Saturday, June 14, 2014

"Weird... alarming... occult": The 4th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories

Robert Aickman begins his introduction to Fontana #4 with a dour rant against science and the familiar prophecy that science will, if not kill us all, at least "close in the world around us, shutter by shutter..."  He continues with "truth can be found only through the imagination" before getting on with it:  "Ghost stories inquire and hint, waver and dissemble, startle and astonish.  They are a last refuge from the universal affirmative shout."

The 4th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories contains ten stories, starting with The Accident, by Ann Bridge, the pen name of an author not know for ghost stories, who based most of her work, including this story, on her travels.  The Accident takes place at a Swiss resort and involves mountain climbers menaced, without much of a motive, by the spirits of deceased mountain climbers.

Not on the Passenger List, by Barry Pain, is one of the more satisfying stories in the collection.  On an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic, a jealous shade pursues a widow on her way to remarry.  Pain's tale is congenial and concise, sunny yet chilly, and makes me want to read more of his horror stories and other fiction.

To call Oscar Wilde's The Sphinx without a Secret a ghost story is to use an already loose term even more loosely.

Vincent O'Sullivan's When I was Dead quickly veers in an unexpected direction as the narrator mentions his belief that "if you place some drops of human blood near you, and then concentrate, you will after a while see a man or a woman who will stay with you during long hours of the night..."

The Queen of Spades by Pushkin, is the story of an elderly countess in possession of a surefire way to win at cards and the avaricious soldier who wants the knowledge at any price.  Needless to say, things end badly for him.  Tchaikovsky loosely based an opera on this story.

The ghostly strangulation depicted on the cover of this volume comes from Hugh Walpole's The Snow, in which a temperamental second wife fails to heed the warnings of the protective first wife's ghost.

Along with Not on the Passenger List, Carleton's Father, by Eric Ambrose, is one of the highlights of this collection.  The plot involves a room insulated from time, and the writing has a classic pulp magazine tone.

What can be said about A School Story, by M.R. James?  James is frequently, and deservedly, anthologized and this classic might be his most frequently printed story.  I've read it so many times in different places that I have it almost memorized.  "He was beastly thin, and he looked as if he was wet all over, and... I'm not at all sure he was alive."  James specialized in concise chills.

In The Wolves of Cernogratz, by Saki, wolves appear and howl when members of the aristocratic von Cernogratz family die in their castle.

Mad Monkton, by Wilkie Collins, involves hereditary madness in 60 gothic pages, over one third of the total word count in The 4th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories.  It's enjoyable, but a few more shorter stories would have been preferable instead.  There's no contribution from Aickman in this collection; his writing (The Swords) returns in the next volume.

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