I don't think I've missed many Sundays of short story reading (and writing about what I've read) this year. Thinking back over 2013 I think I've spent the bulk of it with just a couple of collections, and I've greatly enjoyed both of them. Even if the scare factor is low, I almost always enjoy my ghost story reading in the fall months. For me it's more about the atmosphere and being entertained than anything else. Just as well, as if I think about it too much I can scare fairly easily. I think I've mentioned how I measure the 'scare factor' in a story--by whether or not I'll go do laundry in my basement or not. Sometimes it's not the actual reading that will send chills down my spine (though sometimes it does), but what it does to my imagination after the fact. It's when a story messes with your mind and you get spooked that you know an author did a good job.
I've read (in two cases reread) the last three stories from The Haunted Looking Glass this past weekend and now sadly close the book for the last time. The stories were chosen by Edward Gorey who also did the illustrations (one drawing for each story in his inimitable style). I only wish he would have written an introduction as I would love to know why he chose each story. There is only a mention that these were his favorites and I can see why--each is a classic in its own right. Some I liked more than others. I think my own favorites from this selection are "The Signalman" by Charles Dickens and "The Shadow of a Shade" by Tom Hood. In case you are looking for a good collection of ghost stories to dip into, I can heartily recommend this one and have added it to my own wishlist (now reluctantly must return this copy to the library).
The last of the stories includes one that I suspect many of you have read at some point. It's a wonderful example of irony and a warning of 'beware what you wish for'. W.W. Jacobs's "The Monkey's Paw" is a very short story (about twelve pages) that manages to pack a punch and at the same time be very streamlined and wastes not a word. It's a cold wet night. The blinds are drawn, there is a fire burning brightly and a family sits about their drawing room all cozy within and shielded from the dreariness without. A visitor, Sergeant Major Morris, who comes from far abroad arrives and will change the life of the family irrevocably--however unintentionally.
The sergeant major lived in India for more then twenty years, and when asked about his experiences he tells them about a monkey's paw that he got while living there. It's a magical paw, mummified, but one that promises to grant three wishes to the owner.
"It had a spell put on it by an old fakir, a very old holy man. He wanted to show that fate ruled people's lives, and that those who interfered with it did so do their sorrow."
It's human nature, however, to look at the paw as something that can only give, a granter of wishes. And the family does wish on the paw. I won't give away the twist, but only say that the paw can also take away while still granting a wish.
I've already had the chance to revisit Wilkie Collins. "The Dream Woman" is another wonderfully chilling story, well-told and tightly plotted. This is a story about a premonition. What happens when your dreams come true? Not a happy dream either but more of a nightmare. Like The Haunted Hotel, the story is narrated by a doctor, but the reader soon forgets who is telling the story. Reality quickly falls away and you become so involved in the tale that its almost like resurfacing from under water at the end when the narrator pops back in when all is said and done.
The story the doctor tells is about a man who nightly dreams awful dreams and calls out, "Wake up, there! Murder!". An ostler by trade, he married much later in life. For many years he was alone and lived only with his mother--not a whiff of romance had he the pleasure of. One night he dreamt of a "fair, fine woman, with yellowish flaxen hair, and light gray eyes, with a droop in the left eyelid." Noiselessly she comes to his bedside, and at the last moment he sees her raise her arm and plunge it down onto his pillow--just where his head had rested--in her delicate hand a knife. Dream or reality? He meets and marries a woman with just the same features as the woman in his nightmare . . .
Like the Jacobs story, "Casting the Runes" by M.R. James is one I have read before. Although it is considered by some to be his best, my own favorite James story (and there are many James stories--I have only read a smattering thus far) is "Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad", which I read last year. "Casting the Runes" is a story about evil and the supernatural. About men who do wicked things. Typical of a James story this one concerns academics and rare books. In this case a scholar has written a paper hoping it will be included in a scientific meeting. It has, however, been deemed 'hopeless' and has been rejected by the committee inviting the wrath of the author.
The reviewer of the paper is so far anonymous, but he is one of the few people in England to have an expertise in the topic--Alchemy. It's hoped that he can remain anonymous to avoid any run-ins or aggravated words with the rejected author who has been known to scare small children and there are whispers of wicked things he did to others who have criticized his work in the past. Now he has set his sights on getting revenge once again. There is a wonderful twist at the end of this story, a pulling of the rug from out from under the evil-doer. M.R. James is a very dependable teller of ghost stories and he is one to look for if you want something traditional and spooky.
My RIP-reading has come to an end for the year. I even managed to read what I set out to read--four books from my original list. I hope to still fit in one more ghost story for Halloween before moving on to my next project. I am contemplating my choices for Caroline and Lizzy's German Literature Month in November. I have a pile of books which seems to be growing and will be 'trying a few out' before the First rolls around on Friday. But more about that soon!