Fontana
detail from the
Third Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories

The Fontana Great Ghost Stories Anthologies

Aickman, Robert, editor:

Commentary by William Allison & rbadac

   

Introduction

"There are only about thirty or forty first-class ghost stories in the whole of western literature."

So opens the introduction to The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories, the first of eight volumes Robert Aickman was to edit for the series. The year was 1964, & Aickman had himself had two books of his own ghost stories published to that point: We Are For the Dark (featuring three stories by Aickman & three by Elizabeth Jane Howard) & 1964's Dark Entries, Aickman's first solo story collection. For each of his Fontana volumes, save the Sixth, Aickman provided an informative, engaging introduction, & all of the volumes, save the Fourth & Sixth, feature an Aickman story. While the series carried on for an additional dozen volumes post-Aickman, our interest lies with those edited by Aickman.


The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories

"The Travelling Grave" L.P.Hartley. "One of the greatest stories in its field" says Aickman, & I for one won't disagree. A dinner party in the country turns into a deadly game of hide & seek. While there are no overt supernatural elements in the story, the machine of the title is infused with an almost animate presence, seeming "to have no settled direction, & to move all ways at once, like a crab". As is usual with Hartley, the prose is finely polished, the dialog often witty & humorous, & character's motives deadly.

"Squire Toby's Will" J. Sheridan Le Fanu. Aickman's selection of this fine tale is just another of its endorsements. Henry James called it the finest ghost story in the English language, & M.R. James asserted that it, "The Familiar", & "Mr Justice Harbottle" were the best ghost stories in the English language. And to think the story languished in anonymous obscurity in a periodical until M.R. James included it in his collection of "lost" Le Fanu stories MADAM CROWL'S GHOST. The story of a family feud caused by the title document, it positively reeks of gloom, decay, & guilt:

Looking up its somber & lifeless avenue from the top of the London coach, as I have often done, you are struck with so many signs of desertion & decay — the tufted grass sprouting in the chinks of the steps & window-stones, the smokeless chimneys over which the jackdaws are wheeling, the absence of human life & all its evidence, that you conclude at once that the place is uninhabited & abandoned to decay. The name of this ancient house is Gylingden Hall. Tall hedges & old timber quickly shroud the old place from view, & about a quarter of a mile further on you pass, embowered in melancholy trees, a small & ruinous Saxon chapel, which, time out of mind, has been the burying-place of the family of Marston, & partakes of the neglect & desolation which brood over their ancient dwelling-place.

In the night the butler investigates a receeding shadow that appears to have disappeared into an old carved cabinet:

In the center panel of this is a sort of boss carved into a wolf's head. The light fell oddly upon this, & the fugitive shadow seemed to be breaking up, & rearranging itself oddly. The eyeball gleamed with a point of reflected light, which glittered also upon the grinning mouth, & he saw the long, sharp nose of Scroope Marston, & his fierce eve looking at him, he thought, with a steadfast meaning.
Old Cooper stood gazing upon this sight, unable to move, till he saw the face, & the figure that belonged to it, begin gradually to emerge from the wood. At the same time he heard voices approaching rapidly up a side gallery, & Cooper, with a loud "Lord a mercy on us!" turned & ran back again, pursued by a sound that seemed to shake the old house like a mighty gust of wind.

Le Fanu's stories possess a & timeless quality that set him apart from other Victorians, & every bookshelf of the weird should have a volume of Le Fanu as its cornerstone.

"Three Miles Up" Elizabeth Jane Howard. This story first appeared in WE ARE FOR THE DARK, as mentioned above a book containing three stories by Howard & three by Aickman. The pairing is a good one, as the styles of the two writers mesh together very well. "Three Miles Up" tells the story of two friends on holiday together, said holiday consisting of a boat journey on England's inland canals (it bears mentioning here that both Howard & Aickman were involved with the Inland Waterways Society). The journey has not gone all that well, being primarily a series of misadventures. Along the way they encounter a mysterious woman, Sharon, who — seemingly homeless — joins the two (male) friends on their journey. Once Sharon is aboard, all seems to go very well, until a subtle wrongness begins creeping into the landscape & eventually leads to the story's chilling ending. A wonderful example of "quiet" horror.

"The Wendigo" Algernon Blackwood. I'm not sure who the real star of this tale is, the creature of the title, or the story's setting (the Canadian backwoods). Blackwood evokes the immensity & indifference of the deep woods with an authority that brings to mind the vast, uncaring cosmos of H.P. Lovecraft:

The bleak splendours of these remote & lonely forests rather overwhelmed him with the sense of his own littleness. That stern quality of the tangled backwoods which can only be described as merciless & terrible, rose out of these far blue woods swimming upon the horizon, & revealed itself. He understood the silent warning. He realised his own utter helplessness.

A party of five on a hunt for moose encounter far more exotic game in the form of a forest elemental. A fine story, Blackwood's descriptions of the scenery are wonderful. (I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure the Wendigo was the inspiration for one of the gods in the Derleth Mythos pantheon.)

