Six Ghost Stories – Montague Summers

 

summers six ghost stories.jpgSix Ghost Stories – Montague Summers
Snuggly Books – 2019

A few months ago, I got an email from my pal Sandy Robertson telling me that Snuggly Books were going to release a collection of short fiction by Montague Summers. I have long been aware that Monty had written a collection of short stories, but I knew that only a couple of these stories had ever actually been published and that it was difficult to find affordable copies of the books wherein these tales were collected. I’m a big fan and collector of the occult-related non-fiction books written and translated by Monty, and I am also a big fan of short horror fiction, so you will believe that I was very excited to hear that Monty’s ghost stories were finally being published. I ordered this collection for my birthday and read it last week.

20191130_224224This is the note from Timothy d’Arch Smith’s bibliography of Summers where I first read of these fabled fables.

These six stories lived up to my expectations. They are mostly about people who some acquire some kind of peculiar haunted object that brings about visions and specters. The obvious comparison to make is to M.R. James, who apparently had the chance to read and commend these tales. Incidentally, Montague Summers, the man, has always reminded me of the characters in James’s tales.

The writing in here isn’t what you might expect if you have only read Summers’ books on witchcraft. There’s some very long sentences, but Monty seems self-aware when he’s being verbose, and this comes across as charming rather than tedious. My biggest criticism is probably that the tone of some of these stories remains too light-hearted for too long. Everything will be going fine and dandy for all of the characters, and then a ghost will jump out and scare a person to death right at the very end of the story.

My favourite tale in here was The Grimoire. This one has been previously published in different texts, and it’s not hard to see why it was chosen above the others. It’s the story of a bibliophile whose local dealer procures him an aged book of sinister black magic. When the collector translates a passage from this heinous tome, scary things start happening. (I can’t help but wonder if Sam Raimi read this tale before writing Evil Dead.) This one was particularly cool because it feels like Summers, an expert on books about black magic, could be the narrator.

While not all terribly original, these stories are competent, fun and generally pretty satisfying. I read one each night after my family had gone to bed, sipping a cup of peppermint tea and hearing the cold November breeze blowing through the willow trees our garden. It was great. I suggest you enjoy these tales in a similar manner.

These stories are entertaining in and of themselves, but there’s something very exciting about reading a collection of tales that were believed to be lost for more than half a century. Summers’ old manuscripts went missing shortly after he died in 1948, and they were only unearthed a few years ago. Snuggly Books put out this collection in October (I think this is the only book from 2019 that I’ll have reviewed in 2019.), and they are planning to put out a second volume of Summers’ fiction early next year. This collection will include a novella titled The Bride of Christ. Sign me up!

Henry James was a Dry Shite

turn screw aspern james henryThe Aspern Papers and Turn of the Screw – Henry James
Penguin – 1984

I first read Turn of the Screw five years ago. I remember it taking a far longer time to get through than I had expected. While it’s only a novella, the text is remarkably dense, and I frequently needed to reread paragraphs to understand what they meant. I have worked as a teacher/tutor for many years, and rereading Turn of the Screw felt like an exercise in professional development for me; it allowed me to feel the confusion that a student goes through when they are confronted with text that is above their reading level. By the time I got around to rereading the book, I had mostly forgotten what happens in the story, so it was just as difficult the second time around.

Many, if not most, reviews of Turn of the Screw remark on the frustrating complexity of James’ sentence structures, and I have read several reviews that claim that the complicated text adds to the story’s atmosphere of claustrophobia and confusion. It’s an interesting technique, but I didn’t enjoy it. The story here is grand, but the writing ruins it.

Also included in this book is The Aspern Papers, another novella by James. This one is about a man trying to get at some papers that are in an old lady’s closet. It has no supernatural element to it, but I enjoyed it more than Turn of the Screw.

ghost stories henry james
Ghost Stories of Henry James
Wordsworth – Supposedly published in 2001

Last time I was home, I went to one of my favourite book shops and bought a bunch of books from the Wordsworth Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural series. I had picked 5 out, but if you bought them in groups of 3, they were cheaper. This collection by James was the only one that I didn’t already have and I had forgotten how unpleasant reading him was, so I threw it in.

