Saturday, August 27, 2011

The 2nd Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories

My copy of the second Fontana collection of ghost stories arrived from an Amazon Marketplace seller with a mysterious black sticky spot on the back cover, in which were lovingly nestled several long, coarse hairs.  It was one of the more disgusting things I’ve found on a used book.

Robert Aickman’s introduction to the collection rambles and entertains as usual:  “Some people hope there are ghosts.  Some people hope there are not.  Most people, I suspect, manage to combine both of these aspirations, hoping and dreading at the same time.”

The opening story, Playing with Fire, is by none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and deals with a séance where the apparition is much more novel than the usual deceased relative.

Man-Size in Marble, by Edith Nesbit (best known for her early 1900s children’s books) conveys sadness and loss along with horror, as a young couple moves into a country cottage near a haunted church.

Robert Hichens’ How Love Came to Professor Guildea is frequently anthologized, and deserves to be.  Aickman dubs it “one of the best ghost stories ever written”.  It concerns a cold man of science and his downfall as an intangible thing creeps into his life and his home, a thing which is first heard via Guildea’s parrot imitating it:

“The voice was sickly and disagreeable, a cooing, and at the same time, querulous voice… a loathsome voice”.
While the owner of the voice only wants to love Guildea, the professor will have none of it.

The Demon Lover, by Elizabeth Bowen, is a short, tautly constructed piece dealing with the return of a woman’s former lover, thought lost in war.

A.V. Laider, by writer and caricaturist Sir Max Beerbohm, involves palmistry.  It has one sharp scene of macabre tension, but tends to ramble for the most part. 

Poe’s The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, with its “liquid mass of…loathsome putridity” (maybe that’s what was on the back cover of this volume) seems to have appeared in innumerable anthologies.

As much as I enjoy Lord Dunsany, the science fiction Our Distant Cousins (one of his Jorkens tales) is neither a ghost story nor great.  Aickman calls it a “superb allegory” in his introduction, but I can’t agree.

Aickman’s contribution, The Inner Room, is centered on a large and gloomy dollhouse and its inhabitants.  I think it’s one of his better stories; it showcases his talent for producing unsettling work that sticks with the reader due to ambiguity and sheer strangeness.

The cover illustration for this second volume of The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories is taken from a scene in Perceval Landon’s Thurnley Abbey –it portrays a mustached gent who at first glance I mistook for Hitler, crouching in fear as an apparition glides past.  This tale is effective and has the most tangible ghost of any in the collection.

Nightmare Jack, by John Metcalfe, is one of the lowlights here.  It’s a pulp magazine-ish story of stolen rubies and supernatural revenge, mostly told in dialect which is a little obnoxious to read. 

Ambrose Bierce’s The Damned Thing might be even more over-anthologized than Poe’s tale.  It’s always worth a read for those who enjoy Bierce’s bitter humor. 

Finally, Edith Wharton delivers with Afterward, which has a nice premise:

“That there’s a ghost, but nobody knows it’s a ghost?”
“Well – not till afterward, at any rate.”
“Till afterward?”
“Not till long afterward.”

For me, this second Fontana collection wasn’t as enjoyable as the first.  I’d read many of the stories elsewhere, and there were a few less than stellar selections.  Still, it does contain some excellent tales of terror. 


  1. This is a great blog. I especially love your comments on all those wonderful ghost and horror anthology books which were such a big part of my reading tastes back in the 70s. I am now a published horror and paranormal writer myself, and I certainly have a lot to thank these books for being such a big influence on me in regard to taking up writing myself.