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.'
'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.'
* * *
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!
MY DEAR SMITH
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.
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.
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