Wednesday, July 30, 2014

IN GHOSTLY COMPANY by Amyas Northcote

Amyas Northcote (1864-1923) is an author about whom little is known despite the usual biographical details. Born in England, emigrated to the US in 20s where he was a businessman in Chicago, then returned to England in 1900, eventually becoming a justice of the peace in Buckinghamshire. This, his sole volume of stories and the only writing he seems to have ever done, came out in 1921, and he died 18 months later. No other writings seem to have been found after his death. Not much is really known of his life, or what he did for a living, or what his thoughts and passions were, or why he decided to write ghost stories. But that being said, his stories are pretty darned good.

First in this edition is the oft-anthologized "Brickett Bottom," a famously unsettling tale of a house that isn't there and disappearances. You'll find it in a lot of "best-ever" or "haunted-house" anthologies, and I've heard it dramatized for radio. It's a remarkably dark, bleak story, and relentlessly macabre. In other words, you HAVE to read it.

Others follow some more of the standard fare. "Mr. Kershaw and Mr. Wilcox" is of a psychic dream. "The Late Earl of D." follows a ghostly re-enactment of a murder. "Mr. Mortimer's Diary" tells of a man hounded by the spirit of someone he deeply wronged. "The House in the Wood" is a very, very standard tale of a child's ghost warning a parent of danger. "The Young Lady in Black" is also very, very standard, of a ghost that returns to fulfill a promise. "The Governess' Story" recounts an auditory haunting that replays a despondent teen's suicide.

However, there are some others that stand out, at least for me.

"In the Woods" is a dark, unsettling tale of a lonely teenage girl who explores the forests on her own, only to find herself under the spell of the resident nature spirits. It's rather Machenesque, and blends Victorian whimsy with dark menace. There's no real plot; it's almost a lengthy vignette, with no real resolution. But it's darn good and worthy of more attention.

"The Steps" concerns itself with a wealthy society girl who turns down a soldier's marriage proposal, twice. He swears to have her, and then is called into action and dies. His steps haunt her and hound her. It's standard stuff, except for its nastiness. The soldier is never depicted as being all that evil or forceful; he's a lonely man, deeply infatuated, and thwarted in love. The girl is never depicted as terribly nasty either, just a normal girl of her class. So her ghostly persecution is not that of a deserved revenge on a heartless person, or even of a psychotic stalker and innocent victim. It has more the feel of a random bit of spectral evil that just happens to happen...and thus is very chilling.

Two stories, "The Downs" and "The Late Mrs. Fowke," are very folkloric. "The Downs" has a man walking across a stretch of land on a night when the spirits of those who died there walk...and it's strange and hallucinatory. "The Late Mrs. Fowke" concerns a clergyman who discovers his wife has dealings with Old Nick. Both have a strong rural atmosphere and are quite fun.

Northcote's stories are generally set in England or America, but "The Picture" is set in Hungary. It's not a great tale, but it is full of menace, where a girl does one of those silly rituals to see the face of her future husband, and later finds that face on a decades-old portrait hanging in a local castle. It has a macabre end, to be sure, but it's never clearly explained WHY it happens, which makes it all the more unsettling.

The last story is also a bit different. "Mr. Oliver Carmichael" is not really a ghost story, but a tale of occultism. A man has a chance meeting with a woman who seems to recognize him, and who takes a malicious interest in him. It turns out she's the reincarnation of a soul that was knit to his, and while his rose to light and goodness, hers sank to evil and darkness. It's actually not a very good story; very little happens. It's quite a bit of buildup and no payoff. But it's interesting because it's got that didactic tone that you normally find in stories written by True Believers, and it makes me wonder if perhaps Northcote had been fascinated by that sort of thing, and if that had something to do with his decision to write ghost stories. Unfortunately I can only conjecture.

This is a handsome, slim paperback from Wordsworth, and with a nice introduction by David Stuart Davies. It's worth picking up if you come across it.

A facsimile of the original dust jacket.