These stories are generally fairly crappy. The Ghostly Rental was probably the only one I actually enjoyed. The Romance of Certain Old Clothes was readable, but much like the exceedingly boring Owen Wingrave, the ghost bit only happens on the very last page. The Private Life and the Jolly Corner are based on interesting ideas, but they’re not spooky stories. The Third Person is one of the most boring, shitty, pooey-bum-bum stories I have ever read. This collection also contains Turn of the Screw.

These aren’t ghost stories for people who like ghost stories. They are stories that feature ghosts for people who like imagining that they’re clever and smelling their own farts. I really, really hope that I never have to read anything by Henry James ever again.

M.R. James > Henry James x 1000.

Thomas Carnacki, Ghostfinder General

carnacki ghost finder hope hodgsonThe Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder – William Hope Hodgson
Wordsworth Books – 2006 (First published in 1910)

This is a collection of short stories about a detective who specializes in the paranormal. The original edition, published in 1910 was limited to 6 stories, but most later editions include all 9 of the Carnacki tales that survive. Did Hope Hodgson write more? It seems as if he intended to; some of these stories contain references to other adventures that were never documented.

While I was reading the first story, I realised that the Duke De Richleau from Dennis Wheatley’s novels must have learned some of his techniques from Carnacki. I afterwards read the introduction to this Carnacki collection and saw that the editor had noticed the same thing. (Wheatley later confirmed the influence of Carnacki on his own writing by including the detective’s adventures as the fifth installment of his Library of the Occult series).

These tales reside in a bit of a strange place in the land of horror fiction. Most of them are fairly straightforward ghost stories, but there are these little descriptions here and there that seem more Lovecrafty than M.R. Jamesy. The last story, The Hog, was frustratingly drawn out, but it portrays a universe that is not only apathetic towards human life but actually hostile to it, and it’s little ideas like this that make this collection worth reading. You’ll be reading what seems to be a run of the mill ghost story and then come across a line or a paragraph that’s worded in such a way that it not only conveys the characters’ terror but actually imposes it on you.

While not absolutely brilliant, this is rather enjoyable stuff. Carnacki’s unique ghost finding arsenal is made up of an interesting mix of rituals, strange grimoires and modern technology, including an electric pentacle! I’ve mentioned similarities to the works of James, Lovecraft and Wheatley above, and I reckon that if you like the work of those authors (and who doesn’t?), you’ll probably enjoy this too. I also got a serious bang of Bulwer Lytton’s The Haunted and Haunters off some of these tales.

This book is perfect for reading on the bus into work or listening to while making dinner. The first 6 tales are available as an audiobook at librivox.com. I know I’m often a bit nasty about the lovely people on that site who dedicate their time to creating these audiobooks for free, but holy God, this one was something else. Two of the Carnacki stories are set in Ireland, and one of them features several lines of dialogue from an Irish character. This dialogue is written phonetically so as to give the impression of an Irish accent. Hope Hodgson was English, so he was probably familiar with Irish accents, and if you were to read the aforementioned dialogue aloud, it would sound fairly accurate. Unfortunately, the guy who read it for the audiobook tried to put on an Irish accent while he was reading the phonetic transcription of that accent. The result was an accent so stupid sounding that I had to turn to the physical book to finish the story. I simply couldn’t understand him. It was like a guitar player putting a guitar through two of the same distortion pedal. Add to that the fact that this lad’s Irish accent is a mix of Sean Connery and Count Dracula. Check it out:

Embarrassing stuff.

While my edition of the book gives 2006 as its publication date, I believe it’s a bit newer than that. The Wordsworth Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural used their ugly old covers until at least 2010. The only complaint I ever had about this series was the awful cover art, and I have to say that these newer editions look much, much nicer. I’ve reviewed 9 of this series in total, and I have another 10 on my shelf. I’m sure I’ll acquire more at some stage in the future too. I love these books. They’re always cheap and nearly always amazing reads.

If you’re interested in reading more about Carnacki, check out this far more insightful post on this collection.

