Ghost Story – Peter Straub

Ghost Story – Peter Straub
Pocket Books – 1980
(Originally published 1979)

I have heard a lot of good things about Peter Straub, and I knew that Ghost Story is considered to be one of his best books. It was the last book I read of the 10 discussed in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, and it was also the last book of my summer vacation. (That might give you an idea of the backlog of posts I have.) I had high expectations for this book, and it did not disappoint.

This is a very long novel, but its influences are the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, M.R. James, Arthur Machen, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James. With the exception of Hawthorne, I have tracked down and read all of the supernatural fiction by these authors, so it’s not super surprising that I enjoyed this. (I read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Twice told Tales years ago but none of his later short fiction. I’ll have to see if there is a dedicated collection of his ghost stories out there.) While this book wears its influences on its sleeve, it has in turn become very influential on modern horror. One of the stories in Ryan Harding’s Genital Grinder uses this book’s opening line as homage.

There’s a part in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre where King discusses how the unknown is perhaps the most potent element of horror. The scary thing behind the closed door is always scarier when that door remains closed. Regardless of how terrifying the menace actually is, by making itself known it loses some its power. (Sure it’s scary, but it’s teeth and claws could always be a little bit longer.) In short, the question is scarier than the answer.

I reckon the first half of Ghost Story is one of the greatest set-ups in all horror fiction. The mystery, atmosphere and tension are magnificent. What the hell is happening here? Why has this man kidnapped a child? Who or what is picking off the small group of old men in Milburn? What’s the unspeakable event that occurred between these old men and the mysterious Eva Galli in the past? How are the answers to these questions linked?

The problem with this book is that those questions have to be answered. As King notes, the answers are doomed to fall short of the horror of the questions themselves. The ending of this book is fine. The characters remain interesting, and there’s plenty of creepy bits, but for my money, the malevolent supernatural force at the heart of the story is just a little bit too complicated for the second half of the book to live up to the first.

Maybe that sounds like a jerk thing to say. There’s literally no way to keep this kind of tension consistent until the end of a story, so this critique isn’t really fair. At least Straub tried. Most writers wouldn’t be able to come anything close to what he has achieved in this book. There are some seriously creepy moments in here. Even thinking of one particularly skillful use of foreshadowing near the beginning of the book makes me shudder, months after finishing the novel.

Jesus she moved she can’t she’s dead.

I really enjoyed Ghost Story, and I recommend it to any fan of horror. Straub has written a bunch of other novels too, including two with Stephen King. I am entirely certain I’ll be reading more of him in the future.

Paperback Horror Classics by Ken Greenhall

Right now, paperback horror is all I can stomach reading, so I decided to check out Ken Greenhall’s stuff as I had heard he was one of the best. All three of these books were originally published under Greenhall’s ‘Jessica Hamilton’ pseudonym, and Valancourt reissued all three under the author’s real name in 2017.


hell hound - greenhall

Hell Hound – Originally published 1977

This is the story of an evil dog. The dog is bad by himself, but halfway through the book, he gets adopted by a teenage Nazi.  I had read some glowing reviews of Greenhall’s work before reading this book, and I had pretty high expectations. It was certainly well written and entertaining, but large chunks of the narration are presented from the dog’s perspective. I know it’s stupid, but there was a little part of my brain that had a problem accepting this, even for the sake of a horror story. Whenever the dog would start to speak, I started to think of the scene in Derek Jarman’s movie about Wittgenstein where the philosopher explains the linguistic limitations of dogs. This was a fine horror novel though. It kept me entertained for an afternoon in quarantine.


ken greenhall elizabeth

Elizabeth – Originally published 1976

This one was quite creepy. Elizabeth is the story of a teenage girl who starts to see a woman in the mirrors around her house. The woman starts telling her what to do, and pretty soon, her family members start dying. The general consensus on Ken Greenhall is that he is a terribly underrated and forgotten writer, and this book convinced me of that. This is an extremely well written novel. The characters are super interesting, and there’s an impressive amount of atmosphere. There are also quite a few paragraphs throughout that require rereading, not because they’re complicated, but because they’re brilliant. I started this one afternoon and stayed up late that night to finish it. After reading it, I felt uncomfortable walking around my apartment with the lights off. This is a great horror novel, and I reckon it’s the best of Greenhall’s books.


