September 30th, 2019

Barn Owl with Playing Card

Tanya Kirk anthology

Sorry for not posting for such a long time! I've been spending all my free time writing a book myself, so if it ever gets published everyone whose work I've spent the past decade slagging off will have a chance to return the favour. I've finished it now though, and spending all your leisure time importuning literary agents would drive anyone mad, so I'm making some time to catch up with some books I keep meaning to review.

I'll start off with Spirits of the Season - Christmas Hauntings edited by Tanya Kirk, an anthology of old ghost stories from the promising new British Library Tales of the Weird series - cheap, mainstream paperbacks with decent production values - nice fonts and paper, good editing, and even pictures!

This particular book doesn't contain much unusual material, but at least it doesn't have any stories by Charles Dickens. I think 'Smee' by A.M. Burrage is the only real chestnut, and the tale of a hide-and-seek game gone nightmarishingly wrong is admittedly a very good chestnut. I would imagine a lot of people will also have read 'The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance' by M. R. James, but again, the quality of the story is absolutely top-notch. As one of the many people who've always hated and feared Punch and Judy shows, I found this story almost unbearably scary when I first read it, and it's dream imagery and oblique narrative give it an astonishingly modern feel. It's certainly not the most frequently-anthologized story by Old Monty either, so it's good to see it getting an airing here.

Other members of the 'James Gang' appear within these pages, with H Russell Wakefield's rarish long story 'Lucky's Grove' rounding off the collection in style. It's not the best ever Wakefield story (I think that accolade goes to 'Old Man's Beard' or 'The Red Lodge'), but it's certainly festive and there are some lovely bits of nature writing involving a sacred grove of trees (needless to say, some dum-dum thinks its a good idea to borrow one for a Xmas tree, and it doesn't end well.) There is also an obscure story by E.F. Benson, a piece of largely psychological horror called 'Boxing Night', but it's not one of his best.

I definitely felt that the strongest stories here were the ones from the early 20th century. In addition to the James and Wakefield there is a fine story by the overlooked Edith Nesbit, 'The Shadow', in which Nesbit proves once again that she can show us fear in a handful of whatever she jolly well wants. 'The Kit-Bag' by Algernon Blackwood is not a stalwart of Xmas anthologies, but it's excellent, so I was glad to see it here. Hugh Walpole's 'The Snow' is a really quite vicious little tale, given the author's reputation for churning out hack romances, and it hasn't aged badly at all.

Where the Victorians are concerned it's really left to Amelia B. Edwards to hold the fort, with her classic story 'The Four-Fifteen Express', an early attempt at supernatural crime fiction. It's not what you would call scary but it's well-written and historically interesting.

All the stories I hadn't read before were actually light-hearted material. 'The Curse of the Catafalques' by F. Anstey is a daft caper involving an amoral male gold-digger's attempts to get his hands on the fortune of a cursed family by marrying the eldest daughter, and its slightly silly humour has held up pretty well over the centuries. 'The Christmas Shadrach' by Frank R. Stockton is less well-known, and features a haunted lump of mining material (!) that plays havoc with the romantic plans of a cluster of young people. It was readable enough, though if you're looking for scares you won't find them pouring from the pen of Mr. Stockton.

All in all this is a very sound lot of golden-age ghost stories. I suspect anyone new to the genre would be really impressed by it, and I certainly enjoyed reuniting with some old favourites.