Thursday, 23 April 2009

Getting your Wordsworth

Picture by the awesome Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-93)

Madelynne Ellis' comment about one of my stories on Tuesday has prompted me to post this.

I am of course a huge fan of the classic ghost story. The sort written mostly at the beginning of the 20th Century, with old-fashioned settings and creepy decayed horrors from beyond the grave and NO GORE but a hideous feeling of spiritual danger and dread. Ring, The Orphanage and Sixth Sense are the movies that spring to mind. I have a large collection of tatty paperbacks gleaned over many years from charity shops, but it's getting more and more difficult to find new stuff.

Then - hooray! - last year I discovered the Wordsworth Mystery and Supernatural imprint. Wordsworth specialise in publishing out-of-print and out-of-copyright fiction in cheap editions, and they've produced a HUGE range of old ghost stories. So cheap in fact that I bought a crateload without worrying about the reputation of any of the authors. In fact I only threw two out - one for being so dull I finished the book with no memory of what I'd read, and the other for being modernist drivel even worse than Henry James (I'm not a fan of The Turn of the Screw).

Best of the bunch:

Couching at the Door by Dorothy Kathleen Broster. Contains the eponymous classic in which a decadent C19th poet (who has done something unspecified but clearly very nasty involving black magic) is pursued to his doom by - of all things - a malevolent dust-bunny. The stories aren't all supernatural, but have an emotional depth and understanding sometimes lacking in the genre and and are really quite unsettling. But the best story is A Taste of Pomegranates, which is totally original take on the Persephone myth and took me completely by surprise.

The Bishop of Hell by Marjorie Bowen (there were a lot of female authors in the genre) is a solid and uncompromising collection of supernatural stories, mostly about people suffering paranormal retribution out of all proportion to their sins. Elsie's Lonely Afternoon - understated and quite cruel - made me cry.

Honourable mention must go to Oriental Ghost Stories by Lafcadio Hearn. While on the most part gently creepy rather than spine-chilling, and reminiscent of fairy stories, these have the unique selling point of being set in historic Japan, so the details are enthralling.

And as for A Night on the Moor by R Murray Gilchrist, well you'll either love it or hate it. He wrote pseudo-historic stories that seem to be set in an unreal world where madness, suicide and betrayal (by friends and lovers) is inevitable. Like Clark Ashton Smith or Dunsany his fictional world is unique and feverish and intensely personal. I read the first story and thought it ludicrous, but by the fourth or fifth I was hooked by his mad vison.

Wordsworth on Amazon UK : Wordsworth on Amazon US

Of course, before going anywhere near these, you do have to have read the collected ghost stories of M R James. You have read his ghost stories, haven't you? He is, like, the god of ghost story writers. Nothing else compares.

M R James on Amazon UK : MR James on Amazon US


Madeline Moore said...

Yikes. I just barely started reading Stephen King, 'cause ghost stories scare the crap out of me.

But I admit I'm intrigued.

I wrote a modern take on the Persephone myth for a proposed antho that never happened. So I'm intrigued by the one you mention, and the Japanese edition, etc. But I ask you, Janine, will you be there to hold my hand when night time comes? huh???

Janine Ashbless said...

My slimey skeletal hand will slip into yours as midnight chimes, Madeline...

Actually I like Stephen King's short stories too. Not his novels, which are rather full of wind and padding. But his shorts are interesting and effective.

I just wish he and Koontz hadn't eaten the entire horror genre alive and left nothing but a few scraps of skin.