Short Story Reviews: Ghost Stories by M.R. James

Like last year, I read a few short spooky stories by M.R. James for my Halloween read for 2021.

These are what I read: Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book and The Uncommon Prayer-Book. Although both were good, they did not unseat my favourite M.R. James ghost story which I’ve read to date: The Mezzotint (see my review of that from last year here).

In Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book we are given an atmospheric description of an old church and the strange “…hunted and oppressed air…” of it’s caretaker. In this tale, it is first the place and then the behaviour of the people in the story, which causes the tension to rise. And when an offer of a silver crucifix and chain is made as a gift, you can’t help but wonder who or what the main character might need protecting from…

Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book – 3 / 5

In The Uncommon Prayer-Book, the artefact in question is a rare edition of a Book of Common Prayer, which is kept in an out-of-the-way little church affixed to an old manor house, in an out-of-the-way little village. The book was commissioned by an elderly woman with a hatred of Oliver Cromwell, and who purportedly haunts the book, which I find both wonderful and chilling all at once! But when the book is stolen, you just know the story isn’t going to end well…

The Uncommon Prayer-Book – 4 / 5

Short Story Review: A Strange Christmas Game by Charlotte Riddell

I could find no relevant book cover to go with this review so I thought I would share a glimpse of Bedfordshire woodland…

Summary

Brother and sister John and Clare Lester inherit an old spooky house in the country. But when they start to hear strange noises, it sets them on a path to discover a terrible secret…

Favourite Quote

‘You pooh-pooh the existence of ghosts, and “only wish you could find a haunted house in which to spend a night,” which is all very brave and praiseworthy, but wait till you are left in a dreary, desolate old country mansion, filled with the most unaccountable sounds, without a servant, with none save an old caretaker and his wife, who, living at the the extremest end of the building, heard nothing of the tramp, tramp, bang, bang, going on at all hours of the night.’

(From A Strange Christmas Game by Charlotte Riddell)

Review

This short story was read as part of Festive Reads Fortnight 2020 at Sammi Loves Books.

I hadn’t read any of Charlotte Riddell’s work until this one, and only then did I learn that she published her writing under her husband’s name, J.H. Riddell. Hence why sometimes her works are attributed to that name.

Atmospheric, this story falls into the category of traditional or old fashioned ghost story. It’s not terribly scary, but it is interesting to read how John and Clare discover the secret of Martingdale, and then solve the secret.  The character of Clare is cleverly written.  She is very astute, though she also fulfils the role Victorians would have expected of a woman, by which I mean she screams on occasion and drops a glass in fright. 😉

It’s a very quick read, but certainly well-worth a look, especially if you like your ghost stories to be horror-free.

This short story wins ‘local interest points’ from me, as it is set in part in my home county of Bedfordshire.

Rating


Sammi Loves Books Reading Challenge 2019 – I’ve chosen this book for challenge #3 in the list: a book set in a place you’ve lived / visited

Short Story Review: A Selection of Ghost Stories by M.R. James

For my Halloween Reads 2020, I read four spooky short stories by M.R. James, and although I am going to review each one separately – and briefly – I thought a single post was a more efficient use of time and blog space 😉

Count Magnus

Summary – Mr Wraxhall, a travel-writer, goes to Sweden, where he comes across the interesting character of Count Magnus in the local history. But interest quickly turns into something far more deadly…

Favourite Quote – “…and found myself (as before) turning in at the churchyard gate, and, I believe, singing or chanting some such words as, ‘Are you awake, Count Magnus? Are you asleep, Count Magnus?’…”

Review – It took me a little while to get into this story, but when I did I found the sense of place that M.R. James conjured was captivating.  As the story progressed, it gained momentum and the tension certainly increased. Although there are certainly horror elements to the tale, I think it’s the psychological element of this one that makes it memorable.

Rating

The Mezzotint

Summary – The story of a picture that is so much more than it seems at first glance…

Favourite Quote – “What he saw made him very nearly drop the candle on the floor, and he declares now that if he had been left in the dark at that moment he would have had a fit.”

Review – The Mezzotint was my favourite of the four short stories I read.  It was tense, atmospheric and dramatic. Some paintings do have eerie qualities to them, so for this one to achieve what it did and tell such a sinister story…all I can say is that it was the perfect Halloween Read! Chilling. Highly recommended!

Rating

‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’

Summary – A college professor takes a short holiday on the East Coast, and is asked by a colleague to check out a site for an archaeological dig. But he finds so much more than he expects…

Favourite Quote – “Few people can resist the temptation to try a little amateur research in a department quite outside their own, if only for the satisfaction of showing how successful they would have been had they only taken it up seriously.”

