A Budget of Book Reviews, February 2017

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Time for another budget of (mostly ebook this time) reviews, featuring ghosts and scholars, mythological creatures and occult detectives. Really, the only thematic commonality here is that I’ve read all these books (and one magazine) recently.

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The Houseboat

One last ghost story to end this winter tale season: a haunted houseboat tale by Richard Marsh, best known as the author of The Beetle, and grandfather of Robert Aickman.

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“The Houseboat” isn’t really a winter tale, but it is a good companion piece to my previous post, Christmas Eve an a Haunted Hulk. As in Cowper’s story, this is a mostly auditory haunting.

Eric and Violet Millen have rented a houseboat, the Water Lily, for a month’s vacation. Their dinner guest, Mr. Inglis, recognizes the Water Lily from its previous incarnation as the Sylph:

“Two years ago there was a houseboat on the river called the Sylph. It belonged to a man named Hambro. He lent it to a lady and a gentleman. She was rather a pretty woman, with a lot of fluffy, golden hair. He was a quiet unassuming-looking man, who looked as though he had something to do with horses. I made their acquaintance on the river. One evening he asked me on board to dine. I sat, as I believe, on this very chair, at this very table. Three days afterwards they disappeared.”

Well, the gentleman disappeared at any rate. They found the lady’s body — on the Sylph.

I particularly like this story for Violet Millen: plucky and courageous and a natural occult detective. She handles this unusual situation almost eagerly, and much better than her husband Eric, who is a bit priggish and mostly wants to believe that the whole affair is a bad case of indigestion. A fun, suspenseful story.

You can read “The Houseboat” here.

Enjoy.


A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.

Image courtesy of Pearson Scott Foresman. Source: Wikimedia.

Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk

I wasn’t planning to do another winter tale before Christmas, but I’m slipping one more in: “Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk” by prominent yachtsman and writer Frank Cowper, most famous for Sailing Tours, a five volume work describing Cowper’s circumnavigation of the British Isles. Not surprisingly, this winter tale is about a haunted sea vessel.

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I am as perfectly convinced that I was the oral witness to some ghastly crime, as I am that I am writing these lines. I have little doubt I shall be laughed at, as Jones laughed at me — be told that I was dreaming, that I was overtired and nervous. … I suppose the reason is, that people cannot bring themselves to think so strange a thing could have happened to such a prosy everyday sort of man as myself, and they cannot divest their minds of the idea that I am — well, to put it mildly — “drawing on my imagination for facts.”

“Drawing on my imagination for facts:” what a great phrase.

I decided to share this story now in part because, as I re-read it last night, I was taken by Cowper’s rich sensory — yet entirely non-visual — description of the haunting. It’s quite evocative, and creepy. A warm crackling fire as you read will be a good counterpoint to the story’s soggy, chilly atmosphere.

You can read “Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk” here.

And by the way, there really was a vessel called The Lily of Goole.

A Merry Christmas and/or Happy Hannukah to those who celebrate them; a beautiful day to those who don’t.


A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.

Image: from the story.

A Strange Christmas Game

Today’s winter tale is of the more traditional variety: a Christmas ghost story by Charlotte Riddell.

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Struggling artist John Lester and his sister unexpectedly inherit a country estate, but the situation isn’t all roses. The previous owner, Paul Lester, refused to live at Martingdale. Though he never said why, the locals believe that Martingdale is haunted by Mr Paul’s predecessor, Jeremy Lester, who vanished without a trace on Christmas Eve, forty-one years before.

People said Mr Jeremy ‘walked’ at Martingdale. He had been seen, it was averred, by poachers, by gamekeepers, by children who had come to use the park as a near cut to school, by lovers who kept their tryst under the elms and beeches.

As for the caretaker and his wife, the third in residence since Jeremy Lester’s disappearance, the man gravely shook his head when questioned, while the woman stated that wild horses, or even wealth untold, should not draw her into the red bedroom, nor into the oak parlour, after dark.

John and his sister are skeptical, at first — and in any case they can’t afford to live anywhere else. So they have no choice but to hunt down the ghost. Things come to a head on Christmas Eve.

You can read “A Strange Christmas Game” here.

Enjoy.


A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.

Mrs. Riddell did love a good haunted house story. If you enjoy “A Strange Christmas Game,” then you might want to hunt down some of her other such tales, including:

  • “The Open Door”
  • “The Old House in Vauxhall Walk”
  • “Walnut-Tree House”
  • “The Uninhabited House.”

“Nut Bush Farm” is not a haunted house story — it’s a haunted path story — but it’s also excellent.

Image: Cribbage board photo by Geoffrey Franklin. Source: Flickr

The Face in the Fresco

I found this antiquarian ghost story at the Ghosts & Scholars website; it just barely qualifies as a winter tale by virtue of a passing line: Here he paused and took off his hat; the day was warm for December. That’s good enough for me. This is a fun one.

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The story concerns bachelor schoolmaster Mr. Jones, who takes a Saturday excursion to visit a newly discovered twelfth-century fresco at the Godstanely village church (which you reach via a path over Terrible Down. How perfect). The church is near the ancient, possibly Stone Age road known as Pilgrims’ Way, and appears to have been built over an old burial mound. Oh, and the fresco….

“Ah!” said Mr Jones, “I understand that the fresco represents a crude but vigorous conception of Hell.”

“Well, it aren’t what I calls right, sir – that picter.”

