Sunday 11 September 2011

R.I.P. short stories

One of the most pleasurable part of Carl's RIP challenges for me is the short story option.

I feel some of the best ghost writing of all was written in short story form and it's staggering how many famous authors dabbled in the genre even though supernatural writing may not have been their usual fare. It's also staggering how very very good they were at it and how beautiful the writing was even on the rare occasion that the story might not have been that great.

Anyway, I probably have a busy weekend coming up so my short story weekend is a bit premature, but I wanted to take part, so I'm reading yesterday and today but will probably not post until Sunday or Monday.

These are several of the books I've been reading from:

The first story I read was from Collected Ghost Stories by M.R. James and is entitled A School Story.

Two men sit by a roaring fire discussing ghost stories that might have revolved around private schools. I particularly like this as an illustration of the way school boys scare the living daylights out of each other:

'Then there was the man who heard a noise in the passage at night, opened his door, and saw someone crawling towards him on all fours with his eye hanging out on his cheek. There was besides, let me think - Yes! the room where a man was found dead in bed with a horshoe mark on his forehead, and the floor under the bed was covered with marks of horseshoes also; I don't know why. Also there was the lady who, on locking her bedroom door in a strange house, heard a thin voice among the bed-curtains say, "Now we're shut in for the night." None of those had any explanation or sequel. I wonder if they go on still those stories.'

I particularly like that last one! Of course, as is the way with the raconteur type of ghost story, one of the men goes on to tell of the one and only strange happening at his school. It involves a teacher who arrives to teach Latin, boys who unknowingly write strange Latin sentences when set exercises, which scare the teacher for reasons unknown, and what then happens to said teacher. I don't think this was one of James' best ghost yarns but it was nicely written and absorbing all the same. You can actually listen to it here on YouTube if the fancy takes you:

The next one I read was another by M.R. James, An Episode of Cathedral History.

A Mr. Lake is employed to examine and report on the Cathedral of Southminster's archives. He stays with the head verger, a Mr. Worby and said verger, as usual in front of good fire, recalls an event in the cathedral when he was a young lad. It seems the Dean was greatly into the new gothic style and decided to rip up the choir stalls and pulpit area. A tomb is revealed and then strange things start to happen at night in the cathedral close... A very good story this one. James uses the word 'cathedraly' to describe the verger's house and I think it's also a perfect word to describe the story. It reminded me of Trollope's Barchester stories to be honest. Beautifully written and nicely creepy.

My next story was one by E.F. Benson, Sea Mist from the anthology, Desirable Residences. Benson is probably best known for his Mapp and Lucia books, but he was also a darn good writer of excellent ghost stories.

This one concerns a John Verrall who owns a grocery shop in a seaside town, but is also a town worthy... councillor, alderman and now mayor. His wife, Caroline, is ten years older than him and they have no children. Their main hobby is to go walking along the marshes... the husband collecting butterflies and the wife studying the plantlife. One night Verrall gets home from one of these walks to report that his wife has gone missing. Eventually, in the ruins of an old castle, they find her body: she's fallen forty feet from some ruined steps and been killed. The story then follows what happens to the mayor. I'm not going into it as it's a beautifully told story where the reader becomes very involved and the suspense slowly builds. Just the kind of thing you would expect from a writer of Benson's quality. Excellent!

My fourth and final story for this weekend session was The Ghost of Massingham Mansions by Ernest Bramah, and comes from The Shadows of Sherlock Holmes edited by David Stuart Davies, a book of detective stories written at the time Holmes stories were being penned.

Bramah apparently wrote crime fiction around a blind detective by the name of Max Carrados. This story concerns Carrados and private detective friend, Carlyle, investigating a mysterious occurence at a local block of appartments. It seems an empty flat with no gas supply and the water cut off is showing gaslight late at night and the neighbours keep hearing baths being run. When the flat is approached by anyone investigating all activity ceases. Great fun this one with one of the most unusual outcomes I've ever come across. I gather Carrados usually solves crimes with his Butler, Parkinson, and that sounds unusual enough for me to look into these books at some stage.

