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Archive for the ‘Marjorie Bowen’ Category

So we’re finished with the Marjorie Bowen collection, and I was pleased to find two very good stories and two pretty good ones. As these things go, that’s an excellent rate of success.

Now, which author shall I review next? I have six books from the Wordsworth collection to choose from. I decided that the next author should be male, but oddly enough, out of the seven books that I have, six were written by women. Women did indeed write a lot of ghost stories in this period, but I don’t like most of them. I find that women tended to write sentimental, romantic stories through which wispy, beautiful, forlorn ghosts drift. MR James and I strongly disapprove of this kind of thing.

There are, of course, female authors who wrote good ghost stories. Bowen, for example, did not shy away from horror, and wrote some pretty grim stuff. Edith Nesbit, better known for her children’s fiction, wrote some great stories; a collection of hers is one of the upcoming six books. Violet Paget, under the pen name Vernon Lee, wrote her share of soppy stuff, but also a nearly perfect Jamesean piece, which I will write about at more length in the future.

At any rate, we’re going to be reading a lot of stories written by women over the next few months; I am sure that we will come across more than a few excellent ones.

That said, for the next book, I’ve selected the only one written by a man. A Night on the Moor & Other Tales of Dread by R. Murray Gilchrist (the R stands for Robert).

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In the Edwardian and late Victorian era there was a popular craze for mysticism. Mediums held seances for a fashionable clientele, and everyone was talking about Madame Blavatsky and mesmerism and auras and spirit rappings. So there was a huge market for mystical, undead-type literature, and you’d think that this would have resulted in unprecedented numbers of excellent ghost stories. Sadly, this wasn’t really the case.

I learned long ago in my ghost story reading career that a story that features any kind of parapsychological pseudoscience has a 90% chance of being sucky. The only non-awful ones I can think of right now are the Carnacki the Ghost-Finder stories by William Hope Hodgson; some of those are quite decent. Not terribly memorable, but good creepy fun.

Stories about seances always end up being soppy, melodramatic and tedious. And stories that take a pseudoscientific approach to phenomena? It should stand to reason that when you try to give an occurence a scientific reason, it stops being scary. I mean, come on, if you write a story in which the main character discovers that ghosts are merely recordings being endlessly played back, you destroy any potential for mystery or menace. You’re just writing bad science fiction now.

What makes MR James so very very good is that you never really have any idea about what is going on on the other side. There is just a vague and horrible impression of an occult, malevolent world that sometimes touches ours. There is no attempt at explanation. There are strange powers prowling the world like ravenous lions; don’t interfere with them. Lock your doors and close your curtains at night and don’t read that curious manuscript. That’s all you need (or want) to know.

EF Benson and Algernon Blackwood, both legendary writers of excellent ghost stories, also wrote stories about spiritualism and parapsychology. Those stories were abysmal. If EF Benson and Algernon Blackwood can’t do it, it really oughtn’t to be attempted.

But this was supposed to be a review of Ann Mellor’s Lover. It’s about clarevoyance. This is going to be terribly anticlimactic; after all that I’ve said, I really ought to condemn it as irredeemable tripe,  but… it’s not that bad. It’s kinda silly, but it’s readable and held my interest. It’s about a guy who discovers a sketch of a girl, and immediately, through clarevoyance, realizes that he was linked to her in a past life; he then undertakes an investigation. It sucks as a ghost story, but as middlebrow short fiction, it’s passable.

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Kecksy: a kind of weed.

Kecksies is a pretty unremarkable story about the dead coming back to life in order to do something they intended to do while alive.
It takes place in the 17 or 18th century, and features a couple of rich scapegraces meeting unexpectedly with the corpse of an enemy. The two behave badly and stupidly, and I had no sympathy at all for them. I wonder why Bowen so often writes such despicable characters. Perhaps her intent was to soften the shock to the reader when such a character inevitably meets with a gruesome fate.
It is certainly true that you don’t want a ghost story with a main character who is charming and lovable and ends up getting his brains sucked out by the creature at the end of the story. That would be depressing. I think, though, that Bowen’s extreme vilification of her characters is even worse; when the characters aren’t believable as people, and are really just caricatures of vice, you can’t empathize with them at all and so the story is always held at arm’s length.
MR James’ characters are perfect in this regard; they are inoffensive but not endearing. Just regular, boring people. So unremarkable, in fact, that they’re almost placeholders. It’s easy for the reader to replace the character with himself, thus heightening the sense of dread.