"The Trains" Robert Aickman. In Aickman's introduction to the first Fontana he describes ghost stories as being "allied to poetry", & makes the case that they make contact with the unconscious part of the mind. He was fond of referring to his stories as "strange stories" rather than ghost stories. I try to keep all of this in mind while reading Aickman's tales, which can often be very strange indeed (for Aickman fans this only adds to the charm & allure of Aickman's work). The strangeness can however be quite frustrating to readers used to more traditional storytelling, & "The Trains" would perhaps not be the best story for someone giving Aickman a read for the first time. "The Trains" is another story that appeared in WE ARE FOR THE DARK, & like "Three Miles Up" tells the story of two friends on holiday together, in this case a walking tour in the north of England. Inclement weather & impending nightfall cause the friends to seek shelter for the night at a solitary house located by some busy rail lines, & while perhaps not the Bates Motel, the Roper House in Quiet Valley has its own share of weirdness as our protagonists discover. One thing about Aickman's stories, while they can be difficult they almost always lend themselves to re-readings, as often details missed earlier come to light. While Aickman is very much his own man, I can't help but think that his work owes something to both L.P. Hartley & Walter de la Mare (& note that both authors feature in this first Fontana volume).

"Seaton's Aunt" Walter de la Mare. My first encounter with "Seaton's Aunt" was in THE NIGHT SIDE, third of a series of three anthologies edited by August Derleth, featuring eerie illustrations by Lee Brown Coye. I have fond memories of the book because it seems as if de la Mare anthology appearances are far & few between, & "Seaton's Aunt" has remained a constant favorite over the years. As with Hartley, de la Mare's prose is finely polished, a joy to read. There is humor too in de la Mare, but a more subtle sort. As with Aickman, de la Mare rewards the attentive reader & is very re-readable. Here, as Seaton & his bride-to-be take a stroll in the moonlit garden, his aunt plays the piano for Seaton's friend Withers:

She sat down at the piano & ran her fingers in a flourish over the keys. "What shall it be? How shall we capture them, those passionate hearts? That first fine careless rapture? Poetry itself." She gazed softly into the garden a moment, & presently, with a shake of her body, began to play the opening bars of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata. The piano was old & woolly. She played without music. The lamplight was rather dim. The moonbeams from the window lay across the keys. Her head was in shadow. And whether it was simply due to her personality or to some really occult skill in her playing I cannot say; I only know that she gravely & deliberately set herself to satirize the beautiful music. It brooded on the air, disillusioned, charged with mockery & bitterness. I stood at the window; far down the path I could see the white figure glimmering in that pool of colourless light. A few faint stars shone, & still that amazing woman behind me dragged out of the unwilling keys her wonderful grotesquerie of youth, & love, & beauty. It came to an end. I knew the player was watching me. "Please, please, go on!" I murmured, without turning. "Please go on playing, Miss Seaton."

Indeed, poetry itself.


The Second Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories

"Playing with Fire" Conan Doyle is the story of a seance gone wrong, & I wondered to myself how much of it was taken directly from Doyle's mystical beliefs. A (unintended?) comic bit happens when, upon things going dreadfully wrong, all the men bolt from the seance room, leaving the medium (a woman), who had passed out, in the room with *that* which they had summoned. Upon realizing she's still in the room, they do go back & retrieve her...

"Man-Size in Marble" Edith Nesbit shows the dreadful consequences of a young married couple's choosing the wrong cottage to live in. What is interesting is that the couple have no hidden evil deeds in their past that are being punished; no morality agenda here, they quite simply were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nesbit aligns herself here with Le Fanu rather than Mrs Gaskell. The story's atmospherics are nice, with the moonlit church & woods. I found myself thinking of some of the scenes in Steve Duffy's work, & would have to think Duffy's "The Ossuary" owes something to "Man-Size in Marble". Available online:   Man-Size in Marble

"How Love came to Professor Guildea" Robert Hichens. After reading certain comments on "How Love came to Professor Guildea" I was dubious approaching it. Partway in, I thought to myself "this is quite a different animal indeed", & after finishing it I stared at the wall for about five minutes... It is not really a scary story, though the antics of the parrot are disturbing (more so than the ghost I felt). I really like Hichens writing style & would put him in company with Hartley, W.C. Morrow & de la Mare. I found the story an interesting counterpoint to Le Fanu's "Green Tea": where Le Fanu has the kindly man of the cloth Jennings hounded to his demise by a ghostly infernal monkey, Hichens has the misanthropic, brillant Professor Guildea pursued by the love-sick ghost of an idiot. Where only Jennings can see the monkey, Guildea's ghost is manifested by way of the parrot, Napoleon, to Father Murchison & Pitting, Guildea's butler, as well as Guildea.

While there might be a temptation to say this tale of a cold, aloof man who distains the love of others being haunted by a love-sick ghost is imparting a moral lesson, I'm inclined to see the situation as one of horrid irony. Guildea is not a evil man really, he just happens to focus a little too much attention to a dark shape on a distant park bench which brings the intruder into his home (it's Le Fanu & Nesbit all over again, otherwise innocuous actions bringing about horror & doom). I can see why Aickman likes this story, it features his favorite combo, Love & Death, & it has a strange off-kilter feel to it.

"Our Distant Cousins" Lord Dunsany. I've always liked Dunsany's fantasies, & have all of his earlier collections from the BOOK OF WONDER era. This story was the first Jorken's tale I've read, & I have to say I prefer the fantasies. What I found the most jarring was the science fictional elements, as I had a hard time accepting that someone could fly an aeroplane to Mars (this also shows how fantasy & supernatural works tend to hold up better over the years than some science fiction). But there was one scene from the story that's still "haunting" me weeks after the reading. The protagonist, having landed on Mars (in his plane!) comes across a compound inhabited by humans. These humans are described as seeming far advanced in development over their cousins on earth. The compound is fenced in, seemingly to protect the dwellers within from hostile creatures. Suddenly to the hero's horror a unsavory monster advances on the compound & seizes two of the humans, a beautiful girl & a handsome youth (who really make no attempt to get away), wrings their necks, & tucking one under each arm, leaves. The hero (& reader) then realize that the enclosure the humans are in is no more than a chicken run, & the humans are the oven-stuffer roasters. Repeating it, it seems rather "Twilight Zone"ish, but Dunsany handled it well. Eerie.

