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

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

Monday, August 29, 2022

Stranger Paranormal by John Olsen (2022)

Stranger Paranormal by John Olsen (2022) is the sixth in his Stranger Bridgerland books series. Each volume contains stories based on first-hand interviews Olsen has conducted with experiencers themselves. I have read and reviewed the previous five books as they appeared, and I can say with confidence that Stranger Paranormal is the strongest collection yet.

My interest in this material is based on a life-long passion for strange fiction, particularly the stories of writers Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen. In Olsen's books, there is a similar frisson. Though Olsen is reporting real stories by everyday people who have crossed paths with the uncanny, there is a real congruence.

Stranger Paranormal leads off with "Doppelganger," by Kent. An engineer, Kent describes working late and alone at his plant. He hears an insistent voice from the office next door: "Kent…… Kent…… come help me, Kent."

In "The Belmore Ghost," contractor Jaxon has a late-night encounter on a lonely back road when he stays too late at a job site. Sadly for Jaxon, his encounter is with something not as pleasant as a vanishing hitchhiker. 

After these two stories where men are driven to extremes of terror, Anthony's experience as a part-time cemetary "Caretaker" is a well-judged change of pace by Olsen. Anthony says, "I've been working there for eight years now and love the work and the feeling of caretaking for the city's loved ones." The guy's dignity and probity shine through; his two spectral encounters are eloquently told.

Stranger Paranormal takes the reader through many western states, as well as Florida. A Montana ghost town shows a transplanted California teenager more than he bargained for. A father and son fishing in British Columbia realize they are being watched by a dog man. Four friends at a cabin in northern Minnesota surprise a sasquatch as it pays a midnight visit to their trash cans. Hikers exploring an abandoned mine near the Utah-Nevada border meet its non-human tennant. And "The White Stalker" features a titular figure that seems to be the subject of Jaroslav Panuška's 1901 painting "Death Looking into the Window of One Dying" brought to life.

My choice, though, for the most unsettling story in Stranger Paranormal is Kurk's encounters with "The Dark Pacer." Just outside a tiny rural town in western Kentucky, across the road from his parents' porch, Kurk grew up watching a large dark figure pacing the treeline at dusk. The encounters he and his younger siblings experienced are hair-raising.

Stranger Paranormal is filled with stories from people who never thought of cashing-in, or making paranormal media spectacles of themselves online. Their plain-spoken accounts, expertly reported by John Olsen, demonstrate again the old truism that life is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.


29 August 2022

The Year's Best Horror Stories XVIII Edited by Karl Edward Wagner (1990)

Readers unfamiliar with The Year's Best Horror Stories XVIII may prefer to read these notes only after reading the anthology.

The Year's Best Horror Stories XVIII 

Edited by Karl Edward Wagner (1990)

Introduction: From Horror Angst to Zombies by Karl Edward Wagner

[....]the short story has also fallen victim to pure and simple bad writing. Plots, when present, are too often so obvious and trite that one can only wonder as to why the author is bothering to clone a cliché. Characterization is too often lacking, motivation absent, and writing skills laughable. One piece of evidence of this is the shrinking average word length of the horror story. This reflects a growing trend in horror writing simply to introduce a few faceless expendables and rush them to a grisly end -- the grislier the better. Your editor yawns and turns to the next and similar pointless exercise.

[....] diminished expectations on the part of the reader and of limited aspirations on the part of the writer.

[....] Sturgeon's Law that 90% of everything makes good organic fertilizer

[....] It's almost as if the genre seems poised on the brink of a Beirut-style civil war -- tolerate no disbelievers, accept no compromises, take no prisoners. Most obvious has been the sniping over the past decade between advocates of "quiet horror" and of (presumably) "loud horror." To an extent this is all merely a continuation of the earlier quarrel between fans of traditional horror and those of contemporary horror. It's all getting to be a bit strident, and the pursuit of excellence is too often abandoned in favor of pointless extremism. Because a story is dead boring dull, it is not necessarily literary horror. Writing about a Roto-Rooter rapist does not necessarily push back the frontiers of horror's future.

[....] this is state-of-the-art horror as we closed out the 1980s.