ken greenhall childgrave

Childgrave – Originally published 1982

The title of this book put me off. Call me a wuss, but I don’t want to read about dead or dying children. When I started reading about a father and his 4 year old daughter, I felt uncomfortable and anxious. (I have a little girl, and it was hard to read this without picturing us as the characters.) This anxiety faded as I got further into the novel; the narrative voice is very self aware and quite funny, and this makes it seem unlikely that the protagonist will allow anything truly awful to happen. By the halfway point of the book, Childgrave feels like a comic, well-written, paranormal love story.

It’s not though. It gets very, very dark at the end. Grady Hendrix claims that stylistically Greenhall “was a direct heir to Shirley Jackson”. I don’t think Jackson’s influence on Greenhall was limited to style. Without giving too much away, I can say that the ending of Childgrave is only a few steps removed from one of Jackson’s most famous tales.

I don’t want to ruin the story for anyone who hasn’t read it, but I found the last few chapters of the book hard to stomach. They didn’t feel believable. The narrator makes a choice that seems completely unrealistic and out of character. He comes across as mildly unhinged throughout the book, but the choice he makes near the end violates human nature. It’s not believable. The whole book leads up to this choice too, and I found it hard to enjoy the rest of the story after that point.

Childgrave is the longest of the three novels by Greenhall that I read, and I can say that I probably enjoyed reading the first 5/6ths of this one more than the others. The characters are good, the plot is interesting and the writing is great. Unfortunately, I thought the ending made the whole book feel a bit dumb. I’m sure lots of Greenhall fans will disagree, but I’d bet the ones that do don’t have kids of their own. Come on, he wouldn’t do that! No way.


Greenhall wrote a few other books, but these were the ones that Valancourt chose to reissue, so I assume they’re the best. I enjoyed them, and I agree that Greenhall deserves more recognition as a writer. These are objectively better books than some of the tripe I’ve been reviewing recently.

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!

Ghosts, the Illuminati and a Swastika

ghosts illuminati swastika mcivor tyndall.jpgGhosts: A Message from the Illuminati
Dr. Alexander James McIvor-Tyndall

The Balance Publishing Co. – 1906

Hang on. A terrifying spectre, the Illuminati and a swastika on its cover? What frightful secrets must a book like this contain? Were the Nazis in contact with spirits? Did the Illuminati try to warn humanity of the coming horrors of World War II? Were the Nazis just an offshoot of the Illuminati? There’s so many questions raised by a cover like this. Fortunately for you, I have read this fairly hard to find book, and I am about to share with you its shocking revelations.

The Ghosts of the title are the rules of society. They are ghosts in the sense that the ideas behind them are as dead as the festering, rancid corpse of Michael Jackson. For instance, many people believe that life is not supposed to be full of joy. This notion is the result of the fact that human life used to be pretty shit. Back then, people told themselves that it was good to suffer in order to make themselves feel better about their shitty lives. But life isn’t that shit anymore, and the notion that it shouldn’t be filled with happiness is outdated – it is a Ghost of an idea. Fair enough, I accept the message of this book. I feel the same way about men wearing ties. Why fucking bother? To keep you warm? Fuck ties.

This book was published as part of a series of short books on mysticism, but there’s nothing particularly mystical about its message. It was published just two years after Crowley’s Book of the Law though, and there’s a very definite “Do what thou wilt…” vibe to the message here. There’s not a lot about the author, Dr. Alexander James McIvor-Tyndall (alias Ali Nomad), online, but I found a dead link that shared some interesting information on his life. He was English but moved to the States as a young man. Although trained as a doctor, he seems to have spent his life lecturing and writing about spiritualism and the likes. He had been working as a hypnotist several years prior to writing this book and had already published a book on palm-reading. Apparently he had also lectured on Theosophy as early as 1890. Only a few people would have had the chance to read Crowley’s Book of the Law when Ghosts was written, but as an English occultist writing in the early 1900s, it’s not impossible that Dr. Alexander James McIvor-Tyndall would have heard Crowley’s message (possibly through mutual friends in the Illuminati). He did go on to write a book about “the spiritual function of sex”, so if he wasn’t familiar with Crowley, the two men were at least working on similar wavelengths.

