Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Shadow On The Blind & Other Stories

Louisa Baldwin & Lettice Galbraith
Wordsworth Editions

The late Victorians had an insatiable appetite for the macabre and sensational: stories of murder and suspense, ghosts, the supernatural and the inexplicable were the stuff of life to them. The two writers in this volume well represent the last decade of the nineteenth century, and are of interest in themselves as well as for their contribution to the chilling of the Victorian spine. Mrs. Alfred Baldwin attempted as a child to contact her dead sister through a séance, and took to writing when stricken by a mysterious illness six weeks after marriage. She was also the mother of the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. Lettice Galbraith is herself no less mysterious than the stories she wrote. She appeared on the literary scene in 1893, published a novel and two collections of stories in that year, a further story ( The Blue Room ) in 1897, and then nothing more. Readers of 'The Empty Picture Frame', 'The Case of Sir Nigel Otterburne', 'The Trainer's Ghost' and 'The Seance Room' will recognise the Victorian spirit at its finest.

A twofer this one with the book split pretty much straight down the middle and featuring a selection of stories by two less celebrated authors.

Louisa Baldwin is perhaps more notable for being the mother of a British prime minister (Stanley Baldwin) but she produced a number of ghostly tales.  On the whole they are a slightly forgettable bunch.  I'm writing this review a couple of weeks after reading the book and looking forward at the contents page I can only recall one of her stories, the ghostly visitor from 'The Empty Picture Frame', but a quick skim reminds me of other highlights.

Louisa Baldwin
Title piece, 'The Shadow On The Blind' is a particularly unremarkable haunted house tale which makes for an inauspicious opening for the book but the following story 'The Weird of the Walfords' is much more satisfying with it's attempts at breaking a family curse.  The next two stories both deal with premonitions of death, 'The Uncanny Bairn' with it's annoyingly written Scots dialect that, for me, felt contrived and kept bogging the story down was the least successful with it's story of a young boy growing up with second sight whilst 'Many Waters Cannot Quench Love' drops a young holiday maker into a house with a sobbing ghost.  'How He Left the Hotel' is an insubstantial little ditty while 'The Real and the Counterfeit' is a nondescript practical joke with an inevitable conclusion whereas 'My Next Door Neighbour' tells you the ending early on and then allows you to enjoy the journey.

Of the final two stories that make up Baldwin's half of the book, 'Sir Nigel Otterburne's Case' deals with a family curse in much the same way as all the other stories of it's ilk whilst the final one, 'The Ticking of the Clock' eschews supernatural themes for a tale of cross-generational familial love and is all the better for not trying to shoehorn any in.

And so we move on to the Lettice Galbraith half of the book.  Her first story, 'The Case of Lady Lukestan', makes it abundantly clear right from the off that we are dealing with a very different writer.  Her prose is more forceful and her manner less, well, mannered as she tells of a spurned and vindictive vicar's revenge from the beyond the grave in a story filled to the brim with suicide, gossip, illegitimate weddings, children and death.

She follows this with a tale of gambling, touts and 'The Trainer's Ghost' just in case you weren't scandalised enough by the lady's knowledge of indelicate events in the previous story and by this point I'm liking this lady very much indeed. Tales of infernal bargains ('The Ghost in the Chair'), mesmerism and murder ('In the Seance Room'), spectral retribution ('The Missing Model' & 'A Ghost's Revenge') and finally occult detection and black magic ('The Blue Room') all confirm my early opinion that the lady had much to offer and of whom so little is known - you'll notice there's no author image attached to this half of the review.

These Wordsworths regularly offer up surprises and whilst the first half has it's enjoyable moments it is a little too well mannered and reserved for my tastes and I quite like well mannered and reserved.  Galbraith's second half on the other hand is a delight of unpleasantness, retribution and death and it's a real shame that there's so little work by her to explore.

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