"Nightmare Jack" John Metcalfe. This story of cutthroat thieves & the tainted jewels of a rather nasty religion was quite potent. The story imparted a sense of slowly mounting horror & impending doom, & I found the whole business of the "Pointing Hand" to be quite creepy.

"The Damned Thing" Ambrose Bierce. Bierce never fails to amaze & amuse, the more I read him the more I think he was "a damned genius". I had read "The Damned Thing" years ago & remembered the basic plot, but had forgotten some of the gems in the inquest scenes. Here Mr. Harker addresses the coroner:

"I was visiting him at this place to hunt & fish. A part of my purpose, however, was to study him & his odd, solitary way of life. He seemed a good model for a character in fiction. I sometimes write stories."
"I sometimes read them."
"Thank you."
"Stories in general — not yours."

And later, after Harker relates the details of the "Damned Thing's" attack on Morgan, the coroner asks the inquest jury if there are any questions before they deliberate:

The foreman rose — a tall, bearded man of sixty, coarsely clad.
"I should like to ask one question, Mr. Coroner," he said. "What asylum did this yer last witness last escape from?"
"Mr. Harker," said the coroner gravely & tranquilly, "from what asylum did you last escape?"

Damned funny. The story is available online here:   The Damned Thing

"Afterward" Edith Wharton. This one was frustrating. I really liked Wharton's prose style, & the story could have been excellent if not for a mechanical breakdown (for me anyway). I refer to the whole idea that Mary could have *completely forgotten* directing the stranger to her husband, especially after the amount of attention she paid him — noting his businesslike air, his slight build, & his American accent. The whole time she was interrogating the maids I wanted to yell: "Hey Laadyyy! HELLO! HELLO!" Yeah, I know, she was supposed to be "absorbed in her meeting with the boiler-maker", but I just couldn't buy it. If Mary had perhaps just seen Elwell approaching the house & Trimmle had let him in (& supplied the details regarding his person) it would have been easier to accept Mary's forgetting him. But I suppose that would have weakened the whole "afterward" effect. I'm impressed enough with Wharton to have high hopes for her other stories, & just hope they don't "suffer a puncture" partway through like "Afterward" did... I'd still recommend it as a worthy read, in case I'm just being too picky.


The Third Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories

"Negotium Perambulans" E.F. Benson. I found this very Jamesian — I'd go so far as to say it's the most Jamesian Benson story I've read yet. The most un-Jamesian aspect of the story was the "the Thing" itself. This nasty caterpillar/slug amalgamation was unlike (& nastier than) anything I recall in MRJ. Not to say that Monty didn't have some fine beasties in some of his stories — I think of the Count's companion in "Count Magnus", the toad-like entity in "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas", & the clothy horrors of "O Whistle" & "Uncommon Prayer-Book". Another thing that I noted in Benson's tale (I'm no Freud mind you) was this description of the "Thing":

"It seemed to have no head, but on the front of it was an orifice of puckered skin which opened & shut & slavered at the edges. It was hairless & slug-like in shape & in texture. As it advanced its fore-part reared itself from the ground, like a snake about to strike, & it fastened on him..."

Oh dear... Moving along quickly to another story...

"The Beckoning Fair One" Oliver Onions. The big one. Pretty well covered elsewhere, so I'll keep my comments brief. The dynamics of this story are impressive, going from whisper-quiet to the shattering climax. Onions (at least in this piece) explored the regions that J.G. Ballard was to later dub "Inner Space". In fact I couldn't help but be reminded of Ballard's obsessive anti-heros in Oleron:

"He moved from room to room softly & in slippers, & sometimes stood for many seconds closing a door so gently that not a sound broke the stillness that was in itself a delight."

The shift in focus in the final chapter away from Oleron & to the stark "stream of events" (rather TV camera-like) viewpoint was a masterstroke, making the horror all the more telling for the deadpan manner of it's presentation. The ghost also exhibits a wide dynamic range, from it's gentle teasing (flirting?) with Oleron to it's brutal dispatch of Elsie (an act of appalling violence that, if anything, gains punch from being handled offstage). Indeed a classic, it's online here:   The Beckoning Fair One

"The Seventh Man" Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. This tale of six men in a hut in the Arctic circle, & something outside the hut, I found to be (literally) hair-raising at times:

"All stared; & saw the latch move up, up . . . & falteringly descend on the staple. They heard the click of it."

The interaction between the men was natural & convincing, the handling of the spectral skillful. Oddly enough, after I was done reading it I thought of the movie The Thing.

"No Ships Pass" Lady Eleanor Smith. A strange island drifts about the oceans, collecting certain survivors of shipwrecks. Once on the island, no one dies. Even if you get hurt, you always recover. Doesn't seem like such a bad deal — unless you don't get along with all of your co-inhabitants. Did I mention that you can't ever leave either... One of those "living in a nightmare" stories. Captain Thunder was quite a character:

"For the Captain, his conical, shaven head, his long, pale face, his deprecating giggle, his cold, greenish eyes & high, affected voice, seemed as he minced there in the sunshine, most terribly like an animated corpse coquetting, grotesquely enough, in all the parrot-sheen of silken taffetas & frothing lace."