Presumably Ghost‘s message of nonconformity to the oppressive rules of society is coming directly from the Illuminati, but other than the title, the only reference to the Illuminati in this work is when the author introduces a quote from Hamlet, referring to its author as ” Shakespeare, the Illumined”. I guess the message of Ghosts falls in with the original purpose of the Illuminati, that of promoting equality and freedom.

The swastika on the cover makes the book seem rather curious indeed, but as I’ve already mentioned, Ghosts came out in 1906, so its appearance has absolutely nothing to do with the Nazis. (Unless of course the Nazis were just an offshoot of the Illuminati!) The author of this book actually went on to edit an occult magazine called The Swastika from 1907 until 1911, all issues of which are available here. (I love the internet.)

ghosts illuminati ad swastika.jpg
Advertisement taken from Swastika Magazine, Volume 3, Issue 4.

Despite having the most alluring cover of all time, Ghosts: A Message from the Illuminati isn’t hugely exciting. For those who clicked into this post hoping for a book about Nazi Occultists, stay tuned. I have a post on that topic scheduled for next week.

Vampires and Vampirism – Montague Summers

Dover – 2005 (Originally published as The Vampire: His Kith and Kin in 1929)
This is Montague Summers‘ first book on Vampires, and as much as I love the author, I have to admit that this was a rather dry read. I actually started this book to make sure that I would understand references that I might have encountered in another book I’ve been reading; Varney the Vampyre. As it turns out, that book is referenced in this book, but it contains very few references to vampire lore. (Varney is fucking DEADLY though. Expect to see it reviewed here in a few weeks.) Anyway, there’s 5 chapters in Summers’ book, and I’m going to go through each one.

1.The Origins of the Vampire
Here Summers explains several of the different elements that may have created and/or fed into the vampire legend. It includes copious stories of the reanimated dead, ghosts, premature burials and a huge section on incorruptible corpses. Apparently, there’s two ways that a corpse can remain incorrupt; the person has to have been either really good or really bad.

This chapter also includes a frustratingly multilingual section on necrophilia and necrosadism. Unfortunately the more lurid details are only given in French or Ancient Greek. I’m not joking; whenever Monty wants to give some really grisly details, he’ll switch languages. My French is poor, but it was good enough know that I was missing out on the best bits, particularly the story about the Garcon who said. “Que voulez-vous, chacun a ses passions. Moi le cadavre, c’est la mienne!”

(I have found an online version of the text, and I’ve just spent 10 minutes pasting those bits into google translate. It was worth it; my necrosadistic desires have now been satiated.)

2. Generation of the Vampire
This is all about how vampires become vampires. It mostly deals with excommunication from the church. Montague Summers knew a lot about the history of the church, and he wants to make sure that his readers are aware of this. Pretty boring stuff to be honest.

3. Traits and Practice of Vampirism
There’s a lot about suicide in this chapter, including some fascinating stuff on Russian suicide cults. Apparently one group of these fucking lunatics built a huge building with no doors or windows that was only accessible from a trap door in the roof. They’d jump in through the trap door and then they’d starve to death. Imagine the stench, the anxiety, the shame and the regret that these people had to endure until their dying moments.

4. The Vampire in Ancient Countries
I was expecting this section to be a bit boring, but it was actually quite interesting. It’s about the different types of vampiric ghouls that have cropped up around the world through history. I think that the sequel to this book, The Vampire in Lore and Legend (1929), takes up where this chapter leaves off.

5.The Vampire in Literature
This section was definitely the most disappointing, disappointing because I expected it to be the most interesting. This is just a bunch of summaries of different plays based on John Polidori’s story, The Vampyre. The summaries given are so detailed that I skipped through most of them; I didn’t want to ruin the stories in case I ever come across the original texts. Not only does this chapter contain the summaries of these plays; it also contains extensive lists of their cast members. This chapter is full of boring information, but it says very little.

Image1The pictures in this book are bizarre. I don’t remember why this mad woman is in there.

