A collection of Golden Age ghost stories that will be all brand-new to most readers.
I had been planning to post one more winter tale, but I just finished this anthology from the British Library Tales of the Weird series, and I enjoyed it so much that I decided to write about it instead.
In Glimpses of the Unknown: Lost Ghost Stories, editor Mike Ashley has compiled eighteen previously unrepublished supernatural tales from British periodicals and magazines of the period between the 1890s to the end of the 1920s. Some of the stories are from writers who were well-known during the period but forgotten now; some are from writers who were relatively obscure (and possibly pseudonymous) even at the time. The jewel of the collection is a previously uncollected ghost story by E. F. Benson, written for the London Evening News in 1928. It’s a pleasant surprise, and quite a coup for the editor.
When reading collections of “lost” or “forgotten” ghost stories, I tend to find myself slogging through a lot of pieces that are derivative, or simply haven’t aged well. There’s a reason some tales are forgotten, after all. Generally, my attitude is that the slog is usually worth it for the delight of coming across those few still-shining stories. With Glimpses of the Unknown, I found the ratio of keepers to to be pleasantly high. And while I didn’t love all the selections, there are only one or two that I really considered a slog.
One of my habits as I read anthologies is to make little lists of authors and series that I’d love to explore more. This works fine when the authors or the works themselves are at least moderately well known, and it’s a bonus when the work happens to in the public domain and online. Of course, with an anthology that specifically focuses on mostly forgotten authors and “lost” work, I don’t expect a lot of success on my own . But now that Ashley has brought these authors and stories back to light, I hope that professional publishers, anthologists and librarians might become inspired to resurrect this work for new readers.
If you are a fan of classic English-style ghost stories — especially post-Victorian ones — and you are looking for an anthology that will be more than half-new to you, definitely check out Glimpses of the Unknown. I think there’s something for every taste.
The highlights, for me:
On the Embankment (Hugh E. Wright, 1919). The story is set amongst London’s homeless, sleeping on seats along the Thames Embankment. But no matter how crowded it gets, there’s one seat that is never, ever, slept in. Why? A great, strong start to the anthology, and possibly my favorite of all the stories.
The Wraith of the Rapier (Firth Scott, 1911). Fencing! A cursed rapier! Is it the ghost of an evil, duel-loving Spaniard? Or something else? I don’t know enough about fencing to know if the descriptions of the action are accurate. I hope so. This one is action packed and fun, and the author leaves room for a (rather amusing) naturalistic explanation. Good stuff.
The Soul of Maddalina Tonelli (James Barr, 1909). While performing, a wealthy violin collector and amateur violinist notices a beautiful woman in the audience, watching him. But he’s the only one who can see her. This one is sweet rather than scary, but I liked it a lot. I also like that the story featured women as supremely talented musicians.
Haunted! (Jack Edwards, 1910). A dark, tragic tale that can be interpreted two or three ways. Is it a haunting, or…? I liked how modern this one felt, in many ways — a bit like something from Weird Tales. I think you can fairly call the protagonist’s situation Kafkaesque, though the tone of the story is nothing like Kafka at all.
A Futile Ghost (Mary Reynolds, 1899). Who is the black-veiled lady that sporadically haunts Chilcote Priory? And why is she appearing now? This tale is bleak and sort of brutal, and the ghost was not what I was expecting. In genre fiction, one generally expects that the story has a “moral” or a “point.” I’m not sure what the point of this narrative is, except, maybe, that there is no point. But that makes this story especially interesting, especially given when it was written.
Ghosts (Lumley Deacon, 1914). The mysterious Cyrus Sabinette pays a visit to a wealthy philanthopist who is not what he seems. What’s his game? It’s not clear if Sabinette is a good guy who doesn’t mind profiting on the side, or if he’s an opportunist who will help the oppressed when it’s convenient. It’s also not clear if he has supernatural power, or just really good spycraft. Interesting stuff. I can see why readers were so intrigued with the Cyrus Sabinette stories.
When Spirits Steal (Philippa Forest, 1920). Carwell and Wilton are vacationing in the country, and both find themselves curious about the simple young woman who waits tables at the inn. Why is she so skittish and nervous? A sad tale about a person with abilities she didn’t ask for, where the narrator and his friend are mostly witnesses rather than participants. I don’t know if this is a general pattern in the Carwell tales, but I wouldn’t mind finding out.
The House of the Black Evil (Eric Purves, 1929). Several people explore a mysterious house that seems to eat light. I really liked this one. While reading, I kept thinking what a great radio play you could make from it. I love the imagery (so to speak) of people stumbling around in a house that devours light so completely that, while inside, they can’t even see the sunshine coming in from the open door. How do you find your way back out again? Brrr.
Unfortunately, the “explanation” involves some muddled spiritualistic pseudo-science that I wasn’t too crazy about, but it wasn’t bad enough to spoil the story. Great ending line, too.
The Woman in the Veil (E.F. Benson, 1928). This story might be the big draw of the collection for ghost-story aficionados. The narrator, taking a writing retreat in a small Cornish beach town, keeps seeing a veiled lady standing outside his study window at midnight. Who is she?
I’ve only read a small fraction of Benson’s supernatural output, so I won’t compare this tale to Benson’s better known work, except to say it seems more crime-story oriented than what I would expect from him. It’s a good story, and the prose felt somehow relaxed and confident when read amongst the pieces in this anthology — not that anything here is badly written, rather something about the style of this piece felt a step above. Just don’t come to the tale expecting a new masterpiece. Overly high expectations tend to spoil the reading.
The Treasure of the Tombs (F. Britten Austin, 1921). Three World War I veterans return to a remote cave high in the mountains above Amadiyah to recover gold from the tomb of an ancient Assyrian king. A tomb with a curse on it. This one has a pulpy vibe to it that’s lots of fun, though this style of adventure story isn’t my preferred reading.
And since I mentioned it, here’s my wish list of collections I’d be curious to see, based on this anthology:
- Hugh Wright’s supernatural tales, and maybe his one horror play.
- Austin Philips’s Post Office detective stories (and novels). At some point in his career, Philips served in the Post Office’s investigative branch, which “co-operated with British Intelligence Services in checking suspect mail.” He must have a few interesting stories coming out of that experience, right?
- Percy James Brebner’s supernatural fiction. His Christopher Quarles detective fiction is available online, and I plan to check it out.
- Lumley Deacon’s Cyrus Sabinette stories. Really curious about these.
- Philippa Forest’s Carwell stories.
- F. Britten Austin’s Quentin Quayne stories (detective fiction, not supernatural). According to Ashley, most of Austin’s weird tales are in the collection On the Borderland (1922), which is available online, and I plan to check it out.
Of course, it could be that Mike Ashley has already cherry-picked out the best from all these authors. Still, it would be interesting to find out for myself.
 Thanks to the FictionMags Index hosted at Galactic Central, I was able to track down story names and publication information for several of the items on my list. Alas, many of the stories are post-1923, so the magazine issue is not yet online for me (for the last twenty years, only work pre-1923 is unambiguously public domain in the U.S; 1923 goes into public domain starting today!). Even for earlier stories, the magazine often has not been digitally archived, either because it’s too obscure — or for whatever reason the issue wasn’t available to scan (hence, no Cassell’s past 1909 or Pearson’s past 1919).
Featured Image: Title illustration by Arthur H. Buckland for “Phantom Death,” Huan Mee, Cassell’s Magazine, March 1900. Source: HathiTrust