 

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Gothic Tales of Mystery and the Macabre

elizabethgaskell
Tales of Mystery and the Macabre – Elizabeth Gaskell
Wordsworth Books – 2008
Long ago, I got a goodreads recommendation for Elizabeth Gaskell’s Gothic Tales collection published by Penguin. In April 2013, I ordered a copy. It never arrived. Later that year, when I went home for Christmas, I found a short story collection by Gaskell in the Wordsworth Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural series. This collection was called Tales of Mystery and the Macabre. It was nice and cheap, and I presumed it would be the same as the book that I had previously ordered, so I bought it. It lay on the shelf for nearly 3 years.

I started reading Gaskell in September. I checked to see if this edition contained the same stories as the Penguin edition. The Ghost in the Garden Room goes by a different title; it’s The Crooked Branch in the Penguin edition, but they’re the same story. Apart from that, these texts are the same. The Penguin edition may well have notes and a better introduction, but I doubt those would make this book any more enjoyable.

The stories are not mysterious, and only a few of them are remotely spooky. They’re mostly about innocent young women and mistaken cases of identity. Within a week, I had read all but two of the tales, but then I started working in a factory and binging on Stephen King, and I lost all interest in Gaskell. I forced myself to go back and finish it last week, and I’m glad I did. The last story I read, The Ghost in the Garden Room, is surprisingly miserable; it was great, especially the ending. The rest of the stories range from decent (Lois the Witch and The Old Nurse’s Story) to stupidly shit (Curious, if True). I started on Gaskell right after I finished reading Varney the Vampire, another book in the Wordsworth series, and that may have had something to do with how little I enjoyed this one. My patience threshold for Victorian fiction seems to be about 1000 pages.

Overall, Gaskell’s Gothic tales are not absolutely horrible to read, but this was not a book that I ever looked forward to opening. Also, the cover is fucking stupid. I’ve given out about the covers for this series several times before, but dear Christ this one is ridiculous. There’s no mention of planets or standing stones in any of these stories, and that cover makes this book look better than it is. The image needs to be replaced for the next edition, and out of the goodness of my heart,  I have designed for a cover that far better suits the content of his book:

better-coverIf anyone working for Wordsworth sees this, please spare the niceties and just send a cheque. Thanks.

Gutted – Lytton’s The Haunted and the Haunters

bulwer-green-skull
The Haunted and the Haunters; or, The House and the Brain – Lord Lytton 
Originally published – 1859

A few years ago, I read about the books of Edward Bulwer Lytton in Colin Wilson’s The Occult. Discovering that this Lytton lad was supposed to be friends with Eliphas Levi and that his books were about wizards, ghosts, and secret societies, I quickly put him on my to-read list. A few months after doing so, I saw his name in Nicholas Goodrick Clarke’s The Occult Roots of Nazism. Combining what I already knew about Lytton with the fact that one of his works had apparently inspired a bizarre conspiracy theory about subterranean, black magic Nazis, I knew that I had to make acquiring his books a priority.

2015-08-27 20.54.58

The four texts that Wilson specifically named were Zanoni,  A Strange Story, The Coming Race, and The Haunted and the Haunters. I found audiobook versions of the latter two on librivox, downloaded them and stuck them on my phone. The mp3 of The Haunted and The Haunters was only an hour and 10 minutes long, and I listened to it at work the other day.

It was a little disappointing to be honest. A lad hears about a haunted house and decides to spend the night there. He sees some ghosts, and a few days later he discovers a secret room containing a peculiar device that essentially functions as a ghost machine. He breaks the ghost machine, and then everyone lives happily ever after.

This is a ghost story, but it’s not remotely spooky. During the most climactic scenes, the narrator makes a point of telling the reader that he is not afraid, and it’s very hard to feel scared for a person who seems to understand the situation better than you. The chap comes across as a know-it-all wanker to be honest; I’d take a terrified Jamesian protagonist over this gobshite any day.

