Spooky Words (and Sounds) Day 4

M_R_JAMESFor today, the last ghost story for this Halloween, M.R. James’ “The Mezzotint,” a “prints and photographs” chiller (which I think Rod Serling’s Night Gallery riffed on.)

Monte James‘ elegant ghost stories were influenced by his day job as an archivist and a medievalist. They often have books or historical artifacts that turn out to be sinister, and his tone manages to combine the cozy and genuinely creepy. The central object in “The Mezzotint” betrays a story of a long-ago crime via the form of a seemingly innocuous print of a country house.

A taste:

“It was by this time rather late in the evening, and the visitors were on the move. After they went Williams was obliged to write a letter or two and clear up some odd bits of work. At last, some time past midnight, he was disposed to turn in, and he put out his lamp after lighting his bedroom candle. The picture lay face upwards on the table where the last man who looked at it had put it, and it caught his eye as he turned the lamp down. 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…”



And for a bit of bewitching music, here is Liszt in a Mephistophelean and melancholy mode:

First Boris Berezovsky in Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz #1.

(With a camera person who was asleep at the wheel in the last moments, or perhaps so dazzled by the virtuosity that he forgot to get the Boris’ bow in frame?)

and Lang Lang playing the Liszt “Romance”

His performance is lovely, the video production is overwrought, and yet Liszt would likely have loved it.

Happy Halloween!

Spooky Words Day 3: Dickens

Victorian_Book_Ghost_StoriesToday, the start of Dickens, “To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt.” Notable because the ghost is nearly omnipresent in the story, which concerns the trial of a murderer. Dickens’ style always seems a bit too cozy to deliver that final shock that a good short story can (Shirley Jackson still is supreme in my book for this), but he’s such fun to read.


I have always noticed a prevalent want of courage, even among persons of superior intelligence and culture, as to imparting their own psychological experiences when those have been of a strange sort. Almost all men are afraid that what they could relate in such wise would find no parallel or response in a listener’s internal life, and might be suspected or laughed at. A truthful traveller who should have seen some extraordinary creature in the likeness of a sea-serpent, would have no fear of mentioning it; but the same traveller having had some singular presentiment, impulse, vagary of thought, vision (so-called), dream, or other remarkable mental impression, would hesitate considerably before he would own to it. To this reticence I attribute much of the obscurity in which such subjects are involved. We do not habitually communicate our experiences of these subjective things, as we do our experiences of objective creation. The consequence is, that the general stock of experience in this regard appears exceptional, and really is so, in respect of being miserably imperfect.

In what I am going to relate I have no intention of setting up, opposing, or supporting, any theory whatever. I know the history of the Bookseller of Berlin, I have studied the case of the wife of a late Astronomer Royal as related by Sir David Brewster, and I have followed the minutest details of a much more remarkable case of Spectral Illusion occurring within my private circle of friends. It may be necessary to state as to this last that the sufferer (a lady) was in no degree, however distant, related to me. A mistaken assumption on that head, might suggest an explanation of a part of my own case – but only a part – which would be wholly without foundation. It cannot be referred to my inheritance of any developed peculiarity, nor had I ever before any at all similar experience, nor have I ever had any at all similar experience since.

It does not signify how many years ago, or how few, a certain Murder was committed in England, which attracted great attention. We hear more than enough of Murderers as they rise in succession to their atrocious eminence, and I would bury the memory of this particular brute, if I could, as his body was buried, in Newgate Jail. I purposely abstain from giving any direct clue to the criminal’s individuality.

When the murder was first discovered, no suspicion fell – or I ought rather to say, for I cannot be too precise in my facts, it was nowhere publicly hinted that any suspicion fell – on the man who was afterwards brought to trial. As no reference was at that time made to him in the newspapers, it is obviously impossible that any description of him can at that time have been given in the newspapers. It is essential that this fact be remembered.

Unfolding at breakfast my morning paper, containing the account of that first discovery, I found it to be deeply interesting, and I read it with close attention. I read it twice, if not three times. The discovery had been made in a bedroom, and, when I laid down the paper, I was aware of a flash – rush – flow – I do not know what to call it – no word I can find is satisfactorily descriptive – in which I seemed to see that bedroom passing through my room, like a picture impossibly painted on a running river. Though almost instantaneous in its passing, it was perfectly clear; so clear that I distinctly, and with a sense of relief, observed the absence of the dead body from the bed.

