And now for something a little different. A ghost story that's scary? That's the claim that Ellen Datlow makes in her introduction to The Dark: New Ghost Stories, which was published in 2003. Most of the authors in the collection are unknown to me, with the exception of a few like Joyce Carol Oates and Kelly Link (an author I've only heard of but not yet read). Ghost stories, she writes, have been popular since Homer's time and have never been restricted to those writing solely about the supernatural. Authors from a variety of literary traditions have tried their hand at writing them and it was only in the 1980s that ghost stories more or less fell out of fashion. Writers began dealing in tales of horror and more realistic tales of terror with serial killers and dysfunctional families frightening contemporary readers. Some writers still choose to write stories dealing in the supernatural despite the popularity of the horror genre, so with this anthology Datlow wanted to share scary stories, nothing heartwarming here.
I already know what Joyce Carol Oates is capable of, and she is a superlative author when it comes to writing stories that cause unease and have the ability to unnerve a reader (at least that's been my experience with her), so I wanted to try someone new. Stephen Gallagher is a British writer who has lived in the US and has had a number of stories published in various magazines and anthologies as well as a number of novels, screenplays and teleplays. Reading first sentences, his caught my eye and I decided I needed to continue reading "Doctor Hood".
"At the top of the narrow garden, Miranda climbed the steps to the front door of her childhood home and rang the bell. Then she waited."
"No lights were showing in any of the windows. The lane in which the big house stood was a pocket of old-fashioned stillness in the city, tucked-away behind the cathedral and especially quiet at this hour of the night. You turned through a gated opening half-hidden from the main road and seemed to enter an older, gentler, and more tranquil world. The lane was narrow and tree-lined. It wasn't maintained by the city but by the residents, who mostly left it alone."
The title gives nothing away, but I was already curious about Miranda. Returning to a childhood home makes you wonder what, if anything, happened there and did she leave for reasons other than the natural ones of growing up and moving on? And what will she find when she goes back?
Doctor Hood, it turns out, is Miranda's father, a well known and respected physicist who studies dark matter. Unfortunately she wonders if he's lost his mind as when she returns home the house is filled with complicated looking equipment in all the rooms, and her father is looking worse for wear--wild hair, crumpled clothes and red rimmed eyes betraying a lack of sleep. It seems he believes that his deceased wife has been returning home from the great beyond. There's not so much a ghostly presence as a feeling that he has from time to time, but he's obsessed with finding proof. He spends time with spiritualists who may or may not be the real thing and talking with others who are experiencing unusual supernatural activity, and uses machines to try and track unusual happenings. MIranda is, unsurprisingly, doubtful, and is more concerned with her father's academic reputation and the students he's meant to be supervising. Things take an unusual turn when Doctor Hood and his students finally encounter a strange and unexplainable phenomenon.
So? Scary? Well, I still think it is really hard to write a convincing and frightening ghost story. Gallagher writes well and tells a good story with a nice twist at the end, but as for any chills and feelings of dread, the story never quite achieved that level for me. I think part of my problem was having in mind the movie Poltergeist, and while there are no poltergeists in this story, I kept seeing furniture swirling around in a bedroom and Carol Anne being sucked through red ectoplasm when her mother retrieves her from the 'other side'. All pretty campy really. Still, I don't mind not being scared as long as the story provides something unexpected and atmospheric, and some writers really can shock or creep you out. Daphne du Maurier comes to mind off hand. Not an unpleasant way to spend an hour or so reading, but unfortunately it didn't quite live up to expectations. Still there might be a surprise or two in the collection, so I will have to see what else is on offer and try and keep expectations low.
Only two more weeks of scary stories (I've done well on short story reading for Carl's RIP Challenge, but not so well with my novel reading). I'm up for something really good next week. Any suggestions? Or maybe it's time to revisit some tried and true past (scary) reading experiences.
More stories read for the RIP Challenge: Miriam by Truman Capote, Sophy Mason Comes Back by E.M. Delafield, Sloane Square by Pamela Hansford Johnson, Voices in the Coal Bin by Mary Higgins Clark and Computer Séance by Ruth Rendell, Reality or Delusion by Mrs. Henry Wood, and The Lady's Maid's Bell by Edith Wharton.