This story really stuck with me. Nightmare-like indeed.


The Fourth Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories

"The Accident" Ann Bridge. The most striking elements of this tale of ghostly pursuit were the incredible scenery of the story itself (the Swiss Alps) & the sense of forboding doom throughout. Nice.

"When I was Dead" Vincent O'Sullivan. Short & potent — really potent. One of those stories that keeps coming back & bugging you. The rage emanating from the narrator is palpable... If all his stuff is like this I dread to think of reading the O'Sullivan MASTER OF FALLEN YEARS collection straight through.

"The Snow" Hugh Walpole. Good story. The snow element is what really lifts it to a higher level to my mind (tying the apparition to the snowfall, & letting the increasing intensity of the snow telegraph a sense of what was going to happen next ghost-wise). I wish someone would do a "Collected Weirds" of Walpole.

"Mad Monkton" Wilkie Collins. Largely constructed of Gothic "standard" elements, & hence somewhat predictable, the sheer force & verve of the writing propels this story along at top speed regardless. Collins has that Matheson-King "I can't stop reading!" feel. Here's a sample:

"The other night a lady asked him, jestingly of course, whether he had ever seen his uncle's ghost. He scowled at her like a perfect fiend, & said that he & his uncle would answer her question together some day, if they came from hell to do it. We laughed at his words, but the lady fainted at his looks, & we had a scene of hysterics & hartshorn in consequence."

Here's a selection that seems to explode from the page:

"It was a dark, low, sinister-looking place. Not a sign of life or movement was visible anywhere about it. Green stains streaked the once white facade of the chapel in all directions. Moss clustered thick in every crevice of the heavy scowling wall that surrounded the convent. Long lank weeds grew out of the fissures of roof & parapet, & drooping far downward, waved wearily in & out of the barred dormitory windows. The very cross opposite the entrance-gate, with a shocking life sized figure in wood nailed to it, was so beset at the base with crawling creatures, & looked so slimy, green, & rotten all the way up, that I absolutely shrank from it."

I like this guy! If I didn't already have his Dover collection, I'd be looking for it... I can only hope his other stories are as much fun. His description of the corpse of Stephen Monkton, on it's being discovered, was pretty gruesome for the time, I thought. That, or I've been selling the Victorians short.

Another solid Fontana all told.


The Fifth Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories

The Fifth Fontana was one of the best yet. Highlights included:

"The Library Window" Mrs. Oliphant. I have to admit I expected a certain quaint Victorian feel to Mrs. O, after having read Mrs. Gaskell's "The Old Nurse's Story" in the first Fontana. The Gaskell tale was good, but was (for me anyway) a period piece. "The Library Window" had an entirely different feel to it, a modern feel to me. Oliphant's writing is smooth & supple with a good bit of power:

But her hand coming out of this heavy lace was a curious thing to see. She had very long fingers, very taper, which had been much admired in her youth; & her hand was very white, or rather more than white, pale, bleached, & bloodless, with large blue veins standing up upon the back; & she wore some fine rings, among others a big diamond in an ugly old claw setting. They were too big for her, & were wound round & round with yellow silk to make them keep on: & this little cushion of silk, turned brown with long wearing, had twisted round so that it was more conspicuous than the jewels; while the big diamond blazed underneath in the hollow of her hand, like some dangerous thing hiding & sending out darts of light. The hand, which seemed to come almost to a point, with this strange ornament underneath, clutched at my half-terrified imagination. It too seemed to mean far more than was said. I felt as if it might clutch me with sharp claws, & the lurking, dazzling creature bite — with a sting that would go to the heart.

At the center of the story is the library window:

"The question is," said my aunt, "if it is a real window with glass in it, or if it is merely painted, or if it once was a window, & has been built up. And the oftener people look at it, the less they are able to say."

I can't help but think this story was quite influential on Aickman's own writing:

Then there was another thing that startled me. On that side of the wall which was to the street there seemed no windows at all. A long line of bookcases filled it from end to end. I could not see what that meant either, but it confused me. I was altogether confused. I felt as if I was in a strange country, not knowing where I was going, not knowing what I might find out next. If there were no windows on the wall to the street, where was my window? My heart, which had been jumping up & calming down again all this time, gave a great leap at this, as if it would have come out of me — but I did not know what it could mean.

The ending, which leaves as many (if not more) questions unanswered as answered, is certainly Aickmanesque. Altogether a great story, & urgently recommended. You can find it online here: The Library Window.

I'm not aware of any in-print book containing it. The easiest OP book containing the story would be Dorothy Tomlinson's WALK IN DREAD. I hate to once again sound the tired refrain "Collected Weirds please!" but if the rest of Mrs. Oliphant's work is of this caliber, it would be an essential collection.

"The Dancing Partner" Jerome K. Jerome. I love this story. A superb story. What I find facinating about it is that it contains not a whiff of the supernatural, but the mood is as spectral as could be hoped for. The story can be found online here: The Dancing Partner.

Jerome is another one who could use a "Collected Weirds," as I think the Equation Chiller collection STORIES IN THE DARK is a "best of" selection (one that also includes stories by Barry Pain & Robert Barr).

