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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.

Scoured Silk, Marjorie Bowen

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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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.

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!

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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