|Image from http://sarobpress.blogspot.co.uk/|
Sarob Press, 2016
Source: Review copy, kindly provided via The Ghosts and Scholars MR James Newsletter
This review first appeared in the Ghosts and Scholars MR James Newsletter, No 30 Autumn 2016.
In this collection of eight stories (six have been published before, while two are new) Ward shows great skill at evoking the hard to pin down spirit of the best MRJ stories. Yes, I know we have James's own rules - if that's the right word - but it's not just a matter of following rules, is it? Or anyone and everyone could write this sort of story. Actually I think it's quite a rare skill.
Ward adds his own themes and flavours, of course. He has a tendency to lose his protagonist down baffling English country roads, for example (in his Afterword he makes clear his preference for the 20th century setting for strong personal reasons, but I think a further consideration might be that a decent satnav would remove this possibility). He also explores some less familiar locations - the decaying seaside town has clear potential for hauntings.
In At Dusk, Simon, a writer of ghost stories, holidaying with his girlfriend in Cromer, insists on a diversion to view the grave of Daniel Rouse Bartram, master of the genre. Unfortunately the remote cemetery closes at dusk, and Simon is late. I was impressed at the way Ward engenders an eerie atmosphere from the start, and uses the winding English backroads to confuse and delay his protagonist. The end twist is rather clever and a bit meta (as my son would say).
Another journey along twisty country lanes disorients in The Mound as Mark Warren deviates from his planned route to see just what "The Mound" is that's signposted so tantalisingly... a modern twist on an age old theme that travellers should ignore those tempting sights just off the path.
Merfield Hall will be familiar to readers of this Newsletter, having been published here in issue 20 and so I won't say any more about it now. It's Ward's continuation of MRJ's story. The break-point is carefully marked, which is just as well, since I don't think I would be able to tell otherwise where one writer ends and the other begins. A satisfying completion, I think.
The Return - which is the subject of the creepy and indeed rather terrifying cover illustration by Paul Lowe - reverts to the theme of an innocent abroad on the A-roads, this time fusing it with a distinctly Jamesian antiquarian touch. Donohue is an academic, a student of the Civil War, visiting the site of a minor skirmish - or, as becomes clear, something more like a massacre. The violent deaths which are being reenacted by a troupe of the Sealed Knot have left their mark on the village, as he finds out, rather too late. This was almost my favourite story in the book. I especially enjoyed the touch of humour shown in Donohue's encounter with Alfred, the unwilling (but thirsty) informant from whom he learns what really went on all those years ago.
Squire Thorneycroft is the story of a young and ambitious solicitor, sent to deal with the affairs of the eponymous Squire. Of course, he finds a house that the locals are wary to visit after dark. Of course, the local man, who should be helping, is strangely elusive. And of course, there are dark family secrets, going back to a battle in the South African War. What would an honourable soldier do to protect his family name from a discreditable secret? And what might his life become after?
One Over the Twelve is the first story in the collection to use something like the traditional Jamesian framing - here two single men (a widower and a "lifelong bachelor") alone in a "small hotel in an undistinguished town in the Midlands of England". It's Christmas, so (of course) one tells a ghost story - a tale involving the last of a noble line, gone to the bad, and the trouble that's had when he's laid in the family vault. There are some delicious moments of terror, and for me there was a bit of a thrill in being able to relate it to a (non supernatural!) story from one of my wife's former churches. (This church has a door, bricked up from the outside, on which are displayed a number of brass plates inscribed with names. When I asked what they were I was told that the door used to lead to the private vault of the family who owned the village. The vault was pulled down in the 19th century when it began to damage the church, and the occupants reinterred in the churchyard - their coffin plates the only reminder...)
The House of Wonders was the story that edged The Return into second place for me. Again, two gentlemen past the prime of life are taking their ease, this time in a garden on a summer's evening, and the story emerges from Stevenson's reminiscences about a mutual acquaintance who has recently died. The setting he describes is a seedy Victorian amusement show complete with waxworks, grisly artifacts of murder and a collection of early slot machines of the "What the Butler Saw" type (but - some of them - with darker themes). I'm drawn to the tawdry, seedy atmosphere of rotting seaside towns, travelling shows and sawdust (for a full length novel dealing with similar themes try Adam Nevill's House of Small Shadows) and for me this treatment of the theme - supported by a dash of wartime darkness - is simply masterly. And there's a moment of chill at the end suggesting that all is not yet done.
The final story, The Gift, is another that picks up where MRJ left off - this time a sequel (in fact Ward has rather cleverly made it a sequel to two of the original stories). It was originally published in The Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows (so, again, you may already have read it). For me it felt a little close in theme to One Over the Twelve (there's some slightly similar business with a family vault) and perhaps coming after Wonders, that made it hard to love quite so much. It is, nevertheless, an effective and well plotted story.
Overall this is a good collection, playing some clever variations on the theme of the ghost story, and one I'd strongly recommend.