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

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

Monday, December 20, 2021

5 stories from Shivers for Christmas (2014)

Shivers for Christmas 

Edited by Richard Dalby

(Michael O'Mara Books, 2014)

We now have the luxury of Christmas horror anthologies from the British Library and Valancourt Books. Before plenitude we had to rely on instant remainders and hope the editors had a sense of mercy and perspicacity. 

Shivers for Christmas was a useful collection to own. Dalby gives us the classics and includes rarities; Dickens is mercifully absent.

Some thoughts on stories I have read the last few nights at bedtime:

The Discovery of the Treasure Isles by Amelia B. Edwards (1864)

A merchant captain learns about untold riches while visiting a ship of the damned. Throwing away his career and the lives of his crew, he eventually finds an island and a ruined city of riches.

....The rest of my story may be told very briefly. After running before the wind for eleven days and nights, in a northeasterly direction, I was picked up by a Plymouth merchantman, about forty-five miles west of Marignana. The captain and crew treated me with kindness, but evidently looked upon me as a harmless madman. No one believed my story. When I described the islands, they laughed; when I opened my store of jewels, they shook their heads, and gravely assured me that they were only lumps of spar and sandstone; when I described the condition of my ship, and related the misfortunes of my crew, they told me the schooner Mary-Jane had been lost at sea twenty years ago, with every hand on board. Unfortunately, I found that I had left my mate's narrative behind me in the cavern, or perhaps my story would have found more credit. When I swore that to me it seemed less than six months since I had put off in the small boat with Joshua Dunn, and was capsized among the breakers, they brought the ship's log to prove that instead of its being the 25th of December A.D. 1760, when I came back to the beach, and saw the Mary-Jane lying high and dry between the rocks, it must have been nearer the 25th of December, 1780, the twentieth Christmas, namely, of the glorious and happy reign of our most gracious sovereign, King George the Third.

     Was this true? I know not. Everyone says so but I cannot bring myself to believe that twenty years could have passed over my head like one long summer day. Yet the world is strangely changed, and I with it, and the mystery is still unexplained as ever to my bewildered brain....

* * *

The Dead Sexton by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1871)

Le Fanu was incapable of writing an uninteresting story, even when mummy-wrapped in a Dr. Hesselius narrative apparatus.

In "The Dead Sexton" the titular character has died by misadventure. A well-spoken stranger comes to town and asks for a look at the body, then remains lurking.

     "What the—what are ye afraid on? Gi' me the lantern—it is all one: I will."

     And cautiously, little by little, he opened the door; and, holding the lantern over his head in the narrow slit, he peeped in—frowning and pale—with one eye, as if he expected something to fly in his face. He closed the door without speaking, and locked it again.

     "As safe as a thief in a mill," he whispered with a nod to his companion. And at that moment a harsh laugh overhead broke the silence startlingly, and set all the poultry in the yard gabbling.

     "Thar he be!" said Tom, clutching the landlord's arm—"in the winda—see!"

     The window of the cedar-room, up? two pair of stairs, was open; and in the shadow a darker outline was visible of a man, with his elbows on the window-stone, looking down upon them.

     "Look at his eyes—like two live coals!" gasped Tom.

     The landlord could not see all this so sharply, being confused, and not so long-sighted as Tom.

     "Time, sir," called Tony Turnbull, turning cold as he thought he saw a pair of eyes shining down redly at him—"time for honest folk to be in their beds, and asleep!"

     "As sound as your sexton!" said the jeering voice from above.

* * *

Wolverden Tower by Grant Allen (1896)

....Each carried a flower laid loosely in her bosom. Yolande's was an orchid with long, floating streamers, in colour and shape recalling some Southern lizard; dark purple spots dappled its lip and petals. Hedda's was a flower of a sort Maisie had never before seen—the stem spotted like a viper's skin, green flecked with russet-brown, and uncanny to look upon; on either side, great twisted spirals of red-and-blue blossoms, each curled after the fashion of a scorpion's tail, very strange and lurid. Something weird and witch-like about flowers and dresses rather attracted Maisie; they affected her with the half-repellent fascination of a snake for a bird; she felt such blossoms were fit for incantations and sorceries....

I have read "Wolverden Tower" several times, and hope to read it again. There are few pieces of popular fiction as capable of stirring the sublime sense of being "on the heights." Maisie's willing seduction while attending theatrical tableau at a holiday house party is weirdly charming, and Grant Allen beguiles the reader as effectively as he does his heroine.

The portrayal of friendship between women is very well done.

* * *

The Picture Puzzle by Edward Lucas White (1909)

One of White's reliably wrenching stories, this time set in a homely middle class milieu. A husband and wife find solace and distraction in jigsaw puzzles in the aftermath of the kidnapping of their four year old daughter, who was never returned.

One day the wife feels compelled to purchase a crudely made two-sided puzzle from a street vendor. Assembled, she says it shows the daughter taken in hand by a bearded man. The husband sees only a blank field of pink. 

When he assembles the verso:

....The picture showed an old red-brick house, with brown blinds, all open. The top of the front steps was included in the lower right hand corner, most of the front door above them, all of one window on its level, and the side of another. Above appeared all of one of the second floor windows, and parts of those to right and left of it. The other windows were closed, but the sash of the middle one was raised and from it leaned a little girl, a child with frowzy hair, a dirty face and wearing a blue and white check frock. The child was a perfect likeness of our lost Amy, supposing she had been starved and neglected. I was so affected that I was afraid I should faint. 

     I was positively husky when I asked: 'Don't you see that?' 

     'I see Nile green,' she maintained.

White does an excellent job here with grief and what today we would call "coping mechanisms."

* * *

Tarnhelm by Hugh Walpole (1929)

"I only know that as one grows older one calls things coincidence more and more seldom."

A compelling queer tale in every sense. Same-sex love and devotion are counterposed to malevolently sorcerous molestation. The first-person point of view is well-handled.

Whatever the ultimate fate of novels Walpole took seriously and sweated-over, the strange stories he left reward repeated readings.

* * *


20 December 2021

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