Review – This story took a little while to get going, but once it did, my! As I mentioned in the previous two reviews, the tension builds quite dramatically, and I must confess, unexpectedly, because at first, I wasn’t quite sure I was that hooked into the story.  There’s an almost nightmarish quality to this one, so if like me, you feel the beginning is too slow, stick with it. I wasn’t disappointed, and I hope neither will you be.

Rating

Casting the Runes

Summary – Mr Karswell writes books on esoteric subjects, but good luck to the reviewer whose finds his writing less than remarkable…

Favourite Quote – “Why, my dear, just as present Mr Karswell is a very angry man.  But I don’t know much about him otherwise, except that he is a person of wealth, his address is Lufford Abbey, Warwickshire, and he’s an alchemist, apparently, and wants to tell us all about…”

Review – My least favourite of the four stories, this one felt it took a great deal of time to get going, and probably suffered for being the last one I read.  I thought it more of a mystery with an almost fantasy bent to it than a truly ghostly read like the other three. The story was interesting, and I was keen to see how the tale was resolved, but I wasn’t particularly drawn to the characters. The locations were interesting too, but unfortunately, this probably wasn’t a good choice on my part for a Halloween Read.

Rating

Book Review: The Medium by C. J Archer

The Medium is the first book in the Emily Chambers Spirit Medium trilogy by C. J. Archer.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

An enjoyable, easy to read paranormal story set in a convincing Victorian setting, combined with a solid mystery and a large dose of romance.  4 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

Seventeen year-old spirit medium Emily Chambers has a problem. Actually, she has several. As if seeing dead people isn’t a big enough social disadvantage, she also has to contend with an escaped demon and a handsome ghost with a secret past. And then there’s the question of her parentage. Being born an entire year after her father’s death (yes, a year) and without the pale skin of other respectable English ladies, Emily is as much a mystery as the dead boy assigned to her.

Jacob Beaufort’s spirit has been unable to crossover since his death. It might have something to do with the fact he was murdered. Or it might not. All he knows is, he has been assigned by the Otherworld’s administrators to a girl named Emily. A girl who can see and touch him. A girl who released a shape-shifting demon into the mortal realm. Together they must send the demon back before it wreaks havoc on London. It should be a simple assignment, but they soon learn there’s nothing simple when a live girl and a dead boy fall in love.

Favourite Quote

“Tell me you won’t go, tell me you’ll stay forever, tell me you love me.”

(From The Medium by C. J. Archer)

Review

The Medium has been sitting on my virtual shelf for so many years, that I’ve actually lost count how many it’s been.  But, having made sure that I managed to get around to reading the first book in the Glass and Steele series by the same author for last year’s Indie Only Month, (and although that had been on my virtual bookshelf for some time, it hadn’t been as long as The Medium) I was determined to get around to reading this one this year.  And I did!  Woohoo!  On to the review…

The first thing I have to mention is the gorgeous book cover.  I love the colours and the font, not to mention the flourishes, but it is the moonlit, fog-swathed view of the Victorian street that really caught my eye – and my imagination.

I liked Emily Chambers for the most part.  Sometimes she came across as too childish for my liking, especially when it came to dealing with her older sister, and I did find that a little off-putting, but it wasn’t enough to stop me reading or make me turn against her character. However, I thought she was terribly dismissive of the sensitivities of others when she decided it was her place to reveal news to a family when a ghost had asked her not too.  And at that point, I didn’t particularly like her so much.

I did like Jacob.  He was convincingly created so you could believe he was this confused, sometimes over-confident, sometimes possibly dangerous young man at a loss as to understand what has befallen him and why he is different from other ghosts.

As for the other characters, they were also very well drawn. I liked Emily’s sister, Celia – she had a lot to put up with from Emily, I thought.  The Chamber’s new maid was amusing.  My favourite character from the whole book though was probably George, the rich, eccentric demonologist. I hope we get to see him make more appearances in later books.

The love story is one I can invest in. There is an instant attraction / connection between the two leads and it works – sometimes this sort of insta-love doesn’t work, but with these character, and in this setting, I found it acceptable.  Also, the romantic plot isn’t perfect, there are plenty of obstacles for them to overcome, which kept me interested.

The mystery aspect of the story was solid, leaving me gripped and engaged enough to need to know how it was going to be resolved.  This resolution did seem a little too easy, compared to the path which them there but by the time we reached it, I was probably more interested in wondering where the next book was going to lead, especially in terms of the romantic storyline.

The descriptions of Victorian London ensured I could imagine each and every setting.  From the Chamber’s home in Druid’s Lane, to the parlours of those they visited for the seances they conducted, then there was George’s library, the dark, dank streets of Whitechapel, the school for domestic servants…I could envisage them all.