Overall, this is a decently interesting read even if it does get dry as fuck at times. There’s 5 chapters, and the way they’re structured seems a bit arbitrary, particularly the first 3. However, the worst thing about this book is that it’s full of quotes in different languages but contains no translations. If you really wanted to get the most out of this, you’d need to speak Ancient Greek, Latin, French and German. This is a bit different to the author’s books on witchcraft too. It serves more as an explanation as to how the Vampire legend developed than it does as proof of the Vampire’s existence. Monty never denies that vampires exist, but he doesn’t spend much time trying to convince you that they do.  As mentioned above, he wrote another book on vampires, but I reckon it’ll be a while before I get around to that one.

Image3Clearly a case of Lycanthropy rather than Vampirism, but a cool picture nonetheless. Could this be the instance spoken of by the great one?

Unseen Beings, Unseen Worlds – Tom Dongo

1Hummingbird Publishing – 1994

This is a real piece of work. Somewhere in the introduction or the first chapter, Tom Dongo claims to be an extremely skeptical individual who is unwilling to accept anything that he hasn’t been able to prove to himself. He then goes on to write a book about his personal experiences with remote-viewing, aliens, the astral plane, demons, telepathy, reptilians, ghosts, channeling, and banshees. One has to wonder what counts as proof in his mind.

I’ve read lots of books about stupid topics that were written by what seemed to be relatively intelligent authors. (I would have imagined that the sillier the topic, the smarter the author would have to be to convince a publisher to put out their work.) Take Preparing for Contact as an example. It is utterly stupid, but the author managed to sculpt all of that stupid into an impressively cohesive whole. Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain is a truly moronic nightmare, but the authors had clearly done a huge amount of scholarly research. Unseen Beings, Unseen Worlds lacks any traces of cohesion or intelligence. The author is an ignorant, arrogant fool of a man who has absolutely no ability to make sense. This is proof that anyone can write a book; it’s just a bunch of ridiculous ideas that popped into the head of a stupid weirdo.

2Ned Flanders… Wait, sorry, I mean Tom Dongo

Mr. Diddleyongo is of the opinion that many cases of mental illness are actually just cases of possession. He believes wholeheartedly in leprechauns. He claims that he can leave his body and travel around the universe. He often talks to spirits from different planets and dimensions. The man is a fucking imbecile.

Imbecile he may be, but stupidity isn’t a crime; the really irritating thing about Tom is the way that he talks about himself. He’s a know-it-all plonker. But, this isn’t really a book about the paranormal; it’s a book about Tom Dongo’s imagination. The ironic, and perhaps most infuriating, thing about this piece of rubbish is that the second chapter begins with the sentence; “I think I have read or am aware of just about every paranormal, esoteric, spiritual, and metaphysical book in print and many that are out of print.” The arrogance of that statement really put me in a foul mood when I read it. I would imagine that Tom’s reading was probably limited to whatever books were on the paranormal shelf in his local library.

I was going to go on and talk more trash about Tom Dongo, but after some consideration, I have concluded that he probably has some kind of mental impairment, and so it’s not really fair to make fun of him. I don’t think that a healthy, normal person would be willing to publish anything this cringe-worthy and idiotic.

3My copy is signed by the author too! Aren’t you jealous?


The World’s Most Famous Ghosts – Daniel Cohen

2016-01-01 20.13.02
Archway Pocket Books – 1985

I picked this one up as part of a collection a few weeks ago. I’m not really interested in ghosts, and I’m pretty sure this is a kids’ book, but its size and short chapters made this a perfect book for some potty-reading.

So this is a collection of accounts of different ghosts and hauntings, from the ghost of Abraham Lincoln to the Flying Dutchman. It’s written in the style of writing that 12 year olds are taught to use; every paragraph in here has an introductory sentence and a concluding sentence that rephrases the introductory sentence (Teachers call this the sandwich or hamburger paragraph.). What follows is an actual paragraph from the book:

The local people were very happy. They gave Dickie all the credit. They said he didn’t want noisy trains so close to his home. So he used his supernatural powers to stop them. Dickie is a great favourite.

Come on Daniel! You’re an author; please try to use some complex or compound sentences!

