Monday 12 December 2022

Short stories at Christmas

Rather than read through whole books of short stories, I thought it might be interesting and fun to have a sort of 'short story' December, picking out random stories that are in various Christmas or winter collections I own. 

So, first up, The Earlier Service by Margaret Irwin. I picked this out of a British Library wierd stories  collection entitled, Haunters at the Hearth, which is edited by Tanya Kirk. I thought it sounded ecclesiastical and so it turned out to be. 

This story is set in a small, rural, village church in Somerset. The vicar and his wife have a son and two teenage daughters, Jane and Alice. Jane is 16 and coming up to her confirmation. It's terrifying her and we don't know why. We see her in church on Sundays, the last to arrive, reluctant, edgy. The son, Hugh, brings a friend home from uni who has an interest in old churches and specialises in going round looking for hidden inscriptions scratched in pews or hidden corners of the church. Jane shows him the one in the rector's pew...  Well, how nice to hit upon such a creepy, atmospheric story at my first try. I don't know the author, Margaret Irwin, at all, she was apparently well known for historical fiction back in the 1930s and 40s: this ghost story is from 1935. It was full of that sort of hidden menace you get sometimes in fiction, where the reader knows there's something very wrong and is on edge waiting to be told what it is. I love a rural village, churchy sort of setting too and it's very well done here. The author also depicts the angst and worries of being 16 and sensitive extremely well. I'd very much like to read more short fiction by this author. 

Next I read two stories from a BLCC collection, Silent Nights, edited by Martin Edwards.

Stuffing by Edgar Wallace involves two con artists who specialise in getting themselves invited to stately home, disguising themselves as foreign princes etc. They'd then pinch money or valuables and get them out of the house at a prearranged time. But this time it all goes wrong and the Christmas turkey gets in on the act. This was well written and fun, if slightly confusing at the end. 

A Problem in White is by Nicholas Blake, a pseudonym for Cecil Day Lewis who was Poet Laureate in the UK in the 1960s and father of 'Daniel' of course. This was a railway story - train stuck in the snow with spys and criminals on board sort of thing. A train robbery had apparently taken place on this route not long ago and the carriage occupants speculate upon where it took place: one of them seems to know more than he should. This too was very well written and also a bit confusing. I lost track of who was doing what to whom out there in the frozen countryside. 

The next story I read is from Polar Horrors: Strange Tales from the World's Ends edited by John Miller. The story I picked out was Skerry Skule by John Buchan, the author of such iconic books as Thirty Nine Steps and Huntingtower.

Anthony Hurrell is a very keen ornithologist. He's devised a theory that when birds migrate they do so along very strict aerial corridors. So off he goes to some islands off the far north of Scotland (Orkney I think) to try and prove said theory. He's read about The Isle of Birds in Norse mythology and feels as though he has pinpointed this place on the map. Luckily he can stay on a neighbouring island and make the trip by boat as the island is uninhabited. Only problem is the local fishermen do not want to take him there. 'Something queer about the place'. It has an 'ill name'. No prizes for guessing that he goes anyway and we find out what happens when a storm hits. This one was very atmospheric, excellent feel for what it's like spending the night on an exposed island in the middle of a gale. And there's a nice twist at the end. I liked the 'other worldly' feel to this. I must read more by John Buchan.


Lastly I read, The Clergyman's Daughter by Agatha Christie. This is from Midwinter Murder a fairly newly put together collection of her Christmas/Winter short stories.  (It's available for free on Prime reading in the UK at the moment.)

This is a Tommy and Tuppence story. Tuppence says she wants to befriend a clergyman's daughter because she herself is one. Lo and behold one turns up in their office looking for help. Monica Deane's father has died leaving her and her mother almost destitute. Then an estranged aunt dies leaving them her house but for some reason there is no money when there is supposed to be. They decide to sell the house, but turn down the only offer they get. Then odd things start to happen in the house, poltergeist type activity. A psychical expert turns up but he looks familiar somehow. So this is a really fun Christmas caper, riddles to be solved, treasure to found, that sort of thing. Huge fun and there's even a mention of another Golden Age detective, Roger Sheringham, who features in books by Anthony Berkeley, one of which I've just finished, which is an odd coincidence. I've read quite a few of Agatha Christie's short stories but not this one so it was nice to read something completely unfamiliar by her. Great fun. And look at that gorgeous cover!

So that was fun! I think the best of this bunch is The Earlier Service by Margaret Irwin but the Agatha Christie was great as well. I plan to read a few more Christmassy or wintery short stories over the run-up to Christmas so watch this space!



Vallypee said...

I know I shouldn't, but do you mind a bit of a self-plug, Cath. I too have a winter story you might enjoy. It's not a short (although not long) and it's about a barge family brush with Cold War shenanigans during the famous winter of '62. Not unlike A Problem in White by the sound of it. I'm going to look up some of your shorts here, though.

Yvonne @ Fiction Books Reviews said...

I never used to be a fan of short story / novella writing, however I have read a few publishers requests from the genres recently, and have to say that I have thoroughly enjoyed them, so I am adding a couple of your selection to my own list.

I have read just about every Agatha Christie book, but never any of her short stories, so this is definitely going to find a place on my 'wish list', especially as I find the characters of Tommy and Tuppence very engaging.

