. Rowlands

David G. Rowlands' collection The Executor and Other Ghost Stories (Ash-Tress Press ebook 2012) is the largest available selection of the writer's work. 

This is a good thing and a bad thing for a short story glutton like myself. I chewed through the book in the ten days preceding Halloween. Don't make my mistake: read no more than one per day. 

I was tempted to start this note by complaining about Rowlands' uneven tone. But that is an unacceptable summation. Rowlands is a facile and energetic writer, delighted to be doing what he loves, and the tone of each story - whether solemn or mirthful - clearly conveys this.

In his introduction, Rowlands states his aethetic approach:

....Now one of the things I require myself in a ghost story—if it is to convince me—is that the setting and the ‘daily round’ of the protagonists should not only be believable but also accurate. In other words, the writer should be writing about what he, or she, knows. It is dangerous to venture among specialist subjects without adequate knowledge. The entire dénouement of J. Meade Falkner’s The Nebuly Coat, for example, is ruined for me because of utterly absurd inaccuracies in the account of the bell-ringing that brought down the tower in collapse. My immediate thoughts in such circumstances are, ‘this author does not know what he/she is writing about, therefore I must also suspect their ghost of being contrived and faked without writer’s licence!’ Harsh judgement? Perhaps....

This strikes me as a powerful indicator of success among writers of supernatural fiction. M.R. James located every story in a milieu he knew to his fingertips. Rowlands presents a variety themes within a carefully circumscribed milieu; his protagonists are hobbyists, exterminators, change-ringers, vicars, and priests, all warmly and concretely situated in their little postage stamp of turf.

Acknowledging the hubris involved in writing ghost stories today, Rowlands notes:

....Writers of ghost stories today are at a disadvantage compared to their predecessors—and the situation is getting worse. That is of course because, as with ‘westerns’ or other ‘genre’ fiction, there are a strictly limited number of plots and incidents possible. Ghost behavior is ‘old hat’, and the writer seeking acceptance today needs to come up with something a bit original or different.

My personal favorites among the stories a highlighted.


The Father O'Connor Stories

A Graven Image starts as a charming story of remembered youth: local steam railroads, hobby-scale train layouts, vacations with one's father. It picks up pace with a mannikin, a ghastly death, and what the shampoo-blinded narrator touched while washing his hair at a cottage kitchen sink. 

The Apples of Sodom details perils of scything overgrown grass around an ancient churchyard apple tree.  "....Shrugging in annoyance he picked up his scythe and turned back to the grass; to become aware of a short, squat figure watching him from beneath the tree. For an instant he thought it was a dense cloud of the little gnats that had been pestering him, drawn to his perspiration; then he thought it was a heat-haze mirage. Whatever it was, its scrutiny had the effect of immobilizing him while it drew nearer."

The Previous Train begins cosily enough: "It was mid-winter, and the smugness of his study provided a delicious contrast with the wind that lashed sleet against the windows behind the curtains." But the ghost train encounter story Fr. O'Connor relates...

Change-ringing certainly has great mental fascination, and I suppose I once achieved a fair measure of proficiency at it. By the by, there is a tale associated with it which you may care to hear. Remind me at dinner tonight.’

Sins of the Fathers
A rural inn, a mighty story at night, buried treasure, a sleepwalking landlord.
A horrible death, shut up in that cramped, dark tunnel; even a murderer—for so he may have been—cannot deserve that terrible, lonely, slow dying. Although motivated purely by selfish thoughts of safety, he was heading for the church and Sanctuary. I hope he has—in a more true sense—found the peace he was seeking.’

Being Ireland,’ the good Father’s eyes twinkled, ‘the guard had the kindness to set me down near to the intersection of what they’d call “droves” in East Anglia: those grassy “green lanes” that once veined these islands, even as the Ley lines still do. As I walked toward the boggy foothills—the best place for Dermott’s type of fly—I was thinking of the superstition surrounding the intersections of these lanes; how suicides were buried there, and of their connection with ancient tribal magic; much, in fact, like the Voodoo I had battled with in the Indies....'

Wyntours is a superb story, which I already read in a Stephen Jones Year's Best. It details the perils of minutely recreating real locations on your miniature railroad. (Rowlands would be well represented in any anthology of Ghost Stories of a Hobbyist.)

The Whistling Stones
'....Stone seems to be particularly suitable. I’ve had vague glimpses even at such unromantic sites as Caernarfon Castle, when hemmed in on all sides by tourists. Once, at Kenilworth, I seemed to see the whole pageantry of Elizabethan England unfold before my eyes. Why, even on a derelict Irish railway bridge . . .’

A Fisher of Men
Sailors of fortune land on an island of unexpected riches: "....Here you will find treasures indeed—the joys of serving God and of forgetting yourselves. Your minds will grow pure and unsullied by lucre and you will come to rejoice in praying for others...."