     Stay tuned to this channel, and I'll be back to take you on a tour through the 1990s.

*   *   *

Renaissance by Chico Kidd

      "Renaissance" is a horror story that succeeds brilliantly. A painter inadvertently "lets loose" a demon from a fresco in an Italian church. With a friend and the friend's daughter, the he tries to figure out how a Renaissance painter originally trapped the entity. 

The Earth Wire by Joel Lane

     The burning and street-fighting riots are over, and another, stranger crowd action has begun. Reading "The Earth Wire" in 1989 might have allowed the reader to see it as a critique of petty bourgeois complacency to upheavals against a decade of Thatcherism. Thirty years later, a richer context is granted for grasping the strange vectors of mass action. "The Earth Wire's" landscape of social disaster aftermath is deeply allusive.

Narcopolis by Wayne Allen Sallee

      "Narcopolis" is a series of free-association free verse poems. 

Buckets by F. Paul Wilson

      "Buckets" is shocking in its bad taste. An abortionist on Halloween is visited by the trick-or-treating spirits of all the kids he killed. After some ideological back-and-forth, they lop off the doctor's head so he can finish his existence with a silent scream. The author's anti-choice rhetorical deck-stacking includes Holocaust minimization, moving the story beyond mere bad taste:

"....Some political appointees decided that we weren't people and that was that. Pretty much like what happened to East European Jews back in World War II. We're not even afforded the grace of being called embryos or fetuses."

Meeting the Author by Ramsey Campbell

     "Meeting the Author" is ferocious. Young Timmy gives second-rate children's book author Harold Mealing a bad review. Mealing takes it badly, and sends his character Mr. Smiler to reset the scales.

     At first I couldn't see Mr. Smiler. The pictures stood to attention as I opened the pages, pictures of children up to mischief, climbing on each other's shoulders to steal apples or spraying their names on a wall or making faces behind their teacher's back. The harder I had to look for Mr. Smiler, the more nervous I became of seeing him. I turned back to the first pages and spread the book flat on the table, and he jumped up from behind the hedge under the apple tree, shaking his long arms. On every two pages he was waiting for someone to be curious enough to open the book that little bit farther....

Campbell's portrait of a child beset by unearned and arbitrary doom is unforgettable. Timmy's parents, thoughtful and humane to a fault, finish what Mealing started.

     The final paragraphs of "Meeting the Author" are shattering in their sudden and terrible sublimity.

Jerry's Kids Meet Wormboy by David J. Schow

     I missed the sunrise of splatterpunk, and did not catch up with its wave until 1992, when I purchased Book of the Dead. "Jerry's Kids Meet Wormboy" defeated me thirty years ago; I read the story today, and can confirm I am still immune to its gusto. Schow's walking dead are a funhouse mirror, and Wormboy cannot top their demands with culinary skills - or skills of any other type.

Return to the Mutant Rain Forest by Bruce Boston and Robert Frazier

      The prose poem "Return to the Mutant Rain Forest" offers its impressions as explorers embrace their own mutations amid mutating surroundings.

The Horse of Iron & How We Can Know It & Be Changed By It Forever by M. John Harrison

      "The Horse of Iron & How We Can Know It & Be Changed By It Forever" employs a number of arbitrary storytelling devices: switched tv channels, occult plotlining with tarot cards. It's a too clever story of London emptied of horror and replaced with mere literary oddity. It smacks of an exercise completed in a week when no better ideas came along.

Nights in the City by Jessica Amanda Salmonson

[....]How can I write you a spooky ghost story that you will enjoy a great deal because secretly you do not believe in ghosts and the terror isn't real to you. Someday you will be standing on a street corner, old and pitiful, having shit your pants, and a middle-aged woman with a sincere face will give you bad directions. That, my friend, is real terror. But you would rather hear about a weird visitation -- a ghost or a vampire -- something like that. Very well, but no more of these trumped up horror stories that could never be. This is about an actual spirit, an absolutely true story that I have never told anybody until now because I knew they wouldn't believe me. It happened to me quite a while ago, when I was a pretty girl. All kinds of men were attracted to me in those days, even a dead one. I thought I would never be rid of him.

