No Christmas is complete without a ghost story, right? Conveniently there is a section in The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries titled "An Uncanny Little Christmas" so I had my pick of stories. Have you ever heard of Fergus Hume? No, me neither. Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins are known for their "sensational" stories and stories of mystery and hauntings, but at the time they were writing, their work was not categorized in that manner. Hume, however, had that honor. His novel, The Mystery of the Hansom Cab (1886) was hugely successful when it was (self) published. He went on to write more than one hundred and thirty novels--all now forgotten. "The Ghost's Touch" was published in 1906 and gives just the right amount of Victorian ghost story flavor to be entertaining, with a little twist at the end, and I can even overlook the characters' somewhat insulting attitudes towards the female sex (especially considering how things play out at story's end).
In proper Victorian manner this is a story narrated by a young doctor in first person about his experiences staying in a haunted house. He doesn't believe in ghosts, but only because he's never seen one and isn't too hasty to dismiss the possibility that they might just exist. He's telling us this story--I guess it is a story within a story in a sense about what he saw on Christmas Eve. It's holidaytime and he has met up with an old friend in London by chance. This friend is Australian--sleek and slight, fair as a Dresden China image and rather sickly. But he's wealthy. He's visiting a relative in England. Percy has the money and his cousin Frank has the estate and title and the two decide each will be the beneficiary of the other and so both men write wills giving everything to the other so if one dies at least the survivor can have the complete package (money, estate and title). This should have been the give-away.
So Frank tells the story of the ghost that haunts the family home. In the time of Queen Anne, an ancestor was thought to have been having an affair--you know how women are (ahem). Ah, the treachery of women! A man was caught climbing from her bedroom window. The husband caught him, challenged him to a duel, killed him and left him bloody and dead. The wife vehemently denies it all--any misbehavior--the man leaving the window was her brother. He was plotting to help James II return to his throne and was not meant to be in England so had to sneak away from the house. Impossible. To teach the wife a lesson the husband severs her right hand, because the stranger had kissed her hand before scarpering out of the window. A week later the wife follows the purported brother to the grave and is said now to haunt the room--anyone "doomed to an early death" will die by the hands of the ghost (ghastly red marks to the throat!) if they sleep in that bedroom.
I won't give away the twist but will only say tragedy will befall someone by the end of the story--do you think you know who? Treachery is indeed involved but perhaps not from who you might expect. Since he's telling the story, you know the doctor witnesses all. I will only say that his curiosity over ghosts will be well and truly sated and he decides to give up an future ghost story activities in the future!
Another entertaining story from this collection, but I do think last week's story is my favorite by far of the group I read! It's time to tuck this book back away on its shelf until next December and think about what form my short story reading is going to take in 2015. I thought I had a plan, but now I am not so sure . . . Choosing is always a fun dilemma to have, don't you agree?
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I really liked the (Dec. 8 issue) New Yorker story I read this weekend, "Reverend" by Tim Parks. I have a confession to make--I had put off reading this one for the same reason I have put off reading Marilynne Robinsons's Gilead. Not even knowing exactly the content of either story, I have this perception that the theme is religious and religious themes don't hold much appeal to me (though that's changing somewhat--am more interested in spirituality than overt religion--if that makes any sense at all--but all best discussed in some other post some other day). So I dragged my feet and finally sat down with the story and began reading and discovered that the story actually held quite a lot of appeal.
"Reverend" a multi-layered story about a man coming to terms with his father's life (an Anglican clergyman) as much as his own. Upon the death of his mother he begins reflecting back on his father's life and how it impacted his own life growing up. Parks's is an excellent writer and I have a number of his books about Italy (he lives in Verona), but I have never read any of his fiction before. You can read the Q&A with the author here. Just a couple more stories to catch up with and then I'll be ready for a new year of New Yorker stories--ah, the anticipation of a new year of stories!