Fairy Horse
Well, now, let us see. People believed well enough in witches that flew on broomsticks to the Black Sabbath; yet it has been demonstrated by learned toxicologists that the “witches” who anointed themselves with belladonna ointment only thought they flew: it was a hallucination induced by absorbing the poisonous salve through the skin. Likewise I think the chemicals in the dried ragweed or Fairy Horse can produce similar illusions: I was lying on the dried plants, actually inhaling the flower-dust I’d stirred up, remember.’

Unconsidered Trifles
....Once, after moving what seemed like tons of old cisterns and guttering to get at a nondescript mass of verdigris, the clapper of which fell out heavily on to my foot, I offered to pay for the casting of a bell at Whitechapel, to be inscribed ‘Seek and Ye shall find’. But the Father smiled at my irony. ‘Patience, my dear fellow,’ he said, ‘I’m certain I shall find just what I want, one day.’

The Fifteenth Evening
....In the window, by the practice piano, it was a little lighter and I gravitated there, to wait until Treves should relent. Down in the old burial ground below I could dimly see a few of the lichened tombstones, and also something that moved along the ground as I stared out. After a few moments of screwing up my eyes, it became evident that whatever it might be was climbing up the buttress toward me.

The Uncommon Salt
One of the College Tutors, a Fr Campbell, was a young man only some eight or so years my senior, and possessed of remarkable intellect. In fact, his tutorials were most stimulating for the argumentative, and he turned out excellent debaters. Much as I respected his intellect, however—and young men of eighteen readily “adopt” those to whom they feel drawn—I did not take to him as a priest. Professionally I could categorise him as a “conman” or salesman, good at propaganda that he found it expedient to put over; glib and persuasive. No doubt it was arrogant and presumptuous of me—a mere student—to sit thus in judgment on an ordained priest whose talents had been selected by my superiors in the church. Nonetheless, I was aware of an inner conviction that he was an academic dabbler in ritual for its own ends. If there were truly incalculable heights to his grasp of philosophy, yet might there not be depths also?

The Executor is one of the strongest stories in the collection. Along with Wyntours, it is also an excellent place to start. A personal anecdote of the local Baptist minister, Mr Cummings, it touches on family secrets, murder, Wise Women, and the problem of uncanny bequests. Not to be missed.

....Among the traditional scenes depicted, she pointed out what my eyes could scarcely see in muddy pigments: a representation of a row of trees, probably intended as oaks, and opposite a good representation of a mediaeval church. She said that the expert eye might detect a figure atop one tree, surveying a sea of fiery brimstone for the craft of hell. This shook me considerably, for reasons which will become apparent later; but not as much as the large green snake, or whatever it was, that twined among the foliage. I don’t think I gave any indication of my surprise, however.

Traveller’s Fare

You can, perhaps, imagine my chagrin! To be stuck in this desolate, mist-girt place, with no chance of leaving for several hours, was not a cheerful prospect. I might find my way to the road, but it was still nine miles to civilisation—or what passed for it in Snowdonia—even if I could keep to the road; and the chances of meeting a motorist were as likely as meeting a dragon....'

The Elbow
‘ “In the chancel (south side) can be seen a row of stalls once owned by the Cresswell family, incorporating woodwork obtained from Clerebury Cathedral in 1709. A notable feature of the stalls are the elbows, which depict beasts of the chase and a comic scene of a man struggling to remove his shirt without undoing the buttons”.’

The Tears of Saint Agathé
But no one steals relics these days,’ I expostulated. ‘I almost wish they would—it might indicate a return to some piety....'

Gebal and Ammon and Amalek
A small miracle of churchy diabolism.
"....After the service he had crept back to look more closely at the figures. Cowls and robes hid their forms to a great extent, but each carried a staff or sceptre. While he looked at them, absorbed with interest, the vicar came by and patted his shoulder. ‘Fortescue tomb, eh?’ he sighed. ‘Philistines, my dear Willie, the lot of them; and old Jasper a philistine and a sodomite.’ He carried on down the church, leaving Willie—who did not know what a sodomite was—amazed at his own accuracy in naming the figures—‘the Philistines with them’—so that they became something of an obsession. He was not given to Bible study, though supposedly his Sunday afternoons and evenings at the kitchen table were so employed. For the first time he turned avidly to his Bible for information, about the Philistines. He was supposed to be learning the Catechism, for his Confirmation a month hence; instead he studied the Philistines: ‘Blood sacrifices are their delight’."

Mr Batchel Stories

From the Diggings
....Whereas the surrounding clays have yielded their due of fossil reptiles, the gravel has been excavated less in the cause of zoology than of profit and the Great Eastern Railway. It is an indisputable fact, however, that these sordid delvings, which have done so much to give the parish its unlovely character, have themselves yielded archaeological and zoological spoil on occasion.

One Man Went to Mow
....Through previous decades, even centuries, and right up to this newly-entered twentieth century, the lawns of Stoneground vicarage had been lovingly—if laboriously—tended by a succession of gardeners and their assistants plying scythes in graceful sweeping movements, and keeping the ground and turf under strict control by much heavy rolling.

One Good Turn . . .
....According to Thrapston’s account, he had awakened in the early hours of Sunday to find the form of his wife at his bedside—in her night-attire, in which she had died—looking at him reproachfully (or so it seemed). He had asked what she wanted, but the form had not answered, and had merely pointed vaguely at a corner of the room before giving another accusing look and then vanishing.

