Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Fontana Book of [mostly] Great Ghost Stories, Volume I

In his allusion-rich introduction to the first Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories, Robert Aickman states that “there are only about thirty or forty first-class ghost stories”.  The long-running Fontana series published several hundred, and most were at least pretty good.  Aickman, who edited the first eight volumes of the series (1964-1972) before turning over the reins to R. Chetwynd-Hayes, suggests that many of the best are from the early Twentieth Century, “The pre-1914 Eden with the snake only just stirring”.  Indeed, almost half of the stories in this volume are from before the First World War.  

The Travelling Grave, by L.P. Hartley, is a unique, bizarre tale of a deadly contraption perambulating around an English country house.

The Ghost Ship, by Richard Middleton, cozily describes the effect of a ghostly pirate ship running aground in a turnip field adjacent to an already-haunted village.

Squire Toby’s Will is one of J.S. LeFanu’s classic chillers, involving a family squabble that continues after death.

William Hope Hodgson’s The Voice in the Night is an overwrought tale of fungus among us.

Three Miles Up, by Elizabeth Jane Howard, concerns the explorations of two young men on a canal boat.  Three Miles Up originally appeared in the Howard/Aickman collaboration We Are for the Dark, and it is so Aickman-esque I have a feeling that writing it was a very close collaboration indeed.  Aickman himself was ambiguous about this, as quoted here. I haven't read the rest of Howard's stories from We Are for the Dark, but this blogger has.

D.H. Lawrence’s The Rocking-Horse Winner is memorable and sad, a cautionary tale about the pursuit of riches.

The Wendigo, by Algernon Blackwood, is a story I first read as a kid, and the cry, “Oh, oh!  My burning feet of fire!” has always stuck with me.  Rereading this tale of a Canadian woods-spirit was a great reminder of Blackwood’s mastery of the horror and mystery of wild places.

The Crown Derby Plate, by Marjorie Bowen, is a succinct and creepy tale of mistaken identity, but one of the less memorable stories in this collection.

As he did in six of his eight Fontana collections, Aickman includes one of his own, The Trains, first published in We Are for the Dark.  It concerns two young hikers who come upon a house by an isolated but busy rail line.  Despite my great enjoyment of Aickman, I have to admit that The Trains is not one of my favorites.  It has its moments.

The Old Nurse’s Story, by Mrs. (Elizabeth) Gaskell, is the most old-fashioned ghost story in the collection (not surprisingly, since it was originally published in 1852).  It contains nothing unexpected, but it satisfies.

The collection finishes with Seaton’s Aunt, by Walter de la Mare, in which the titular character exerts a malign influence on her young nephew and the reader is never quite sure if the supernatural is involved.  De la Mare makes you wish poor Seaton would just get haunted by ghosts instead of being haunted by his aunt’s psychological torture.

Nitpickers, of which I am usually one, may remark that not all of the works in the collection are strictly ghost stories, but all in all, the first Fontana Collection of Great Ghost Stories does provide a number of great stories, and some good ones.


  1. I used to have all those back in the day. I don't know if you've already written about it or not but did you know that the first Pan Book of Horror Stories by Herbert Van Thal was reissued again last year? I found a website all about it - http://www.panbookofhorrorstories.co.uk - when I was looking for an image of the black cat cover. Check it out, it's fascinating.

  2. Thanks for the link - that's exciting news, and a very interesting site. I've only come across a few of the Pan collections. Great covers (and contents)!