Lytton’s use of fiction to present his ideas about the supernatural may have been novel at the time this was published, but I found it rather trite. He goes over the old “nothing is really supernatural because supernatural means impossible and nothing is impossible” argument. Just because science can’t yet explain ghosts, ESP, clairvoyance and all that good stuff, there’s no reason to believe that it won’t some day be able to. This is a fair point to make, but it doesn’t have much bearing on whether or not these things actually exist.

The story comes to a very abrupt end. After enduring the night in the house, the lads find a chest of drawers in a secret room. In this chest is a portrait of another lad who the narrator seems to have seen before and a weird, home-made, magic compass that has been cursed. Once this strange device is destroyed, everything is grand. That’s it. End of story.

Fairly shit, all things considered.

the-endIs that really the end though?

This story was originally published as “The Haunted and the Haunters; or, The House and the Brain” in the July-December 1859 edition of Blackwood’s Magazine. I find it quite strange that an original publication would feature two titles. Subsequent appearances of the tale have often been published under one title or the other.  I have read that the “House and Brain” title usually denotes an abridged version of the story, but I have read the exact same thing about the “Haunter and Haunted” title. Perhaps the different titles were once used to denote the different versions of the story, but at this stage, neither title can be trusted to signify the abridgment.

haunted-house-brainMy copy of the text has both titles, but it’s the abridged version.

If you have any sense and want to make sure that you’re reading the full version, the last paragraph of the original version of the story starts with the phrase;
“So ends this strange story, which I ask no one to believe.”

The first line of the final paragraph in the SHITTY-BUM abridged version reads;
We found no more. Mr. J—— burnt the tablet and its anathema.
If there is one thing that I simply can not abide, it’s an abridged book. If this is the ending of the tale you are reading, look elsewhere for satisfaction!

The abridgment absolutely guts the story. The haunting in the original features a creepier ghost, a slightly more gruesome description of the death of the narrator’s dog, several other minor edits, and most importantly: a tense confrontation between the narrator and the wizard responsible for bewitching the house. The complete version is by no means a brilliant piece of literature, but it is at least somewhat coherent, and it’s far more enjoyable than the shortened piece of drek. Imagine reading a version of the Shining in which all references to Jack Torrence’s family have been cut out and you’ll get a sense of the shitness of the abridged version of this tale.

Luckily, the unabridged version is widely available on the web (It’s on page 244 of the edition of Blackwood’s Magazine that I’ve already linked to.). An article from the July 1938 edition of the Theosophical Forum suggests that Bulwer cut parts out of this tale to use in his novel, A Strange Story.  That novel was published in 1862, three years after The Haunted and the Haunters. I haven’t read A Strange Story yet, and it may be a while before I get around to it, but I’ll read over Haunted/Haunters again when I do to see how the ideas were transferred between the two.

As I have already mentioned, I first heard about Lytton in Colin Wilson’s The Occult. I decided to read back over the relevant passages in that book to see if there was anything pertaining to this particular story. Wilson quotes the entire description of the curious portrait that is found near the cursed saucer to give an example of what he thinks a black magician should look like. He then says, “And when he later added a new ending to the story, Lytton extended this sketch into a full-length portrait of a man who seems to be a combination of the Wandering Jew and the Count de Saint-Germain.” Colin Wilson, author extraordinaire and expert on the occult, seems to have believed that the original version of this story was the short version. Wilson also lists Lytton’s first name as Henry in the index to the book when his name was actually Edward (His elder brother was named Henry.) Colin Wilson, it seems, was not very thorough in his research.

rubbishGood riddance to this pile of unlettered garbage.

 

 

Mrs. Radcliffe’s Novels

ann-radcliffe-novels

I don’t have much to say on these books that hasn’t been said before. Ann Radcliffe didn’t invent the Gothic novel, but she drastically improved it. Books like Castle of Otranto and Vathek are fun, but they’re both quite silly. Radcliffe’s novels came a few decades later, and while they’re still fairly silly, they contain interesting characters and plausible stories.

Radcliffe is famous for making the literary distinction between terror and horror. Terror, according to Radcliffe, is the fear caused by uncertainty; it’s the not knowing what’s making the slithering noises in your bedroom wardrobe. Horror is the climactic reaction to actually seeing the warty green skin and blood soaked fangs of the monster as it lunges towards you. Radcliffe claimed that terror was a far more effective method of thrilling an audience, and she masterfully weaves her tales so that they keep both her readers and characters guessing until the very end.