The Marsh Lights
....From the Middle Ages up to more recent times many fenland churches burned a night light to show late travellers the way. By contrast, the flickering lights that sometimes appeared on the marshes were supposed to be a lure of the devil to mislead the wanderer into the swamp. The question was, what were these strange lights? Were they animal or insect? Or simply luminous gases rising from the bogs?

Providing a Footnote
Well, anyways, I saw it move, Mr Batchel, sir, and—well, look you here.’ She blushed and with a sudden movement pulled up the hem of her skirt and showed a pretty leg which would have delighted William Burchell, but which caused poor Mr Batchel no little embarrassment. Alice pointed out where a series of red marks ascended round the limb from ankle to knee, before reverting to her usual modest self. Mr Batchel wiped his forehead and coughed. ‘You had better tell me about it, child.’

Off the Record
....To his amazement Miss Wilkins was waving and calling him from the vestry roof, and clearly her recorder was playing back the sounds of those ghostly monks recorded via the chantry flue, whence the clouds of incense were intended to rise straight to heaven. Unmindful of his inadequate attire for a rendezvous with a lady, Mr Batchel climbed nimbly up the ladder, and was about to clasp her helping hand when his slipper came off, and he fell backwards and down.

Hic Dracones
....During his early years in the parish Mr Batchel had absented himself on Christmas Eve to attend Evensong at Kings’ College, Cambridge and to help stage a supper and an entertainment for the choristers, after which the lads were packed off to their beds, while their seniors indulged themselves with food, some impromptu music, a good deal of reminiscence and a chilling ghost story from the Provost, to speed on their way those—like Mr Batchel—who had to return home by pony and trap. The vicar enjoyed these occasions immensely, and when the weather was favourable he could be back in his parish in plenty of time for the early Communion on Christmas Day.

The Train of Events
....Mr Groves, on the other hand, was, in the mould of many clergyman, a great enthusiast of the steam locomotive, and he combined this love with his photographic skills. His occasional ministerings to the railway employees brought entrée to the sidings and the engine houses, from whence he brought back much dirt and grime, to the dismay of his long-suffering landlady, Mrs Rumney. It was seldom that camera, tripod and plates did not accompany him on such pastoral visits, particularly when there were new locomotives to be seen being prepared.

Vox Humana
....He had turned momentarily from the honest toil of the carpenter and his son, and was regarding with displeasure the really very ugly monument behind the choir stalls, when a cry from the workmen startled him.
    ‘Here’s a go, Vicar! Gorsh, it’s a skellington!’ And he beheld the older Rockford leaving his hole in the floor considerably faster than he had entered it.     Sure enough, there—a considerable way beneath the floor, where a space had been made in the foundations to contain a body—were the dusty remains of a person buried for many decades.

The Long Hundred
I have listened to your arguments. Now, I have become aware,’ (he coughed) ‘from my research into old documents, that the “long hundred” is based on error. Why not’—he turned to Whittle—‘pay last year’s rate for the true hundred? You sell the bricks by the true thousand or by the ton, I believe. Could you then pay the same rate for twelve bricks less per batch?’

On Information Received
....Mr Batchel forced himself out of his chair in a panic and moved away, but the muffler followed him. Then he was seized from behind, and the muffler was placed gently round his neck. Relief swept over him, and he tried to turn, only to see his fallen coat rising in the air and approaching him. He turned his head as far sideways as he could, but the presence behind him was as invisible as the one in front.

With This Ring
....The course of this narrative may possibly have warned the reader of the shock that awaited the vicar; for, once his ears had adjusted to the cold metal and to the acoustic reverberation of his bloodstream echoing in the airspace, he detected another noise. Not the singing whistle of elevated blood pressure, nor the affliction of tinnitus, but a sibilant sound, rather like—yes, rather like a whisper; the distant voice of a woman.

The Codex
....Save for the lectern glow, the lights were turned down, and the Provost read the story ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book’ in his dry, unemotional tones to a spellbound silence.
    During the reading Mr Batchel allowed his eyes to wander up to the Gallery and all but started. Looking over the rail was the craggy, hawk-like face and bushy eyebrows of the late Mr Henry Luxmoore. Then, of a sudden, the face was withdrawn.     He nudged Lombard, looked at the new portrait, and whispered, ‘I’ll swear I saw Luxmoore up in the Gallery.’     Lombard nodded, re-packing his pipe. ‘You’re not the first—but Monty doesn’t want to believe it,’ he confided, sotto voce.

The Saints Which Slept
....Suddenly he was aware of a company of men in the south aisle, who were also looking at the dead Man hanging on the Cross. They were strangely stiff and still, rather like a waxworks group of ‘Parsons through the Ages’. It seemed to Mr Batchel that he should know them . . .

Ghost-Tales of Eton College Choir School

Every Picture Tells a Story
....After Evensong that afternoon Stokes had me dusting the ante-chapel while he ‘guided’ two parties of tourists round the chapel before he could get away to his tea. As the last party disappeared down the stairs, M looked round the curtain screening the entrance to chapel, and beckoned me in.