“Not right? In the old times when the fresco was painted the clergy used to think such representations very good for you. People couldn’t read or write, you know. No education in those days as there is now! They tried to frighten people into goodness by showing them what would happen to sinners hereafter.”

“May be, but it aren’t to my way of thinkin’, sir, beggin’ pardon for the liberty of contradictin’, and it weren’t to the way of thinkin’ of them as put plaster over the thing. Best have left the devils under the whitewash.”

What could possibly go wrong? Continue reading

Doctor S.’s Story

The third and last of the “true” winter tales from Catherine Crowe’s Ghosts and Family Legends: A Volume for Christmas. Doctor S. tells this tale on the fifth of the eight evenings of fireside ghost stories. As with Colonel C.’s tale, it’s a first-person account.

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“Some years ago there was a house in the suburbs of Dublin that had remained a long time unoccupied, in consequence, it was said, of its evil reputation—the report was, that it was haunted. People who had taken it got rid of it as soon as they could, and those who lived in the neighbourhood affirmed that they saw lights moving about the interior, and, sometimes, a lady in white standing at the window with a child in her arms, when they knew there was no living creature, except rats and mice, within the walls. The wise and learned laughed at these rumours; but still the house remained empty, and was getting into a very dilapidated state.

A haunted house, ghost hunters, and a lady in white. What more could you want on a cold dark December evening? This one is short and sweet. Not all the loose ends are tied up, but that makes it feel more like real life.

You can read Doctor S.’s Story here.

Enjoy.


Read the intro to my selections from Ghosts and Family Legends at here.

A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years, including the two previous stories from Mrs. Crowe’s collection, is on my Winter Tales page.

Image: Moonlight, the Old House (1906), Childe Hassam. Source: WikiArt.

Colonel C.’s Story

This little “true” winter tale is again from Ghosts and Family Legends: A Volume for Christmas by Catherine Crowe. A certain Colonel C. tells it on the third of the eight evenings of eerie fireside anecdotes. It’s not a ghost story, as Colonel C. himself admits, but it has a supernatural flavor to it, and unlike many such tales, it’s a first-person account, from the Colonel’s boyhood.

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Poor Farmer Gould has an accident riding on the road late at night.

“We breakfasted at nine o’clock, and I was getting up, and about half dressed, when one of my sisters burst into my room, crying, ‘La! Fred., such a shocking thing has happened! poor Farmer Gould was found dead in the road this morning; they think his horse ran away, for it’s not to be found; and the chaise was upset and lying on its side. How lucky, papa did not get the mare!’

Or is it an accident? Karma suggests otherwise. It’s interesting to note that Mrs. Crowe herself suggests a (perhaps farfetched) naturalistic explanation for what happens.

Again, not a ghost story, but a crime story with supernatural overtones. Nicely told.

You can read Colonel C.’s Story here.

Enjoy


Read the intro to my selections from Ghosts and Family Legends at my previous post, along with Madam Von B.’s story.

A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.

Image: Carriage Drawn by a Horse, Vincent van Gogh. Source: WikiArt

Winter Tales Begin: Madame Von B.’s story

Every year, from the beginning of December until Epiphany, I like to share some winter tales — stories to tell or to read around a warm fire on a cold dark night, preferably with a steamy hot drink to wrap your hands around. This year I’m starting the series a little differently, by sharing a few “true” ghost stories, rather than explicitly fictional tales.

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I’m taking these stories from Catherine Crowe’s 1858 book, Ghosts and Family Legends: A Volume for Christmas. Those of you who have read the adventures of Vera van Slyke in Tim Prasil’s Help for the Haunted know that Mrs. Crowe’s The Night Side of Nature was Vera’s trustiest reference tome. Ghost and Family Legends was Mrs. Crowe’s sequel, in a way: a collection of true (or at least truthy) anecdotes told around the fire over a course of a week at a December house party in 1857. Anonymized, of course, because who wants to admit to believing in ghosts?

“But there are no ghosts now,” objected Mr. R.

“Quite the contrary,” said I; “I have no doubt there is nobody in this circle who has not either had some experience of the sort in his own person, or been made a confidant of such experiences by friends whose word on any other subject he would feel it impossible to doubt.”

After some discussion on the existence of ghosts and cognate subjects, it was agreed that each should relate a story, restricting himself to circumstances that had either happened to himself or had been told him by somebody fully entitled to confidence, who had undergone the experience.

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Creepy TV and other Thanksgiving Fun

Back from Thanksgiving weekend with my parents: four days of non-stop eating and family and wine (I blame my sister for that last part). It was the first time in a long time that we, my parents, my sister’s family and my closest first cousin’s family were all in the same place at the same time, to celebrate the birth of my youngest nephew (or whatever the proper term is for my first cousin’s child).

We happen to be a family with strong introvert tendencies, even the men who married into the family, and we are also very loud, in that stereotypical ethnic family sort of way. So periodically, certain people would disappear from the gathering, to be found hiding in another room with a device of some kind…

Which is a long-winded way of saying that my ten year old niece has started me down a wormhole of recreational reading and tv-watching time sinks, just in time for the holidays. Follow me down the path: Continue reading

Another Budget of Book Reviews

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October has always been a busy month for me, which is why I’ve been not so vigilant about blogging — I’ll get back to my Hummingbird Folklore series, promise! But I’ve still been reading. In time for Halloween (and rolling into Winter Tales season), here’s my take on three excellent short story anthologies that I finished recently. Continue reading