It was in no romantic place that I had this curious sensation, but in chambers in Piccadilly, very near to the corner of Saint James’s Street. It was entirely new to me. I was in my easy-chair at the moment, and the sensation was accompanied with a peculiar shiver which started the chair from its position.



Spooky Words: Day 2


For today’s choice, a selection from Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories, Cynthia Asquith’s “The Corner Shop.” In his (typically smart-ass) intro, Dahl mentions meeting Asquith, the grand dame of the English Ghost story, and getting a ghostly reading list from her, many of which he found bad to unreadable (seemingly the more famous the writer, the weaker the story correlated for many cases.)

He did find a set worth anthologizing, including one by Asquith herself. A nicely folded example of the “haunted shop” genre. (Complete with a critique of neo-liberal economics.)

Here’s the opening (full text does not seem to be available, but it’s likely in your local library).

The Corner Shop

Peter Wood’s executors found their task a very easy one. He had left his affairs in perfect order. The only surprise yielded by his methodical writing-table was a sealed envelope on which was written: ‘Not wishing to be bothered by well-meaning Research Societies, I have never shown the enclosed to anyone, but after my death all are welcome to read what, to the best of my knowledge, is a true story.’

The manuscript which bore a date three years previous to the death of the writer was as follows.

‘I have long wished to record an experience of my youth. I won’t attempt any explanation. I draw no conclusions. I merely narrate certain events.’

‘One foggy evening, at the end of a day of enforced idleness…’

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Spooky Words: Ghost Story Season is Upon Us

Sized_Ghost_ImagesHerewith my first annual round-up of ghost story collections–there are many wonderful ones, and seldom does an October go by that I don’t find a new anthology (or at least one new to me).

I’ll roll out an entry each day this week.

For starters:

1) The Collected Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson. The British writer is best known for the Mapp and Lucia series of social comedies set among the English smart set of the Twenties. He wrote a large number of elegant–if often shiver-free–ghost stories, often set among the same Masterpiece Theater crowd, and evoking the dappled shadows of leaves falling on windows of great country houses, where a face appears and then dissolves.

The opening of “How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery” provides a good idea of what he’s up to:

Church-Peveril is a house so beset and frequented by spectres, both
visible and audible, that none of the family which it shelters under
its acre and a half of green copper roofs takes psychical phenomena
with any seriousness. For to the Peverils the appearance of a ghost is
a matter of hardly greater significance than is the appearance of the
post to those who live in more ordinary houses. It arrives, that is to
say, practically every day, it knocks (or makes other noises), it is
observed coming up the drive (or in other places). I myself, when
staying there, have seen the present Mrs. Peveril, who is rather
short-sighted, peer into the dusk, while we were taking our coffee on
the terrace after dinner, and say to her daughter:

“My dear, was not that the Blue Lady who has just gone into the
shrubbery. I hope she won’t frighten Flo. Whistle for Flo, dear.”

(Flo, it may be remarked, is the youngest and most precious of many

Blanche Peveril gave a cursory whistle, and crunched the sugar left
unmelted at the bottom of her coffee-cup between her very white teeth.

“Oh, darling, Flo isn’t so silly as to mind,” she said. “Poor blue
Aunt Barbara is such a bore! Whenever I meet her she always looks as if she wanted to speak to me, but when I say, ‘What is it, Aunt Barbara?’ she never utters, but
only points somewhere towards the house, which is so vague. I believe
there was something she wanted to confess about two hundred years ago,
but she has forgotten what it is.”

Here Flo gave two or three short pleased barks, and came out of the
shrubbery wagging her tail, and capering round what appeared to me to
be a perfectly empty space on the lawn.

“There! Flo has made friends with her,” said Mrs. Peveril. “I
wonder why she dresses in that very stupid shade of blue”


Not all the ghosts at Church-Peveril are quite so domesticated it turns out, and they cause more than just sartorial dismay.


Commonplace Book: Alexander McCall Smith

What_W__H__Auden_Can_Do_for_You__Writers_on_Writers__by_Alexander_Mccall_Smith_-_Powell_s_BooksReading another in the category of those “What X Can Do For You…“, “How Y Can Change Your Life” books, but (somewhat atypically) finding it an engaging one, courtesy of Alexander McCall Smith of the gentle No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency mysteries, and other books (including Portuguese Irregular Verbs and The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs).

