I was very excited to get my hands on (mooch) a copy of The Mammoth Book of 20th Century Ghost Stories (edited by Peter Haining) recently. I knew I would choose a story from the collection this weekend, it was just a matter of deciding which story to read. I've been trying to alternate each weekend between male and female authors in order to get a variety styles and subjects. Last weekend was M.R. James so who to choose this weekend? Agatha Christie? Maybe Muriel Spark or Daphne du Maurier? Stevie Smith or Stella Gibbons? Okay, I fell back on a trusted favorite, Ruth Rendell. I read another of her short stories earlier this year, so I wondered how she would handle a ghost story. She handles ghost stories very well I must say!
The little introduction to the story mentions, and I have heard this before, that Ruth Rendell is known as the "Queen of Crime". I think she's deserving of the title. I had no idea, however, that Agatha Christie was known by the same moniker previously. Apparently Rendell is a "great admirer" of two masters of the ghost story, John Sheridan Le Fanu and M.R. James. I've read one and plan on reading the other. Of course now I have to read them since she admires them so. Rendell lives in a Suffolk village where there is a famous twentieth-century haunting at Borley Rectory on the Suffolk/Essex border. The editor writes that "he feels something of that legend in this story", which she wrote in 1979 for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.
Although I really love ghost stories, I never expect to be terribly surprised or shocked or frightened by them (unless of course, we're talking about Joyce Carol Oates perhaps). While I was reading Rendell's "The Haunting of Shawley Rectory" I was wondering if it was all going to be anticlimactic. I really should know better. She managed to slip a surprise in the story that I didn't see coming and made be think Hah! when I read it. Shawley Rectory was built in 1760 and occupied over time by various families. It's a rather menacing building.
"...it's built of dun-coloured brick with plain classical windows and a front door in the middle with a pediment over it. It's a big house with three receptions rooms, six bedrooms, two kitchens and two staircases--and one poky little bathroom made by having converted a linen closet. The house is a bit stark to look at, a bit forbidding; it seems to stare straight back at you, but the trees round it are pretty enough and so are the stables on the left-hand side with a clock in their gable and a weathervane on top."
Over time there have been strange occurrences, but they don't seem to happen to all the residents. Wheels rattling outside on the cobblestones, soft voices talking where no one is there. Doors slamming. All the usual things you expect with a haunted house. One resident even went so far as to say that they observed the ghostly figures of a mother and daughter arguing. It was only a quick vision. It's not known when these 'ghosts' lived in the rectory. If only their clothes could have been distinguished, the storyteller might have been able to look in the historical records and discovered who the ghostly residents were and when they lived and just what happened to them. The narrator of the story, a neighbor of the rectory, along with a friend decide to spend an evening in the house, hoping to witness for themselves the ghosts...
I really enjoyed this story and highly recommend it, if you can get your hands on a copy of this book (though I think it also appears in a Virago anthology of ghost stories as well). Rendell is a great storyteller and this one had all the right elements in it to keep me wondering--just what I've come to expect when reading her work. This was nicely told with a wonderful and surprising twist! I hope the rest of the stories in this anthology are equally as good.