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

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

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

If we see anything it will not be nice to look at: The Occult Files of Francis Chard: Some Ghost Stories by A.M. Burrage

The ISFDB gives 1927 as the original publication date for the takes in The Occult Files Of Francis Chard by A.M. Burrage.  

These are brief stories of the post-war era, clearly designed in their brevity for newspaper publication.  They are happily free of the occult jargon and bric-a-brac of Hodgson and Blackwood.  Burrage's ghost breaker has more in common with some of the minor detective rivals of Sherlock Holmes: the stories go by at a quick clip, atmosphere and characterization are strong but thumb-nailed.

Burrage is a splendid stylist and a gifted story writer. "Smee" and especially "The Attic" are abiding personal favorites. While none of the Francis Chard stories rival those, they have at least the saving grace of modesty.  Not every mystery needs involve a murder.  And not every ghostbuster has to save the world.

A few reading notes:

The Hiding Hole

'To return to the room which you can't use,' he said, 'is there any story in your family to account for it?'

'None that I know of. The room's always been like that. Nobody's worried about it, except that just now and again somebody tries the experiment of sleeping there, always with the same result. One has to leg it out of that room pretty quick and get a breath of air on the other side of the threshold. Of course, my people won't have anything done that smacks of spiritualism, and exorcism seems rather drastic for something which we only vaguely attribute to the supernatural. But I've often thought we ought to take serious notice of it. It may be a signal from some poor departed soul which still wants human aid.'

The Pit In The Garden

'What's been happening since then?' Chard asked.

Parker hesitated, and his wife prompted him.

'There was Mr Mclver,' she said.

'Yes,' Parker continued, 'there was Mr Mclver. I'd arranged for a petrol pump to be installed here. I get lots of inquiries for petrol—and Mr Mclver was the engineer sent to supervise the job. He was to stay in the house one or two nights, but he only stayed the one, and said he'd be shot before he stayed another. Now nobody could say he'd been drinking. He hadn't had more than two half-pints of bitter. Well, after I'd shut up the house at ten o'clock, Mr Mclver very kindly came and helped me with the glasses, while the wife went to get supper for all three of us. The brewers were coming next day and I had it in my mind that I was short of whisky, so I left Mr Mclver for a minute and went down the cellar to see how my stock was. When I came back he was lying on the floor of the passage in a kind of faint.

'I brought him round, and then he swore that somebody had attacked him from behind, and he complained of a violent pain between the shoulder-blades. I thought he'd had some sort of fit and helped him to bed. Next morning he asked us who'd been walking about the house all night, and who was the man with the ugly white face and the squint who kept on looking into his room?

The Affair At Penbillo

'You'd better not take port after dinner,' he said. 'Help yourself to a good stiff brandy. You may need it.'

He begged a question, but declined to answer it when it was put.

'I don't promise anything,' he said, 'but something may happen. And if anything does, for God's sake keep your head and keep quiet. I warn you that if we see anything it will not be nice to look at.'

The Third Visitation

....We crossed the hall once more, and Chard flung open the door of the dining-room. I knew by the instant rigidity of his pose that there was something there, and hastily looking over his shoulder I saw it for myself. With its back to the wall, midway between the fire and the portrait stood the figure of a woman. In almost every detail of dress and feature she was the exact replica of the lady of the portrait, and she stared at us across the room out of seemingly dull and sightless eyes. We stood staring at it for a long moment and then Chard acted with disconcerting swiftness. He bounded across the room and flung himself upon the figure.

Chard was an old rugger player and, instinctively, I suppose, he collared it low around the knees. Instantly I was aware of a struggle going on. A strange, jerky and yet lifeless sort of animation—if I may be permitted a contradiction in terms—seemed to take possession of the woman's figure. I came running around the long table to Chard's assistance, and as I reached him he fell back heavily against me and knocked me spinning. And as I fell I heard a muffled oath and the low click of a latch.

'Matches!' said Chard sharply.

'Have you got her?' I gasped.

'Got part of her,' he answered. 'One of her legs, poor dear! ...."

The Woman With Three Eyes

'It happened that big mineral fields were supposed to be going to be opened in San Analdo, which is a tiny South American republic, and that sent up the price of the railway shares. And then there came a hitch over concessions, and down went the shares again. Concessions have just been granted, and the shares are roaring again, so those who held on to them are all right. But a lot of people went broke the first time—the inveterate gamblers in shares who go all out for a supposed good thing.

The Soldier

A story with real emotional power, and a good use of crime-solving plot that also explains a haunting.  Highly recommended.

....We could not use the window of Danson's room that night without arousing the curiosity of his wife, who slept next door; but overhead was an untenanted attic, and we kept watch at the window there with Danson's telescope.

It was a long vigil. Not until nearly half-past two did Chard's pose suddenly become rigid, and I heard him draw' a quick, harsh breath as if he had been touched by sudden cold. He remained quite still for nearly a minute; then, without a word, he passed the glass to me, and I focussed the road just in front of the Wratharn's cottage door.

The Tryst

Truly, I hardly know how to write what followed. It was all so quick and so inexpressibly ghastly. No man's pen could do justice to the agonising horror of the things that happened. It is in my power to be no more than brief and plain.

The Bungalow At Shammerton

From all around us strains of music stole out of the distance. There must have been a gramophone in every bungalow, and a loud-speaker in most. With these sounds mingled the steady, forceful, monotonous music of the weir. In many of the gardens Chinese lanterns were alight, and a spurious atmosphere of peace and beauty seemed to brood over our surroundings, as if we had strayed into some sort of vicious fairyland. To add colour to the

Illusion certain sinister sounds were borne to us out of the far distance, hideous cachinnations of drunken mirth, and laughter of a besotted idiot. Fish were rising in the backwater at our feet. A fat old chub under the far bank rolled and wallowed after the flies that dropped on to the water. I suppose we were both subconsciously waiting for something, and then suddenly there came a heavier splash at the base of some rushes twenty yards away. I started violently, and heard Chard's chair wince under his sudden movement.

'What was that?' I asked.

'Otter, I expect,' said Chard.

The Protector

A solid public school ghost story.

'Grimshaw,' he called softly, 'come to us, won't you? We understand, and we want to help you. Give your message to us, and we will pass it on. Show yourself to us, Grimshaw. We only want to help you.'

He spoke in the wheedling tone of one who addresses a child or a sick patient, a tone which implored confidence. I looked over my shoulder to see if anything lurked in the shadows behind me, and when I turned my gaze once more to look straight ahead the boy was there.

He stood at the top of the passage between the double row of desks, a pathetic figure still in the mud-stained uniform of football. He was looking straight at Chard with a smile which was very shy, very boyish and very young.

The Girl In Blue

A most inferior and predictable story.

….I know a case of a boy at a public school who passed his house-master's son on the stairs one evening. On entering his house-master's study a little later he said, "Oh, sir, I see Dick's come home." This Dick, by the way, had been in Jamaica for the past two years. The boy was told that he must have been dreaming. Yet it transpired shortly afterwards that Dick had been killed some thousands of miles away at the very time when he had been seen by his old schoolfellow. Nobody saw Dick but this one boy, but to say that it was imagination on his part is to credit a coincidence far more extraordinary than the wildest tales of ghostly apparitions.


21 February 2018

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