Thursday, 11 February 2016

The 4th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories

Robert Aickman (ed)
Fontana Books

After finally getting to read some stories by Aickman, who over the last year had climbed to the top of my list of authors I wanted to track down, I noticed on my shelf this anthology of stories chosen by him.  It's the only one of the Fontana series I've managed to track down so far and it's a real delight.

For Aickman 'The essential quality of the ghost story is that it gives form to the unanswerable' and that key aspect of the unknown and mysterious is what guides the choice of stories.  There are few answers here and resolutions are often ephemeral.

Opening the book is 'The Accident' by Ann Bridge.  The pseudonymous Bridge was an avid mountain climber and her story reflects this as a psychiatrist attempts to help a young brother and sister menaced by sinister letters and footprints in the snow.  It's an attractive premise but one which is hampered by Bridge's
love of climbing and so much of the suspense becomes lost in the descriptions of the activity.

Barry Pain's 'Not On The Passenger List' is one in a long line of ocean traversing ghost stories. Here a widow on her way to England is haunted by a ghost that, unusually, is also seen by other passengers.  the story is told by another traveller and whilst not played for laughs has a lightness to it that indicates, to me at least, an author more at home with a more frivolous story style.

Oscar Wilde
The great Oscar Wilde is represented by a story called 'The Sphinx Without a Secret' wherein two men discuss a recent doomed romance and the enigmatic lady at the centre of it.  It is the most sparse of tales with the entire story revolving around the ladies behaviour and the endless connotations implied by the ambiguity of the ending.

The American writer (and friend of Wilde) Vincent O'Sullivan offers a fairly inconsequential but amusingly macabre little story of a belligerent ghost in denial of his own death in 'When I Was Dead' before we are provided with a translation of Alexander Pushkin's 'The Queen of Spades' that reveals itself at the last to be an amusing tale of spectral revenge rather than a fairly typical tale of avaricious behaviour within the Russian nobility.

Whilst more renowned as a critic Desmond MacCarthy's 'Pargiton and Harby' shows him to have had a keen predilection for the weird as his tale of a man haunted by an event in his past reveals itself to be far more interesting than it's premise.

Hugh Walpole
Whilst we're on the subject of the weird Hugh Walpole's 'The Snow' is a brief, fiery examination of a marriage in tumultuous decline as the husband's placidity and the young wife's irascibility clash irrevocably in the shadow of his dead wife's memory.

I can find very little information regarding the author of the next story, Eric Ambrose, other than that he was English and his from and to dates.  His story, 'Carlton's Father', written in 1936 is a fabulous piece of proto-steampunk that any attempt to explain would spoil so onto the next which is by the peerless M.R. James.

'A School Story' is one of the fastest moving of James' tales with a rapidity of telling that takes it's tempo from the narrators bewildered retelling of the events surrounding the disappearance of a teacher.  It isn't one of James' most involved tales and the ending goes a bit too far but it's always fun to dip into any of James' works.

I've read a few of Saki's stories over the last couple of years and they're usually enjoyable but they've never grabbed me as much as some of his contemporaries.  His story here, 'The Wolves of Cernogratz'  is a rather gentle and poignant tale of the return to the ancestral home by the last of the von Cernogratz family.

Wilkie Collins
The book ends with the William Wilkie Collins novella, 'Mad Monkton'.  This wonderful tale by friend and contemporary of Charles Dickens tells of one man's attempt to avoid both the family curse and the family prophecy as he searches for the body of his dead uncle.  I've read a couple of Collins' stories before this and have been hugely impressed each time and this was the best of them all.  I find his way with words to be eminently readable and his imagination beguiling.

I picked up this book expecting to be entertained for a weekend and instead was treated to a number of old favourites alongside a number of intriguing authors whose work I was unaware of and who were of such a level of obscurity that it would have been no effort for me to have remained ignorant of them.

An excellent and extraordinary collection that explores the fantastical and the macabre in the most imaginative and enjoyable way.

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