Like yourself, I know nothing about Margaret Irwin, so this seems like a good place to begin, especially as this story is set in Somerset.

I have also never read any John Buchan (not even The Thirty-Nine Steps) and having recently read a couple of books by various authors about the strange goings on on remote islands, this was another no-brainer for my selection.

I like the way you are taking a different approach to Christmas by shunning the usual 'feel-good' novels in favour of a few thrillers / murder mysteries :)

Cath said...

Val: I never have any objection to a self-plug and thanks for telling me about it. I didn't know your book was a 'winter of '62' story, I remember that winter very well indeed. I was only nine and we didn't get any snow in Penzance but I recall so many poor little dead birds everywhere.

Cath said...

Yvonne: I used to be one of these people who own loads of short story collections but hardly ever read them. I'm a lot better these days, thanks mainly to the British Library I think, they've brought out so many good ones.

I've read a few AC short stories, Poirot and Miss Marple mainly so a lot of hers are new to me too.

It was nice - I could easily picture the church in a small Somserset village as I've seen so many.

Years ago John Buchan would've been thought of as an author for boys and men but these days that's all changed of course and I really enjoyed his Huntingtower when I read it.

I did read one 'feel good' Christmas book at the start of the month but didn't think that much to it so have turned to crime instead. LOL!

Vallypee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vallypee said...

Thank you, Cath. I was suddenly overcome with shame and came back to delete my comment, but you've put my mind at rest. I was seven that winter and remember it very well too. We were living in London and the snow and ice seemed to last forever. I've never forgotten how miserable I was and it was 1962 that made me realise how much I disliked the cold. I think it was inevitable I'd write something set in it one day :)

By the way, I enjoyed John Buchan when I was young. My parents had his books and I read them then. The Thirty-Nine Steps was a huge favourite long before I knew of the film.

PS my first attempt at this comment was a mess of typos, so I deleted it. I'm having a butter finger day today!

TracyK said...

You found some very interesting Christmas and winter stories. Haunters at the Hearth sounds like a collection my husband would like. I read the Silent Nights collection a few years back when it first came out. It is one of the few Christmas collections that I have read all the way through. I remember being surprised by liking the story by Edgar Wallace a lot, and disappointed with the Nicholas Blake story because he is one of my favorite vintage mystery authors. I enjoyed most of his mystery novels.

Polar Horrors might be interesting to Glen also because he likes horror stories and also likes cold snowy settings. He just purchased The Shrieking Skull and Other Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories. I think I will have to read a story or two from that one because it has a great skull on the cover.

Margot Kinberg said...

What a great selection of stories, Cath! What I like about them is that they are varied: horror, wit, and more. There are some interesting authors there, too. I have to admit, I've never read Irwin's work, but I'd heard about it, and I appreciate the reminder to check it out. That's the thing about short stories, isn't it? You get to 'meet' authors you wouldn't otherwise know.

Lark said...

What a fun thing to do in December. And it sounds like you found some good ones. :D

Fanda Classiclit said...

What a good idea to read short stories from various writers for Christmas! I have finished a Christmas short stories collection myself, and it's very refreshing. I think I'm going to make it a new tradition. So thank you for your inspiration! :)

I remember reading Midwinter Murders few years ago, it has a lot of good stuffs!
Here's my review:

Cath said...

Val: Never worry about a bit of self-promotion here, this is a blog about books after all and I'm always happy for people to tell me about 'more' books! I think as Brits we were brought up (in our day anyway) not to push yourself forward, not to think of yourself as anything special. Hopefully that's altered a bit now, but I do know exactly how you feel.

How lovely that your parents had John Buchan books for you to read. I come from a non-bookish household so he was an unknown author to me growing up. I don't think I knew much about him until Robert Powell played Hannay on the TV!

No problem about the deleted comment. :-)

Cath said...

Tracy: Yes, I wasn't all that taken by the Nicholas Blake story. It was ok, but nothing special. I do want read one of his novels though, it might be better.

The minute I read the title of Glen's Shrieking Skull book, I wondered if it had a good 'skull' cover for you. I'm so pleased it does! LOL

It's such a pity we're not neighbours as I could pass all of these British Library weird story books over to you for Glen. They're so great.

Cath said...

Margot: Yes, for me, when I start a new anthology I always wonder which new author I'm going to discover this time. That's how I came across Michael Gilbert, in one of Martin Edwards' collections, a crime story set in The War which made me laugh. I thought that was quite an achievement, so I went looking for more. Margaret Irwin's story was excellent so I'll be checking her out.

Cath said...

Lark: It certainly is fun! I was just looking to approach my Christmas reading a little differently this year. :-)

Cath said...

Fanda: Thank you! I thought I'd approach my Christmas reading a little bit differently this year. I definitely plan to read 'all' of the Midwinter Murder anthology though. You are most welcome for the inspiration. And thank you for the link to your review. I visited your blog to read it and left a comment. I've also added your blog to my reading list so I don't miss your posts.

TracyK said...

Cath, I have often wished I lived near to you. I would love to see your garden and your bookshelves. Alas I don't plan to travel outside the US (and probably not in it either). I did mention Polar Horrors to Glen and it sounds like something he would like, and we purchased an ebook edition.