"The Passage" is a masterful tale of supernatural horror. Its directness and lack of affect give it an exalted rhetorical authority. 

What’s In a Name?
....I knew all about the ‘googly’, that seeming leg-break that deceives the batsman by turning out to be an off-break; and I had pored over numerous Boys Books of Cricket, trying to understand the diagrams that purported to show how to deliver this bowler’s equivalent of sleight-of-hand. However, the professional who coached us could not show me how to master it either (in fairness, he was a batsman by trade). Yet I felt instinctively that it was what I wanted—nay,must have, if I was to become a useful bowler rather than the economical change-man who kept runs down while the fast bowlers took a breather or changed ends, and skittled a few ‘tail-enders’ with straight balls or the occasional dramatic leg-break.

The Greeter
....they were playing ‘Fizz Buzz’, a mental exercise in counting invented by a late colleague, Tony Oliver. That was a puzzle indeed. Where had these boys come across that? Choristers had been taught by Oliver in the past, certainly, but not for six years or so.

Other Stories

Truth Will Out
....During the balmier weather of a late autumn we fell into a routine for a while of doing music for Hawaiian-type luau parties at plushy houses, catered and organised by brother Tim. Luckily we were Hawaiian music enthusiasts (‘Coconuts’, as they’re known in such circles), and enjoyed this otherwise undemanding fare. Tim usually laid on some girl waitresses in muumuus or raffia skirts . . . and in our spare moments we could attempt to fraternise with these dollies—who were actually a pretty hard-boiled bunch: changeable and unreliable. Who’s to blame them? Any sort of waiting is pretty thankless, but at a party populated by inebriated twits and louts who fancy themselves it is also a job that calls for certain muscle and forthrightness of speech. 

On Wings of Song
‘ “When we did the post mortem on Chris,” said Dr Edmonds, “we found what at first we thought was a growth in his intestine; but it was a large hookworm, which had fastened there and been draining his blood. The eggs of these things are carried by Mansonia as well as the viral encephalitis. I discussed it with Ross, and we worked out the incubation period for eggs in the bloodstream to be about four months. Just the time you boys were looking around here. How right your vampire notion proved to be! Not just the original bite and infection—for by the way, like the vampire of legend, Mansonia will return to the same source for blood meals until replete and ready to lay its own eggs—but in the parasite that grew within poor old Chris, feeding on his blood.”

King John’s Ditch
....It was Prior Aldwin, of course—and with an acolyte who, judging from his dress and sleepwalking demeanour, could only be this year’s ‘Round’ beneficiary. Getting below to the cellar was relatively easy; surviving the poisonous atmosphere of the ditch was less so, and I was very conscious of my laboured breathing.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Twisted fingers: The Tragedy of X by Ellery Queen

The Tragedy of X: The First Drury Lane Mystery (Ellery Queen Mysteries, 1932)
By Ellery Queen

This was a firat-rate Golden Age detective
novel. It was also a fine experiment in the Conan Doyle tradition: three men commit a crime and make their millions in the semi-colonial world. More than a decade later, the ramifications of their crime come home with a vengeance.

Amateur detective and acting grandee Drury Lane aids the authorities here. The police and district attorney are glad of his help, and there is none of the cardboard melodrama of the cops hating his "interference."

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The World of S.J. Pereman

The World of SJ Perelman: The Marx Brother's Greatest Scriptwriter

Perelman's prose is mirthful and completely confident.

Whether writing about the Broadway fiasco Cherry Flip, or the sorrows and miseries of getting a barn painted, he is in command and delighted to recount something to delight the reader.

Just a taste:

“To the Editor:—My students tell me that surgeons have been able to transplant the stomach from an animal, as a calf or a goat, into man. Is this possible?— N.B.Z., Kansas.”

I can sympathize with the poor fellow for I, too, get the same sensation when I drink black velvet. Actually, it only feels as if you had changed stomachs with a goat. One morning I even woke up convinced that I had swallowed a marble the night before. To make it worse, a man named Mr. Coffee-Nerves was standing over my bed in a white Prince Albert, helping me to hate myself. I got up and went right through him to the bathroom where I had a long look at my chest. At first I couldn’t tell whether it was a steelie or a bull’s-eye, but it turned out to be a clear glass agate with a little lamb inside. I managed to dissolve my marble with two aspirins in a glass of hot water. But thank God I’m no hypochondriac; you don’t catch me writing letters to the American Medical Association....

--The Body Beautiful

Sunday, November 12, 2017

A perfect book: The Country of the Pointed Firs [1896] By Sarah Orne Jewett, 1849-1909

Sarah Orne Jewett, 1849-1909

Simply superb, an almost essay-like consideration of near-utopian pleasures of friendship, work, and self-forgetting.

My favorite chapters detail the trip made by the narrator and her host Almira Todd to Green Island, just off the Maine Coast from Dunnet Landing. There they visit Mrs. Blackett, Almira's mother, and Almira's brother William.

