You know how I always say a collection of short stories is like a box of chocolates without the guide? You just never know what you're getting. Beginning a new story, with only the title to go by, is always an adventure. Ghost stories are especially tricky, in particular when reading a collection of contemporary ghost stories. 'Ghost stories' can be very widely interpreted I am finding with Something Was There . . . edited by Kate Pullinger. This is a collection of stories that have won the Asham Award. The prize is for women writers and is given every two years and the award appears to call for stories fitting a particular theme. The 2013 award was based on the theme of ghost stories (chosen in honor of Sarah Waters who was a judge that year). I think it will be a fun collection to read from and have decided to just choose stories completely at random.
Flipping through the book this opening sentence struck my fancy: "This is the kind of storm that floods houses and uproots trees as if they were daisies." It's not just been rainy here this last week. There have been days with seemingly torrential rain. Last Tuesday I came home from class sopping wet. So wet I had to peel off my clothes and just throw them in the washing machine as they had so much water weighing them down. So I can appreciate an opening line like that. The story is Elizabeth Iddon's "Company".
"We hunch in the dark house and listen to the wind scream along the gutters and down chimneys. Rain crashes against the empty windows and seeps through the gaps and cracks to stain the dust and cobwebs of years. The house is full of moans and echoes, yet we hear it--a creaking of nails and wood as the battens over the front of door are pulled away. As we go to the hall to investigate, the door flies open on a blast of rain and something crawls into the house, down on its belly like a drowning animal."
From those first sentences I am always trying to orient myself. Who's the story about, where are they, what time period is it, is there danger and what sort? So many questions and relationships to work out. It's on questions like these that this story hinges on. Mostly because everything the reader assumes is going to be turned a little on its head when the denouement is revealed. And I sort of like that with a ghost story or story of suspense.
Because this is a 'ghost story' I don't want to give too much of the plot away, but I will say that my perceptions were constantly being questioned and re-formed. My first impression was that this world was a dystopian one--there are seemingly strangers in this house, thrown together under unusual circumstances and there is this wicked storm going on outside (making me think of climate change issues and all the related problems)--almost unreal in its viciousness and then this stranger enters causing a complete upheaval . . .
Well, I'll leave it at that--sorry to not tell you much. As I was reading I wasn't quite sure, I wasn't entirely impressed as ghost stories go, but after reading to the end and then going back now and looking over the text and the 'clues' that were dropped along the way--clues I assumed I knew and understood, but in reality misinterpreted, I have to say the story is growing on me more and more.
Since it wasn't a terribly long story I thought I would read one that I knew would meet certain of my expectations and be written in a more traditional manner since it is from The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories edited by Michael Cox. You almost always know what to expect from Victorian writers. Well, more or less anyway. I picked "The Story of the Rippling Train" by Mary Louise Molesworth once again purely on whim. Once again, however, my expectations were slightly thrown off track. I thought the story would take place on a train when the title's "Train" is actually that which a woman wears. But the story itself is a good, solid ghost story and made a good companion story for the Iddon.
"Let's tell ghost stories then" said Gladys.
Yes, please, let's! A group gathers at a country house. They can't decide how to pass the evening and each suggestion is tossed aside. What better thing to do than tell a good story. But this is a jaded group. Lots of ghost stories are told, and always just the same as all the others. They want one that one of the group has actually experienced, that someone can vouch for actually having happened, not one of those I heard from someone who heard from someone else about this strange occurrence. Amongst the family hosting the party is a man who was once in love with a beautiful woman, but lack of funds and a dependable income meant he could not offer for her since he had no real way of supporting her.
It's been years since they were last together and he has only a vague knowledge of her marriage to another man and subsequent voyage out to India. But the strangest thing happens. One afternoon while he is writing alone in a room he has a frisson of confusion when the door to the room (which he knows he didn't pull firmly closed behind him) falls open, but no one appears to be there. He senses smoke, or something like it and believes he sees a woman, a wraith who's there but isn't.
There is the tiniest bit of a twist to the story, but the real pleasure is in the telling. Nothing too surprising, but just good dependable storytelling in the Victorian manner, which means a story replete with detail and atmosphere. The perfect story to read on a dark and stormy night under the cover of a blanket. Nothing too scary, or terribly complicated but enough to leave me wondering.
I think I am going to enjoy investigating the stories in both of these collections, and I will keep an eye open for something new this year, too.
The Sept 1 New Yorker story, "The Referees" by Joseph O'Neill is an amusing story of a man trying to get a reference in order to rent an apartment in New York (or NYC as one of his friends always refers to the city). The narrator has returned after several years away living on the west coast and following a failed marriage. It's an interesting character study that says a lot about the man's friends but maybe more about him. I had a chuckle when he thought--
"What I mustn't do is give the wrong kind of credence to the apparent fact that, at the age of thirty-six, I find myself in the position of being unable to easily identify two people who know me well enough to plausibly and candidly state that I'm a sufficiently O.K. human being for the purpose of living in close vicinity to others."
Scarily, I can almost relate to that. I always find it interesting to read what the author has to say about the story they have written which you can read about in the Q&A. Next in line is a story by Thomas McGuane and then Danielle McLaughlin.