Friday, 25 March 2016

In Ghostly Company

Amyas Northcote
Wordsworth Editions

A grey cloud formed on the summit of the altar, diminishing, thickening and turning into a Shape, a shape of evil and fear. The silent group by the fire once more broke forth into wild gesticulations and cries, Stella prostrated herself, the Form on the altar grew clearer and with a cry of horror Mr Fowke turned away and rushed madly across the moor'. Amyas Northcote's In Ghostly Company is a rare and splendid collection of strange and disturbing tales from the golden age of ghost stories. His style is akin to that of the master of the genre M.R. James: it is measured and insidiously suggestive, producing unnerving chills rather than shocks and gasps. Northcote's tales make the reader unsettled and uneasy. This is partly due to the fact that the hauntings or strange occurrences take place in natural or mundane surroundings - surroundings familiar to the reader but never before thought of as unusual or threatening. Long out of print, this book remains an enthralling and chilling read.

Amyas Northcote was an English writer of the Edwardian era with just this single volume of ghost stories published in 1921 to his name.

The intro by David Stuart Davies makes note of how Northcote's short tales were described as being written in an 'unemotional style' and indeed this is well noted as throughout the author feels very distant from his subject matter.  Emotions, other than fear, are kept at a respectable distance and he offers up his stories with a very British reserve.  Happily, this isn't something that bothers me to any particular extent and I like a fairly hands off author.

The stories themselves hail from what must be described as the halcyon days of the ghost story.  Northcote was a student at Eton during M.R. James' tenure at the school and it is to that venerable author, along with others such as E.F. Benson that Northcote's work draws parallels.

In the classic tradition of the genre and the era Northcote's characters are, for the most part innocents caught up in events over which they have little understanding and even less control.  For some their lack of comprehension proves to be their saving grace.  In other situations it's their innate goodness or the self destructive nature of evil or even their pet but equally often the innocent are sent to their grave through nefarious actions.

An aspect of the works here that particularly appealed is that in Northcote's hands the landscape becomes a character in itself.  His stories, unlike those of his eminent peer, are more definitely attached to their British landscape.  There are a few obvious exceptions but they could easily have been relocated to the wilds of Wales, Scotland, Cornwall or Devon.  In the story of the same name the nature of The Downs being as much a character as the spectral figures that haunt it and the horror of the actions of 'The Late Mrs Fowke' are intensified through both the unsavoury establishment she visits and the befouled rural setting within which she conducts her evil conjuring.

His writing seems embedded in a changing age;  the almost fully mechanised industrial society of the early twentieth century that remembers the wild places of the countryside but as a place of superstitious fear and dangerous magics.  Equally there's a sentimentality within his work that serves to make the prospect of the afterlife one here wrongs, both great and small and both slight and slights can be addressed and redressed.

I've become very much a fan of these Wordsworth Editions over the last few years and it's always a good day when I stumble across a new one especially one that I become as besotted with as I have with this one.  Northcote, I suspect, will always remain a peripheral figure in the pantheon of authors of the macabre but to those that seek him out and to those who fall upon him unexpectedly he will prove to be a fortuitous treat.

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