Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Holiday Cheer: CHILLERS FOR CHRISTMAS
Last year I read Dalby's GHOSTS FOR CHRISTMAS, so this year it's the follow-up, CHILLERS FOR CHRISTMAS. And I enjoyed this more than the first. GHOSTS had some great stories, but sometimes wandered too far into the touching/heartwarming/twee zone. CHILLERS, though, isn't as constrained and can go farther afield from strictly ghosts...although they're here, in abundance.
It's replete with supernatural terrors, of course, but there's also some more generalized supernatural terrors, as well as some plain thrillers and works of cruelty. And a couple of humorous stories to leaven it all.
So, to do the usual rundown...
"The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes" by Rudyard Kipling. A British soldier in India finds himself stranded, in the Christmas season, in an inescapable village, termed "the Village of the Dead." Apparently once there, always there, until the narrator seeks to find an escape. No supernatural terrors here, just a harrowing and grotesque situation.
"Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk" by Frank Cowper. Originally published in Blackwood's, this is one of their patented "predicament" tales in which a narrator finds themselves in a dangerous situation. (This was lampooned by Poe in "The Scythe of Time" and lived on in Reader's Digest as "Drama in Real Life.") The narrator, visiting a shore village at Christmastime, goes duck-hunting in the marshes and ends up stranded aboard a derelict ship as the tide rises and darkness falls. It's relentlessly atmospheric on those counts alone, but when eerie sounds start to replicate what seems to be a long-ago murder, it becomes a chilling classic. This tale is often anthologized, and is an effective little gem.
"The Phantom Riders" by Ernest Suffling, is a fun gothick tale of ghosts repeating a gruesome murder, and its aftermath. Amelia B. Edwards' "The Guard-Ship at the Aire" is another Predicament tale, this time of a man who is nearly killed by a rising tide while crossing a river delta. It's not just chance but human malice that got him on the wrong track, as is revealed in the tale, making this nastier than usual.
The authorship of "Horror: A True Tale" is debated, but it's a nasty tale of a girl who goes to her bedroom after a Christmas party, only to find herself the hostage of an escaped homicidal maniac. It's amusing, but the prose is undeniably purple and overwrought, making it rather unintentionally funny. "A Pipe of Mystery" by G. A. Henty tells of soldiers in India who do a good turn for a local mystic, and then receive psychic visions that save their bacon in the future. This isn't very Christmassy, but ekes through on a technicality: it's framed by a story of an aged man telling his young relatives a tale at a holiday party.
"On the Down Line" by George Manville Fenn is interesting, a Christmas railroad suspense story, with a possible ghost on a train. "An Exciting Christmas Eve" by A. Conan Doyle is a darkly humorous tale of a pompous expert in explosives who is kidnapped and made to lecture on bombs to a collection of anarchists.
Guy Boothby's "Remorseless Vengeance" is a nautical tale of spectral revenge, a bit different for its South Seas setting (Boothby was Australian). "The Vanishing House" by Bernard Capes is a minor classic, coming across almost as a folktale. A group of wandering musicians on Christmas Eve find themselves at a large house where a party seems to be taking place...but is it what it seems to be?
Dick Donovan's "The White Raven" is an odd mixture of Victorian piety and sentimentality with supernatural terrors. In fact, the supernatural elements of the story (a room haunted by a white raven that's an omen of disaster for anyone who sees it) is more of a plot device that allows Donovan to praise the narrator's idealized selflessness.
"The Strange Story of Northavon Priory" by F. Frankfort Moore (Bram Stoker's brother-in-law) is an OK tale of a house haunted by spirits of its diabolic past. "The Black Cat" by W. J. Wintle is a typical tale of the "person plagued by a spectral animal for no discernible reason" genre, although a fairly well-done example.
John Collier's "Back for Christmas" is a great sample of that author's talent for black comedy. An academic murders his hated wife and buries her in the basement just before a lecture tour abroad...only to be undone by a wry twist at the end. "A Christmas Story" by Sarban was my least favorite of the volume, a difficult-to-read tale that seemed to involve cannibalism, and maybe Yeti, but never really seems to go anywhere.
L. P. Hartley's "The Waits" explores the dark side of the holiday, as carolers turn out to be messengers from beyond, and they won't go until they get what they came for. And it ain't figgy pudding. Shamus Frazer's "Florinda" is another familiar formula, of a child's imaginary friend who may not be so imaginary, but it's got good atmosphere and a harrowing climax.
R. Chetwynd-Hayes' "The Hanging Tree" was a fairly muddled and unsatisfactory tale of a ghost that seeks to have a human body...maybe...and a woman who may be trying to help, or may only be a homicidal maniac. "The Grotto" by Alexander Welch is a good little tale of a weary department-store Santa who's visited by a child's ghost...but it avoids too much cutesiness with some genuine fear and a chilling end.
"Just Before Dawn" by Eugene Johnson is all about supernatural justice, as a down-and-out derelict reflects on the man who betrayed him and got away with it. "Buggane" by Peter Tremayne has some good folklore from the Isle of Man and some fairly harrowing ghosts seeking revenge.
"The Uninvited" by John Glasby is really a glorified EC Comics tale of a murderess being chased through her house by the reanimated corpses of her victims. A. J. Merak's "A Present for Christmas" (actually, Merak is Glasby) is much better, telling about a nasty spirit seeking to give a backhanded present, and a man's futile efforts to prevent the worst from happening.
Simon MacCulloch's "The Deliverer" has supernatural horrors as a country parson turns to darker practices. Roger Johnson's "The Night Before Christmas" is another tried-and-true genre, the repeated dream that is a sign of a terrifying fate, but again, it's a good example of that genre. And it was specially written for the collection.
Another exclusive tale, "On Wings of Song" by David G. Rowlands, tells of an amateur production of "Dracula" that leads to what appears to be attacks by an actual vampire. And ending the collection is a wonderful short chiller, "The Santa," by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, that explores the darker side of St. Nick.
Aside from a few clinkers, this was a superior collection, well-suited for fireside reading as cold winds blew outside. Get a copy and put it on your shelf for the next holiday season, folks. It's well worth it.