The big question I found myself asking whilst reading (and subsequently after) was, is The Medium better than The Watchmaker’s Daughter? (see my review for the latter here). This sort of comparison usually helps me when I’m struggling to rate a book.  I awarded the first book in the Glass and Steele series four out of five stars, and I think The Medium is on a level with that.  I enjoyed them both, very much.

The second book in the series is Possession, and I have added it to my ‘books to be bought’ list.

Rating

Short Story Review: Eveline’s Visitant by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

I found the short story Eveline’s Visitant by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, in Anthology of Fear: 20 Haunting Stories for Winter Nights (Marshall Cavendish Ltd.)

Quick Review (read on for full review)

An enjoyable, atmospheric quick read with an unexpected ending. Highly recommended for reading on a cold, dark winter’s night. 4 / 5

Summary

Two cousins, Hector and André de Brissac, quarrel over a woman.  André is the cousin favoured by Fortune; women love him and the family money and lands have gone to him.  By contrast, Hector is considered “a rough soldier” and “mannerless boor”.  The quarrel escalates and a challenge to duel is issued, with fatal consequences for André.

But, with his dying breath, André does his best to ensure that Hector does not enjoy his victory nor his inheritance…He claims their quarrel is not yet over.  Hector, however, does not believe in such things…

Favourite Quote

I will come to you when your life seems brightest. I will come between you and all that you hold fairest and dearest. My ghostly hand shall drop a poison in your cup of joy.

(From Eveline’s Visitant by Mary Elizabeth Braddon)

Review

I’m a little late completing and posting this review, seeing as though I read the story as one of my Halloween Reads for 2019!

As part of the same reading challenge, I read The Cold Embrace, another short story by the Mary Elizabeth Braddon (you can find that review here).  I noted then that I really liked the author’s writing style and ability to create the most atmospheric and unexpected twists in the story.  So I went into reading Eveline’s Visitant with high expectations and was not disappointed.  Once again the story was atmospheric and the unusual plot twists came as a surprise. Although I would like to go into detail about what was so special about these twists, I won’t for fear of giving too much away.  But I will say this: the ending came as a complete surprise.

My copy was no more than twelve pages long, so it’s a quick read, but for all that, there is no lack of story.  The setting is richly described, both Paris and the inherited estate, and there are enough details of the main characters to make them appear whole and believable.

If you enjoy reading ghost stories on dark nights by candlelight, I recommend you give this a read.  There’s a creepiness to it, a pervading sense of the sinister…

I plan to read more by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and have added her first novel, published in 1862 – a sensational melodrama – Lady Audley’s Secret, to my TBR list.

Rating

 

 

Short Story Review: The Cold Embrace by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

I read The Cold Embrace by Mary Braddon in Anthology of Fear: 20 Haunting Stories for Winter Nights (Marshall Cavendish Ltd).

Quick Review

Atmospheric and unexpected…a fantastic Gothic read for Halloween or a cold, dark winter’s night. 4 / 5

Summary

A German artist, orphaned at an early age, is raised in his uncle’s household where he forms an attachment to his cousin, Gertrude.  They become close and secretly become engaged, only Uncle Wilhelm has high expectations of finding a rich suitor for his daughter…

When the artist is of an age, he travels across Europe undertaking commissions for rich patrons, in the hope of finding fame and fortune.  But what of Gertrude?   She is quickly forgotten…but her retribution at his betrayal cannot be…

Favourite Quote

The date seems burnt into her brain.

The date, written in fire, dances forever before her eyes.

The date, shrieked by the Furies, sounds continually in her ears.

(from The Cold Embrace by Mary Elizabeth Braddon)

Review

I read The Cold Embrace as part of my Halloween Reads challenge for 2019.

Mary Braddon is an author I had not read before, prior to undertaking this year’s Halloween Reads.  Yet it is clear, as soon as I started reading The Cold Embrace, I had been missing something.  This was a great read and I enjoyed the author’s writing style very much.

The Cold Embrace is one of the best Victorian Gothic ghost stories I’ve read.  Full of atmosphere and rich in description, once started, I had to read to the end (it isn’t a particularly long read).  It had just the right amount of creepiness to it without being gory, which is how I prefer my ghost stories.

There is a sadness to the story that cannot be avoided due to the tragic subject matter, but the author doesn’t dwell too heavily on it.  Rather, a clever response, beautifully written, sees the fiancée get her retribution.  Although the storyline is predictable, I don’t believe its execution was.

