Spectral Press, p/b, £12.50, http://spectralpress.wordpress.com/
Reviewed by David Brzeski
There’s a grand tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas. Every year the BBC drag out at least a couple of old M.R. James adaptations. This collection–the first in a planned annual series–is both an homage to that tradition and to the classic ghost and horror story anthologies of the sixties from publishers such as Pan and Fontana.
The book opens with ‘An Odd Number at Table’, by John Costello. Costello is a British writer of mainly screenplays and non-fiction. This is his first venture into genre short stories. Hopefully it won’t be his last. The story is set in the USA and benefits greatly from the author having spent much of the last fifteen years there. I would go as far as to say that it’s one of the more successful attempts to transplant the traditional English ghost story to the USA that I’ve read.
I liked Jan Edwards’ ‘Concerning the Events in Leinster Gardens’ a lot too. Disgraced officer turned con-man Archibald Kemple-Fielding attends a masked ball. He’d bought his invitation from a red-haired officer at his club. It was in aid of a charity and had cost him ten guineas. It was more than he could afford, but just the sort of event he needed to latch on to a new mark. Needless to say events do not go according to Archie’s plan. It’s not possible to say much more without giving away too much. It’s certainly Jamesian in tone, but it’s also shows the influence of those classic horror anthology films of the early seventies, in which assorted characters share their stories before their ultimate fate is revealed.
I’d enjoyed William Meikle’s ‘Carnacki: Heaven and Hell’ collection, which I reviewed here previously, so I was happy to see another Meikle penned Carnacki tale in this volume. I certainly wasn’t disappointed. This neat little story of a cry for help from beyond is amongst the author’s best.
I’ve tried absinthe. Didn’t like it–I’m not a big fan of aniseed at the best of times. Even had this not been the case, I’m sure Raven Dane’s ‘A Taste of Almonds’ would have put me off it. It’s a neat little morality tale. Raven Dane has a definite empathy with the Victorian period and her contribution reads with an authenticity that suggests it could have easily been written in that era.
No anthology such as this would be complete without a tale involving a haunted ruin. ‘Where the Stones Lie’ by Richard Farren Barber tells us how three siblings went to visit their grandmother in Ireland one Christmas but only two returned.
The Jamesian influence is never going to be far away in a collection of Christmas Ghost stories, and it is certainly present in Nicholas Martin’s ‘All That Is Living’. After Charles Canning, the proprietor of a small antique jewellers shop, sells a certain Celtic ring to Paul Williams at cost he feels nothing but relief and a sense of having narrowly escaped something awful. Paul, who has just moved into the country retreat he inherited from his father will soon find out why. You’ll never fell the same way about snowmen again after reading this one.
There is wisdom in the placing of Nicholas Martin’s story before Thana Niveau’s truly nightmarish ‘And May All Your Christmases’. Forget snowmen, the snow itself just might be out to get you. Does it seem to be inching up the side of the house? Be afraid!
When tragedy happens at Christmas, how are survivors to cope with future “Seasons of Goodwill”? Martin Roberts’ short, atmospheric, powerful piece, ‘Now and Then’ shows us the sad, inevitable fate of one such survivor.
‘December’, by Paul Finch, is an unusual take on the commercialisationof Christmas. Brenda is forty-two years old and sharing a house with her younger sister. It’s the first Christmas since her husband died and she’s determined to avoid all that unnatural glitter and tinsel in favour of proper, traditional mistletoe, holly and ivy. Of course these things aren’t exactly Christian either. Her late husband tries to warn her, but is it too late?
Gary McMahon mentions in the intro to his story ‘Ritualism’ that it’s a modern day riff on ‘Ritual’ by Arthur Machen, so I had to go buy a copy of the Kindle edition of ‘Ritual and Other Stories’ from Tartarus Press so I could read that first. Yes, I am that anal! My tablet was on charge, so I couldn’t continue reading my review pdf of this anthology for a while in any case. Obviously, you don’t really need to read the Machen story to enjoy this one, but I found it interesting to compare the two. ‘Ritualism’ certainly stands up very well against its inspiration. It’s a bleak little tale, which mixes fear with loneliness and despair very effectively.
In ‘We Are a Shadow’, by Neil Williams we learn to be wary of reviving old traditions, and especially of playing dead on ancient monuments, while a fellow actor ad libs lines about raising that which lies dead… or dormant. Dangerous things these am-dram companies.
John Forth’s ‘The Green Clearing’ is simultaneously brilliant and frustrating. Iain’s parents, along with their friends Anne and Terry Gardner and their kids, have a long-held tradition of renting a place in some remote area for the Christmas holiday. This time they’re staying in a secluded cabin, near a wood that Gary and Terry have visited before – 30 or more years ago. Jon Forth is a master of descriptive prose. I found particularly impressive a passage concerning an overheard conversation, in which we’re allowed to infer exactly what’s going on just from what Iain can hear. He is also a master of leaving the reader wanting more, hence the frustration. Something happened when the two fathers were there in their youth, but we never get told exactly what. We never really get told exactly what happens this time either, but despite that, this is my favourite tale in the book.
The book is rounded off with ‘Lost Soldiers’, an unusual tale of a couple of psychic investigators who find the spirit they try to help move on has an entirely different agenda. An odd little glitch somehow found its way into this story, which caused the word “muggins” to be replaced with “aunting” in two places. It’s annoying, but doesn’t hurt the reading experience too much. I was pleased to discover that Adrian Tchaikovsky has a couple more tales of Walther and his put-upon sidekick available and more on the way.
I sincerely hope this does continue as a series every year. I’ve missed anthologies like this one. Editor, Simon Marshall-Jones has done a great job here. There isn’t a single clunker in the book.