At the end of a perfect daylong visit:

11. The Old Singers

WILLIAM WAS sitting on the side door step, and the old mother was busy making her tea; she gave into my hand an old flowered-glass tea-caddy.

“William thought you’d like to see this, when he was settin’ the table. My father brought it to my mother from the island of Tobago; an’ here’s a pair of beautiful mugs that came with it.” She opened the glass door of a little cupboard beside the chimney. “These I call my best things, dear,” she said. “You’d laugh to see how we enjoy ’em Sunday nights in winter: we have a real company tea ‘stead o’ livin’ right along just the same, an’ I make somethin’ good for a s’prise an’ put on some o’ my preserves, an’ we get a’talkin’ together an’ have real pleasant times.”

Mrs. Todd laughed indulgently, and looked to see what I thought of such childishness.

“I wish I could be here some Sunday evening,” said I.

“William an’ me’ll be talkin’ about you an’ thinkin’ o’ this nice day,” said Mrs. Blackett affectionately, and she glanced at William, and he looked up bravely and nodded. I began to discover that he and his sister could not speak their deeper feelings before each other.

“Now I want you an’ mother to sing,” said Mrs. Todd abruptly, with an air of command, and I gave William much sympathy in his evident distress.

“After I’ve had my cup o’ tea, dear,” answered the old hostess cheerfully; and so we sat down and took our cups and made merry while they lasted. It was impossible not to wish to stay on forever at Green Island, and I could not help saying so.

“I’m very happy here, both winter an’ summer,” said old Mrs. Blackett. “William an’ I never wish for any other home, do we, William? I’m glad you find it pleasant; I wish you’d come an’ stay, dear, whenever you feel inclined. But here’s Almiry; I always think Providence was kind to plot an’ have her husband leave her a good house where she really belonged. She’d been very restless if she’d had to continue here on Green Island. You wanted more scope, didn’t you, Almiry, an’ to live in a large place where more things grew? Sometimes folks wonders that we don’t live together; perhaps we shall some time,” and a shadow of sadness and apprehension flitted across her face. “The time o’ sickness an’ failin’ has got to come to all. But Almiry’s got an herb that’s good for everything.” She smiled as she spoke, and looked bright again.

“There’s some herb that’s good for everybody, except for them that thinks they’re sick when they ain’t,” announced Mrs. Todd, with a truly professional air of finality. “Come, William, let’s have Sweet Home, an’ then mother’ll sing Cupid an’ the Bee for us.”

Then followed a most charming surprise. William mastered his timidity and began to sing. His voice was a little faint and frail, like the family daguerreotypes, but it was a tenor voice, and perfectly true and sweet. I have never heard Home, Sweet Home sung as touchingly and seriously as he sang it; he seemed to make it quite new; and when he paused for a moment at the end of the first line and began the next, the old mother joined him and they sang together, she missing only the higher notes, where he seemed to lend his voice to hers for the moment and carry on her very note and air. It was the silent man’s real and only means of expression, and one could have listened forever, and have asked for more and more songs of old Scotch and English inheritance and the best that have lived from the ballad music of the war. Mrs. Todd kept time visibly, and sometimes audibly, with her ample foot. I saw the tears in her eyes sometimes, when I could see beyond the tears in mine. But at last the songs ended and the time came to say good-by; it was the end of a great pleasure.

Mrs. Blackett, the dear old lady, opened the door of her bedroom while Mrs. Todd was tying up the herb bag, and William had gone down to get the boat ready and to blow the horn for Johnny Bowden, who had joined a roving boat party who were off the shore lobstering.

I went to the door of the bedroom, and thought how pleasant it looked, with its pink-and-white patchwork quilt and the brown unpainted paneling of its woodwork.

“Come right in, dear,” she said. “I want you to set down in my old quilted rockin’-chair there by the window; you’ll say it’s the prettiest view in the house. I set there a good deal to rest me and when I want to read.”

There was a worn red Bible on the lightstand, and Mrs. Blackett’s heavy silver-bowed glasses; her thimble was on the narrow window-ledge, and folded carefully on the table was a thick striped-cotton shirt that she was making for her son. Those dear old fingers and their loving stitches, that heart which had made the most of everything that needed love! Here was the real home, the heart of the old house on Green Island! I sat in the rocking-chair, and felt that it was a place of peace, the little brown bedroom, and the quiet outlook upon field and sea and sky.

I looked up, and we understood each other without speaking. “I shall like to think o’ your settin’ here today,” said Mrs. Blackett. “I want you to come again. It has been so pleasant for William.”

The wind served us all the way home, and did not fall or let the sail slacken until we were close to the shore. We had a generous freight of lobsters in the boat, and new potatoes which William had put aboard, and what Mrs. Todd proudly called a full “kag” of prime number one salted mackerel; and when we landed we had to make business arrangements to have these conveyed to her house in a wheelbarrow.