Her books contain all the secret passages, mysterious chambers, fiendish villains and innocent virgins that you’d expect, but unlike their Gothic predecessors, the plots of her books are not driven by supernatural forces. The strange muffled noises and shadows darting hither and thither are all eventually explained as the stories unfold. The threat of horror is never realized, but it is this very threat that creates the sense of terror that runs through these books. Radcliffe does suspense exceedingly well.

The Italian – Ann Radcliffe
Wordsworth – 2011 (Originally published 1797)
I read The Italian two weeks ago. It came out just a year after Lewis’s The Monk, and one could draw comparisons to the relationship between these two books and the relationship between The Castle of Otranto and The Old English Baron. While both books contain evil monks and the Inquistion, The Italian is more a response to The Monk than a rewrite, and it is definitely better book than the Old English Baron.

My copy is another Wordsworth Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural edition (I fucking love these books!), but I took most of this one in from the librivox audio version. The Librivox version is based on the first edition of the book (containing 33 chapters), but the Wordsworth version is the second edition (34 chapters). For the second edition, Radcliffe rewrote parts to make it seem that Ellena’s sweet singing voice was more attractive to Vivaldi than her body. The 5th chapter of second edition, in which Vivaldi visits Bianchi’s corpse, is also a new addition. If you only own the first edition and want to read this 3 page addition, you can do so here. There may be other very minor differences, but I got through the book going back and forth between the two editions, and it didn’t cause any confusion.

While I agree that terror can be far more effective than horror, I don’t think that horror needs to be abandoned completely. I certainly enjoyed this book, but I preferred the Monk. Radcliffe’s book doesn’t need the supernatural to make it work, but it does need the introduction of a new character at a very late stage in the plot, definitely a bit of a Deus Ex Machina. It is definitely worth a read though. Schedoni is a real cool guy.

The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe
Oxford – 1998 (Originally published 1794)
The Mysteries of Udolpho is Radcliffe’s most famous book. I read it 3 years ago, but I remember really enjoying it. I had started a new job a few months previous, and I was starting to realize that I could get away with spending most of the day reading online. The night before, I would email myself a pdf file of the book I wanted to read, renaming it to something like “contract-agreement.pdf” so that the boss wouldn’t be able to give me any grief if he checked my browsing history. I had begun with a few short stories, and I only started on this one to see if I could get away with it. It’s more than 600 pages, and I finished it in a week. (I worked in that office for another year, and I managed to read a further 66 books at work in that time.) Reading Udolpho, you can see where writers like Lewis, De Sade and Le Fanu (especially in Uncle Silas) got many of their ideas. I really liked this book.

Apparently Jane Austen did too. Her novel Northanger Abbey is referred to as a parody of Radcliffe’s works. It’s the tale of 17 year old Catherine, an avid Radcliffe fan. Catherine goes through life imagining herself the heroine of one of Radcliffe’s novels. I waited until after I had read The Italian to read this one, but it really only makes direct reference to Udolpho.

norrthanger-abbey
Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen
Penguin – 1994 (First published 1817)
I wasn’t expecting much from this, and to tell the truth, I didn’t get much either. It’s a cute little romance that has stuff to say on femininity and feminism, but I’ll let you look elsewhere for that. My favourite parts were undoubtedly the sections where the protagonist is imagining that she’s the character in one of the books she has been reading. I also listened to two audiobook collections of Stephen King’s short stories last week, and I found that I was becoming suspicious of nearly everything around me. I therefore found Catherine’s plight very relatable.

The real reason I wanted to read this book was its connection to Montague Summers. At an early stage in the novel, Catherine’s friend promises that she will give her a small collection of books. Those books are:

Castle of Wolfenbach,
Clermont,
Mysterious Warnings,
Necromancer of the Black Forest,
Midnight Bell,
Orphan of the Rhine,
Horrid Mysteries

For years it was presumed that Austen had made these titles up herself, but Montague Summers, the absolute legend, actually rummaged through libraries until he found copies of each text. They have all been republished, and I intend to buy, read and review copies as soon as I am a wealthy man.