     "Nights in the City" is an uproariously funny sitcom told in high Bellovian first-person style.

Kaddish by Jack Dann

   On paper Jack Dann looks like the perfect fit, based on my interests and obsessions. But "Kaddish," about a husband and father blinded to himself by the death of wife and child, strikes an overdetermined note. Absent are all the unnerving little effects that turn and twist a story into horror, particularly the meaningful half-glimpses only ramified afterward.

The Confessional by Patrick McLeod

   Fr. Thompson has a tough day filled with clichés. It begins with a pedophile parent's suicide and ends with whiskey, sorrow, and panty-sniffing. 

The Motivation by David Langford

     The envelope contained several smaller ones, white, each with a printed caption whose indefinable tattiness suggested a hand-operated press. Police photographs leaked from Lambertstow horror case. Remains of Kenneth Quinn. Very violent, for strong stomachs only!! Which left Peter uncertain as to whether the material really was too strong for Benson's hardened clientele, or whether its sale might stir up police interest.

     He wasn't sure that he wanted to peer at a corpse, however photogenic, but his inquisitive fingers had already turned back the flap and slid out the first enclosure. A tightening of the gut came even before he could focus on the glossy print; he had never somehow realized that police photographs would be in color. (Why was that? Because they were always in black and white in the newspaper. Of course.) Then he looked at the thing properly, and his first sensation was one of relief.

     What lay on the grass under harsh lights was nothing recognizable as human. A long Christmas tree decked with exotic fruits and garlands, tinseled with innumerable points of reflected light; a Dali vision, which through sheer excess, had gone beyond mutilation and deformity. It was odd; perhaps a little disturbing in its abstract forms, but at first glance not at all horrific.

     It was a pity, really, that Peter took the second glance.

     An observation of G. K. Chesterton's caught up with him later: that one might look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times and be perfectly safe, but to take the thousandth look was to be in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time. Peter thought Chesterton had underestimated the safe exposure period, and sincerely regretted having looked even twice. The second look stirred up dim memories of an anatomy course at college, or those parts of it he'd attended; with his second look, he made the fatal error of analysis. It was fascinating, compulsive, to trace the relation between the long glittering object and what must have been a man; to consider bubbly ornaments in red and gray as something more than inorganic lumps, more than the polished haematite they called kidney ore; to trace what must have been done here and here with surgical delicacy; to wonder -- try not to wonder -- just when in the painstaking process Kenneth Quinn had actually died…

   "The Motivation" is one of the most exciting stories in The Year's Best Horror Stories XVIII. One of life's also-rans, Peter is approaching the age when he can no longer kid himself. So when he discovers a forgotten envelope of crime-scene photos in a back room at work, he sees a motivation to bring his writing career daydream to life. Real life and old killings, alas, can be unyielding material.

The Boy with the Bloodstained Mouth by W. H. Pugmire

   "The Boy with the Bloodstained Mouth" is a prose poem, a form Wodehouse once humorously termed "pastels in prose." Pugmire's is expressionist, closely argued, emotional, and free of fumbling.

Lord of Infinite Diversions by T. Winter-Damon

   A line-enjamed free verse poem, "Lord of Infinite Diversions" gives us decadent BDSM fantasies of a brain in a jar.

Reflections by Jeffrey Goddin

   "Think of all the silica in a window. And of all the windows in a city. Frequencies can go from a crystal to a crystal -- why not from a window to a window? What if all that silica has a kind of mind of its own -- or suppose it can trap spirits, the spirits of those who've died, and never quite made it away from the earth, like we trap a bit of information in a silica chip? And suppose that this "trapping" effect allows them to build up a kind of awareness from the spirits that are trapped -- a kind of artificial intelligence? And suppose they're hostile to living humanity, because we're still alive, and we have a chance to go -- wherever we go when we die. But they're trapped here in a kind of conscious prison.

   "Reflections" is a terrific short story of real power and subtlety. My note on Goddin's story "The Smell of Cherries" in The Year's Best Horror Stories XI can be read here

Sponge and China Tea by D. F. Lewis

   "Sponge and China Tea" is a brief, unerring, and surreal short story that quickly bores down to the gruesome preoccupations that sap social convention. 

