I re-discovered this book in a box in my garage a few weeks ago. I didn’t remember much about it, other than feeling underwhelmed the first time I read it (hence, banishment to the garage). On impulse, I fished the book out of the box and brought it back inside with me. I’m glad I did.
The book is a collection of thirteen stories selected from several thousand that were submitted to the first Times of London ghost story competition, held in 1975. The competition’s judges included Kingsley Amis, Patricia Highsmith, and actor Christopher Lee. The competition awarded four prizes: a First and Second prize, and two consolation prizes. I don’t know if the judges also selected the additional nine stories that were included in this collection, but whoever did had a good eye. There are two eventually-to-become-notable literary names, neither of whom had published before this contest: Penelope Fitzgerald and Julian Barnes.
The book improved for me on this second reading. I suspect that when I read the book the first time around, my idea of “ghost story” was fairly narrow, colored mostly by pulp fiction, a la the classic Weird Tales magazine. The stories in this collection, for the most part, are not like that: there are fewer twist endings, and relatively little classic horror. Since then, my ghost story reading has expanded, especially after I discovered the editor Ellen Datlow and her anthologies. I’m in a better position now to properly appreciate the Times anthology. Also, this time around, I found myself making connections with other “real life” phenomena that maybe influenced the stories, which added to the fun.
It looks like The Times still runs that competition, but a casual google search didn’t turn up subsequent anthologies. If you can find this collection, and you’re also an Ellen Datlow fan, I definitely think you should give it a try. Here a few stories that caught my eye, in no particular order.
The Doll Named Silvio, by Michael Kernan.
The competition’s First Prize winner, and one of the few horror stories in the collection (but also not really a ghost story). “The Doll Named Silvio” is the story of a wealthy, crippled girl with an extensive doll collection. The dolls are her only companions, and she’s endowed them with histories and personalities, like people. On the nineteenth of every month, she brings out the prize of her collection: the strange, domineering doll, Silvio.
To me, “Silvio” is classic 70’s horror: gothic, claustrophobic, with a bit of sexual tension and a downer of an ending. It also has an incredibly unlikeable protagonist (the girl’s governess): classist, snobby, and racist. Her instant and unmotivated hostility to the household’s African-American cook was painful to read. She’s so unsympathetic that I have to assume Kernan did it on purpose.
The story also reminds me of a couple of things. First, W. F. Harvey’s short story “Sambo”, originally published in 1910. A little girl gets a small figurine from an uncle who is off doing colonial things in Africa. The girl’s unimaginative mother names it “Sambo” (the narrator voted for “Lobengula”, which at least is the name of a king, and not a caricature). Though the little girl seems to loath her gift, soon she is carrying it with her everywhere, and neglecting all her other beloved dolls — because Sambo is jealous. Those poor other dolls. Neglect was the least of their problems. I think Harvey’s story is better than Kernan’s, actually, but though it should be public domain, with a title like “Sambo” it’ll probably never get posted online. You can find it in the Wordsworth collection The Beast with Five Fingers.
A more interesting connection is the legend behind Robert, the Haunted Doll of Key West. Robert is a real doll, a straw doll made for the son of a wealthy family named Robert Eugene Otto, by one of the Ottos’ servants, a West Indian woman. According to the legend, Robert Eugene became completely obsessed with the doll, carrying it with him everywhere; he even started using his middle name, Eugene, to refer to himself, because the doll’s name was Robert. And little Eugene started destroying all his other toys, because Robert told him to…. The legend is remarkably similar to “Sambo”, though I’m not sure if the timeline allows for the theory that it was an influence on Harvey. I suspect it was an influence on Kernan, though; “The Doll Named Silvio” is set in Florida, like the Robert legend.
A Self Possessed Woman, by Julian Barnes.
“A Self Possessed Woman” was Barnes’ first published fiction. His first novel, Metroland, came out in 1980, and in 2011 he won the Man Booker Prize for his novel A Sense of an Ending (which I also recommend). He’d been previously shortlisted for the prize three times, the first time in 1984. “A Self Possessed Woman” is about a woman who gets possessed by the spirits of dead writers — Byron, Henry James, Thackery — every Friday evening between seven and eight. Sometimes the spirits dictate new works to her, sometimes they send along rebuttals to critics who wrote about them after their deaths. An acquisitions editor at a small academic press tries to decide whether to publish these works — if they’re genuine, they would change the very nature of literature and literary criticism. And if they’re fake, he’s a laughingstock.
Yes, it is an academic little story, and not even a little bit scary, but I liked it. It also reminded me of Rosemary Brown, who was allegedly possessed by the spirits of dead composers. Though she had hardly any musical training, the ghosts taught her to play the piano and to transcribe music so that she could record their new compositions. You can find compositions by Rosemary Brown (well, by Beethoven or Chopin, or whoever else, if you believe the stories) on youtube. She apparently went public sometime in the sixties, so it’s possible that her story could have influenced Barnes.
The Axe, by Penelope Fitzgerald.
“The Axe” was also Fitzgerald’s first published work (or at least her first published fictional work), and the only story in the book that I remembered from my previous reading. It’s a genuine horror story, with a bit of that Weird Tales vibe, along with some sharp social commentary. A middle manager in a small firm, the toady and yes-man to the firm’s owner, has the task of bullying about-to-be-laid-off employees into quitting before they get laid off, so the company doesn’t have to pay them severance. Charming. One of the people on the hit list is the protagonist’s own assistant, Singlebury, who has been with the company — well, forever. He’s one of those people whose entire life is their job.
Young Patel…[told] me that to such a man as Singlebury dismissal would be like death. Dismissal is not the right word, I said. But death is, Patel replied.
Fitzgerald won the Booker Prize in 1979 for her novel Offshore, after having been shortlisted several times. I read The Bookshop a while back, about a middle-aged woman who tries to open up a bookshop in a small town. It was quiet, funny, and sad. I have to read it again. And Gate of Angels, too. “The Axe” can also be found in Fitzgerald’s collection of short stories, The Means of Escape. I found that collection a mixed bag — some of her shorter short stories end a bit too abruptly for my taste, but her longer ones are just beautiful. With their scope and historical context, they remind me of Annie Proulx’s collections of Wyoming Stories — which I adore.
What else? “Dengue Fever” by Paul Theroux was good, though all the discussion of the “Midnight Horror” tree at the beginning turned into an an unfired Chekov gun. I loved “The Harpsichord” and “The Scent of Mimosa”, though neither of those are horror. Overall, I’d say if you like your ghosts evil and your ghost stories straight-up horror, skip this collection (though you might want to find “The Doll Named Silvio”, “The Axe”, and “The Locket”, by Laurence Grafftey-Smith). But if you don’t mind a variety of ghost story plots, from whimisical to horror-ful, you should check it out.