#971: (Spooky) Little Fictions – Ghosts from the Library [ss] (2022) ed. Tony Medawar

With the annual Bodies from the Library collections, which have brought long out-of-print stories of crime and detection back to public awareness, proving rightly popular, editor Tony Medawar turns his attention to another facet of genre fiction with the Ghosts from the Library (2022) collection, in which authors (mostly) better known for their stories of crime and detection have a go at generating some supernatural chills instead.

In honour of this collection, Tuesdays in October will be given over to spooky stories of eerie happenings. So, how do the titans of one genre fare in a second? Let’s find out…

For me, this got off to an inauspicious start with G.K. Chesterton‘s essay ‘Ghost Stories’ (1936), which benefits from some delightful turns of phrase while discussing ghost stories in contrast with detective stories (“…the whole art of a detective story is the art of getting tales out of dead men.”) but suffers because you get the impression Chesterton doesn’t really know what point he’s making. He’s sort of discussing rules and declaration and explanations (“Even the village idiot can solve the village murder, if he receives private information from the ghost of the murdered man.”), but then he goes off on a tangent about The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) before meandering to a stop. Interesting for the contrast it invites with the series which spawned this collection, perhaps, but difficult to find much value in on its own.

I appreciate my callowness in this genre when it comes to writing about something like ‘Deborah’ (1929) by Josephine Tey. Since, as Medawar points out in his introduction, the nature of supernatural stories is to leave events unexplained, there’s scope here for the detection fan to come away a little nonplussed and dissatisfied, the plot here essentially concerning two people renting a lovely country cottage and then…not staying in it. As a piece of crime fiction you’d look around the edges of what you were being told — rather like ‘The Speciality of the House’ (1948) by Stanley Ellin — but here there are no edges and so you just sort of accept what you’re told and move on.

I won’t deny that Tey has a nice turn of phrase — see the unkempt gardens around the picture-perfect cottage evoking “the incongruous effect of dishevelled hair on a carefully dressed woman” — but, like a lot of Tey’s criminous fiction, I find the overall result somewhat unsatisfying. Whether that’s this story in particular, this author’s general impact on me, or my own relative lack of experience in dealing with spooky stuff in comparison to the rationally-explained, though, I couldn’t at this point say.

Medawar has an undeniable point when he says that ‘The Red Balloon’ (1953) by Q. Patrick “foreshadows…one of the most infamous horror novels of all time”. At first, it’s not clear what unpleasant fate has befallen the young daughters of a wealthy man, with our narrator presuming them “murdered, or at best kidnapped” on account of the involvement of Lieutenant Timothy Trant, who (I understand) is usually involved in such cases. However, in the tradition of Anthony Boucher’s Fergus O’Breen, we’ll see here a detective who usually solves rational cases dragged into (or, at the very least, onto the fringes of) something decidedly less terrestrial.

It falls to the scientist Professor Edgar Saltus, uncle of our reporter narrator, to explain what he believes to be the cause of the attacks that are leaving people drained of their blood, and…wow, talk about foreshadowing! We’ve seen before in the world of mystery fiction how two similar plots can sprout independently, but this is a pretty incredible coincidence, and makes an already grimly enjoyable story even more intriguing. And the late-on explanation for the eponymous balloon seen at each of the crime scenes is a delightfully ghoulish addition to the madness.

One distinct advantage the ghost story genre has is the ability to play on the borderline atavistic fears that have almost inevitably formed part of our experience. I’ve never yet found myself invited to a country house party at which I’ve been the first person to stumble over a dead body, but I have lain awake at night in fear of the various shadowy shapes my brain has conjured out of the prosaic corners of my room (as a child, you understand; not, like, recently). It’s this latter experience that Daphne DuMaurier taps with ‘Terror’ (1928), capturing both the juvenile reasoning (“She dared not move now, because the slightest sound would tell them that she was there…”) and the agony of suspense (“She waited, waited for some sound to warn her, some sign to tell her that they were coming for her — but nothing happened…”) that young minds seem to specialise in. Short, sharp, great stuff.