What Auden Can Do For You is his encomium to the British poet, not to me a likely choice for this self-help treatment, but Smith’s take is mostly personal, which redeems it. Here he is describing a talk he gave at a library in Perthshire, Scotland, an incident he recalls as a way of introducing his discussion of Auden’s “A Summer Day.”

It [Highland Scotland] was a place of strong religious views. The Scottish Reformation was late but had been passionate and had brought with it a commitment to setting up a school in every parish. What later came to be seen as a strong Scottish commitment to education had its roots in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Books were the instruments of truth. Books were the means by which the poor could free themselves of what Auden once described as “the suffering to which they are fairly accustomed.” This attitude towards books has stubbornly survived in Scotland, mirroring, perhaps, the Irish attitude to music: both are consolations that will, in their individual way, always see one through.

My talk was preceded by a reception. This was held outside the converted ancient church that the library used for its meetings. A couple of open-sided tents had been erected under which drinks and snacks were prepared, and people milled about, chatting in the benign evening sunlight. In a country such as Scotland, where raw Atlantic weather blows over the land with little regard to season, a sunlit evening in which the air is still lifts the spirits. This lightening was very much in evidence in the atmosphere of the gathering: it seemed as if everybody present was an old friend, seizing the chance to catch up with one another.

I then experienced a feeling of extraordinary calm, of something that must have been joy. It was fleeting, lasting only for a minute or two, but it was unmistakable. We all have such moments in our lives, and there is no telling when they will occur. For a short time we are somehow transported into another form of consciousness, until it comes to an end: we are distracted; somebody says something, a visitor comes to the door (as happened to Coleridge, when that “person from Porlock” interrupted the writing of his visionary poem “Kubla Kahn”)–and the insight evaporates. But we know that for a short time we have seen something about the world that we do not normally see. I suddenly understood that I loved the people present in that small enclosure. I had come from Edinburgh feeling that the evening would be a chore, and now I stood on the grass and realized how grudging, how churlish that attitude had been.

“A summer night,” I said to myself.

Poetic Words: Ed Hirsch

Reading a lot of Ed Hirsch after reading Alec Wilkinson’s moving NYker essay on his new book of poems, Gabriel, about his late son.

Ed Hirsch

Fall, falling, fallen. That’s the way the season
Changes its tense in the long-haired maples
That dot the road; the veiny hand-shaped leaves
Redden on their branches (in a fiery competition
With the final remaining cardinals) and then
Begin to sidle and float through the air, at last
Settling into colorful layers carpeting the ground.
At twilight the light, too, is layered in the trees
In a season of odd, dusky congruences—a scarlet tanager
And the odor of burning leaves, a golden retriever
Loping down the center of a wide street and the sun
Setting behind smoke-filled trees in the distance,
A gap opening up in the treetops and a bruised cloud
Blamelessly filling the space with purples. Everything
Changes and moves in the split second between summer’s
Sprawling past and winter’s hard revision, one moment
Pulling out of the station according to schedule,
Another moment arriving on the next platform. It
Happens almost like clockwork: the leaves drift away
From their branches and gather slowly at our feet,
Sliding over our ankles, and the season begins moving
Around us even as its colorful weather moves us,
Even as it pulls us into its dusty, twilit pockets.
And every year there is a brief, startling moment
When we pause in the middle of a long walk home and
Suddenly feel something invisible and weightless
Touching our shoulders, sweeping down from the air:
It is the autumn wind pressing against our bodies;
It is the changing light of fall falling on us.

This is from The Living Fire, an anthology with fine selections from his earlier books.

Beautiful Picture(s): The Brown Sisters

Photographer Nicholas Nixon has been taking photographs of his wife, Bebe, and her sisters since 1975. A simple idea (and echoed in this year’s “Boyhood“), but the photos are mesmerizing and evocative. The latest, along with an essay by novelist Susan Minot, is on the Times site (and in this week’s magazine.)


Whatever else there is to say about the stages of life, Shakespeare’s insubstantial pageant, what you feel as you live through them is not what you expected.

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