I bought this book a little while ago – fully intending to read it during Halloween week. I’m not especially fond of Halloween, although I don’t actually dislike it; I just thought it might be fun. As an aside, although I never read horror – or anything too dark, – I don’t find ghost stories scary – as I don’t believe in ghosts –I find much of what goes on in the real world to be far more frightening. I do however find that these kind of old fashioned ghost stories to be strangely cosy and absolutely perfect for reading on dark chilly evenings in late Autumn. I do imagine though, that these stories wouldn’t be regarded as particularly frightening by most people anyway. I suspect we are all just a little more sophisticated, far more cynical and dismissive of things we can’t explain, than the readers who these stories were originally written for.
This collection is a real joy – a veritable who’s who of nineteenth century authors on both sides of the Atlantic, including Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Rudyard Kipling, Sheridan Le Fanu and Edith Wharton – among others. Nineteen stories by some fabulous writers – what’s not to like? Well of course – as with any collection of short stories there are some which I enjoyed more than others. Thrawn Janet by Robert Louis Stevenson was one I struggled with as it’s written in – what I found to be – very difficult Scottish dialect. I also found the story by Henry James pretty hard going and I skipped some of it I’m afraid. All the other stories though are wonderfully readable, and I thoroughly enjoyed them.
“There could be no doubt, however, of the fact, for the lamps grew larger and brighter every moment, and I even fancied I could already see the dark outline of the carriage between them. It was coming up very fast, and quite noiselessly; the snow being nearly a foot deep under the wheels.
And now the body of the vehicle became distinctly visible behind the lamps. It looked strangely lofty. A sudden suspicion flashed upon me. Was it possible that I had passed the crossroads in the dark without observing the sign-post, and could this be the very coach which I had come to meet?”
(from The North Mail by Amelia B Edwards)
As I think I have said before I do find it difficult to review short story collections – which ones do I talk about? I generally come down on the side of talking about some I liked most. The first story – The Nurse’s Tale by Elizabeth Gaskell is one I have read before – and I love it – it’s marvellously atmospheric. An ageing children’s nurse recounts the story of a ghost child in the house where she and her young charge went to live following the death of the child’s parents. A perfect opening to this collection it is the story of cold wintery weather, footprints in the snow and windswept fens, eerie organ music and ghostly apparitions. The Cold Embrace by Mary Elizabeth Braddon – the author of Lady Audley’s secret which I read recently, concerns the aftermath of a tragic death. A feckless young man betroths himself to a young woman, who pledges that even in death she will love him. When the young man throws her over, the broken hearted young girl is driven to desperate measures. Margaret Oliphant’s The Open Door – is one of the slightly longer stories – and was also one of my favourites. A former Colonel’s beloved young son appears to become terribly ill, is very distressed and told by the doctor to stay in bed. The boy is claiming to have heard strange moaning noises coming from some local ruins. The boy’s father promises his son to discover what it all means, and with the help of his butler and his thoroughly unconvinced doctor friend, he does just that. The Monkey’s Paw by W. W Jacobs will be one story I don’t think I will easily forget. It’s a wonderfully chilling twist on the old three wishes type fairy-tale. Afterward the final story in this collection is by the brilliant Edith Wharton, a chilling story of a woman and her businessman husband who now living in England move into a house they are told is haunted but that they would never know it – at least not till long “afterward.”
I am glad I finished this collection just in time to post this review late on a Halloween night – it does seem appropriate. I would certainly recommend this collection to those who enjoy these kinds of old fashioned chillers, they are perfect winter evening reading.