Previously unpublished, ‘The Green Dress’ by Anthony Berkeley could almost be the seed of a rational story of detection, and since it doesn’t appear to have been submitted anywhere it’s difficult to know if there was initially some other purpose behind this. The painter Miles Carrington is loaned a friend’s flat, moves in, and finds the eponymous item of clothing which inspires him to his most successful painting yet. Where we go from here may not entirely surprise — genre is genre because of its conventions, after all — but at the same time, there being a criminous hand on the tiller, this almost feels like one of the vignettes from a Cornell Woolrich novel — c.f. The Bride Wore Black (1940), Rendezvous in Black (1948) — and positively bristles with potential. It works well as it is, but you also sort of want to know what happens next…so I suppose it’s doing exactly what this sort of tale is supposed to.

“Spondon Manor was built by accident on the place a hermit cursed when he was hung (sic) beside his chapel. The bell tolled when he died, and tolls now whenever a death is coming to anyone in the house”. Such is the setting of ‘The Haunted House’ (1924) by A. Fielding, to which journalist Bob Daly heads in search of a story…and finds one when the tolling of the bell signals another death. The setting and people are all very well-drawn, but come the final third Fielding suddenly drops a bunch of characters on you out of nowhere and does a frankly horrible job keeping clear who everyone is, so the entire — very promising — setup is squandered by a muddled, messy, impenetrable ending.

Possibly a better weird tale is just how little we know about A. Fielding, which Medawar’s afterword makes clear. Impressive that someone can write 25 novels of detection during the genre’s Golden Age and we don’t even know what gender pronouns to use when discussing them. Get your conspiracy theories in now…

Agatha Christie was no stranger to the eerie side of things, as anyone who has read The Hound of Death [ss] (1933) can attest, and the radio play ‘Personal Call’ (1954), in which Mr James Brent is disturbed by a call from his ex-wife as he’s hosting a soiree at home, shows a calm and competent hand at work. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s a criminal-adjacent element to this, and again I marvel at how stories for radio are required to do so much of their work via dialogue alone…laying the groundwork for later revelations through means that mayn’t be the most subtle but are certainly very effective. I have nothing of any real import to say beyond this, but don’t take that as an implied dismissal — there’s a reason Christie remains so well-loved after all these years, and this displays some of her keenest thinking.

I’ve thus far only read H.C. Bailey in the Bodies from the Library collections — if someone would please rerelease his Reggie Fortune stories in quality paperback editions I’d be much obliged — and ‘The Woman Who Cried’ (1912) is another strong effort from him. The tone here is positively dripping with satire as the fussy Mr. and Mrs. Burbridge stand in the way of their daughter Mary marrying the eminently suitable Tom Hall for reasons of their own:

They had kept [Mary], as it were, with the blinds down and the windows shut on life…. They had counted on her living with them, sweet, docile, attentive, till they had no more use for her. It would be only a daughter’s simple, easy duty to loving parents — a slight return for all they had done for her. They would be much surprised, even now, if you suggested that there was something of the vampire about them.

Bailey really excels in the little moments, such as Mr. Burbridge “discover[ing] several things which he ought to have said and, strutting, [saying] them to the empty room” after Hall has departed their stormy interview, and the gradual, creeping gloominess of their menage as the spirit realm becomes involved is adroitly handled. For its era, too, the ending feels oddly ahead of its time, and the ease with which this progresses really does commend it. I keep saying it, but Bailey clearly requires further exploration.

I can’t prove this, and it’s by no means a criticism of the quality of the stories elsewhere to say so, but ‘The Witch’ (1962) by Christianna Brand is so utterly superb that I can well believe it and it alone was the motivation for assembling this collection. Twice as long as anything else in here, you’ll wish it was twice as long again, so deftly does Brand weave a tapestry around 24 year-old orphan Laura James, newlywed to Gereth Morgan after a six week infatuation, and learning to her horror the pull that Gereth’s first love Dorion Rhos — a.k.a. Dorion y Gwrach, or Dorion the Witch — still exerts over the man.