The Deliverer by Simon MacCulloch

   "The Deliverer" is a wonderfully macabre story about a child's Christmas and how it was impacted by the local vicar. (N.B. Deliveries would be an excellent subject for an anthology of horror stories.)

The Pit-Yakker by Brian Lumley

   "The Pit-Yakker" is a grim story, recalling Lumley's masterpiece "The Viaduct." "The Pit-Yakker" focuses on violence inherent in class differences under pressure of adolescence. As an example of a coming-of-age story it is free of cliché, faster and sleeker each time I read it.

Zombies for Jesus by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

   "Zombies for Jesus" is about sentient zombies in a devil's bargain: they serve a preacher whose serum keeps them filled with almost human desires and aspirations. 

On the Dark Road by Ian McDowell

   Stranded by a flat tire at night in Appalachia, a folklorist and her boyfriend encounter something they have been documenting in interviews with locals. McDowell has written a deft story, sharp and clever.

The End of the Hunt by David Drake

   Drake's "The End of the Hunt" is an off-earth race for survival tale, breakneck in speed and with no pause until the end, when context's avalanche crowns the reader's skull.

The Gravedigger's Tale by Simon Clark

    Clark's tale begins as a bit of drollery: a gravedigger having fun making a young electrician turn green. It's a clever turn, before the turn-again to clichés.

Mr. Sandman by Scott D. Yost

   Two young men share one consciousness: one is alive and awake while the other sleeps. Arbitrarily, the sleep comes on each of them as it will: 

   Jeff had never been to Delaware (not as Jeff anyway). The farthest north he'd been was Virginia when he and his father drove up one weekend last fall to a Duke-UVA football game. And except for two weeks in Jamaica, he'd spent nearly all his life in North Carolina -- the first eighteen years in Greensboro, the last three at school in Durham.

     But he knew Delaware intimately: the shortcut to Phipps's Gulf, the liquor stores with the best prices, the street corners where you could get decent cocaine. He knew all this and more because whenever he slept, that's where Mr. Sandman sent him -- to his other life, the one in Wilmington.

   Clyde, of course, saw it differently; to him Jeff was the dream.

   Jeff is a middle class university student; Clyde is working class and knows he is going nowhere. Yost does an excellent job depicting the friable realities beyond the wall of sleep. And his grasp of the meat and potatoes of real life is formidable.

Rail Rider by Wayne Allen Sallee

   Sallee does an economical conjuration of urban anomie. While non-supernatural, the atmosphere is limned with a prose not far from Leiber's "Smoke Ghost" or Campbell's "Macintosh Willy."

Archway by Nicholas Royle

    Just when she finds a haunted apartment filled with rusty coughs, asthmatic laughter, and wall cracks big enough for her fingers to explore, Bella gets fired. Her odyssey to sign up for welfare without jeopardizing her lease falls within the penumbra of a laughing demon:

    She got up to make a cup of tea and passed by the kitchen window. Down below on the patch of waste ground a figure turned its face up to her window. Bella froze to the spot. The face just stared, its eyes quite clearly defined. Bella's flesh crawled, her scalp tightened. She shivered, and a change came over the face. It became elongated as the mouth opened and formed a black triangle. Symmetrical lines deepened about the eyes and mouth, accentuating the apex at the chin and reducing the eyes to black slits. The features formed a hideous triangular mask and became fixed in that image. It was the mime artist's version of an evil sneer; malice and twisted pleasure. The person had gone when Bella looked up again.

The Guide by Ramsey Campbell

    Campbell captures coastal isolation and familial incongruity down to the last detail. And he will have his fun at the protagonist's expense: just because your M. R. James book is non-fiction doesn't mean you're not in peril.

*   *   *


29 August 2022

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Reading notes: Ozick on Harold Bloom

The below reading notes are taken from the first half of Ozick's essay "Literature as Idol: Harold Bloom" in her 1983 collection Art and Ardor.

The remainder of the essay redirects from Bloom's critical approach to a broader consideration of idolatry in Judaism. This was fascinating, but beyond my competence to understand.

