Archives for category: Ghost Story

In time for Hallowe’en, I’m recommending a gentle ghost story – `The Children of Green Knowe’ by Lucy Boston. Published in 1954, this was the first in a series of six children’s novels about an ancient house set in a magical riverside garden. The fictional Green Knowe was based on Boston’s own home, the Manor House at Hemingford Grey, Cambridgeshire, which is one of the oldest inhabited houses in England. An ebook edition of `The Children of Green Knowe’ is now available but I’d advise you to find an old hardback or paperback copy in order to get the full benefit of Peter Boston’s atmospheric illustrations. This is a book I loved as a child but interpret rather differently now that I have re-read it as an adult.

The story opens with an unhappy seven year-old boy travelling to stay with a great-grandmother whom he has never met. Tolly has been sent to an English boarding school because his mother is dead and his father has remarried and is living in Malaysia. Now Tolly has been invited to spend the Christmas holiday at the isolated home of Mrs Oldknow. After a disorienting journey through the flooded East Anglian countryside he arrives at the ancient house known as Green Noah or Green Knowe. Tolly is warmly welcomed by Mr Boggis the gardener and by Mrs Oldknow  but he soon notices that Green Knowe is a house full of strange shadows and noises. The rocking horse in his attic bedroom moves when no-one is touching it and Tolly starts to hear music and children’s voices.

When the floods recede Tolly is able to explore the gardens with their wonderful topiary figures in the form of animals. Mrs Oldknow tells him stories about three children who lived in the house during the 17th century, Toby, Alexander and Linnet Oldknow and about Toby’s horse, Feste who is said to haunt the stables. Tolly longs to see Feste and to meet these ghostly children whom he can hear whispering and laughing. Mrs Oldknow promises that he will find them soon but she also tells him a darker tale of the gypsy curse on Green Knowe. When the garden wakes into life, Tolly must beware of the evil fingers of the Demon Tree called Green Noah…

This is a shorter plot summary than usual because `The Children of Green Knowe’  is more about atmosphere than plot. Essentially, the house and garden are the main characters. The story simply follows Tolly as he gets to know the living and dead inhabitants of the house and the natural and supernatural creatures to be found in the gardens. Green Knowe is a mysterious place where there are no firm divisions between past and present, yet it seems far more solid and believable than most fictional houses. It is very obvious that Lucy Boston was writing about somewhere she knew and loved. Even the toys that Tolly finds in the nursery, such as the rocking horse and a carved ebony mouse, are based on objects played with by her real-life son, Peter. Lucy Boston, who died in 1990 at the age of 98, was a remarkable woman. She restored the semi-derelict Manor House, created a beautiful wildlife-friendly garden, sewed intricate American-style patchwork quilts, and published her first novel when she was 62. She’s definitely one of my role-models.

Lucy Boston was a newcomer to her ancient house, so perhaps it was a desire for a deeper connection that led her to invent the Oldknow family, who are supposed to have lived at Green Knowe for centuries. The theme of  finding a place where you truly belong runs through all her fiction. In `The Children of Green Knowe’  Tolly aches to be part of family again while in later books in the series Green Knowe becomes a sanctuary for outsiders such as a black ex-slave (`The Chimmneys of Green Knowe’), displaced children from Poland and Burma (`The River at Green Knowe’) and even an escaped gorilla (`A Stranger at Green Knowe’). The author seems to extend the same invitation to her readers, asking us to make ourselves at home at Green Knowe and gradually discover its secrets.

As a child I gladly accepted her invitation. I loved to imagine myself sitting by a flickering fire in the Knights Hall or playing hide and seek amongst the yew trees. I thought that Mrs Oldknow was an ideal granny when she let Tolly wander by himself or made him do half-crazy things like covering his hands in butter to attract small birds to come and feed. I envied Toby, Alexander and Linnet as they walked in their paradise garden with their tame deer, hare and squirrel. Now though Mrs Oldknow’s treatment of her great-grandson seems rather sinister to me. Instead of trying to find real friends for this lonely child, she encourages Tolly to see and interact with `the others’ – children who sometimes remember that they died horribly three hundred years in the past but seem unable to leave Green Knowe. Taken out of cosy context, there are many passages in this book which read as if they are from a far more chilling ghost story – `in the stillness he thought he heard little bare feet running across the floor, then laughter and whispering, and a sound like the pages of a big book being turned over.’ Tolly feels that the house `is full of shiny black eyes all looking at me’ and on another occasion `he could feel breathing beside his ear. He put his hands up and felt two very little ones and some curls, soft little cobwebs.’ Cobwebs – a very M.R. James moment (see my October 2013 post on his ghost stories).

This darker view is undoubtedly influenced by my own experience when visiting the house on which which Green Knowe is based with a group of children’s authors. I had greatly looked forward to being shown round by Lucy Boston’s daughter-in-law but by the time we got to the Knights Hall I could hardly bear to stay in the house. Normally, I do not find old buildings spooky. I have been in numerous Ancient Egyptian tombs without feeling a flutter of fear but on a beautiful summer afternoon at Hemingford Grey I was overwhelmed by horror and dread. Perhaps there is some truth in the story of the gypsy’s curse after all. Have a haunting Hallowe’en.

