I think I might actually meet one of my reading goals after all. Even with October being a strange (and somewhat disappointing) reading month, I think by Halloween I will have read four books (one of them being a collection of short stories--bonus) and hopefully have written about them all, too (two more posts are in the works even as I type). I've had to speed things up with The Haunted Looking Glass edited by Edward Gorey. Three stories this week and then a remaining three for next weekend. This collection is proving to be a nicely entertaining and atmospheric read and perfect for brisk autumn days. The stories haven't been scary per se, but then it's really hard to do scary in this day and age, but definitely they are mood-setting.
Although I believe she's quite famous, I've never had the opportunity to read any of Edith Nesbit's work. I think she's better known for her children's books, but she apparently also wrote a number of ghost stories, and Gorey has included her "Man-Size in Marble" (1893) in this collection.
"Although every word of this story is as true as despair, I do not expect people to believe it. Nowadays a 'rational explanation' is required before belief is possible."
The rational explanation is that the young couple in this story suffered 'under a delusion', but it's left up to the reader to decide just what really happened. A young married couple decides to look for a cottage in the country, not being able to afford living in town. The husband narrates the story. He's a painter and his wife, Laura, a writer. They find a charming cottage, and it is absurdly cheap, but then perhaps what came to pass is the reason why.
There is a legend in the village that on the thirty-first of October the two marble effigies that lay in the church come alive and walk in the night.
"Their names were lost, but the peasants told of them that they had been fierce and wicked men, marauders by land and sea, who had been the scourge of their time, and had been guilty of deeds so foul that the house they had lived in--the big house, by the way, that had stood on the site of our cottage--had been struck by lightning and the vengeance of Heaven."
The peasant woman who 'does' for the couple is adamant that the stories she tells, of smugglers and highwaymen and 'the sights' which one meets out on the glens are all true. So much so does she believe the stories that as the date approaches she says she must leave to take care of sick relatives. Before she leaves she tells the pair to keep to their house and lock all their doors and windows on All Saints' Eve. Of course any good ghost story worth its salt is going to have characters who won't heed the warnings, right? I think this story would be quite chilling adapted to the big screen.
Bram Stoker's "The Judge's House" (1891) has a seaside setting and a main character who goes mad, or is he driven mad?, by a ghostly presence. Scary things--mirrors, children in ghost stories, rocking chairs that creak, doors that slam at night, wind whistling through trees, shadows, and portrait paintings where the person's eyes seem to follow you wherever you walk. Malcolm Malcolmsen is a student who decides to travel somewhere where he can read and prepare for his exams in peace. He chooses a destination randomly, but unfortunately he should have alighted one stop further. The train takes him to small village where he finds a desolate house to rent, brick and massively built in the Jacobean style. It was once inhabited by the town's judge.
The charwoman leaves Malcolm provisions from her own kitchen, but upon preparing to leave him to his work but warns him of the 'bogies' for which she is afraid. Malcolm, however, is too intent on his studies and finds the house too comfortable to heed her warnings. He eats his meal and indulges in his tea and finds it all quite luxurious. Lamp in hand he takes a tour of the house and is struck by a painting on the wall. It's dark from the smoke of the fire and difficult to make out. Strange things begin to happen--high above the painting there seems to be a crack in the wall where rats appear. So curious does he become about the presence of the painting and the pests who show no fear he has the painting cleaned so he can better see the portrait.
"It was of a judge dressed in his robes of scarlet and ermine. His face was strong and merciless, evil, crafty, and vindictive, with a sensual mouth, hooked nose of ruddy color, and shaped like the beak of a bird of prey. The rest of the face was of a cadaverous color. The eyes were of a peculiar brilliance and with a terribly malignant expression. As he looked at them, Malcolmsen grew cold, for he saw there the very counterpart of the eyes of the great rat."
It is enough to make him start back so suddenly that he almost drops the lamp, turns his face white and makes him shake in his boots. For good reason. This is one painting you don't want following you about. In his hands the judge holds a hangman's noose!
Before Michelle Paver's Dark Matter there was Tom Hood's "The Shadow of Shade" (1869), which I think is one of my favorite stories in this collection. This is another instance of a story which uses a painting to help convey the supernatural elements in the story, but rather than being the source of evil as in Stoker's story, Hood uses a painting to help deliver justice.
"My sister Lettie has lived with me ever since I had a home of my own. She was my housekeeper before I married. Now she is my wife's constant companion, and the 'darling Auntie' of my children, who go to her for comfort, advice, and aid in all their little troubles and perplexities."
But Lettie's face is grave and melancholy, the result of a lost love. She has had her share of admirers, but once given, her heart is not open to others. Many years before her betrothed, an Arctic sailor, set off for the North Pole, but he was never to return. Before he leaves he makes the mistake of introducing her to one of his acquaintances who takes a shining to Lettie and can't seem to forget her. It's he who brings the news of the accident which took place aboard ship.
Grieve, a fitting name for Lettie's unwanted admirer, finds himself shadowed by someone or something--literally shadowed. Something follows him about. Even the portrait of Lettie's lover, painted by her brother, seems to weigh on him. A guilty conscious perhaps. A ghostly and despairing tale of love lost as well as unrequited love.
Next week three more stories by W.W. Jacobs, Wilkie Collins and M.R. James (the first and last rereads). And maybe I'll have a treat (in the form of a short story) for Halloween and finally read something by Elizabeth Taylor or maybe Muriel Spark.