It's been years since I've read anything by Mary Higgins Clark, so when Caroline read a short story by her that is in the same collection we both happen to be reading from, my curiosity was piqued, and I had to read it, too. The story is in The Mammoth Book of 20th Century Ghost Stories edited by Peter Haining, which I am finding a handy collection to have on hand. I am amazed by how many authors who I consider novelists also have written short stories. Mary Higgins Clark is not one I would have pegged as a short story writer, though I think she is one of the authors who introduced me to the mystery/thriller genre.
I sometimes think I have too vivid of an imagination. This can be a good thing, but it can also mean I worry needlessly over things that probably will never happen, but that race through my mind at the wrong moment. For example, I live in an older house that has an unfinished basement with a few nooks and crannies and dark corners and all brick walls. Normally it doesn't bother me if I need to go to the basement at night, but if I happen to be alone or have been watching too many unsettling movies, I might calmly go down and get what I need, but I might also race back up the stairs to the bright lights of the kitchen. Now, don't ask what (or who) I think might be hiding beneath the stairs, because I know there is nothing there. Silly. I know, but what can I say.
So, when Mary Higgins Clark's story involved a coal bin in a cellar, it automatically made me think of my dank, dark cellar, which I already find creepy. You'll be happy to know, I have no coal bin! Technically there is no ghost, except what we carry with us in our imaginations (ahem) in this story, but it does have an unnerving ending. Mike and Laurie, a young couple from New York, travel to Wisconsin in order to give Laurie some much needed rest. Laurie is a singer, but she is becoming unhinged from recurring nightmares. Mike spent summers with his grandmother in the cottage, but when they arrive he finds the house faded and shabby, not happy and warm as he remembers it from his youth. Rather than finding rest, Laurie's nightmares are as real as ever. Her psychiatrist believes the nightmares are due to frightening childhood experiences. Laurie's grandmother had the tendency to tell her old wives' tales, and in Laurie's dreams they seem to be coming true. When Laurie disappears, one of the first places Mike looks for her is the coal bin. I won't tell you what he finds there. Oh, by the way, the story is called "Voices in the Coal Bin."
Ruth Rendell is one of my all-time favorite authors. She is a master of psychological thrillers and writes under her own name as well as the pseudonym of Babara Vine. I think I've read nearly every Barbara Vine book she's written and a number of them under her own name, though I have yet to read any of her Inspector Wexford mysteries. Her story, "Compter Séance", is collected in The Mammoth Book of Haunted House Stories also edited by Peter Haining (yes, there is a whole series of these books). To set the tone, her story begins:
"Sophia de Vasco (Sheila Vosper on her birth certificate) was waiting at the bus stop when she saw her brother coming out of a side turning. Her brother looked a lot younger than he had before he died seven years before, but any doubts she might have had as to his identity were dispelled when he came up to her and asked her for money."
Encounters with dead relatives are not at all unusual for Sophia, but as she's a spiritualist that's not surprising. What is, is that her computer is an indispensible tool for her trade. Clad in fake fur and high-heeled boots with two carrier bags and a leather case in hand, she shakes off her feckless brother as she has a séance to perform, and a performance is what it is. Sophia's a charlatan--her gig is to have a keyboard hidden where she can type the answers to her client's questions. The joke is going to be on Sophia however, as after her "séance" she encounters her ghostly brother once more, only perhaps he's not so ghostly after all--this is a story with a twist on psychic phenomena.
As much as I love Ruth Rendell, I think I prefer her story "The Haunting of Shawley Rectory", which I read a few years ago, over this one. It had an interesting twist, but was a little weak in the execution, whereas her other story I thought quite clever. Some ghost stories are definitely more effective than others. Have you read a ghost story that has quite literally scared you? For me, a successful story is one that gives me a surprise at the end I wasn't expecting. I like a good twist, but I think it's hard in this day and age to give a really good scare. But maybe I'm wrong?
More stories read for the RIP Challenge: Miriam by Truman Capote, Sophy Mason Comes Back by E.M. Delafield, and Sloane Square by Pamela Hansford Johnson. Next week, I think I'm ready for a good Victorian ghost story.