[....] against a background of nineteenth-century impressionistic "appreciation," which included not only the words of the poem, but speculations about the "mood" of the poet, with appropriate allusions to the poet's life, and often enough an account of the state of mind or spirit of the reader while under the mood-influence of the poem. The New Criticism, puritan and stringent, aimed to throw out everything that was extravagant or extraneous, everything smacking of "sensibility" or susceptibility, every deviation….

[....] [Bloom's goal] revive the subjective style of impressionism, wherein the criticism of the text vies as a literary display with the text itself, and on a competitive level of virtuosity, even of "beauty."

[....] made connections well out of the provincial text itself

[....] fanatic homage to the real presence of palpable stanzas, lines, and phrases

[....] he conceived of poetry-reading as a kind of poetry-writing, or rewriting

[....] though he stuck to explication de texte in the old way, he made connections outside of the text in a new way—and, besides, he raised the subjectivist mode of vying with the original to a higher pitch

than ever before, while draining it of all self-indulgence.

[....] connections beyond "the poem itself" that he found were neither social nor psychobiographical.... they were theological

[....] Jewish Gnosticism strained through Freud, Nietzsche, Vico, and, of course, Gershom Scholem

[....] The real shock of Bloom was that he overturned what the academy had taken for granted for a good number of graduate-school generations: that if you analyze a poem closely enough, and with enough dogged attention to the inherent world of accessible allusion locked into every phrase, you will at length find out

what the poem truly means.

[....] draining it of all self-indulgence.

[....] "Few notions," Bloom observed, are more difficult to dispel than the "commonsensical" one that a poetic text is self-contained, that it has an ascertainable meaning or meanings without reference to other poetic texts. Something in nearly every reader wants to say: "Here is a poem and there is a meaning, and I am reasonably certain that the two can be brought together." Unfortunately, poems are not things but only words that refer to other words, and those words refer to still other words, and so on, into the deeply populated world of literary language. Any poem is an inter-poem, and any reading of a poem is an inter-reading. A poem is not writing, but rewriting , and though a strong poem is a fresh start, such a start is a starting-again.

[....] "Such a start is starting-again."

[....] He divides poets into "precursors" and "ephebes," or revisers; and he defines revision as purposeful misinterpretation, or "misprision."

[....] any poet born afterward is born into the condition of "belatedness," which he fights by wresting not the flame of the precursor, which cannot be taken, but the power to remake the flame. Invention is replaced by interpretation.

[....] that there is only interpretation, and that every interpretation answers an earlier interpretation, and then must yield to a later one.

[....] There are no interpretations but only misinterpretations, and so all criticism is prose poetry.

[....] interpretation is a process nearly analogous to a process in physics; to describe and summarize….

[....] how a poem comes into being out of its reading of an earlier poem, i.e., out of its own "swerving" from the influence of a powerful precursor-poem, Bloom names a "dialectic of revisionism"the drama of giants who once walked the earth, and turned "originality" into an acrobatic labor for those who came after.

[....] a contest for power, in which the competitors struggle for the possession of context; in which context is contest.

[....] contains the triad of re-seeing, re-esteeming, and re-aiming, which in Kabbalistic terms becomes the triad of contraction, breaking-of-the-vessels, and restitution, and in poetic terms the triad of limitation, substitution, and representation

[....] What Bloom means by "revisionism" is a breaking off with the precursor; a violation of what has been transmitted; a deliberate offense against the given, against the hallowed; an unhallowing of the old great gods; the usurpation of an inheritance by the inheritor himself; displacement. Above all, the theft of power.

*   *   *


24 August 2022

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Fires Burn Blue (1948) by Andrew Caldecott

Readers unfamiliar with Fires Burn Blue may prefer to read these notes only after reading the collection.

Fires Burn Blue (1948) by Andrew Caldecott

An Exchange of Notes 

     Mrs Letitia Parlington, a "rather managing woman" reminiscent of certain characters in E. F. Benson's Tilling novels, saves the Telmington Philharmonic Club's performance of Sir Cuthbert Kewbridge' Poem for Chorus and Orchestra, Northern Lights

Cheap and Nasty 

'....You did a fine stroke of business, Kitty, in getting the stove so cheap; and this house too. We couldn't have found a nicer one at double the price. Now lie down and go to sleep again, darling, and don't keep your ears waiting for noises, or you'll begin imagining them.'