Anyway; Kecksies: dull. Hopefully the next (and last) story in this anthology will make up for it.

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This is a queer story, the more queer for the interpretation of passions of the strong human heart that have been put upon it and for glimpses of other motives and doings not, it would seem, human at all.

The whole thing is seen vaguely, brokenly, a snatch here and there: one tells the tale, strangely another exclaims amazed, a third points out a scene, a fourth has a dim memory of a circumstance, a nine days’ (or less) wonder, an old print helps, the name on a mural tablet in a deserted church pinches the heart with a sense of confirmation, and so you have your story; when all  is said and done, it remains a queer tale.

This is how The Avenging of Ann Leete begins. I love the way a ghost story gradually comes to light, starting with some uncanny coincidence, and then some careful prying and pointed questions, dread slowly mounting all the while. All the best ghost stories start with an investigation of some sort.
(OK some don’t; it’s hyperbole, leave me alone.)

Anyway, despite the promising opening, this isn’t a great story. It’s got a ghost, but the ghost isn’t malevolent or odious; it’s just sad and droopy and boring. There is a bad guy who gets his comeuppance due to ghostly intervention. It’s all pretty standard.
Too many ghost stories end up this way; they’re just sort of romantic tragedies rather than the horror you and I and all of us love.

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This is a tale that might be told in many ways and from various points of view; it has to be gathered from here and there – a letter, a report, a diary, a casual reference. In its day the thing was more than a passing wonder, and it left a mark of abiding horror on the neighbourhood.

So begins Scoured Silk; an auspicious first paragraph if there ever was one. This is a horror story rather than a ghost story. Nothing in the least bit supernatural happens. But that’s fine, so long as it’s creepy.

It’s about a bachelor living in an old house in London. He moved there from the country with his young wife but she died soon after. 20 years later, he became engaged to a young lady, and the story begins 2 weeks before the wedding. The young bride-to-be is happy enough until she begins to notice the strange attitude her betrothed has toward his dead wife. I’m not going to say any more, because this is a fun, creepy story and deserves to be read. Bowen gets so much right here; the pacing is excellent, and you’re kept guessing right up to the denouement.

Spoilers

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This is kind of a boring story about Foreigners and intrigue and rings and masks and forbidden love and pharmacists.

A Foreigner in a mask comes to the chemist’s shop in the middle of the night, demanding to see the doctor who is the chemist’s boarder. The Foreigner tells the doctor that a lady needs immediate medical assistance, and that he must come at once. The chemist then sees The Foreigner’s bare wrist and notes with shock that he is Black, oh horror and consternation! The chemist pleads with the doctor not to go with this man who is not only A Foreigner, but also Black. However, The Foreigner presents the doctor with an ornate ring.  When he sees this ring, the doctor turns pale and says “I must go,” blah blah.

Some not very interesting stuff ensues. No ghosts or other supernatural forces deign to relieve the tedium. I was expecting more from a story with the word ‘adventure’ in the title.

I’m not exactly sure how I could even spoil this story except…

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Underneath the title of The Grey Chamber, it says “Anonymous” and “Translated from the French by Marjorie Bowen,” but I don’t doubt that Bowen was actually the author; this story does not read like any old French ghost story I’ve ever come across.

It’s a very nice little “haunted chamber” story. These stories are all basically the same; there is a guest room in an old mansion or castle that has a reputation for being haunted, and so it is never used. But one night, out of necessity or bravado, a guest passes the night there.

In The Grey Chamber, the lady of the house is away, and as there are no other rooms made up for guests,  the main character must be content with the Grey Chamber. This was, in long ago times, the bedroom of a beautiful young woman who had consecrated herself to God and was about to enter a convent. However, some villain, who had heard of her beauty, broke into her room and raped her. Since she was no longer a virgin, she was denied entrance to the convent, and in despair she killed herself. In the Grey Chamber, of course. And so, inevitably, the main character finds his sleep disturbed.

This story could have been pretty bland, since it plays so close to type, but in the end Bowen does some unconventional things to make the story quite memorable and actually somewhat disturbing. In some ways, the ending echoes a much superior story, the excellent Thurnley Abbey by Perceval Landon.

How? Spoilers after jump.

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