This week's story by R.H. (Richard Henry) Malden, "The Thirteenth Tree" follows a very traditional format. It's heavy on atmosphere and story and light on actual chills and thrills. I was not surprised to read the biographical description about him which notes that he is the author of a collection of ghost stories called Thirteen Ghosts, and are written in the same vein as M.R. James. As a matter of fact the two were friends. Malden was a curate as well as lecturer and surely his story is a nod in James's direction.
It involves a 17th century country house where bad things once happened and malevolent spirits have sought their revenge over the many years. The narrator is an outsider who witnesses strange dream-like (rather closer to nightmarish) occurrences in the twilight. So he and his host set out to try and discover the mystery of the house. All in all it is quite tame as ghost stories go, but it makes for an entertaining way to pass a bit of time on a crisp fall afternoon.
Situated in the western counties, the house in question isn't entailed and has passed down to the narrator's friend by haphazard chance. The property had never passed in the direct male line since the early 1600s when Sir Robert Newton, whose portrait hangs in the house's great hall, built it. Newton was a Chief Justice whose son drowned in the garden's pool. It was very curious since the pool was shallow and the boy was not a small child. Ever after no son managed to inherit, all of them seeming to meet with tragic ends.
Perhaps mercifully the current owner has only daughters and no sons. An old friend of the narrator the two had met in London after many years and an invitation to visit was issued and gratefully accepted. Happy to renew their friendship, the narrator finds his journey to the countryside pleasurable though it's too dark to know much of the house at first glance as the light was quickly falling. Very soon, though, the house makes its sinister intentions known to him.
" . . . while I was undressing I meditated on the queer fatality which seemed to have pursued the family for three hundred years. Was it more than a series of odd and unfortunate coincidences? Are there, or have their been, people who had some malign power which they could direct against their enemies? If it were so, how was this power operative after their lifetime? Did it exhaust itself after a period of time or not?"
In the twilight the grounds surrounding the house seem to shift. There are a dozen trees along the perimeter, no longer a pool, a wall very white in the moonlight with an ivy creeping up it and spreading sideways that suggests the "head and arms of a person in the act of climbing the wall". But strange things happen in the dark. A pool appears, the grounds take on a newness as if the house was just constructed. And more terrifying for the narrator, as this shift happens when he is sleeping, it's as if he is not dreaming but a spectator in something awful.
When he wakes he feels as if he has just narrowly missed disaster. An accident about to happen but then he awakes. So he and his friend decide to try and uncover what evil lurks in the seemingly noble house. I won't give away the ending, but will just give a tease. It involves the accusation of witchcraft, murder and revenge. And as the title implies . . . just where is and what happened to the thirteenth tree? Spooky!
Next week's story sounds promising: "The Body Snatcher" by Robert Louis Stevenson.