I read a second story by this author for my Halloween Reading challenge, Eveline’s Visitant, so keep an eye out for that forthcoming review.  It was another good story 😉

I expect that I will be reading many more stories by Mary Braddon in the future, because I certainly enjoyed this one.  It was perfect for the Halloween challenge and equally suited to reading on a cold, dark winter’s night. Recommended!

Rating

Book Review: The Turn of The Screw by Henry James

Quick Review (read on for full review)

A spooky gothic ghost story with a great atmosphere and much tension, but the writing style takes quite a bit of getting used to.  The ambiguity of the narrative ensures the story stays with you long after you’ve finished reading.  4 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

A very young woman’s first job: governess for two weirdly beautiful, strangely distant, oddly silent children, Miles and Flora, at a forlorn estate…An estate haunted by a beckoning evil.

Half-seen figures who glare from dark towers and dusty windows- silent, foul phantoms who, day by day, night by night, come closer, ever closer. With growing horror, the helpless governess realizes the fiendish creatures want the children, seeking to corrupt their bodies, possess their minds, own their souls…

But worse-much worse- the governess discovers that Miles and Flora have no terror of the lurking evil.

For they want the walking dead as badly as the dead want them.

Favourite Quote

I couldn’t chose between the two:

*

The apparition had reached the landing half-way up and was therefore on the spot nearest the window, where, at sight of me, it stopped short and fixed me exactly as it had fixed me from the tower and from the garden.

*

Dishonoured and tragic, she was all before me; but even as I fixed and, for memory, secured it, the awful image passed away.  Dark as midnight in her black dress, her haggard beauty and her unutterable woe, she had looked at me long enough to appear to say that her right to sit at my table was as good as mine to sit at hers.

Review

My review of The Turn of The Screw is a mixed one…

I read this as 2018’s Halloween Read, because I remembered a TV adaptation I saw as a teenager that nicely spooked me out.  I have been planning to read this for a number of years, but my copy had become lost amongst the numerous books on my shelves.  I stumbled across it whilst searching for a different book in the summer and rather sensibly set it aside…

I both enjoyed The Turn of The Screw and found it frustrating to read.  My thoughts on it run somewhat like the lines of a nursery rhyme: when it was good, it was very, very good but when it was hard to read, it was horrid.

Where the spooky events occurred, they were indeed perfect.  The tension during these passages is palpable and the atmosphere conjured, exquisitely gothic.  My heart rate increased as I read these pages and I could feel myself tense up, as if I, along with the governess, was witness to the occurrences.  If a writer wants to learn how to write an atmospheric, tense, spooky ghost story, I recommend this book to them for these scenes alone.

As for the style of writing, it takes quite a bit of getting used to and isn’t at all that easy to read.  The sentence construction is unusual, and sentences are heavy and overly long.  There is also quite a bit of interrupted dialogue.  This does, unfortunately, detract from the enjoyment of reading the story and slows the pace considerably.

Another issue I had with the story was the very abrupt ending.  I felt that it needed something else after the last chapter to bring the story to a proper conclusion.  As it was, I was left feeling adrift after the final scene and dissatisfied.

But, the triumph of the story is certainly in its ambiguity.  The psychological undertones manipulate what is and isn’t real until you can’t help but ask, what is really going on?  Does the governess really see what she thinks she sees, or is she mad?  Are there ghosts?  Are the children creepy or innocent?  In my opinion, there is nothing in the story that suggests these children are the angels the governess claims them to be…but, as for the rest I still can’t decide.

It’s so hard to rate this.  I read it at Halloween for it’s spookiness and in this respect, it delivered, and yet, reading it was hard-going and almost chore-like. 4 stars sounds high after this review, but 3.5 doesn’t sound high enough, methinks…

Rating

Short Story Review: The Screaming Skull by F. Marion Crawford

Summary

An old sailor moves into a house which is haunted by a screaming skull.  Whenever the skull is moved, or the old sailor tries to get rid of it, strange, sometimes terrifying happenings occur in the house.  The house used to be occupied by a couple he was friends with, a Dr Pratt and his wife.  Whilst staying with them once before their deaths, he shared with them a tale he had heard on one of his many travels…and now, he can’t help but wonder if the presence of the screaming skull has something to do with him…

Favourite Quote

If I were you, I would never tell ugly stories about ingenious ways of killing people, for you never can tell but that someone at the table may be tired of his or her nearest and dearest.

Review

I really enjoyed this short story.  Although it wasn’t chilling or scary, it was very atmospheric and quite suspenseful in places.  Gruesome details add to the macabre nature of the story, whilst the narrator proclaiming loud and often that he is a sensible man who doesn’t believe in ghosts and ghostly things, brings balance to the telling.

