This has been a weekend chock full of short stories and I am still reading--am working on my weekly New Yorker story and will return to it as soon as I finish this post. I started with three stories by Amos Oz for my literature class that will be discussed on Tuesday (and I still hope to share more about what I've been reading later this week), then I moved on to two ghost stories, one by Elizabeth Jane Howard which I thought really good, and one by J.S. Le Fanu which I feel like I should have enjoyed more than I did. And not am working on a story by Thomas McGuane. I am feeling greedy for stories for some reason and might just see what else I can slip in before the weekend fizzles to an end.
Elizabeth Jane Howard is a wonderful writer, I think. She wrote the Cazalet Chronicles (which I was in the midst of rereading and will continue on with eventually) along with a number of other books (several on my shelves) and a memoir called Slipstream which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. I was looking for something a little different this weekend (I feel like I have mined my own ghost story collections for all their worth and need a little fresh material). I was flipping through The Norton Book of Ghost Stories edited by Brad Leithauser at the library and it contains a number of stories by my favorite authors--Edith Wharton, Elizabeth Taylor, Shirley Jackson, Penelope Fitzgerald to name a few. I'd never read any of EJH's short stories (didn't really even realize she had written any) so decided to give her a try.
"Three Miles Up" would make a great movie, I think. It is a different sort of ghost story with the potential to be wonderfully atmospheric with a really good set of visuals. I like a varied approach to the usual sort of story--there are lots of haunted houses and mysterious old crones in your traditional ghost story, but this one takes place on a canal as two friends take a pleasure cruise of sorts. It reminds me a lot, though the story settings are quite different, of Marghanita Laski's "The Tower" (one of my all-time favorite ghost stories). Fittingly the Laski story is included in the collection and comes directly after Howard's.
"It has been Clifford's idea, which, considering Clifford, was surprising. When you looked at him, you would not suppose him capable of it. However, John reflected, he had been ill, some sort of breakdown these clever people went in for, and that might account for his uncharacteristic idea of hiring a boat and travelling on the canals."
A good idea it might have been, but in actual practice everything seems to go wrong. They can't seem to handle the boat, and can't seem to work the primus stove correctly. Everything sets them to arguing and the weather won't cooperate on top of it all. And then they come across a young woman asleep on the banks of the canal. She's a bit of a mystery to them but personable enough. She offers to cook a meal for them in exchange for a place at the table and a share of the food. They decide to offer her a ride as far as they're going and she happily agrees, willing to do the cooking and tidying up. Everything rights itself in her presence it seems and they're off and moving along at a nice steady clip.
The ordnance maps they're following are wonderful until the canal they are travelling up runs off the map. Perhaps they took a wrong turning but the banks become more and more wild and the water muddy and clotted with rushes. The villages become sparser and farther between. They come across an old man who tells them the next village is just three miles up and so they keep going. They find that in the dusk they spot scattered cottages that in the morning light seem to have disappeared. And they never seem to pass any other boats. The strangeness of the journey seems to coincide with Sharon's arrival. I'll only say that by story's end, she mysteriously disappears just when . . .
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I'm sure I must at some point have read something else by J.S. Le Fanu, and while "Madam Crowl's Ghost" was a good read, it just didn't click with in the same way that the Howard story did. Maybe I have become too jaded by the predictable? You can find the story online, but I found it in the Oxford collection, Twelve Victorian Ghost Stories edited by Michael Cox.
The story is told from the vantage point of old age, but when the narrator was just thirteen she went to work in a great house where her aunt was the housekeeper. She was to look after, really more a case of make sure the old lady didn't get up to any mischief, Dame Arabella Crowl. It seems that she was "possessed by the devil, and more than half a ghost." Just what has driven her mad is at the heart of the story as when Dame Crowl was a younger woman she was quite the beauty.
"But there was not one about Applewale that remembered her in her prime. And she was dreadful fond o' dress, and had thick silks, and stiff satins, and velvets and laces, and all sorts, enough to set up seven shops at the least. All her dresses were old-fashioned and queer, but worth a fortune."
For all her madness the old Dame is well cared for and looked after--she was loaded you see and everyone knew that without her they would be out on the streets to fend for themselves. It's the story behind the story I want. Just what did the old woman mean by--
"'Ye little limb! What for did ye say I killed the boy? I'll tickle ye till ye're stiff'."
The house keeps its secrets well, and hidden behind secret doors is the evidence . . .
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Thomas McGaune's "Motherlode" in the Sept. 8 issue of The New Yorker is actually a fitting story since it begins with a man eating a meal in a diner. When he leaves and is crossing the parking lot to his car, another customer comes up to him, presses a gun in his stomach and orders him to drive . . . Now I'm off to find out what happens. You can read about the story in the Q&A here. And if you want to read along, the story is here.
This week's Library of America short story looks good, too, "The Ice Palace" by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I think I might try and squeeze just one more story this weekend.