"Jerry Bundler" W. W. Jacobs. Proving he's not a "One Hit Wonder" after "The Monkey's Paw" Jacobs sustains an eerie mood in this tale of a practical joke gone wrong:

They all distinctly heard a step in the passage outside. It stopped at the door, & as they watched with bated breath, the door creaked & slowly opened. Malcolm fell back, open-mouthed, as a white, leering face, with sunken eyeballs & close-cropped bullet head, appeared at the opening.

Happily, a "Collected Weirds" of Jacobs is available as THE MONKEY'S PAW & OTHER TALES OF MYSTERY & THE MACABRE.

"The Great Return" Arthur Machen. Machen is another one, like Blackwood, that pegs the awe-o-meter. His writing style is absolutely lush:

A land that seemed to be in a holy, happy dream, a sea that changed all the while from olivine to emerald, from emerald to sapphire, from sapphire to amethyst, that washed in white foam at the bases of the firm, grey rocks, & about the huge crimson bastions that hid the western bays & inlets of the waters; to this land I came, & to hollows that were purple & odorous with wild thyme, wonderful with many tiny, exquisite flowers.

This story of the Grail's arrival in western Wales is a Magical Mystical Tour-de-force that left this first-time reader gaping in slack-jawed wonder. I didn't read anything for a couple of days afterward & see a re-read coming to help me get a better grip on it & Machen... Luckily for all of us, Tartarus Press has been doing a sterling job in reprinting Machen's works.


The Sixth Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories

'The Grey Ones' J.B. Priestley. Good as Priestley is, I found this particular story disappointing; it is far too predictable. I rather wish Aickman had chosen another story from Priestley's collection THE OTHER PLACE (Heinemann; London, 1953, & a Corgi paperback from 1963). There are several outstanding ones: 'Uncle Phil On TV,' 'Night Sequence,' 'The Other Place,' 'The Statues,' 'Look After The Strange Girl,' et al.

'Sorworth Place' Russell Kirk. Loved it. It veered dangerously close to sentimentality, but the ending redeemed it, & Kirk's mastery of the ghost story is well-represented by this tale. It's a shame he's a Conservative.

The Scottish dialect of MacLeod the innkeeper at the beginning nearly killed me though, & I've read 'Thrawn Janet.' Latin became a dead language through centuries of gradual disuse — Scots dialect decays right in front of your eyes, & will eventually be reduced to maybe two vowels & a sprinkling of apostrophes ween a' els' is nae mair. Until then, will someone PLEASE tell me what 'carlines fu' o' girnings' is supposed to mean?

'Where Their Fire Is Not Quenched' May Sinclair. May Sinclair does a far better job of portraying the foibles of human morality than George Moore of 'Priscilla & Emily Lofft,' & she knows how to weave the subtext of it into a ghost story properly. A justified classic, as are nearly all her stories. That hotel must be getting pretty full by now.

'Oke Of Okehurst' Vernon Lee. Well, of course, it doesn't get much better than Vernon Lee, & if I have to digest a novelette from this collection, I'm glad it's one of hers. A superior, nasty Gothic piece; Mr & Mrs Oke would have been well-played by Richard Burton & Elizabeth Taylor in their heyday. More proof that a ghost, if correctly handled, doesn't even have to be there.

'The Door In The Wall' H. G. Wells. A child goes through a door into a fantasy-like "happy place", but has to leave. As the child grows to adulthood, the door is sometimes glimpsed again, but never entered due to one constraint or another. Finally the now disillusioned adult finds & enters the door. I was reminded of the old cartoon line "Watch that first step — it's a doosy!". I enjoyed this story, but it's not at all scary...

'The Lips' Henry S. Whitehead. One of the more horrific stories to be featured in the Aickman Fontana's, I would not have expected something this nasty from the Archdeacon... I found the writing to be a bit clumsy, but as it follows just after Lee, that's a tough act to follow...

"Oke of Okehurst" is obviously the cornerstone of Fontana 6 — it, & the Kirk & Sinclair stories are the book's high-points.


The Seventh Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories

Comes now your affiant rbadac & for the purposes of this court would show the considerable merits of the SEVENTH FONTANA BOOK OF GREAT GHOST STORIES (hereinafter referred to as the 'Seventh Fontana'):

My lamentable lack of the # 7 volume in this series turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as working from the contents list Bill A. was kind enough to provide made me more aware of alternate sources — not to mention it's given me opportunities to show off my book collection. In your face, Barnes & Noble !

Lotta good stuff here. If I can't criticize, I'll just gush.

'Over An Absinthe Bottle' W.C. Morrow. is pretty bizarre. Readers here are likely familiar with 'His Unconquerable Enemy,' the tale of Neranya's vicious revenge upon the rajah who whittled him away to almost nothing, & 'The Monster Maker,' in which a surgeon makes a surprising allowance for a part normally considered essential. These & the other stories that make up THE APE, THE IDIOT, & OTHER PEOPLE (Lippincott; Philadelphia, 1897) specialize in cutting ironies, characters far beyond the pale, & concepts of incredible invention, the more so for being in a collection from 1897.

The two men brought together for a game of dice over an absinthe bottle are aptly polarized: a young gentleman at the bitter end of his luck, & an older rogue in the full wealth of his device. That their destinies should be intertwined is only natural in Morrow's universe, the upshot of it a telling statement of their equality. Look fast for the ghost, although this is not a ghost story per se; at least, the notions normally borne by the ghost in such stories are, in this one, already present.