Grey Brothers 

     A team is sent into a dangerous zone of the Kongean jungle to bring out a man who has declared himself its king. The area is avoided by Kongeans themselves, as it is home to man-hunting spiders.


     A small party sat up in the parlour of Brindlestone Manor to see in the new year. There were five of them, three men and two women. The stillness of a windless frosty night and the warm glow of a log fire made them sleepy; yet it was only a quarter past ten. 

     'I vote we each tell a ghost story to keep ourselves awake,' said the youngest of the men. 'I want to practise my shorthand and I'll try jotting them down.'

Authorship Disputed 

     Vampiric plagiarism or incipient insanity?

Final Touches 

     'What reason is there for the feud?' 

     'Oh! each of the two families seems to have laid the other under a curse. No Perrandale will take the bridle-path to Knapton after nightfall, and no Farribal that footway to the north of the village green. They're frightened of being "touched", they say.'

What's in a Name? 

     "What's in a Name?" is a magnificent short story. Young and privileged, Ronald Austin Transome embraces the nickname Rat that others give him. His pet white rat Snattajin assumes a totemic role in his young life. At boarding school, the victories and punishments seem to find an echo in Snattajin's own life back home. The line between love for an animal and something more occult blurs when Rat is stricken with a dangerous fever during an outbreak of measles at his school.

      Caldecott's slingshot ending is robustly droll and celebratory:

....It is pleasant to be able to close this record with a coda in the major key. The Rat did great credit to St Olave's, winning a scholarship at Winchingham where he ended by being head of the school and captain of cricket. His career at Selham College, Oxbridge, was little less distinguished, though he just missed getting his blue. After considerable success at the Bar he was appointed Chief Justice of a prosperous colony, where he now is. Mr Transome, now an octogenarian, is fond of repeating that 'all this comes of his having been brought up in a thoroughly happy home; no coddling or making too much of him.'

     The Chief Justice's interests are wide. He is known to have read a paper before a Colonial Philosophical Society on 'Some survivals of a belief in Lycanthropy'. His white bull-terrier's name is 'Snattajin'. The history of the first Snattajin used to interest his contemporaries at Winchingham and Oxbridge, also many friends of his later life. That is why it is here offered to a wider public. Names (except that of Snattajin himself) have of course been altered or disguised, but the text of the narrative was sent to the Chief Justice's private secretary for any alterations or amendments that His Honour might consider desirable in the interest of truth or accuracy. His Honour made none, but endorsed the manuscript with the one word: 'Ratified'.

Under the Mistletoe 

     A story of murder in Kongea's white colinial milieu, imbricated with local superstition and nightime sightings of figures at windows of lonely bungalows.

His Name was Legion 

     A droll village story: the impact of a local scandal sheet whose contents are reportedly written by Spirits. Caldecott catches the local politics and personalities beautifully, and ends with a sharp crescendo.

Tall Tales but True 

     Caldecott recounts two stories given to him as true. Both are brief and pleasing in their oddness. The first is about a "phantasm of the living," the second about a house, or its resident couple, who are a nexus for uncanny events only determined to be uncanny "afterward."

A Book Entry 

     "A Book Entry" is one of the most effective Kongea colonial stories. It begins as a story of apparently whimsical signatures in a visitor's book, and of sleep-talking and sleep-walking. It ends, however, with a nicely managed and chilling line of revelation. 

Seeds of Remembrance 

     The flowers are helping Mabelson more than me. They make me remember his appearance too well. I had forgotten till now that he said to me 'Someday, Brayne, you will regret this…'

     I shall have to give up smelling the flowers. They focus my attention only on Mabelson, and he has left no successors or representatives…

     Mabelson keeps breaking in on me, even without the flowers. I seem to see and hear him in the room with me: a silly, senile illusion. Despite him I am completing all other settlements….