I don’t want to say too much about any of these tales, but this one in particular is best read largely pure, as it delves into the eerie influence Dorion has on everyone around her, raising her witch-claim above that of her ancestors who “boiled up herbs and made cures” in the grand tradition of most accusations of witchcraft. And Brand does well to avoid the usual cliches of her eponymous sorceress, too, giving the reader every opprtunity to fall as bewtichingly under her spell as the characters who encountered her already have. And yet your sympathies are always with Laura: isolated, terrified, and facing up to the improbable with growing unease and yet also growing resolution…goddamn, this is magnificent stuff. Worth buying the collection for this alone.

“The first time it happened to me was in June of 1961” would have been a great opening line for ‘Death in a Dream’ (1963) by Laurence Meynell, but it happens about a page into this short, entertaining story of second sight. The best short stories get in, do what they need to, and get out, and Meynell ends this at the right time, before the slimness of his undertaking ends up carrying too much weight or inviting too much scrutiny. Again, don’t take the brevity of this comment as an implied criticism of the story’s quality — I wish more authors had this much restraint where shorter form tales are concerned.

Unpublished in the author’s lifetime, ‘The Haunted Grange of Goresthorpe’ is likely an early effort by Arthur Conan Doyle because of how heavily it leans into the trappings of a Victorian ghost hunt: spooky abandoned mansion, plucky friend-of-the-narrator who instigated the undertaking, conventional stalking ghost (though Doyle is wise to the trope of “the orthodox spectre with his curse, and his chain warranted to rattle, and his shady retreat down some back stairs, or in the cellar…”). Written in Doyle’s trademark, muscular prose, this is enjoyable even if it does nothing you don’t expect.

Of additional interest, however, is that the two characters featured come from opposing sides of the spiritualist debate, notable because, like our narrator Jack, Doyle was a doctor who viewed things rationally and then became, like the friend Tom Hulton, a confirmed believer in later life. Certainly some of Tom’s arguments have about them the air of a man wishing to be convinced on a topic, so maybe this came from a period when Doyle was beginning to believe…

‘Misleading Lady’ (1935) by Margery Allingham is a little, er, deceptive in its setup and conclusion, perhaps shifting tones in the latter stages on account of its being written for a Christmas anthology. Concerning two actress friends — Genevieve, who is still treading the boards even as she ages and roles dry up, and Lucille, married to the millionaire film star Raymond Asche and enjoying the finer things in life — the essential thrust here is that Lucille believes the house her husband has recently purchased to be haunted, “and not by any usual sort of ghost”. Alligham always did have a flair for minor characters, and here the history of the mansion’s former owner and his tyrannical treatment of his wife is limned with typical aplomb…raising the concern that the man’s character has somehow imprinted itself on the house, which will in turn overwhlem Lucille.

There’s some fun to be had with Genevieve’s bitchy asides regarding fellow professionals, or her level-headed advice that Lucille undertake “diets and two hours’ walking exercise every day” as a way of combatting the funk into which she has slipped, but ultimately this all boils away because, well, it’s Chriiiiiiistmaaaaaas, and so we have a weirdly forced happy ending that frankly reeks of gaslighting and enables everyone to just carry on as they were. Not that ghost stories can’t have happy endings, but when you’ve built up this as adroitly as Allingham has, it seems a shame to just dust of hands of it, say ‘Well, never mind’ and sweep all that has gone before away as so much disposable rubbish.

“The whole thing began when I read in a Pittsburgh newspaper the account of my own death” — hot damn, there’s an opening line! Trust John Dickson Carr to open ‘The Legend of the Cane in the Dark’ (1926) in such compelling fashion, and to then follow it up with a series of urgent, kaleidoscopic encounters which only mount the terror and confusion. A shame, then, that the young Carr doesn’t yet know how to conclude this early effort and resorts to a sort of Spontaneous Confession where information simplty pours out irrespective of context. Still, shows the young man’s mind working keenly, and we know how things would develop in the years ahead.