The story is told in such a way that it’s as if the narrator is relating it to you as it is told from his point of view and in a conversational style.  However, he’s actually talking to another character, a friend from his maritime days, but of him we hear very little.

On the negative side, the story feels quite long for the amount of story and detail we are given.  If it had been a little more condensed, I think the creepiness of the story would have increased.

I recommend The Screaming Skull to those who enjoy macabre ghost stories and those who read early twentieth century literature.

Rating

3.5 / 5

Short Story Review: The Kit Bag by Algernon Blackwood

Summary (from Goodreads)

“The Kit-Bag” is a short ghost story by the British author Algernon Blackwood. It was first published in the December 1908 issue of Pall Mall Magazine.

The action takes place in London shortly before Christmas. The story’s protagonist is a young man named Johnson who works for an eminent lawyer named Arthur Wilbraham. Arthur Wilbraham has been defending a man named John Turk, who was accused of murdering a woman and cutting her body up into small pieces. Johnson is obliged to be in court for every day of the trial, which he finds highly unpleasant. When the trial is over, Johnson is glad that he will not have to see John Turk’s face again and is looking forward to going away on a Christmas vacation to the Alps. He asks Arthur Wilbraham to lend him a kit-bag to take with him on vacation. After the requested kit-bag arrives, Johnson passes a fright filled night.

Favourite Quote

“I’m glad it’s over because I’ve seen the last of that man’s dreadful face.  It positively haunted me.  That white skin, with the black hair brushed low over the forehead, is a thing I shall never forget…”

Review

Amazing.  Simply amazing.  A fantastic read, perfect for the Christmas Eve tradition of reading ghost stories, which is when I read it by candlelight.

The Kit Bag is a classic ghost story, and one of my favourites.  It is atmospheric and chilling.  The author really knows how to build the tension throughout the story.  It’s a short, quick read, so to say any more about it will probably lead to spoilers.

For the writers out there who want to learn how to write a good ghost story that will stay with your readers long after they have finished it, take a look at The Kit Bag.

This is my favourite read of 2017’s Festive Reads Fortnight, and I don’t doubt that I shall return to it again and again.

Rating

Book Review: The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

the-woman-in-black-front-cover[This review may contain spoilers]

The Woman in Black was my 2016 Halloween read, and my, was it a great choice.

Arthur Kipps works for a London law firm that is in charge of the estate of one Mrs Alice Drablow.  On her death, Kipps is sent to her home, Eel Marsh House, Crythin Gifford, in the middle of a mist-filled nowhere surrounded by marsh, to go through her papers to ensure that all is in order.

However, as soon as he arrives in the small agricultural town, it becomes apparent that this is not the easy, fun task he thought it would be.  This is not some leisurely, country jaunt.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite and it all begins with the glimpsing of a strange woman dressed in black at the funeral of Alice Drablow, a woman no one will talk to him about.  As an outsider with no knowledge of the local history, he has no idea what his sighting portends…

The Woman in Black is a psychological ghost story that spends its time building up to a very creepy atmosphere, one that is heightened by that which isn’t said rather than that which is.  The not knowing what everyone else knows is certainly a clever way of increasing tension within the narrative.  Only once it is deemed that Arthur Kipps has witnessed enough himself, will anyone reveal anything to him.

I’m not often spooked by spooky things, but there were a few times reading this that I felt chilled to the bone.  The use of repetition, in particular, was very creepy, both in terms of describing sound, but also in the theme.  Not only is Eel Marsh House haunted, but so is Kipps, by his experience.

The downsides to this book were few and minor, and perhaps only recalled because the rest of the book was just so good.  The ending felt very abrupt compared to the slow-burn of the majority of the story, and yet the final words are almost harrowing in their bluntness:

They asked for my story.  I have told it.  Enough.

There was also a little puzzle of an inscription that didn’t make sense to me, and I wish that it expressly stated when the story was set though it definitely had the feel of a Victorian Gothic ghost story to it.

The positives far outweighed the negative, and included that the setting was perfect for this type of story and really captured the essence of Victorian Gothic spookiness.  The characters also helped in crafting the narrative into a piece of chilling literature.  One of my favourites was the brave dog, Spider, whose fearlessness juxtaposed well the feelings of terror experienced by Kipps, which again, served to increase the tension.  The author is a great storyteller and says just enough to make you wonder, to keep you reading.

The Woman in Black was a great read, one that I am certain I will return to, and often, in the future.  If you enjoy ghost stories or are looking for a fitting tale to read one cold, dark night, this would be a very good choice.  Also, if you would like to try you hand a writing a ghost story, this book illustrates well how to successfully accomplish it.