Seated One Day at the Organ 

     The strongest supernatural story in the collection, "Seated One Day at the Organ" recounts a vision foretelling death; it is seen by Fulstowe, the Scarminster abbey organist. Canon Glenside is dismissive. At first.

*   *   *

My notes on Caldecott's Not Exactly Ghosts (1946) can be found here.

Readers looking for the antiquarianism and rhetorical cunning of M. R. James should not expect to find it in Caldecott.

Not Exactly Ghosts and the 1948 collection Fires Burn Blue are modest and worth reading. Several stories in each collection achieve the level of a pleasing terror. Stories of blood, anger, jealousy and abuse of power recall stronger tales by Wakefield and Metcalfe; Maugham's colonial tragicomedies are not far away. Caldecott is a modest writer, and his prose is clear and unaffected. 


23 August 2022

Monday, August 22, 2022

Not Exactly Ghosts (1946) by Andrew Caldecott

Readers unfamiliar with Not Exactly Ghosts may prefer to read these notes only after reading the collection.

     'But,' her husband remonstrated, 'you know that I don't believe in ghosts.'

     'No, but your aunt Cecilia does; and she is such a clever woman. By the way, she called in this morning and left you a book to look at.'

     'A book?'

     'Yes, the collected ghost stories of M. R. James.'

     'But the stupid old dear knows that I have them all in the original editions.'

     'So she said: but she wants you to read the author's epilogue to the collection which, she says, is most entertaining. It's entitled "Stories I have tried to write". She said that she'd side-lined a passage that might interest you. The book's on that table by you. No, not that: the one with the black cover.'

     Dreyton picked it up, found the marked passage and read it aloud.

     'There may be possibilities too in the Christmas cracker if the right people pull it and if the motto which they find inside has the right message on it. They will probably leave the party early, pleading indisposition; but very likely a previous engagement of long standing would be the more truthful excuse.'

     'There is certainly,' Dreyton commented, 'some resemblance between James's idea and our recent experience. But he could have made a perfectly good yarn out of that theme without introducing ghosts.'

     His wife's mood at that moment was for compromise rather than controversy.

     'Well, darling,' she temporised, 'perhaps not exactly ghosts.'

"Christmas Re-union"

*   *   *

Not Exactly Ghosts (1946) 

by Andrew Caldecott (1884-1951)

A Room in a Rectory 

     Said room is traditionally locked and left unused until the new vicar picks it for his sermon room. And what sermons they are!


     I am so sorry you could not come for the New Year. There is little news to tell you, except that our worthy (?) incumbent intrigues me more and more. He is, believe me, surely and not slowly converting this countryside to a pseudo-mediaeval demonolatry. Those sermons I told you about in my last letter were in the nature of direct approaches to Manichaeism. Last Sunday he succeeded in being even more corruptive by prompting an undesirable reference to the Old Testament. You may remember that under a bequest of old Miss Hardham every seat in St Botolph's is provided with a copy of the Bible and Apocrypha. They are seldom opened, but there was an audible turning of leaves when Tylethorpe, preaching on the prodigal son, remarked that those of us who remembered the twenty-eighth chapter of the first book of Samuel, and especially the twenty-fourth verse, would realise that the return of the prodigal was not the only return associated in Holy Writ with a slaughter of the fatted calf. The result of this reference was of course that every one of his listeners, from old Bugles down to the newest joined choirboy, was quickly reading how the witch of Endor brought up the shade of Samuel from the grave. This continual harping upon the sinister and occult cannot be good for anybody and, if I mistake not, Tylethorpe himself begins to show nervous strain. For instance, he keeps turning to look behind him in an unpleasantly odd and furtive fashion and has taken to preaching not from the front of the pulpit but with his back to the wall at its side; just as though he feared that somebody might look or lean over his shoulder. This attitude so impressed me on Sunday that I found myself half expecting to see him suddenly propelled forward by some invisible and unwelcome agency! But enough of this nonsense. Do try to get down for a week-end soon. They have put on a good afternoon train leaving town at 4.23, if you cannot manage the 12.57.

     Yours sincerely,


Branch Line to Benceston 

    The branch line was never completed, but a rider experiences it as an alternate reality, echoing his travails in the real world.