This story, incidentally, is one of the New Canterbury Tales Carr co-wrote with Frederic Prokosch for The Haverfordian, and which have been reprtined in full in The Kindling Spark: Early Tales of Mystery, Horror, and Adventure (2022), newly released from Crippen & Landru. Expect a review of that in due course.

I still think that the most sinister thing Edmund Crispin wrote is going to remain ‘Child’s Play’ from Bodies from the Library 4 (2021), but ‘St. Bartholomew’s Day’ (1975) is nevertheless notable for how un-Crispinian it feels. Written with a sort of detatched air, as befits its framing of a man reporting on historical events he did not experience, this tale of a historical researcher seeking details of the life of the “torturer, murderer, magician and apostate” le Vicomte Raoul de Savigny feels oddly documentarian for most of its length. The two scenes of intended impact — one detailing the victome’s death, one revealing something eldritch close at hand — hit hard and certainly leave a lasting impression, but a bit of technicolor revelry around this would make the whole thing breathe a little more. Crispin is pulling back so hard on the reins here that it’s difficult to feel too invested.

Interestingly, Medawar’s afterword revelas that this was originally published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It’s decidedly not the sort of criminous tale you would associate with that august publication, not even in apparently setting up some terrestrial problem and resolving it in a ghostly manner…or vice versa as we’ve seen in some of the earlier efforts herein. Name recognition alone was clearly enough for the editors at the time, but you have to wonder what the readers made of it at the time.

Any collection of ghost stories would feel incomplete without M.R. James, and ‘Martin’s Close’ (1911) is here to happily fill that niche. This concerns the trial of the monied Geroge Martin, who is accused of murdering country girl Ann Clark and dumping her body in a local pond — a proceeding confounded by reports of sightings of Ann Martin long after she was suspected dead, which presiding judge George Jeffreys treats with the expected disdain (“Why, Mr. Attorney, you might save up this tale for a week; it wil be Christmas by that time and you can frighten your cook-maids with it.”). James does good work communicating the different social standings of his players by their use — or incomprehension — of “country speech”, and there’s at least one shuddersome image to get your mind working, wrapping up his tale neatly with the sort of irresolution one expects in James’ relatings of the uncanny.

Dorothy L. Sayers’ ‘Coda to the Late Provost’s Ghost Story’ (1937) is then a brief follow-up to James’ tale, which invites no new interpretation — as in, say, the addtions to The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) did — but rather offers a brief glimpse at the prisoner following that trial. I had expected a little more, not least because the prisoner had insisted on his own innocence early in James’ story, but that’s not Sayers’ intent, and it would be folly to expect too much from so brief an addendum.

I typically pick a top 5 when reviewing longer collections, and in this case it would currently be:

  1. ‘The Witch’ (1962) by Christianna Brand
  2. ‘The Red Balloon’ (1953) by Q. Patrick
  3. ‘The Woman Who Cried’ (1912) by H.C. Bailey
  4. ‘Terror’ (1928) by Daphne Du Maurier
  5. ‘Death in a Dream’ (1963) by Laurence Meynell

All told, this is a delightfully shiversome set of tales to be read over a series of dark nights, and shows a gift with the uncanny that may not have been previously suspected of some of the names herein. We can consider ourselves immensely fortunate to have these made available, and I’d like to thanks Harper Collins for providing me with an advance copy to curl up with.

So, what comes next — more Ghosts from the Library, or another ________s from the Library spinoff? What would you like to see Medawar tackle, dear reader? The man’s an expert in the obscure and previously unavailable, so if there’s a fictional itch you wish to see collected, he’s the one to take on the challenge of scratching it on our behalfs!

~

The Ghosts from the Library collections, edited by Tony Medawar

  1. Ghosts from the Library (2022)

The Bodies from the Library collections, edited by Tony Medawar

  1. Bodies from the Library (2018)
  2. Bodies from the Library 2 (2019)
  3. Bodies from the Library 3 (2020)
  4. Bodies from the Library 4 (2021)
  5. Bodies from the Library 5 (2022)

2 thoughts on “#971: (Spooky) Little Fictions – Ghosts from the Library [ss] (2022) ed. Tony Medawar

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