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

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

Friday, May 29, 2020

Nine stories from The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories (1995)

The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories edited by Michael Cox and.R. A. Gilbert (1995).

Bone to His Bone • (1912) • by E. G. Swain

Swain presents a modest, well-made tale here, almost an anecdote. But the end of this brief passage still for me packs a wallop.

....on Christmas Eye, in the year 1907, Mr Batchel, who would have liked to sleep well, in view of the labours of Christmas Day, lay hopelessly wide awake. He exhausted all the known devices for courting sleep, and, at the end, found himself wider awake than ever. A brilliant moon shone into his room, for he hated window-blinds. There was a light wind blowing, and the sounds in the library were more than usually suggestive of a person moving about. He almost determined to have the sashes 'seen to', although he could seldom be induced to have anything 'seen to'. He disliked changes, even for the better, and would submit to great inconvenience rather than have things altered with which he had become familiar.

     As he revolved these matters in his mind, he heard the clocks strike the hour of midnight, and having now lost all hope of falling asleep, he rose from his bed, got into a large dressing gown which hung in readiness for such occasions, and passed into the library, with the intention of reading himself sleepy, if he could.

     The moon, by this time, had passed out of the south, and the library seemed all the darker by contrast with the moonlit chamber he had left. He could see nothing but two blue-grey rectangles formed by the windows against the sky, the furniture of the room being altogether invisible. Groping along to where the table stood, Mr Batchel felt over its surface for the matches which usually lay there; he found, however, that the table was cleared of everything. He raised his right hand, therefore, in order to feel his way to a shelf where the matches were sometimes mislaid, and at that moment, whilst his hand was in mid-air, the matchbox was gently put into it!


The True History of Anthony Ffryar • (1911)  by Arthur Gray

Alone in the plague-evacuated Cambridge of 1551, Ffryar races against time to complete an alchemical experience to reveal the secrets of the magisterium. 


Fullcircle • (1920) • by John Buchan

A droll club tale of the Runagates. But it has something also in common with the Wodehouse of "Honeysuckle Cottage" or "Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court." A married couple - emphatically do-gooder social democrats - succumb to the spirit of place.

....I observed that I had never seen a house so full of space and light. 

'Ah, you notice that. It is a curiously happy place to live in. Sometimes I'm almost afraid to feel so light-hearted. But we look on ourselves as only trustees. It is a trust we have to administer for the common good. You know, it's a house on which you can lay your own impress. I can imagine places which dominate the dwellers, but Fullcircle is plastic, and we can make it our own just as much as if we had planned and built it. That's our chief piece of good fortune.'


Old Man's Beard • (1929) • by H. Russell Wakefield

Wakefield is a master, and this tale is a masterpiece, recalling the fate of Lucy Westenra and - almost - Mina Harker. But for a self-sacrificing young suitor.

....Mariella didn't seem very flourishing. The family GP had described her as the most flawless physical specimen he had ever examined, and the sun and sea and air of Brinton should have put the keenest edge on this brilliant Toledo blade, and the close presence of her lover should have made her spirit leap within her. But the actual result was depressingly different. After the first few days she seemed limp and lethargic and 'snappy' in the mornings. She shook this off during the day, but began to droop again at sundown and showed a marked distaste for going to bed; not a distaste bom of overmastering vitality, but something less reassuring than that, something less readily explicable. Her mother had noticed it, of course, and was rather worried, had questioned her gentiy and been testily repulsed.


Mr. Jones • (1928) • by Edith Wharton

Another masterful "trap for the unwary," one to rival "Afterward." A woman inherits a benighted property.

She passed on to the entrance court, and stood at last at the door of her new home, a blunt tweed figure in heavy mud-stained shoes. She felt as intrusive as a tripper, and her hand hesitated on the doorbell. 'I ought to have brought someone with me,' she thought; an odd admission on the part of a young woman who, when she was doing her books of travel, had prided herself on forcing single-handed the most closely guarded doors. But those other places, as she looked back, seemed easy and accessible compared to Bells.


The Hollow Man • (1933) • by Thomas Burke

A man in London gets a visit from the man he killed in Africa years before.