While it doesn’t contain the most eloquent writing in the world, it does contain some cool stories ( And I mean, the writing is bad, but it’s not Gothic Ghosts bad.). I like the chapter on Sarah Winchester, the millionaire’s mad widow who designed a mansion to house ghosts. There’s also the tale of the Baychimo, a ghost ship from Vancouver. I’ll definitely be doing a little more research on that one. The section I found most interesting though, was the chapter on the Screaming Skulls. These cacophonic crania are alledged to shriek whenever they are moved from their particular resting spots in certain  English mansions. I looked the skulls up, and I found the following on their wikipedia page:

Whoever captioned that is a genius.

Like I said, I’m not hugely interested in ghosts, and I can’t say I believe in them, but three days ago, I spent about half an hour in the certainty that my home had been invaded by a poltergeist. My wife and I were sitting down, watching tv when our couch was lifted half a foot off the ground and instantly dropped back down. We don’t have any room-mates or pets, and nothing else in the room had moved. Neither of us had stirred, and our couch is right up against the wall, so we were able to deduce that whatever had done this wasn’t visible.  It wasn’t just a little bump either; this is a heavy couch, and it would take something very powerful to move it with the two of us sitting on it. Now I’ve spent the last two weeks reading books about ghosts and monsters, and so I immediately assumed that we were under some kind of infernal assault. I thought that I had perhaps awoken an evil spirit through my perusal of forbidden texts. I couldn’t sit back on that couch again without a weapon in my hand, and so I took down my trusty bullwhip from its mount and prepared to give 50 lashes to any intrusive ghoul! On seeing that I was ready for business, the spectre took his leave, and we were free to watch tv in relative peace. A while later, my wife checked facebook and saw that there had actually been an earthquake. I had never experienced an earthquake before, and so the thought hadn’t really crossed my mind. It was pretty funny to see how easily my scepticism was shaken in just a few moments of uncertainty.

Anyways, this book is alright. I wouldn’t recommend that you run out and buy a copy, but if you’re stuck on the crapper with nothing else, this will do trick. First you can use the ghastly tales to entertain your mind, and then you can use the nice soft pages to wipe your shitty rim.

Elvis Presley Speaks – Hans Holzer

New English Library – 1981

This book was not my first encounter with the work of Hans Holzer. Some of you may remember my review of Gothic Ghosts. If you have read that review, you will probably wonder why I bothered to read another book by this chump. (If you haven’t read that review, I strongly suggest that you do. It’s one of my personal favourites.) Well, after reading that utter piece of shit, I needed somewhere to direct my hate, and so I did a google image search for the author. An image of this book appeared, and I simply could not help myself. I bought a copy immediately.

This is a book about a woman named Dorothy who believes that the spirit of Elvis Presley exists in an Astral realm between earth and heaven. This realm is peopled by souls awaiting reincarnation, and it is managed by a mysterious bearded figure named Matthew. (My first guess was that it was the gospelly Matthew, but this is neither confirmed nor denied in the book.) The astral residents spend their days going to school, attending jam sessions and sometimes making contact with the living.

Elvis descends from the astral realm and appears to this woman for two reasons.
1. They have been soul mates in many previous lives, but because of some heavenly error, they ended up apart in their most recent incarnations. (Dorothy was a housewife from New Jersey; Elvis was the king of rock and roll.) This separation was partly to blame for the untimely death of Elvis. After death, Elvis’s soul realizes what he has been missing and decides to spend all of his time watching over this woman.
2. Elvis wants Dorothy to contact the famous parapsychologist, Dr. Hans Holzer so that he can send a message to the world. His message is that there is existence after death and that dead souls can get quite lonely.

So what is the ghost of Elvis like? Well, he’s a weird creep. He gets annoyed about impersonators, worries about his family and tries to ruin a woman’s marriage. At one point he climbs on top of Dorothy when she is in bed with her husband and asks her if she wants to “fool around”. There’s not much insight into Elvis’s character here that wouldn’t be available in other biographies or interviews. Let’s remember that Elvis is one of the most famous people to ever walk the earth, and it would probably be a challenge for Elvis himself to give any additional insight on his character. Given that, I have to say that Dorothy Sherry’s portrait of the king is incredibly underwhelming.