I have loads of other stories I want to read including, Mr Jones by Edith Wharton and a freebie from Neil Gaiman that Susan of You Can Never Have too Many Books put me onto. I've downloaded both of these to my Kindle, so perhaps next weekend my short stories will all be Kindle reads.


Yvonne @ Fiction Books Reviews said...

Hi Cath,

Short stories are something that I honestly never think about reading, but I can see how they would work well with ghost stories.

I can always remember watching 'Tales Of The Unexpected' on television, they were basically only short mystery stories adapted for the small screen, but they always had the power to hold me enthralled for the duration.

Similarly Novellas are something that I haven't really considered before, but I had an email from an author earlier today, requesting a read/review on a novella, so I am going to give it a try.

I may even try the free kindle download that you mentioned as a good place to start, thanks for that recommendation.


DesLily said...

well you know I am not a short story lover..but it sounds like you are really enjoying these, and that's a good thing! I have one book w/ short stories I will try before rip is over.. no promises lol

Carl V. Anderson said...

Those books all look great. I love classic, creepy ghost/scary stories. I've only read a handful of M.R. James but what I have read has been delightful in that deliciously eerie way. Love 'em.

Sounds like you had a wonderful time.

I've read and enjoyed some Benson as well.

Kailana said...

I don't read a lot of short stories but I have been trying to do better... I have read more in the last couple years than ever before. I do like reading ghost stories.

Susan said...

I am just getting to that MR James short story (about the cathedral), I just discovered that I have his book of short stories upstairs, that I was reading last year! He is creepy sometimes, and very effectively, isn't he?

Lovely reviews, Cath!

Cath said...

Yvonne: I never used to think much about short stories either, until I discovered old fashioned ghost stories which are almost all written in short story form. I rapidly got used to them!

Oh yes, Roald Dahl's TotU was a 'must see' on TV years ago wasn't it? He was a master of that kind of weird fiction.

I don't read many novellas either, science fiction is the only genre I read those in.

I would think that Neil Gaiman story might easily be a good place to start. I haven't read it yet but gather it's rather good.

Pat: I really do think that if you tried a couple of those short stories you might like them. See if there are any by Dickens... The Signalman is really good. And I found one in one of my books by Wilkie Collins called Miss Jeromette and the Clergyman. It's here to read for free:

It's just 18 pages in my paperback so you might be able to print it out to read.

Carl: I think E.F. Benson is almost as good a ghost story writer as M.R. James. Certainly of the four I read for this post the E.F. Benson was my favourite because of the story-telling and the sense of place.

Kelly: I think the RIP challenge inspires you (and many others) to sample writing that you might not otherwise have tried.

Susan: so glad you have some of James' short stories to read, though many are now available for free online. One of my favs, A Vignette, is here:

I think it's a delicious, creepy little thing. :-)

Val said...

Lovely useful reviews Cath
and thanks for the links :0)

StuckInABook said...

I have been meaning to read some M R James for ages - indeed, I got hold of a selected works - but have yet to build up the courage to do so. I'm such a coward, I'd need to read them on a bright, sunny afternoon - but I only ever seem to think about him on dark, wintery nights...

Cath said...

Val: There's such a wealth of supernatural stories out there so I hope you can find something to suit you.

Simon: The thing about the older ghost stories by people like M.R. James is that they're not terrifying... and certainly not nasty or gory. Really they're just very good short stories with a creepy twist. E.F. Benson would be a good one for you try. If you have his anthology, Desirable Residences, there are a clutch of so called 'spook' stories at the end of the collection.

Nan said...

If you'd like to read a short story a week, there's a nice blog that offers a way to connect with other short story readers.

It isn't too late to include this wonderful post.

I still remember staying up at night with friends and exchanging ghost stories. I could never sleep afterward.

Cath said...

Nan: I would happily do that but at the moment I can't really commit to reading anything at any particular time because of the situation with my daughter. Perhaps next year.