Tuesday, August 25, 2015

NOT EXACTLY GHOSTS by Sir Andrew Caldecott

"Well, if they're not exactly ghosts, what are they?" I hear you say. To which I reply, "Shut up, smartass, and let me continue with the review."

This is actually a collection of two book, both short story collections, Not Exactly Ghosts and Fires Burn Blue. Andrew Caldecott (1884-1951), the author, was a British colonial administrator who served first in Malaya, then was briefly the governor of Hong Kong, then the governor of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He retired from service in 1944 and returned to England, living there until his death.

I have to point all this out because his colonial experience comes into play in the stories. About a third of the stories in this book are set in the fictional country of Kongea, which seems to function as an amalgam of Malaya and Ceylon, with dashes of Hong Kong.

His stories are ghost stories, but are rather laid-back in their horrors. They're disquieting rather than terrifying, and sometimes the horrors are mundane in nature. Many have bad people meeting poetic justice by some supernatural agency; a notable one is "Sonata in D Minor," which has an interesting plot device: a recording of a (real) classical piece performed by a duo who hated each other with an insane fury, and which ended in murder. Listening to that particular recording drives men mad....and they do horrible things....

"The Pump in Thorp's Spinney" is one of the more mundane tales, of a curious boy encountering what he thinks is a ghost when he investigates an abandoned pump on an isolated farm. It's only years later that he learns the macabre truth.

His Kongean tales are the most interesting. "Light in the Darkness", the first, has an overzealous missionary going to a sacred cave and trying to discredit local beliefs by showing that a magic glow is merely a luminous mold....only to fall victim to a weird curse. It's got a "respect-the-locals" undercurrent, but also shows a sort of more progressive Kipling element by depicting Westerners in a foreign land, basically occupying it, and running afoul of a culture and traditions that they don't understand. And through them all he seems to be asking...."Do we really belong here?"

It's interesting, seeing someone who came from the colonial, white-man's-burden, to-strive-to-seek-to-find-and-not-to-yield, Victorian/Edwardian mindset seemingly questioning why they're there. Some of his Kongea stories reflect that the "civilization" that Westerners are imposing is merely a veneer that will fall off the minute they relax...and reading between the lines, I got a sense of him feeling, well, maybe we should let it fall off and get the hell out of there. Kongea is seen as a land of weird secrets and mysteries, and Westerners interfere with them at their peril.

Not Exactly Ghosts is not quite Required Reading, and hardly a horror classic, but it does represent an interesting side-road of the macabre, should you come across it in your travels.

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