This is a very poorly written book. It’s mostly repetition, and Holzer has no interviewing skills whatsoever. As soon as Elvis starts answering any of his questions, Holzer will immediately interrupt him with another unrelated question. I don’t know if Dorothy Sherry even existed, but if she did, I wonder how much of this book is based on her own subjective experiences and lies and how much is based on Holzer’s personal agenda. It seems a bit odd that Elvis Presley, the most famous entertainer in the world, would come back to substantiate personally the claims of a fiddeldy-dee parapsychologist. I got the impression that Dorothy was being led on by a manipulative cadger, anxious to profit from the unfortunate woman’s mental instability.

Obviously the book is completely stupid and unbelievable, but the most annoying thing about it is Holzer’s sense of self importance. He mentions several times that Elvis had read many of his books and that Elvis wanted Holzer to deal with this case personally. The book is about  a famous musician, and Holzer can’t help but announce that he too is a professional musician. At one point in the book he offers to write music for new Elvis songs. Later Dorothy recounts a vision of a past life in ancient Egypt. In this life she was a slave, but she was able to alleviate the misery of servitude by basking in the glory of a noble and intelligent teacher figure. This teacher was none-other than an early incarnation of Hans Holzer himself. Why did Holzer include this vision in a book about  the ghost of Elvis?

Hans Holzer, you are an arsehole.

This book is shite. Pure shite. I found myself questioning my own intelligence when I was reading it. In the hours that it took me to read this garbage, I could have tidied my bedroom or gone for a walk. Sometimes I justify reading stupid books to myself by viewing the activity as an exercise in critical thinking. This book provided no such exercise. The critical thinking involved in the reading of this book was limited to my evaluation and immediate repudiation of the book’s subtitle, “The astonishing evidence of spiritual contact with Elvis from beyond the grave”. This book is scraping the bottom of the barrel, and the only good that can come from reading it is the contrast of quality that you will immediately notice in whatever book you read after it. I doubt that I will be reviewing anything this bad for quite a while.

Oscar Wilde from Purgatory – Hester Travers Smith

Online Text oscar purgatory
(I printed and published my own edition)

Well Ireland is having a gay marriage referendum tomorrow, and although I can’t vote, I can review a text by Ireland’s most infamous homosexual.

I suppose this book isn’t technically by Oscar Wilde; it’s a series of messages delivered by Wilde’s disembodied ghost to Hester Travers Smith and her accomplice, Mr. V in 1923. These messages were originally published in The Sunday Express, nearly a quarter of a century after Oscar’s death.

What does Oscar have to say after 23 years festering in the grave? Well, he gives his opinions on women, being dead and the possibility of composing another play from beyond. He also spends quite a lot of time discussing modern literature. Contacting Smith through a Ouija board, he lets her know that he is not a fan of Joyce, Shaw or Yeats. You may wonder how a dead man could have read literature that was written after his death, but Oscar gives a perfectly satisfactory explanation:

Like blind Homer, I am a wanderer. Over the whole world have I wandered, looking for eyes by which I might see. At times it is given me to pierce this strange veil of darkness, and through eyes, from which my secret must be forever hidden, gaze once more on the gracious day. I have found sight in the most curious places. Through the eyes out of the dusky face of a Tamal girl I  have looked on the tea fields of Ceylon, and through the eyes of a wandering Kurd I have seen  Ararat and the Yezedes, who worship both God and Satan and who love only snakes and  peacocks. […] It may surprise you to learn that in this way I have dipped into the works of some of  your modern novelists. That is, I have not drawn the whole brew, but tasted the vintage.

So Oscar’s ghost just floats around the world, and from time to time he possesses the bodies of unsuspecting individuals to read a few buks. It’s interesting to note that he refers to himself as a wanderer in this passage. To avoid unwanted attention after his stint in prison, Oscar adopted the name Melmoth when traveling. Melmoth the Wanderer is of course the title of a Gothic novel by Wilde’s great uncle, Charles Maturin. Even in death he persists in this self-characterization. Now, if that’s not proof that these messages were delivered by the actual Oscar Wilde, then I don’t know what is!

