Thursday, 27 November 2014
The Crimson Blind and Other Stories
Mrs H.D. Everett was the last in a long line of gifted Victorian novelists who knew how to grip the reader through the invasion of everyday life by the abnormal and dramatic, leaving the facts to produce their special thrills without piling on the agony. 'I always know', says one of her characters, 'how to distinguish a true ghost story from a faked one. The true ghost story never has any point and the faked one dare not leave it out.' From the chilling horror of The Death Mask to the shocking violence of The Crimson Blind, from the creeping menace of Parson Clench to the mounting suspense of The Pipers of Mallory, these thrilling stories were enthusiastically received by readers and critics when they first appeared, and are sure to delight and terrify the modern reader in equal measure.
Most every bit of information I can find online regarding Mrs H. D. Everett comes from this book's blurb and that isn't much. She was a Victorian and Edwardian author very much in the tradition of time with a nice turn of phrase at times although the dearth of remarkably creepy tales here probably goes some way to explaining her obscurity.
There are some really interesting stories amongst the 16 tales but most suffer, at least somewhat, from a lack of refinement. I'm here though to talk about the good stuff and truly there were some particularly good bits.
The book gets off to a very promising start with 'The Death Mask' a wonderfully creepy tale of possessiveness from beyond the grave which unfortunately peters out into a pretty unsatisfying flop of an ending. The following tale 'Parson Clench' takes a similar sort of theme, this time a recalcitrant and deceased vicar refusing to relinquish his parish and runs with it to create a ghost story that never really manages to raise any chills with a ghost that does nothing but sit there like a sulky child.
'The Wind of Dunowe' is fluffy and easily forgotten but 'Nevill Nugent's Legacy' had a very nice little dark twist to it but title piece, 'The Crimson Blind' refuses categorically to live up to it's early promise and 'The Fingers of a Hand' belied it's nicely creepy set-up with a feel good ending. 'The Next Heir' takes it's time to establish what promises to be a tale of fratricide, ancient nature spirits and sacrificial offerings before it all comes crashing down in the most uninteresting way possible this side of 'and it was all a dream'.
Fortunately at this point, just over halfway through the book, things take a turn very much for the better. 'Annes Little Ghost' tells a short and essentially pointless (as intimated in the story itself - see the quote in the blurb above) of a lonely childless couple adopted by a ghostly child. 'Over the Wires' is by far my favourite here as a soldier home on leave searching for his refugee love that he'd sent on ahead starts to receive strange phone calls from her.
'A Water Witch' offers the most straight forward tale of rural horror here as a pair of young women try to avoid unwanted attention from both the living and the dead. I'm always a fan of a dog tale (sorry) and 'The Lonely Road' is another feel good piece that leaves you smiling to yourself.
'A Girl in White' is one of the weirder tales here but one which feels very much like it was written as a feel good response to the horrors of first world war that hang over many of the stories in the collection as a wounded soldier finds love in a most unusual way. Indeed, war and injury again feature in what is easily the books oddest story, 'A Perplexing Case' as doctor's try to unravel the damaged minds of two wounded soldiers.
The lure of the wild west proves too much for our author in 'Beyond the Pale' which puts an English couple into an environment where they are subjected to the revenge of an affronted Indian shaman.
The final two stories return us to the impact of the war firstly on those left at home with the ghostly 'The Pipers of Mallory' and lastly on those serving with 'The Whispering Wall'. Neither takes it's subject matter more seriously than a piece of escapist ghostly fiction probably should but equally they remain affecting in their stories of friendships made, broken and maintained.
As I said at the beginning, it's a mixed bag of goodies and it seems unlikely that Everett will ever be viewed in the same light as her contemporaries and peers within the ghostly and the strange but perhaps that doesn't really matter as in the lovely Wordsworth Editions we are allowed a glimpse of the outsiders and the also-rans and often that's where you'll find some real real gems.