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.

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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.

Gothic Ghosts – Hans Holzer

Pocket Books – 1972
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This book is absolutely terrible. It’s a collection of about 20 ghost stories, all of which are supposedly true. There are no sources given, and all of the stories follow the same formula. The following could be substituted for any of the included accounts:

Marjory, an art student, always knew that she had occult powers, but she never realized the full extent of her ESP until she moved into the old house on Pooey Street.

Number 15, Pooey street was a Victorian mansion. It was beautiful on the outside and luxurious on the inside, but there was a catch! Upon entering the mansion, any individual possessing any variety of paranormal sensitivity would feel a rumbling in their guts and immediately thereafter, they would void the soupy contents of their bowels into their britches.

Marjory was able to adapt to this sticky state of affairs by constantly wearing an adult diaper. The house was cheap and spacious, and Marjory was a poor student in desperate need of a studio for her art. A smelly bum and a dose of nappy-rash was a small price to pay for such a perfect home. Marjory soon adapted to life in the old house, and things seemed to be going swimmingly for her. That was until she saw the figure on the stairs!

One night, she awoke from her slumber and arose to fetch a glass of water from the kitchen. She drearily walked out of the bedroom and turned to walk down the hall. There, on the stairs in front of her, floated a ghastly specter! A full body it was not; only a repulsive, mouthless face that stared menacingly at Marjory who was now frozen stiff at the top of the steps. The face had two hairy cheeks and a singular brown eye that seemed to be winking horribly at Marjory. Marjory wondered if it was the ghost of a cyclops who had died of conjunctivitis and mumps, as the gaping eye was smeared with a rotten brown crust and the cheeks were rotund and fleshy. A small trunk-like appendage arose from under the eye and sprayed Marjory with a rancid milky ectoplasm. That was when Marjory fainted and fell down the stairs.

She awoke in the hospital days later. She had suffered severe brain damage and was never able to walk again. It just goes to show that an old ghost never learns new tricks!

Obviously I got a bit carried away when writing that. If the book was full of stories of that caliber, I’d be giving it a solid 10/10. No, this book is nowhere near entertaining. It’s basically the same stupid story of a dead scullery maid looking for attention, told twenty times over.

I can’t remember how this piece of trash found its way into my book collection. I either picked it up at a library sale for 50 cents, or perhaps the ‘Gothic Ghost’ of Hans Holzer planted it in my collection in order to have it reviewed. Sorry Hans, this is fucking terrible. I’m giving your shitty book a 1/10.