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Archive for August, 2009

When I read the title of this story, I immediately pictured some sort of satanic necromancer bishop, innocently conducting mass in the cathedral by day, and holding wicked and blasphemous rites in the crypt by night.

But I was disappointed. It’s about an 18th century rogue who is nicknamed The Bishop of Hell because he’d taken orders but was kicked out because of all the trouble he’d gotten into. After ruining tons of women and driving them to suicide, he gets a bit bored with standard debauchery, and proceeds to run off to Europe with his benefactor’s moronic-but-hot wife. A few years later he unexpectedly comes into money and a title and so comes back to England, only to find his ex-benefactor waiting for him. And where are the ghosts, you may well ask? Tacked on at the very end like an afterthought. The description of the ghost was actually quite creepy, but it was too little too late.

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This story had no ghosts at all, not one. Not even an is or isn’t it ghost.
Also it was very depressing, about a little girl who lives in a big old house with a cruel grandmother and her unkind servants. And the ending was miserable.

It was a pretty decent story as short fiction goes, but it was not my sort of thing at all.

Next, The Bishop of Hell!

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I never expected to find a quasi-Lovecraftian twist in a Marjorie Bowen story, but there it was, all wriggling and slimy and nameless.

In Florence Flannery, the eponymous Florence (I hesitate to call her a heroine, because she’s pretty awful) marries a wastrel because she thinks he’s richer than he is. He takes her home to his family seat, and she is aghast to find it decaying and her husband bankrupt. The two immediately regret marrying, and spend most of the story in varying states of sobriety, thinking about how much they hate each other and how absolutely dreadful it all is. These two are a little more pathetic than the pair of vampiric sea snakes in The Housekeeper, so I didn’t get as irritated with the story, but on the whole it was still pretty unpleasant, and I would have been frustrated if not for the timely eldritch intervention.

Spoilers after jump

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Peruke:

1. A wig
2. Weird antlers grown by castrated deer

This story is about a hideous, depraved, dissolute, dissipated 18th century con artist, his equally revolting current wife, and his shrewish and tidy dead wife. He married his current wife under the misconception that she had some cash socked away. She married him for the same reason, and both were unpleasantly surprised when after the wedding there was nothing with which to pay the rent on his fabulous mansion.
They whinge at each other like harpies for a bit, and then some weird stuff starts to happen. None of it is interesting weird; I wasn’t terribly captivated by this story. The freaky deer antlers that I found by googling the word “peruke” were more interesting.
It’s hard for me to care much about a story when the main characters are so completely obnoxious. I was just basically “yeah yeah die already,” the entire time. I don’t need particularly sympathetic characters, just not loathesome ones.

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The Crown Derby Plate starts off cozily, with three elderly women sitting before the fire in the drawing room of the country house where they are spending Christmas. The conversation turns, as is its wont, to ghosts.
This story is unusual in that it is women who are telling stories; traditionally it’s the men, lingering over port, who bring out the old school tales or the curious thing that happened to Wigglesworth out in Rhodesia. When women tell ghost stories (in ghost stories), it is more typically in the form of written correspondence.
(As an aside, I deeply appreciated the word “ungetatable” on page 36.)
The atmosphere is very well done in this story; Bowen knows how to set a haunting, desolate scene, and contrast it sharply with a cozy hearth. The setting (but not the plot) is very reminiscent of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black.
In The Crown Derby Plate, an antique collector visiting friends hears about an old woman in the neighborhood who lives in a large, run-down, rumored haunted house who has a large collection of china. Hoping to complete her set of Crown Derby, the collector pays a visit to the house.
A few pages into this story, I realized that I had read it before, anthologized somewhere–and no wonder. It is solidly and absolutely a ghost story, and a very good one at that. After The Fair Hair of Ambrosine, I was afraid that the rest of Bowen’s stories would be vaguely supernatural thrillers, but this is an unsettling story of ghostly horror in the tradition of Joseph Sheridan LeFanu.

Spoilers after the jump
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This is a fairly typical is or isn’t it supernatural story. Other is or isn’t it stories are The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I am, to put it mildly, not a fan of these kinds of stories. They play a coy guessing game with the reader that I find a bit condescending and tiresome. Henry James seems to have used the is or isn’t it trope as a way to write about ghosts without really writing ghost stories, which were not recognized as high literature. But I digress; I will have to devote a future entry entirely to Henry James and the problem of the literary ghost.
Despite my dislike of the is or isn’t it device, The Fair Hair of Ambrosine is an inoffensive, if unremarkable, little story. It takes place during the Reign of Terror period of the French Revolution. The main character, Claude, is a clerk of some kind, whose mistress was murdered two years before the story begins. He now finds himself plagued by nightmares about her death.
There are no readily apparent ghosts in this story; it’s more of a thriller with a supernatural tinge.
The writing is quite serviceable, with only a slight tendency to the artistic.

Spoilers after the jump

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I recently discovered the existence of a new series of classic ghost story reprints by Wordsworth. I’m very excited about this collection; it includes entire collections of stories by obscure writers who usually only get their most popular story published occasionally in anthologies. There are even some authors whom I’ve never heard of before.

So I ordered eight from Amazon, and I thought it would be fun to write a bit about each story as I work my way through them. I also plan, aside from writing about the Wordsworth stories, to feature some of my other favorites.

Look at this book! The Bishop of Hell! How could I resist this?! First up, The Fair Hair of Ambrosine.

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