I never shall forget the day at Green Island. The town of Dunnet Landing seemed large and noisy and oppressive as we came ashore. Such is the power of contrast; for the village was so still that I could hear the shy whippoorwills singing that night as I lay awake in my downstairs bedroom, and the scent of Mrs. Todd’s herb garden under the window blew in again and again with every gentle rising of the seabreeze.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Ghost Stories of an enthusiast: They Might Be Ghosts by David G. Rowlands

They Might Be Ghosts: Ghost Stories of an Artisan by David G. Rowlands
First published by Ghost Story Press 2003
Ash-Tree Press ebook 2012.

I read They Might Be Ghosts: Ghost Stories of an Artisan two weeks ago and found the stories uneven and bloodless. Today, after work, I reread the stories (it is a short book.)

On second reading, I found the stories much more satisfying and sharply focused.

Most could be called "hobbyist" stories. In some, phantoms intrude on the routines car and railroad hobbyists. In another, a certain haunted whistle makes a reappearance as a "steel" used by a guitar player in a Hawaii-themed cabaret act.

The strongest stories appear in the section about "pest control" workers, perhaps because this is work and not a pastime. The tales are unnerving and ghastly in many different ways, both natural and supernatural.

Below are a few underlinings I made while reading and re-reading.


11 November 2017

                                 *      *      *      *

Long Service
....He began the fifty turns for the chimes, stopping after ten, and looking apprehensively at the gantry. Yes! There it was! Beginning to appear, damn it! He gave the handle a few more turns, muttering to himself, then stopped. No doubt about it—there was a figure, faint in outline, but growing denser, perched atop the weights chute on the gantry.
     ‘Thirty-two, thirty-three, thirty-four’. . . the figure growing clearer with each turn. No imagination . . . by ‘forty-two’ it was distinctly the simulacrum of an old man, grinning maliciously at him!

The Free Radical
....Several people saw him—including myself. Indeed there were hysterics once or twice. Particularly since his appearance was changing considerably as the days and weeks and months went by. I suppose cremation might have finished him rapidly, but he had been buried in a coffin and we seemed to be witnessing the decay processes, quite horridly. As they ravaged his body, presumably, so we saw them reflected in this simulacrum of our former colleague.

A Room with a View
....As one will, I stared at parts of the scene rather intently, and my gaze rested on a dark spot far down the hillside. As I looked, it grew larger until resolving into someone climbing the hillside. I was not entirely surprised to recognise my father, though I stretched out my hand to the stiff body on the bed beside me.

The Tour
....‘I could use the help,’ he said. ‘But how’s your nerves? Can you keep a secret?’
     I felt a creep of strangeness . . . Was there a ghost after all?
     ‘I’m okay,’ I said, ‘what is it?’
     He said almost shamefacedly, ‘It’s nothing to worry about, but sometime in the next half hour or so, you may see an oldish man walk down these gangways.’

The Galilean
....There was something ghostly about the pianola, Imogen had always thought: replaying the exact notation, timing and touch of long-dead masters. If you chose to sit at the machine and ‘drive’ with your feet, it was like playing a duet with the dead performer. Quite uncanny in a way, but also quite a pleasant sort of grue. The piano could also be played in the normal way as a conventional pianoforte and you could, if you so wished, cut rolls of your own performances and replay them, or even play a duet with yourself.

The Last Reel
....It was not until the Monday that the caretaker found George’s body in the canteen, slumped over the stage. From the condition of his trouser knees he had crawled along the canteen floor to the stage and collapsed in crawling up the steps.

Tales of the Big Four Club

....The particular engine we revered was the Riley ‘Big Four’, a large four-cylinder, two-and-a-half-litre job (2443 cc actually) that was first produced in 1937 for the Riley ‘Blue Streak’ chassis of the Adelphi, Kestrel, and Continental models. It was developed after the war for the 2.5 litre cars and had its apotheosis in the Pathfinder of 1953–7.

The Dog’s Whisker
....Was it her wraith that I heard? Was her signal to me amplified by the other dogs’ hysteria, like when the Professor was killed by intense thought in Sloane’s To Walk the Night?

Sidney’s Club
....In the introduction to that book, he wrote of the ‘Club Riley’ as a real fraternity and exhorted us always to be of service to other Riley owners, or in his words again: ‘never to pass another Riley in trouble on the road.’
     In truth it is rare for a Riley to break down, but it is surprising that if you do, even today, an ex-Riley owner seems to materialise within a few minutes.

Not Worth a Hum?
....‘If you’ve ever kept terriers, you’ll know that letting them off the lead is a bit fraught—they dive for the nearest rabbit holes, and you travel with a spade or shovel to dig them out. This doesn’t endear you to keepers or forest wardens, who often wait around to check that it is a dog you are digging out!

From the Pastures of the Tin-Worm
....Connecting the heavy-duty battery must have induced a magnetic field, and memories and images, stored in that steel chassis as if on wire or magnetic recording tape, must have been activated by the polarity.
     There was one further bit of evidence that these ‘ghosts’ were a playback. During restoration of the chassis itself, I had left on the old tyres, as they still held enough air to help move the thing around. But after welding, making good and red-oxiding after rubbing down, I removed the wheels and tyres and put the chassis on the ground, resting on its wheel hubs.
     Never again, after that, could I get any impressions or reminders of past trips or enjoyment . . . I had stupidly let my own personal ghosts drain away into the ground by removing the insulating tyres.