     'What are you going to do about your stairs?' he asked me.

     'Nothing,' I replied, 'and you?'

     'I'm having a fire escape put in from the box room next to my bedroom.'

     'That'll cost you something!'

     'Oh! not much. All one needs is a trap-door and a length of rope.... 

Sonata in D Minor 

     During a recording session, the blood feud between two brothers, violinist and pianist, explodes into murder. The record retains some of that homicidal energy.

[....] Whether the fault lay with player or instrument, the tone was indescribably horrible: it reminded Morcambe somehow of an animal moaning in pain, or was it rage? The piano, on the other hand, was being played exquisitely and, by contrast, made the violin all the more intolerable. Morcambe, indeed, rose from his chair to turn the radiophone off, but checked himself as he called to mind that this was an experiment and this his first reaction that he must remember to describe to Tullivant. As he moved towards the fire the tone of the violin grew even more shrill and strident, and fiercer in its apparent enmity to the piano. Catching a sudden glimpse of his reflection in the mirror above the mantelpiece, Morcambe did not like what he saw and turned angrily round. Sonata indeed! Vendetta for violin and piano, that was what he was listening to. The violinist had now reached that pizzicato passage in the first movement, in which his brutal plucking of the strings moved Morcambe to fury. With a pounce at the grate he seized the small poker from its tripod and brandished it towards the radiophone. No: there would be no relief in smashing that inanimate machine. The music clamoured for violence to flesh and blood! In a nervous frenzy he sprang towards the door, and then as suddenly recoiled. That swine, Tullivant, in his dirty cunning had, he remembered, bolted it...


     An antique desk dictates macabre self-obituaries to those seated at it.

The Pump in Thorp's Spinney 

     Nightmares inspired by obsession and coincidence plague a man from childhood. 

Whiffs of the Sea 

[....] He had thought the drawing and colouring good, as did I, and had bought it on its own merits at a sale for two pounds. He had subsequently developed a dislike for it and would let me have it for that sum. 'Nonsense,' I replied, 'you would die of remorse when you tot up your accounts! I'll give you three guineas for it. In my opinion it's good.'

     I was confirmed in this opinion when I saw the picture hanging in my rooms at Stanners Court, and Hollingdon, who dropped in for tea, congratulated me on the buy. 'It's got quite as much atmosphere in it,' he said, 'in spite of its accuracy of detail, as any of our modern impressionist stuff. The scene is almost unpleasantly alive.'

In Due Course 

     An uncle expected to live too long, a neighbor lady conducting dodgy seances, and pollarded elms by a river bank that seem to shield stick-thin figures all make for long days in the life of a nephew tired of waiting to ("in due course") inherit.

Light in the Darkness 

     Shades of Wells' "Pollock and the Porroh Man" in this story that starts in Kongea before sending its protagonist home.

     Martin Lorimer, administrator of an education college, angers everyone by trying to debunk as fraud a glowing religious shrine in a local cave. His actions cause political scandal and he is sent home; his physical change exceeds the political consequences.


     Another story set out east in Kongea. A visiting painter is needled into contempt for a local artist by Miss Cavilege, art instructor at the local college. Like Miss Scettall in "In Due Course," her unconscious witchcraft creates a dangerous atmosphere.

A Victim of Medusa 

     A brief story about a man whose life interest was jellyfish, and who discovered - sadly - a book describing their use in scrying.

Fits of the Blues 

     A man in the gem trade interferes with a local religious ceremony while visiting Kongea. Nemesis zaps him once he returns home. A longer story, coldly wrought.


Christmas Re-union

     A jolly ghost story of Christmas: a dodgy uncle at a family house party gets unwelcome news, and is sped on his departure by "a visitor from down under."

*   *   *

In his guide to supernatural fiction, Bleiler refers to Andrew Caldecott's collection as "ghost stories and whimsies." Droll or whimsical some may be, but they all advance by the negative side: the cold black humor of reversed fortunes and biters bit. The stories are free of pathos and lugubrious sentiment. If the reader is looking for tales almost as good as Saki's, Not Exactly Ghosts will serve.


22 August 2022