'Governor Manco & The Soldier' Washington Irving. I suspect Aickman included this partly to avoid other, over-anthologized stories like 'The Adventure Of The German Student' & 'The Spectre Bridegroom.' I see this one as not terrifically significant in the canon, other than a good example of Washington Irving's fine writing — nothing profound here, just a pleasant tale of colorful deception. One of the ALHAMBRA pieces.

'Esmeralda' John Keir Cross. Subtitled 'A Nightmare,' & it is, from beginning to end. When Mr. Broome finally attempts to take charge of events with one momentous act of will he sees as 'supreme & dramatic,' he deludes himself as he has done all his life. The rotted silk of his illusions is horrifyingly rent, & shown to be as insubstantial as the cheap glass beads he was once told were emeralds. A macabre & magnificent work, pervaded with the very smells of evil (!). The Westhouse 1944 edition of John Keir Cross' THE OTHER PASSENGER curiously misprints the title as 'Emeralda'...

'Old Mrs. Jones' Mrs. Riddell. An absolute delight. Mrs. Riddell gives us chills, thrills, & even hilarity all in one story, without any faculty being compromised by another, no mean feat. Her characterizations are first-rate, her place & time descriptions fascinating & flawless. Highly recommended. Read it also in THE COLLECTED GHOST STORIES OF MRS. J.H.RIDDELL (Dover; NY 1977) for other examples of her notable forays in the short form, as well as a superb introductory essay by Bleiler, illustrations of the covers of three of her novels, & a sample of her fantastically crabby handwriting, every bit as bad as W.W. Jacobs'.

'The Dead Valley' Ralph Adams Cram. Another fin de siecle classic. Ralph Adams Cram took time out from his architectural work to pen BLACK SPIRITS & WHITE (Stone & Kimball; Chicago 1895, & again by Books For Libraries in 1971, one of the Ayer/Arno family of reprints); it's a collection of well-wrought ghost & horror stories, & this one belongs in the company of such great 'malignant place' narratives as Metcalfe's 'The Bad Lands,' Leiber's 'The Hill & The Hole,' that damned backyard of Brennan's 'Canavan,' & Aickman's own haunted Finnish isle in 'The Houses Of The Russians,' as well as a host of other like locations that would comprise one hell of a travel guide for bosses, ex-lovers, & mothers-in-law.

'Levitation' Joseph Payne Brennan. My man Brennan. Why do I love him so? Lord knows he ain't much to look at. His style is quite plain, but it's just that matter-of-fact quality that lures you into the quicksand of his horrors, & just stands there while you're screaming to be pulled out.

'Levitation' is no-frills, set-'em-up-and-knock-'em-down, & I've read it a dozen times, yet I STILL laugh out loud at the ending every time. And I'll have no truck with stage hypnotists, thank you.

Bibliophile's note: Not actually having the Seventh Fontana, or the Arkham House hardcover of Brennan's book, I've been driven once again to that Ballentine paperback of NINE HORRORS & A DREAM whose spine I cracked last time I looked at it. The cover came off in my hand this time. Well, I got to looking at the funky dried-up yellow glue on the spine, & I picked up my cigarette lighter...

Better not tell this to archivists, lest they recoil in dismay, but that glue melts into very malleable boogers which, when reapplied to the needed locations & re-melted, dry almost immediately to form a very acceptable bond. My vintage paperback is now good for another 40 years. :)

'Where The Woodbine Twineth' Davis Grubb. We're back in Cresap's Landing with Nell & Eva...& Mister Peppercorn, Mingo, Sam, & Popo...& Numa. She's all that's left, now that Nell made the others go away. Eva tried to explain things, but Nell just wouldn't listen.

Grandpa brought her from New Orleans, a rather singular place to buy dolls. Mr. Peppercorn told Eva she was coming. Nell of course didn't like the idea.

They play this game, you see, Eva & Numa.

A nasty one from Davis Grubb, author of NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. Heh. That's like saying, 'from Stephen King, author of THE STAND.' Can I hit you with the bat again? Davis Grubb. He wrote NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. Hold still, you're swaying back & forth. (TWELVE TALES OF SUSPENSE & THE SUPERNATURAL, Chas. Scribners' Sons; NY 1964)

'Gone Away' A. E. Coppard.

The Bridge of the Humpbacked Donkey
A thousand miles to here
What's that ascending, breaking
Above yon city near?
But that place is no longer
And here's another where —
John, Mary, Anson, gone away
A thousand miles to there.

Sorry. A Walter de la Mare attack. I've tried medication but, frankly, the attacks are more fun.

Here's another good writer; it's a fair Coppard, too, & it made me want to read a few more, so I did: 'The Homeless One,' 'Clorinda Walks In Heaven,' 'The Elixir Of Youth,' & 'The Gruesome Fit.' He's awfully fond of time-displacement, folklore, & Biblical motifs — his intro in Arkham House's FEARFUL PLEASURES (1946) is an interesting contrast in its rabidly skeptical view of the supernatural when compared to H.R. Wakefield's pro-belief intros to his own two AH volumes.

'The Cicerones' Robert Aickman. Get me outta here. Saint Bavon's Cathedral is no place for casual tourists. Aickman almost seems to be doing Ramsey Campbell by way of M.R. James here; his tour of the Cathedral begins with a guide book & ends with singing.

'At the center of the reliquary was a transparent vertical tube or cylinder. It was only about an inch high, & probably made of crystal. Just visible inside it was a short black thread, almost like the mercury in a minute thermometer; & at the bottom of the tube was, Trent noticed, a marked discolouration.'