Tales of a Pest Control Operative

The Grain Goblin
‘What is all this?’ asked the farmer, impatiently.
     ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘this is going to be an awful shock. I’m convinced that your lost boy is buried under all the grain at the bottom of that bin. We need lorries and—yes, the Police.’
     ....The lad must have entered the empty bin, seeking a good hiding place perhaps, the previous summer when everyone on the farm was frantically busy. Lorry loads of warm grain would be coming in from the combine harvester, passing through the cooler and being augered into the bin. Even had there been someone up by the auger spout, the bottom of the bin would probably have been in darkness. If the lad had closed the door behind him, he would have succumbed almost instantly to the carbon dioxide collected there from the previous lot of grain. He would have passed out quickly and been unable to move or to cry for help as the incoming grain, ton upon ton of it, cascaded on top of his inert form.

     ‘“Well,” he continued exuberantly, unlocking the cupboard. “We can now, at last, get rid of old Duddon. I think I’ve just about sucked him dry.”
     ‘He shone his torch into the cupboard and I could just see a “mummy” similar to how I must have looked, but it had collapsed in upon itself, with bones and dried sinews and flesh sticking out of the enclosing coils of celluloid film: a ghastly sight, and I felt quite sickened by it.
     ‘However, just as Mr White reached into his darkroom to remove the corpse ready for my incarceration, those revolting, sinewy arm bones reached up and took him by the throat.

The Waiting Game
....We had some problems in the tunnels. A few of our staff proved to suffer from hitherto unsuspected claustrophobia. The ducts were supposed to have electric lights and switches every 50 yards or so, but in practice the switches were often so wet with condensation or leaks, that we found, after blowing a number of fuses, it was easier and safer to use torches. Obviously our operatives are not squeamish about insects or rodents, but it isn’t that pleasant to encounter rats at close range in a dark, foetid duct, or to have ants, roaches and other animals running over you and inside your clothing—boiler suit or not!

Lord of the Flies
....We were horrified to discover that the manure in the deep-pit house was a writhing mass of fly and beetle larvae of many different kinds. There was an automatic pesticide dispensing system operating in the atmosphere above that was supposed to control the houseflies, but clearly had failed to do so. We knew in any case that flies very rapidly developed resistance to such pesticides and the sample larvae we removed proved to be resistant to that pesticide.

Coconut Tales

Serenade to a Pagan Moon
     ....‘You see it’s an unlucky guitar—it’s got a sort of jinx on it, and I’m not sure if you should have it.’
     ‘Oh, please do!’ I cried in amazement. What a gift! He shrugged doubtfully . . .
     ‘Well, as soon as Barry took it over from Haili Koe things went wrong for him—broke his arm, got his fingers caught in a car door—he was off playing
for months. Then he reckoned it would never stay in tune (I can confirm that), blamed it for the break up of his marriage and all sorts of things. It had really got on his nerves. In fact he died, you know, by throwing himself in front of a tube train just after leaving it here. I’d just got all my doubts out of my system, when your picking that tune re-awoke all my dislike of it.’ He shuddered a little.

Fire Goddess
     ‘There was a terrific flash as the huge current built up in the chassis of his amplifier earthed itself via his body through the microphone stand. All the lights went out, and Tony fell like a log to the floor.
     ‘To my amazement I had the presence of mind to shout not to touch him until his amplifier was unplugged . . . in case. For clearly he had plugged it in wrong way round, making the chassis and his guitar strings and pick-ups live....'

Pua Mana (Sea Breeze)
     It was early Autumn and there was a relatively calm spell, so I wasn’t expecting to find much on my routine visit. I dragged above the tide mark a plastic milk crate . . . then, in moving a pile of wrack, sea holly and thong weed, I stubbed my finger on a rusty bolt of some kind, sticking out of the damp sand. To my amusement it looked rather like a guitar steel that had lost its plating after years of immersion in sea-water and begun to corrode slowly.
     My find was very similar to the Speedy West steel, being about four inches long and the same diameter as the latter. It was clearly quite old, probably unalloyed bronze, and was hollowed out like a section of pipe. There was a sort of neck or mouthpiece at one end, so it might have been a pitch pipe or something of that nature.

Low Moon at Waikiki
     ....From that huddled mass of artistes I saw Sonny’s face and features suddenly rush upward and toward me—it stopped when—seemingly—only inches from my own visage. He seemed to be looking steadily at me, and he nodded just as the scene collapsed and I was back with the old familiar ‘thought pattern’ of the original group playing ‘Low Moon at Waikiki’.
     I got the message and gave up working at my own version of the piece. I would play it as a carbon copy of Sonny’s, whatever Mitch thought.

Tales of Boiling Pots

Returned to Steam Again
....The amazing thing was, I was no engineer myself, yet I understood thoroughly what needed to be done in terms of re-metalling bearings, brazing up the firebox and renewing the fire-tube through the boiler. Everything I needed either came to hand, as if by magic . . . or else I knew (how did I know?) exactly where it was; and what’s more, I put it back there.