To conclude, Ann Radcliffe was very cool. Her books, though imperfect, were hugely influential and remain thoroughly enjoyable. They’d be perfect for taking on a lazy holiday, and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for her other novels. Jane Austen, on the other hand, was fairly boring, and I probably won’t be reading any of her other novels in the foreseeable future.

The King in Yellow – Robert W. Chambers

2016-07-30 17.39.14.jpg
Wordsworth Editions – 2010 (Originally published in 1895)

This is the first time that I’ve reviewed a single book of short stories. Usually I wait until I’ve read everything (or at least all of the good stuff) by an author of short fiction, but this is a little different. (I do own a copy of the Complete Weird Tales of Chambers, but I haven’t got around to it yet.) The King in Yellow was one of Chamber’s earliest works, and it remains his best known; he spent most of the rest of his career writing popular romance novels, but nobody remembers them. Some of the tales in this book managed to induce a lingering discomfort (I read most of them just before going to bed and afterwards lay awake, thinking of the sinister King, sitting on his throne in his tattered yellow rags.), and overall, this book is pretty neat. If you haven’t read it and you’re wondering why it sounds familiar, it might be because elements of it were borrowed for the first season of True Detective.

So this is a collection of 10 short stories, only the first 4 of which really refer to the Yellow King. I’ll get to that later though, for now I’ll just explain the  others:

5. The Demoiselle d’Ys is a ghost story. It’s not scary, but it’s enjoyable (and not dissimilar to the stories of M.R. James).
6. The Prophet’s Paradise is really just a short series of of prose-poems. It was a bit arty for my liking.
7. The Street of the Four Winds doesn’t deal with the supernatural, but it is quite creepy.

After the above, all elements of the horrific, weird or creepy completely disappear.

8. The Street of the First Shell is confusing, dull, and not worth the effort that it requires.
9. The Street of Our Lady of the Fields is the romantic tale of an innocent young man who moves from one continent to another and falls madly in love with a rambunctious young woman. Needless to say, I was almost in tears by the end. This was beautiful.
10. Rue Barrée is a less interesting and ultimately less satisfying version of the previous tale.

Ok, let’s rewind to the best bit. The first 4 tales all revolve around an obscure book of horror and despair. (You might already see why I enjoyed this.) The King in Yellow is a two act play that drives its readers insane. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, it’s a very difficult book to avoid, and if you do start reading it, it seems impossible to put down. (It’s a bit like those modern horror movies where the people who watch the video get killed.) Just to clarify here; it’s the characters in Chambers’ stories that get to read the play, not his readers. He never gives an outline of the plot of the play, but each story begins with a short quote from it. The lack of details make it all the more intriguing, and although I am aware that it does not actually exist, I have spent a more than reasonable amount of time in the last week trying to figure out ways to get my hands on a copy. How fucking cool is the idea of a book that either possesses you or drives you mad? 10/10, would read. The snippets that Chambers does include drive me wild too. Check out the poem that introduces the first story:

Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink beneath the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.

Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa.

Song of my soul, my voice is dead;
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa.

Absolutely deadly. Does Carcosa sound familiar? That might have something to do with the fact that it was first mentioned in An Inhabitant of Carcosa by Ambrose Bierce. Chambers borrowed other elements Bierce’s fiction, and elements of his own fiction were in turn borrowed by Lovecraft.

I really liked 7 out of the 10 stories in here, but it would really make more sense if the book was called ‘The King in Yellow and some other stuff”. The stories at the beginning are totally different to the ones near the end, and if you like weird tales exclusively, you won’t be missing out if you don’t bother with the last few. I would advise anyone who is going to read this to save the best for last; read the last 3 stories first, then move on to the 5th, 6th and 7th, and finish with the first 4.

As a final suggestion:
If you have read this book and haven’t seen the first season of True Detective, watch it now. If you’ve seen True Detective but haven’t read this, read it now.  If you haven’t read this nor seen True Detective, get your act together.