A human hair? Saints preserve us — & we preserve the saints.

A cicerone is defined as: 'a guide who shows & explains the antiquities or curiosities of a place to strangers.' Saints & works of art abound in this story; some of them are real. There was, for instance, a St. Livinus, an Irishman who migrated to Flanders, & was martyred near Alost in Brasant. But the martyrdom with which this story deals is of a more personal nature.

In TRAVELLERS BY NIGHT (Arkham House, 1967), copies of which the library system here discards for fifty cents each like stale popcorn.

'Dearth's Farm' Gerald Bullett. A horse is a horse, of course, of course... that is of course unless the horse is a leering, soul-robbing spawn of Satan ! When I was younger, I used to think this story was a bit silly; horses don't strike me as frightening in the usual run of things, & I've always wondered how they ended up as the basis for the term 'nightmare.' Personally, I would have nominated the owl as totem-of-choice for the night fears, but then we would be lumbered with people waking up in cold sweats after a spate of nightowls, & have to think up another term for folks who just like to stay up late.

We live in an age that sees few horses outside the farm environment, after all; they used to be as common as the automobile. Be that as it may, upon re-reading the story, I find that it has certain strengths I didn't recall from earlier readings: it is well-written, of course (Gerald Bullett was no slouch), & the thing that stands out for me the most this time round was the fact that Bailey, the narrator of these equine events, is actually a pretty despicable character himself, never mind the villain of the piece.

Bailey is a comfort-seeking ponce who flunks out of college for being an airhead; he hits Gerald up for a loan in the first five minutes of meeting him after several years, he's essentially mooching off the Dearths in the first place by being there at all, he cavils at his cousin 'bullying' him into learning how to read (!), & he is repelled by her marriage from the outset solely because James Dearth looks, well, horse-faced ! His litany throughout is that he is not a courageous man — he certainly isn't; in fact, he's a jerk through & through, & if he hadn't had the misfortune to have years taken off his life by a terrifying experience with a horse, he still would have deserved to have been at least kicked in the teeth by one.

THE STREET OF THE EYE (John Lane; London 1923) also has a Books For Libraries incarnation, & the story is also in 65 GREAT SPINE CHILLERS (Octopus; London 1982), one of the useful Mary Danby collections, for those of you who would like to make the acquaintance of this tale of a horse's nightmarish influence — upon a horse's ass.

'The Visit To The Museum' Vladimir Nabokov Ahhhh, the hands of a master. One plunges into Nabokov without a ripple. Where else could we get a description of a one-armed custodian's deferential approach like this:

'...now, however, he came up, with one hand behind his back & the ghost of the other in his pocket...'

The narrator, by the way, another splendidly-realized jerk, hates museums, especially mediocre ones. Beyond 'grey tints, the sleep of substance, matter dematerialized,' he sees where, in the second hall, 'a large sarcophagus stood like a dirty bathtub...'

And this story's ending was certainly unexpected. There was a footnote of Nabokov's concerning the significance of the absence of the 'hard sign' mentioned in 'Museum' in THE STORIES OF VLADIMIR NABOKOV (Knopf; NY 1995) where I picked up this last denizen of the Seventh Fontana, but I can't pass it on to you because it's a spoiler...

Or, to paraphrase Rob Suggs' murmuring Robert Aickman plush doll, 'it is the mystery which remains, not the explanation.'

rbadac


The Eighth Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories

'The Haunted Haven' A.E. Ellis. Ticklas Haven has two coves, but the fishermen only use its northern one (though the southern is more naturally suitable), & when the wind gales from the southwest they would not willingly be near the harbor at all. Three brothers murdered their miserly uncle & cast him into the sea during such a gale, & each met his own death not long after. The hopelessly damaged boat they used was hauled up onto the shingle to rot.

So why was it that an old man lost his life one night running in terror from what he saw in the south cove, why too, three months later, from being in the same place, that poor little girl should lose her reason & die in the asylum, unable to do aught but shriek of 'the four dead men,' 'the dead men in the boat !' ?

Know Your Outland Waterways. Pleasantly written, an adjectival phase I enjoy using for horrible stories, though nothing particularly new. This tale is squarely in the tradition of seafaring spectres, & we all know what a good dressing seaweed is on a decomposing corpse. Yum.

'The Red Lodge' H.R. Wakefield. Oh dear, I did this one already on Horrornet. Here's a little story that needs no introduction folks, & if you haven't read it, it's still bad news. Based on a real house that Wakefield visited & whose evil he attested to personally; see his intro, 'Farewell To All Those !' in Arkham House's STRAYERS FROM SHEOL (1961). Did Ash-Tree happen to reprint this essay in one of their Wakefield collections?

'Midnight Express' Alfred Noyes. Okay, I didn't care for this one, & I think I know why. It's not that it is badly written (there are some nice passages in it); I think I've simply read too many ghost stories. Aickman describes Noyes as 'poet, romantic, & prophet' in the Intro, & doubtless the main body of his work, which I haven't read, is deserving of greater praise, but this particular tale I found to be too contrived in its premise to enjoy, almost as if it were the single foray into the genre made by a writer who didn't usually write ghost stories — but that's not true ! Noyes shows two such collections in Bleiler: WALKING SHADOWS (Cassell; London, 1918), & THE HIDDEN PLAYER (Hodder & Stoughton; London, 1924). Imagine my toadying self-satisfaction to finds that Bleiler didn't like him either. I know damn well *he's* read too many ghost stories.