Do Your Best
     ‘Now I heard the “grand howl” done as it would be done by wolves—and a very frightening sound it was too. Very convincing and menacing . . . I felt my spine tingle with apprehension. I knew I ought to cut away back to the house, but there was a horrid fascination about this moonlight vigil.
     ‘The “howl” was not readily interpretable as “Do your best” nor was the response “We’ll do our best!”: but it suddenly occurred to me that their best might be the worst for me! I was aware of mental pressure and panic—the atmosphere charged with oppression.
     Akela suddenly rose and cried out in human tones: ‘“Hear the call! Good hunting all that keep the jungle law!!” and he swept his arm towards where I was hiding. . . .

The Abomination of Desolation
.....‘I sat on a wooden seat, and applied myself to bottle of pop and paper of sandwiches, while watching the panorama of passing goods trains. After a couple of hours, the first “ghost” train passed through from Kensington on its way to Clapham, just as the dusk began to fall. And just as the dusk began to fall, so the temperature began to fall also, and a mist began to rise from the embankment to roll across the platforms. It was momentarily dispersed by a passing goods train on my side, but began to thicken again, and as I stared into it, began to congeal—I can’t think of a better term—into groups of people, or what seemed to be people. They made quite a dense crowd and seemed to be greyish in accoutrement, but were uncannily silent—though I sensed, and indeed began to feel myself, considerable distress—misery even.

Some Old Friends

Plural (M. R. James)
     ....He stepped over to a big chest and unlocked it. Turning over a number of mezzotints, he then approached and put one in my hand.
     ‘People have been wondering for years if this existed,’ he remarked impishly. ‘Look!’ He pointed at the picture.
     It showed a considerable expanse of lawn, and beyond that a not very large house, with three rows of plain sashed windows with rusticated masonry about them, a parapet with balls or vases at the angles, and a small portico in the centre. There was a black blob on the edge of the engraving—the head of a man (or woman), a good deal muffled up, the back turned to the spectator, and looking towards the house. As I held the picture, the blot began to emerge from the foreground rim and became a figure crawling houseward....

A Gift of Tonges (Fr O’Connor)
     ‘“I am worried about Roger,” she wrote, “this bell thing is becoming an obsession. He was bad enough before, but now the metal is cast, he seems a different person. He keeps striking the bell with a wooden hammer and muttering about the quality of the note. He potters off to the chapel (where the bell is) all hours and is there half the night. The housemaid Rebecca told me she heard him chiming the bell and talking to himself late last night. (She meets the Agent’s son down by the lake I think!) I’m rather afraid of Roger in his present mood and I wish you were here for both our sakes!”

A Job Not Done (Mr Batchel)
     '....I imagine it’s been going on for hundreds of years. It’s quite harmless, just a vision of something from the past that is permanently or temporarily fixed in this place. I doubt that even Groves could capture it on film: I expect it’s something that produces an image in our brains. . . .’

The Sleeping Partner

Blood and Thunder
     '....Well, you see, Art here can only get hold of what I know by writin’ it down. It’s a mess and he writes across what he wrote before and from all angles. I can only get what’s floatin’ in his mind; and by the way he thinks quite a lot of you at the moment! Anyways, I have a hard time gettin’ him to write it down accurate. Now, with you in between us I can talk it over with you and get the rights of it.’

The Show Must Not Go On
     ‘That’s right, Mr Fortune. The sexton of the church phoned me—in a rare taking he was—said it was real spooky up there: dogs howlin’ and all, and the master asleep among the tombs and he not able to wake him. I took the car and sure enough, there he was, lyin’ across a mound, dead drunk and all a-twitch. As I carried him off, there was a biggish bat a-flappin’ round me, for all it’s winter time and freezin’ cold.’

     ‘You are still collecting tin trains then?’ I pursued.
     ‘Yes, indeed,’ he said with satisfaction. ‘My long term hobby—which you all thought so peculiar—has become respectable. As soon as an eccentricity “catches on” or makes money, it becomes the cult of thousands.’
     ‘You’ve certainly been doing it long enough,’ I said. ‘Since we were lads, eh?’ (He nodded.) ‘Well,’ I continued, ‘it’s not going to put your sanity at risk collecting tin trains.’
     He looked at me peculiarly.
     ‘Funny you should say that. It nearly did once.’ He smiled bleakly....

Twice A Fortnight
    ‘You once wrote that for you places are prolific in suggestion. Did you, then, think of a place or setting first and put a ghostly happening into it; or a ghost first and then pick the setting?’
     He chuckled. ‘Oh, that’s easy. I always had a place in mind first and I thought of the normal events in that place and how they might be made to go wrong, or be disturbed. For instance, the tale I gave you tonight. It was set here as you all realised. The chapel and cemetery are on the site of Eddington wood and in the middle of the wood there was once an older chapel, like that of the story. I thought of the wood and the chapel and the story just wrote itself.’

THEY MIGHT BE GHOSTS: Ghost Stories of an Artisan

Ash-Tree Press eBooks