This text includes not only the messages from the different seances at which Oscar appeared, but also an explanation and defense of the methods that were used to obtain the messages. Incredibly unconvincing arguments for the trustworthiness of ouija boards, automatic writing, cryptesthesia and spiritism are given.

The mediums involved also assure the reader that they knew very little about the life and style of Mr. Wilde before his communications, and hence could not possibly have faked these messages. The obvious argument against this would be that they were lying, and that they probably did a great deal of research into Oscar’s life and style before creating this hoax.There is actually very little reason to believe that they did not indulge in such research. This however is not a particularly interesting explanation of the the scripts, and I far prefer the explanation given by the Reverend Montague Summers:

I do not for a moment accept this script as being inspired or dictated by Wilde. I hasten to add that I do not suggest there was any conscious fraud or trickery on the part of those concerned ; it is quite probable that these psychic messages were conveyed by some intelligence of no very high standing, and the result in fine is not of any value.
(The History of Witchcraft – p.268)

So the communication and messages were real, but the spirit was an imposter. It was only a púca; one who was well versed in Irish literature. I am happy to accept this completely rational argument.

This book is absolute crap. I knew it was going to be crap before I read it, but I couldn’t resist.  3/10. Vote yes.

Myself and Oscar in 2011.

The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James

Wordsworth Books – 20072015-04-29 20.24.35

I recently reviewed Hans Holzer’s Gothic Ghosts. It was an absolutely atrocious piece of garbage, but in retrospect, I think that one of the reasons that book seemed so shitty to me was the fact that I had been reading it on my commute into work each morning while simultaneously spending my evenings reading the ghost stories of M.R. James. Holzer is shit at best, but in comparison to James, he is the shit of a shit.

Ironically, James’s ghost stories, while hugely entertaining and infinitely better than Holzer’s tripe, are also quite formulaic. They’re nearly all about elderly, educated, asexual gentlemen who find some kind of ancient artifact whilst on a vacation in a rural town. This ancient whistle, book, photograph, map, key, dollhouse or manuscript will prove to be haunted, and terror will ensue. That might seem unenjoyably predictable, but it’s the atmosphere and sense of impending doom that make these stories so entertaining. You know from the start that something fucked is going to happen; it’s the build up that allows the ghouls to get right in under your skin. I found audiobook versions of some of the stories on youtube, and listened to them whilst lying in bed.  While doing so I took great precautions to avoid the icy grasp of any skeletal hands that may have been reaching up from underneath my bed. I kept my arms, legs and head safely under the blanket.

These stories are magnificent. The Tractate Middoth, A View from a Hill, A Warning to the Curious, and Wailing Well might be my favourites, but most of the stories in here are top notch. There are a few stinkers; Two Doctors is crap, and The Story of a Disappearance and Appearance, although it does contain a chilling nightmare sequence, is fairly disappointing. The book I am reviewing here is the Collected Ghost Stories, not the Complete Ghost Stories. James wrote 4 other ghost stories that are not included in this publication. They are:
The Experiment
The Malice of Inanimate Objects
A Vignette
The Fenstanton Witch
They’re not James’s best, but they’re all worth reading if you like the stories in this book. A quick google search will sort you out.

I don’t want to spend too much time discussing James or his tales, as there is an abundance of information on both him and his writing online. I really enjoyed the BBC documentary on his life, and the M.R. James Podcast is good for additional information on each of the tales.

I’ve already mentioned that the cover of this book is fairly shit, but the real disappointment with this edition is the lack of notes. James was an exceptionally well-read individual, and he makes reference to many peculiar characters, events and texts. It would be really nice if the book included short explanations of these obscure references. I’m not sure if other publisher’s editions have notes sections either, but I know that the Wordsworth Series are crap for this kind of thing. I read the Oxford edition of Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly, which had extensive helpful notes, but the Wordsworth edition that I bought has none. (Incidentally, M.R. James was a huge fan of Le Fanu.) Also, it bears repeating that this is not the complete collection of his ghost stories. I don’t know which is the best edition of James’s tales, but I know for sure that this isn’t it.

Either way, this gets an 8.5/10. It’s an extremely enjoyable read, and one that I will surely come back to in the future.