....He had heard many tales 'out there' about the Leopard Men, and had dismissed them as jungle yarns. But now, it seemed, jungle yarns had become commonplace fact in a little London shop. The watery voice went on. 'They do it. I saw them. I came back in the middle of a circle of them....'


Et in Sempiternum Pereant • (1935) • by Charles Williams

My first reading of anything by Williams and I am enchanted.

....He thought, with some irritation, that he must be getting old more quickly, and more unnoticeably, than he had supposed. He did not much mind about the quickness, but he did mind about the unnoticeableness. It had given him pleasure to watch the various changes which age tended to bring; to be as stealthy and as quick to observe those changes as they were to come upon him—the slower pace, the more meditative voice, the greater reluctance to decide, the inclination to fall back on habit, the desire for the familiar which is the first skirmishing approach of unfamiliar death. He neither welcomed nor grudged such changes; he only observed them with a perpetual interest in the curious nature of the creation. The fantasy of growing old, like the fantasy of growing up, was part of the ineffable sweetness, touched with horror, of existence, itself the lordliest fantasy of all. But now, as he stood looking back over and across the hidden curves of the road, he felt suddenly that time had outmarched and out-twisted him, that it was spreading along the countryside and doubling back on him, so that it troubled and deceived his judgment. In an unexpected and unusual spasm of irritation he put his hand to his watch again. He felt as if it were a quarter of an hour since he had looked at it; very well, making just allowance for his state of impatience, he would expect the actual time to be five minutes. He looked; it was only two.

     Lord Arglay made a small mental effort, and almost immediately recognized the effort. He said to himself: 'This is another mark of age. I am losing my sense of duration.' He said also: 'It is becoming an effort to recognize these changes.' Age was certainly quickening its work in him. It approached him now doubly; not only his method of experience, but his awareness of experience was attacked. His knowledge of it comforted him—perhaps, he thought, for the last time. The knowledge would go. He would savour it then while he could. Still looking back at the trees, 'It seems I'm decaying,' Lord Arglay said aloud. 'And that anyhow is one up against decay. Am I procrastinating? I am, and in the circumstances procrastination is a proper and pretty game. It is the thief of time, and quite right too! Why should time have it all its own way?'

     He turned to the road again, and went on. It passed now between open fields; in all those fields he could see no one. It was pasture, but there were no beasts. There was about him a kind of void, in which he moved, hampered by this growing oppression of duration. Things lasted. He had exclaimed, in his time, against the too swift passage of the world. This was a new experience; it was lastingness—almost, he could have believed, everlastingness. The measure of it was but his breathing, and his breathing, as it grew slower and heavier, would become the measure of everlasting labour—the labour of Sisyphus, who pushed his own slow heart through each infinite moment, and relaxed but to let it beat back and so again begin. It was the first touch of something Arglay had never yet known, of simple and perfect despair.

     At that moment he saw the house.


An Encounter in the Mist • (1949) • by A. N. L. Munby

A perfect minor tale of open-air horror, something for lovers of Machen and Blackwood to treasure.

....It is a commonplace that a journey in hills takes longer than one anticipates, and it was after twelve o'clock when Giles reached his destination. The sun had come out and he was hot and tired, though much encouraged by the interest of the quarries he had come to see. So absorbing did he find them, and so full were the notes he took, that it was not until half-past three that he started on the return journey. By this time the sun had clouded over again and it looked like rain. As he reascended the track into the hills a fine drizzle began to fall, which increased as he reached the higher altitudes, and before he had climbed to the crest he was enveloped in a thick mist, which reduced visibility first to a few yards and finally to a few feet only. My uncle had carefully noted various landmarks on his path, and even in the mist was confident of keeping to the right track. The route, however, was ill-defined, being in places little more than a sheep-track, and when Giles found himself crossing an unfamiliar stream, he had to confess that he had strayed from the correct path. He retraced his footsteps for nearly half a mile, but failed to return to a point he had noted where the track ran between two prominent rocks. Then indeed he realised that he was lost in earnest.


29 May 2020

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