Monday, July 21, 2014

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson, and an interesting parallel

After many years, I finally reread The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson's deservedly famous horror novel. I hadn't been too impressed with it when I first read it back in the 80s, but upon rereading it I was rather surprised at parts I didn't remember, things I somehow missed back then. At the time I'd seen the film on video quite a few times (I rented it regularly at my favorite video store) and perhaps I was too wowed by the film to really appreciate the novel. Maybe.

The Haunting of Hill House is one of the all-time classics, both of the horror genre and of literature in general. Horror is a genre that frequently works best in the short-story format, and many horror novels end up being drawn-out and tedious. But Haunting works spectacularly well at its novel length; it NEEDS to be novel-length.

The novel concerns itself with Prof. Montague, who gathers a group of people to spend a summer at Hill House, a notoriously haunted New England mansion. His small group is Luke, a wastrel member of the family who owns the house, and hopes to inherit it one day; Theodora, a bohemian artist (and possible esbian, which is played up in the movie) who has ESP, and Eleanor Vance, who experienced poltergeist phenomena as a child. Eleanor is the central character of the novel; at 32, she has spent the last 11 years of her life caring for her invalid mother and never really living her own life. Her mother has recently died, Eleanor (Nell) is venturing out of her neurotic repression, but isn't up to the menace of Hill House.

You may remember some of its terrors from the 1963 movie...the pounding on the walls, the writing, Nell's final madness...although the movie plays up the ambiguity that the haunting may exist partially in Nell's mind, and it may be the result of latent telekinetic powers going berserk as her sanity crumbles. But it leaves out some memorable eerie events from the book, although one would have been difficult to film, and some occur outside, while the film keeps the action firmly within the house's walls until the end, keeping up the atmosphere of claustrophobia.

But one thing that really stood out for me was the way in which it's a psychological novel, delving into Eleanor's troubled mind, her desire to belong, her bitterness at her family, her dream of finding love, all that...and it called to mind another movie I'd seen recently and loved, the 1941 Bette Davis classic, Now, Voyager.

Based on a novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, Now, Voyager is the tale of Charlotte Vale, a plain, neurotic spinster who has been kept on a short leash by an overbearing and brutally controlling mother. She has a nervous breakdown and is institutionalized for a few months, then goes on a cruise where she finds the love of her life. It's actually a lot more modern than it seems (I'm leaving out a number of story developments, so go watch it for yourself if you don't know it).

There's a lot that's pretty obvious: both concern neurotic, repressed, mother-dominated women who are never allowed to grow up and be their own person. Both go on a voyage that changes their respective lives. But while Prouty's heroine has a breakdown, therapy, then goes on her journey, Jackson's Nell has her journey, then her breakdown. But Nell obviously hopes for some romance, for something to change her life and make it whole. All through the book she keeps using the phrase "Journeys end in lovers meeting," and there are flirtations with Luke (and some subtle overtures from Theodora), but ultimately it seems her lover is destined to be Hill House itself.

In fact, Nell's expectations seem to be a result of reading Prouty's work and other "women's novels" and "women's films" of the period, that usually depicted women suffering glamorously and then rewarded with True Love. (Prouty is a bit different; she dared to show the mother/daughter relationship as a destructive one, and her heroine eventually comes to value autonomy over conventional marriage.) It makes sense; Now, Voyager was published in 1941, and The Haunting of Hill House in 1959. I can't help but have the feeling that Jackson was at least in part commenting on a generation of women entering the Space Age but raised on the women-directed media of the 40s and 50s.

So, read 'em both and see what you think. Jackson's novel has never been out of print; Prouty's is available in print and as an ebook, currently being rediscovered as a minor landmark in feminist literature. Or watch the movies; both are quite close to their source material and both are bona fide cinematic classics.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

July's Night Out at the Movies!

The evenings are still sun-drenched, but at least the heat and humidity have eased. Our regular dinner has sparkling conversation and cool drinks. Tales of vacations, family trips, and Independence Day mishaps (fireworks going off twenty feet over the ground?), or else gentle tales of laying in a hammock with a book for a whole summer afternoon.

