Sunday, January 25, 2009

Belated Holiday Reading: GHOSTS FOR CHRISTMAS, edited by Richard Dalby

OK, so it's been a few weeks since Christmas was over, but hell, at least it's still January. I'd hate to be reading Christmas-themed stuff when the leaves are out and the birds are singing and all that...

GHOSTS FOR CHRISTMAS is a fun anthology, edited by the genre stalwart Richard Dalby, who's edited many great anthologies of ghost, horror, and mystery stories. It's well suited for those days of bleak midwinter, when you're taking a break from all the holiday hoo-ha, or the cold moonlit nights, when you're warming your feet by the fire and glancing over your shoulder at the darkness that covers the rest of the room.

There's 30 stories in the collection....let me run through them real quick.

"Our Ghost Party" by Jerome K. Jerome. An essay about the holiday tradition of fireside ghost stories, from a great Victorian humorist.

"The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton," by Charles Dickens. I don't like Dickens much, but this reads like a precursor to "A Christmas Carol."

"The Ghost Detective" by Mark Lemon. A cute tale of a crime solved by the ghost of a living person.

"The Dead Sexton" by J. Sheridan le Fanu. The Devil shows up for the soul of a departed sinner. May not be a classic, but hell, it's le Fanu, and worth checking out.

"Markheim" by Robert Louis Stevenson. A man commits a murder for gain, and a ghost, and guilt, torment his conscience. Not particularly appealing to me.

"The Ghost of Christmas Eve" by J. M. Barrie. Yeah, the guy who created Peter Pan. An OK story of an apparition of a living man.

"The Real and the Counterfeit" by Mrs. Alfred Baldwin. A delightfully cruel tale of a practical joke that goes horribly wrong when a ghost shows up to spoil the show.

"Number Ninety" by Mrs. B. M. Crocker. Unfortunate name, but a crackerjack story of a man spending the night alone in a haunted house. An unforgettable scene toward the end, when the narrator looks through the keyhole, and a burning red eye looks back! Very unsettling.

"Thurlow's Christmas Story" by John Kendrick Bangs. Another humorist that normally I'm not much for, but this time, he's got a metastory going on. A writer submits his excuse for not writing a ghost story for a magazine's Christmas issue...only to tell a fairly good ghost story!

"Their Dear Little Ghost" by Elia W. Peattie. The title says it all...rather cutesy and twee, not my bag at all.

"Wolverden Tower" by Grant Allen. A classic thriller author of the era, and a gloriously dark tale of preChristian hauntings. Loads of fun.

"A Ghost-Child" by Bernard Capes. Also rather precious and twee, not my bag.

"The Kit-Bag" by Algernon Blackwood. A lawyer preparing for a Christmas vacation packs the wrong bag. A fun, nasty story, from a master.

"The Shadow" by E. Nesbit. From a writer most famous for her children's stories, this is an effective, shuddery tale. Not brilliant, but with an impact.

"The Irtonwood Ghost" by Elinor Glyn. Glyn was a very famous novelist in the 20s, but is most famous today for being played by Joanna Lumley in the movie THE CAT'S MEOW (which I should blog about someday). This is a standard tale of an inheritance set to rights by a phantom visitor, but while it's nothing special, it's a solid piece of genre writing.

"Bone to His Bone" by E. G. Swain. A nice little story, from an author influenced by M. R. James, and part of his "Stoneground" series, which I'll blog about someday. Really.

"Transition" by Algernon Blackwood. Another story from the master, although not as good as the other one. Actually, it's a sort of tale that's been told dozens of times before, so it's a bit of a disappointment.

"The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance" by M. R. James. Nothing one can say about this, but c'mon, it's M. R. James, of course it's going to be magnificent.

"The Sculptor's Angel" by Marie Corelli. I've read some other Corelli, and liked what I read...but for some reason, this just fell flat. Can't say why, it just didn't connect.

"The Snow" by Hugh Walpole. Chilly bit of nastiness as a vengeful ghost stalks a heartless woman. Fairly unpleasant, and not in a good way.

"Smee" by A. M. Burrage. Something odd happens during a game of hide-and-seek in an English country house. It's all rather obvious, but Burrage builds up the menace and atmosphere very nicely, and it's got more than its share of shudders. A longtime favorite of mine; I first read it in an anthology back in the early 80s, when I was in high school. It's one of the stories that led me to be the fan I am.

"The Prescription" by Marjorie Bowen. One of those stories when you KNOW a writer can do some really good stuff...but what you're reading isn't up to the usual standard. Not bad, but still....

"The Demon King" by J. B. Priestley. An unexpected cast member shows up for a Christmas pageant. Again, all very predictable, but for what it is, a solid example of what it is.

"Lucky's Grove" by H. R. Wakefield.'s a good bit about how a Christmas tree chopped from a grove sacred to Loki can create havoc, but it's got the faults of Wakefield's later work, when he tended toward the pointlessly violent and nasty, sometimes almost hateful.

"'I Shall Take Proper Precautions'" by George H. Bushnell. Interesting wartime tale of time slippage and ghosts. Not bad.

"Christmas Meeting" by Rosemary Timperley. A charming vignette that dodges the cutesy and twee with some genuine emotion.

"Someone in the Lift" by L. P. Hartley. A child spending Christmas in a hotel finds Christmas a rather disturbing experience. No ghosts, so it doesn't really belong.

"The Christmas Present" by Ramsey Campbell. I disliked this story, but I'm not much for Campbell anyway.

"Christmas Entertainment" by Daphne Froome. A fun look at the old-style "ghost entertainments," with the line being crossed between fakery and genuine supernatural.

"Gebal and Ammon and Amalek" by David G. Rowlands. The most recent of the tales, it actually hearkens back to the old-style antiquarian ghost story, and therefore brings the collection full-circle.

All told, this was a very worthwhile collection, and in the end greater than the sum of its parts. It's a great companion on your holiday visits, good for when you snatch those quiet moments alone. Pick up a copy during the year, and keep it stashed away for Christmas of 2009.

Dalby edited another holiday anthology, CHILLERS FOR CHRISTMAS, which I may try to dip into before the spring comes. We'll see.

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