Sunday, June 19, 2011
THE SCREAMING SKULLS by Elliott O'Donnell
This one is a collection of short stories describing various "true" hauntings that he'd investigated first-hand or otherwise researched in some way. While I seriously doubt any of them are really true, it's still an entertaining read.
Each of the stories is brief, something that might make a reasonable magazine article, so there's not always a lot of background, but O'Donnell's journalist creds show through as he makes the most of what he writes. He doesn't waste much time on purple prose and long descriptions.
Some of the tales, like "The Screaming Skulls of Calgarth Hall," are little more than retellings of popular ghost stories. This is also true of "The Legend of Cooke's Folly", "The Phantom Drummer of Cortachy", and "Pearlin Jean of Allanbank." No real investigation going on there, except perhaps for him cracking open a book or listening to someone else's tales of the haunting.
Some are those he claims to have investigated personally. One of my favorite tales from the book, "The Grey Horror," actually takes place in the US, and tells of a grisly ghost that supposedly haunted a dreary location in the Hudson River valley. It's a sort of grey ghoul that rose from a reportedly bottomless pit to roam the valley at night, especially focusing its haunting energies on an abandoned house. Of course, by the end the pit is filled in and the haunting ends, with no real explanation other than that it must be some sort of infernal elemental.
Another good one, "The Phantom Clock of Portman Square," is naturally about a house haunted by the sound of a ghostly clock that strikes thirteen...and then strikes again to indicate the number of days before death strikes a member of the household. Another tenant claims that upon sleeping in a haunted chamber, he has a vivid dream of being taken down to a chamber deep underground, where he meets the spirits of others who met their deaths because of the clock, and all now under the sway of some sort of half-human, half-animal entity that is sheer and utter malignance.
That's one of the fun things about O'Donnell; his ghosts aren't just the spirits of the dead, but also spirits that were never alive, "elementals," forces of nature themselves. (In other works he classifies them; he gave the term "Vagrarian" to a sort of wandering nature-spirit, and I liked it so much I've adopted it as my online moniker.)
But O'Donnell's descriptions of hauntings are vivid and sometimes almost cinematic. Murders are re-enacted and ghosts take on bizarre forms. Sometimes it gets a bit repetitive; there's two cases of ghosts of women drowning their unwanted babies. But the titles of the articles/stories are all wonderfully lurid: "The London Villa of Ghostly Dread", "The Man in Boiling Lead," "Ghosts and Murder," and "The Castle Terrors" all promise enjoyable shudders.
It's a good for bedtime, for the commute, or even the bathroom. The short, compact stories all have good shudders. Just take 'em with a grain of salt...if even half these stories are true, then we live in a world overflowing with supernatural terrors. And I haven't seen 'em.