After lovely icy desserts, we stroll up the street to our usual theater...

Tonight's program starts off with a short by George Melies from 1903...

Then the feature presentation, 1933's "The Vampire Bat," with Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray!

The show over, we wander, as always, up the street to that little cafe for a final drink, not noticing the bats flying overhead...

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

GHOSTS, GHOULS, & OTHER HORRORS by Bernhardt J. Hurwood

This charming little volume is from Scholastic, and published in 1971. One can't help but wonder if this was one of those things bought in the book fairs they held in elementary-school cafeterias. It's a charmingly lurid collection of brief tales, all bite-sized and good bedtime reading for those who enjoy a slight shudder.

The stories are quite a jumble. At least one is a written-up version of a common urban legend, of a priest who is summoned by a mysterious woman who directs him to a certain address to administer last rites. He arrives at the address, only to find nobody ill. He identifies a picture on the wall as the woman who summoned him; as it turns out, it's the long-dead mother of the master of the house, a dissolute soul who suddenly converts and confesses his sins....just in time to die the next day.

Others are recountings of famous hauntings, like the screaming skull of Burton Agnes Hall, or a haunting of Berry Pomeroy, and the very, very familiar story of the vampire of Croglin Grange. One, a story of the ghost of a werewolf, seems lifted entirely from the work of Elliott O'Donnell. And quite a few seem invented from whole cloth, like "The Glowing Maggot of Doom" or "The Old Man in Yellow" or "A Georgia House of Horror." All the stories are purportedly true but there's no references and in some cases there's little to no identifying information available, so it's impossible to look it up. My colleague Jim Moon at the Hypnogoria website tried to look up the source of "The Glowing Maggot of Doom" and couldn't find anything. I remember looking into that story myself, as it was reprinted in Marvin Kaye's marvelous anthology Ghosts, and I couldn't locate anything about a maggot haunting, although it does come across as a distant cousin to E. F. Benson's short story "Caterpillars." Mr. Moon reads from the book in his podcast Hypnobobs; go give it a listen. He says a few more things about it that I agree with very much, and find it pointless to repeat.

Interestingly, the editions we have have differences. His is illustrated; mine is not. However, based on his readings in the podcast, his edition seems somewhat bowdlerized; mine does not. In his reading of "Glowing Maggot", there's a mention of someone dying "after being taken ill," but in my copy of the book, it says they died "after being seized with a fit of vomiting."

Bernhardt Hurwood seems to have been a hack writer who did a lot of these books; I now have a small stack of 'em to delve into, found in my explorations of local used book stores. Looking him up online, he also seems to have written quite a few books on sex as well. Quite a split personality there; kid's occultism on one hand, sex and pornography on the other. Probably not all that unusual for jobbing writers.

There are copies available online for next to nothing, and keep your eyes open for used copies. This is enjoyable, if featherweight, entertainment, good for reading in bed on a windy night.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Phantom Tango for July

Feeling raffish and naughty, we're off to that cabaret in town where the music is quirky and the atmosphere conducive to diablerie.

We've been there enough times that we're greeted at the door and shown our favorite table. Bottles of ice-cold cava and an array of light refreshments are brought to the table: moules mariniere, olives, gravlax, cheeses, cups of delicate consomme, chartucerie, and salads, followed by fruits and sherbets. It's a grand evening together, all in our best bohemian finery, Viola in a vintage gown, May and James both in tuxedos, Ramsey opting for a smoking jacket, and Laura in a fetching ensemble she made herself. You're in something classy and fun yourself. We're the envy of the club, with other patrons casting glances our way as if they wished they were at our table.

And then, the band comes on, and the music starts.

Couples take to the floor; tangos ensue. You dance with James, and with May. Cava flows. We make friends with some of the other patrons.

We'll be late for work tomorrow, that's for sure. When it's all over, you're reluctant to even glance at your watch, and are wondering about calling in sick....