Reading Not Exactly Ghosts

Not Exactly Ghosts/Fires Burn Blue is a terrific collection of ghost stories by Sir Andrew Caldecott, written in the 1940s. Unfortunately, it seems to be out of print from the original UK publisher, Wordsworth, but it’s still in the catalog at Wordsworth’s U.S. distributor, Wordsworth Classics, and it’s still on Amazon (in the U.S., anyway).

Book

If you like the ghost stories of M.R. James, you will probably like Caldecott. If you almost like the stories of M.R. James, or want-to-like-them-but-don’t-quite-find-them-satisfying, or took a while to warm up to them (hi, Risa!), you might give Caldecott a try, anyway.

Caldecott was a career diplomat — he was Governor of Hong Kong, and then Governor of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He only started publishing after he retired, but he obviously loved to read ghost stories, and given the time period that some of the stories were set in, perhaps even started writing them while he was still in the Civil Service.

He clearly admired M.R. James. The first story in the collection, “A Room in a Rectory” is very Jamesian. The new Rector of the parish of Tilchington, confirmed bachelor Nigel Tylerthorpe, loves gardening and church architecture, like many a Jamesian protagonist. He makes the mistake of opening up a room of the Rectory that has long been locked to make it his study, and proceeds to be haunted (or maybe possessed) by the ghost of a former Rector who died in that room; the late Rector was also a Satanist. As Tylerthorpe is being possessed, his sermons turn into lectures on Demonology, which ironically increases the attendance at Sunday service. Things almost come to a bad end… .

“Christmas Re-union” is Caldecott’s take on a plot idea that James came up with, but couldn’t make work. James wrote about several of his stillborn plot ideas in an essay called “Stories I Have Tried to Write”. At the end of “Christmas Re-union” Caldecott gives a shout-out to M.R. James by name, and even quotes the exact paragraph from the essay that inspired the story.

Like James, Caldecott’s protagonists are products of the British Public School system, generally intellectuals, upper-middle class, and entirely male. Caldecott is better at fleshing out his characters than James is, which is one reason you might like him if you find that James falls a bit short for you. He was a bit of a wannabe poet, too; several of the stories have extensive passages of rhymed verse in them. This worked well in “Autoepitaphy”; in the other stories, I mostly just skipped over the verse sections.

The main difference between the two authors is one of theme. Caldecott’s stories are mostly classic “the supernatural as punishment” stories: the main character does something reprehensible, and his actions bring something bad down on him, sometimes with a good ironic twist. In this sense, Caldecott’s stories are literary versions of the old EC horror comics (and that’s not a bad thing!). James wrote some of these, too — “Lost Hearts”, “Casting the Runes”, and “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral” come to mind — but James’ stories were often about impersonal evil. Sure, the malevolent objects might be the product of some Satanist or murderer from the distant past, but the protagonists in a James story are often innocent passersby: the man who happened to rent Room 12 at the inn (“Number 13”), the man who happened to find a whistle on the beach (“Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”). Sometimes, those innocent passersby die (“A Warning to the Curious”).

In Caldecott’s world, by and large, if you are a good person, the supernatural evil won’t get you. In James’ world, you can be minding your own business, and still fall into an otherworldly trap. Rather like The Twilight Zone.

About half of Caldecott’s stories are told in a British upper-middle-class milieu; he has some wry things to say about the suburbanization of the English countryside. The other half are set in the fictional South or Southeast Asian colony of Kongea, no doubt based on Caldecott’s experiences in Ceylon. I like the Kongea stories, but I confess to a slight discomfort with them. Caldecott’s portrayal of the Kongeans is not so bad, given the prevailing British attitudes of his time. The “good white guys” in the Kongean stories are generally respectful of Kongeans, Kongean culture, and Kongean belief systems. The “bad white guys” are often contemptuous and disrespectful of Kongean beliefs. Still, it’s hard to read the term “house-boy” being used about an adult (and even elderly) house servant, or to read about plantation workers being referred to as “coolies.”

My favorite stories: “Branch Line to Benceston”, a nice weird tale about ill-wishing as murder; and “The Pump in Thorpe’s Spinney”, a humorous (and non-supernatural) story about a little boy and his obsession with water-pumps. My favorite Kongea stories: “Decastroland” and “A Book Entry”. The stories from “Not Exactly Ghosts” are generally better than the stories from “Fires Burn Blue” (They were originally two separate collections).

Recommended.


This review is part of the The Short Story Initiative ongoing reading project, and the Readers Imbibing Peril (R.I.P) VII reading event.

5 thoughts on “Reading Not Exactly Ghosts

  1. I’ll give Sir Andrew Caldecott a try. You had me there when you said that he’s better at fleshing out his characters than M R James. I’ve read Lost Hearts, and while I like it for its creepiness, I have to agree with Risa that there are some gaps in the story that would have answered some questions and perhaps, makes the story doubly exciting. I’ve placed Caldecott’s book on my wishlist. Hopefully, there will be an ebook version soon. Meanwhile, I’ll continue reading more of M R. James. He’s actually a new-to-me writer.

    • I really like James, but I can see why people have to warm up to him. It occurs to me that, in his profession as a researcher into ancient manuscripts, he’s used to interacting with stories as he reads them, and having to piece a narrative together from multiple documents and pieces of evidence. It’s how he writes a lot of his stories. I like that style, since I like that kind of research, but it is somewhat impersonal.

      Caldecott was a diplomat, so he was maybe more used to thinking of stories directly in terms of the people involved, and he probably had a more varied circle of acquaintances and friends than James’ mostly academic circle.

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