'Meeting Mr. Millar' by you-know-who [Robert Aickman]. Aickman's general rule in the Fontana series was not to showcase any author more than once. He himself of course is the only exception, & back in the intro to # 5 he observes that someone wrote to the publishers after # 3:' How dare Mr. Aickman have the effrontry to include himself among the writers of great ghost stories?' or words to that effect. He therefore omitted himself from # 4, & Fontana received all these disappointed letters from readers who wanted him back ! So he threw his James Brown cape back off for # 5 & stayed dealt in for nos. 7 & 8. I find that pretty amusing, & I say more power to him. Only an idiot would protest his inclusion. These are not August Derleth anthologies.

ANYWAY, 'Mr. Millar' is rather unusual in its being told from the point of view of a young man who lives in the attic of some property apparently zoned commercial, who is not only an editor of pornographic novels, but is also having an affair with the married woman in the basement ! There's a new theme for David Hartwell: 'The Architecture of Adultery.' Into this picture of confused bliss comes the accounting firm of Stallabrass, Hoskins, & Cramp, & their CEO, Mr. Millar, & ... well, you know Aickman doesn't synopsize for beans, so I won't waste my breath.

In Mr. Millar is created a most curious phenomenon: the 'anti-personality.' He seems almost to absorb human interest the way a black hole absorbs all light & matter. Aickman plays on this natural distancing by having his narrator (whose name careful reading reveals to be 'Roy' of all things) experience him almost totally by proxy — through floors, walls, rumors, removed accounts, & nocturnal visitors. As usual, it isn't so much scary as it is disquieting. I like disquieting. Reminds me of my own life.

'The Gorgon's Head' Gertrude Bacon. Gertrude sidesteps several potential problems for herself in the presentation of this one; her device of having us get the story third-hand from Captain Brander (who is a notorious liar) as he relates it to her on a sea voyage enables her not only to write most of it in fairly simple monologue & to leave out the usual verities, but also to conveniently dispense with a real ending ! The Captain is called away just in time, before the necessity of follow-up explanations.

That's no tragedy, however, as he manages to cover the important details. Another plus, as it turns out, is that we're dealing with just the head & not the whole Gorgon, which is historically correct at least. A nice touch also is that people turned to stone are not merely petrified in place like awkward statues, but are actually turned into shapeless rocks, instant menhirs as it were.

I have to wonder though why this story is in an averred 'great ghost stories' collection. Is Aickman suffering from author famine after eight books of them only being used once each? If he's played all his classic author trumps, couldn't he be moving at this point into Alex Hamilton territory (in which his own stories would not be out of place) & give us the kind of 'modern' (for then) tale of ghostly unease that Hamilton quarried so successfully in his 1968 anthology SPLINTERS? Where's Richard Nettell, Joan Aiken, Daphne Du Maurier, William Trevor? Someone else would have done better, I think, in place of this inoffensive but rather lightweight contender.

'The Tree' Joyce Marsh. In Kiplingesque fashion Mother India again intrudes upon the English sensibility with the dire effects of a half-understood wish that engenders a folkloric miracle/curse. Reita Oxley is the Indian-born wife of a sickly Englishman, who wishes the vitality of an old oak tree to pass into her husband, & his infirmity to be transferred to the tree.

It is regrettable for the characters of weird fiction (& delightful for its readers, as we well know) that so many of them are all too willing to enter into such monkey's paw bargains (Monkey's Paw Bargains, incidentally, is a shop which I intend to open soon, selling things like: books printed in such small type that they make one go blind, 'stop smoking' gum that causes cancer, soap which cleanses away protective bacteria, warm blankets for the bed that prove to be highly flammable, &, of course, Viagra, a monkey's paw bargain if ever there was one...)

Marsh sets a dreamy, introspective tone in the narrative, then lays on the horror in grand style. We view with Reita the situation as it moves by turns from optimistic to foreboding to surreal, & finally to devastating. Sympathy is left at the gate; the undeserving participants are buried beneath the onrush of awful events. Belief in the ancient gods & customs bears a dreadful sticker price.

   

copyright 2000, 2003 by William Allison & rbadac, all rights reserved

NOTE from William Allison: The text of these reviews originally appeared as postings to the alt.books.ghost-fiction newsgroup. Due to this, there is a certain amount of inconsistancy between the sections for each volume, as it wasn't invisioned at the time that they would some day be gathered together in one place. The authorship is as follows: Volumes 1 to 5, & a couple of stories from 6 - me; the bulk of volume 6 & all of volumes 7 & 8 - rbadac. I should add here that not every story in each volume is reviewed, just a selection. With my own pieces I've taken the liberty of removing most of the comments setting the newsgroup context, & have added new material to improve the coverage of the first volume; with rbadac's material I've been far less liberal — I have removed a couple of sentences of newsgroup banter that didn't relate to the review itself, & I have, in the review of volume 7, inserted some additional information on authors (indicated by [brackets]). I can only hope that rbadac would have approved of my minor edits, & I am honored to appear in the byline with him. As rbadac proposed the shared review of Fontana 6 via email to me, I feel sure he'd approve of the shared byline & complete presentation of the Aickman Fontana's for The Weird Review.

NOTE from J.A.S.: The early Fontanas edited by Aickman are of particular interest to Aickman admirers for providing a veritable chronicle of his favorite vintage tales which we may presume had some impact on his own spellbinding ghost stories. There is almost invariably something by or edited by Robert Aickman, or collections by authors he anthologized, in the
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