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

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Inspired by the brilliant `Ming’ exhibition at the British Museum, this week I’m choosing a Chinese Fantasy novel with an irresistible central character – a naughty monkey who wants to live forever. Monkey’s story was written down in the 16th century, probably by a poet called Wu Ch’eng-en. The original title of this novel is `The Journey to the West’ but I’m specifically recommending the abridged translation by Arthur Waley which is just called `Monkey’. You can get this in paperback or as an ebook. There have been numerous adaptations of `The Journey to the West’ including a jokey Japanese television series `Magic Monkey’, which was a surprise hit in the late 1970s. This kitsch classic, available dubbed on DVD, is still fun to watch. Set in Tang Dynasty China, `Monkey’ tells how a priest and his three monstrous disciples made an epic trip to India to fetch some Buddhist scriptures. You may think that sounds worthy and dull. Don’t worry, `Monkey’ is riotously entertaining.

`Monkey’ literally starts with a bang as a magical monkey bursts out of a stone egg on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. This stone monkey soon becomes king of the local monkeys. He seems to have everything a monkey could want but King Monkey knows that one day he will weaken and die and then be born again in some other form. He yearns to cheat Death and `live forever among the people of the sky’. Monkey seeks out a Taoist holy man who who teaches him how to ride clouds, transform himself into 72 different things and change every one of his 84,000 hairs into a warrior monkey. Next he forces the local Dragon King to give him a magical weapon, an iron club that can be as big or small as Monkey wishes. When the Judges of the Dead eventually come for Monkey, he’s ready for them. He makes so much fuss about dying that the Jade Emperor who rules the sky agrees to admit Monkey to heaven as a minor Immortal.

Monkey isn’t content with a lowly job in the Jade Emperor’s stables and continues to make trouble even after he’s awarded the grandiose title `Great Sage, Equal of Heaven’. When he eats the Peaches of Immortality, which he’s meant to be guarding, and steals the Elixir of Long Life, brewed by Lao Tzu the founder of Taoism, Monkey becomes almost indestructible. Whole armies fail to subdue him but he’s finally caught by the Buddha of the Western Paradise and imprisoned inside a mountain.

Five hundred years later, Buddha decides that the people of China are in desperate need of spiritual enlightment. He sends the compassionate Kuan-yin to China to find a priest brave enough to travel to the Western Paradise in Gandhara and fetch the scrolls which contain Buddha’s teaching. She chooses a virtuous priest with an unusual family history who takes the name Tripitaka. It’s clear to Kuan-yin that unworldly Tripitaka will never survive his dangerous journey without supernatural help, so she picks three extraordinary disciples for him. Pigsy, Sandy and Monkey are all monsters who have been thrown out of heaven for bad behaviour but now they have a second chance. Tripitaka is destined to suffer 81 tribulations on his journey, including dragons, ogres, demons and ghosts. Can Monkey get his new Master all the way to the Western Paradise and achieve true Enlightenment?

`The Journey to the West’ is a marvellous literary mish-mash -an intricate quest story spanning the human and divine worlds, told in both prose and poetry (Waley doesn’t translate much of the poetry). It is part satire and part religious allegory, and incorporates a wealth of myths, folk tales, ghost and horror stories. In modern terms you might call it Dark Comic Fantasy; if you enjoy Pratchett’s Discworld novels you will probably find Monkey’s adventures appealing. There is a lot that seems surprisingly modern about Wu’s narrative. He plays with the conventions of traditional story-telling ( another disaster has to be arranged for Tripitaka at the last minute when Buddha notices that the priest hasn’t had the correct number of adventures); he throws together characters from different eras, cultures and belief-systems (the Buddhist goddess Kuan-yin arrives for a dinner-party with the Queen Mother of the West from traditional Chinese religion and the Taoist Immortal, Lao Tzu and only intervenes in the struggle to overcome Monkey when she discovers that `no drinks are going’); he makes grand and powerful beings such as Dragon Kings and Emperors speak in everyday language (`You lying quack,’ bawled the Dragon King `Your divining is a fraud and all your talk is lunatic twaddle.’), he affectionately addresses his central character as `Dear Monkey’ during moments of high emotion and he provides a teaser at the end of each chapter to keep his readers turning the pages (`If you do not know how the Emperor came to life again, you must read what is told in the next chapter.’)

The tale of Tripitaka is based on an actual journey along the Silk Road made by a monk who lived in the 7th century CE but you don’t need to be any kind of expert on Ancient China in order to enjoy the novel. Many of the things that Wu pokes fun at, such as useless government officials in pointless jobs and greedy priests and pompous or fraudulent holy men, have equivalents in most cultures. Wu didn’t let himself be constrained by real geography when writing about Tripitaka’s journey. Instead, he created a series of Fantasy kingdoms inhabited by creatures from the darkest corners of the Chinese imagination. The dragons, ghosts, and demons encountered by Monkey and Tripitaka don’t necessarily behave in the way that their Western equivalents would. The underwater domains of various dragons are described in delightful detail (one Dragon King has shrimp soldiers, whitebait guards and crab generals) but the dragons themselves don’t fare too well – one gets beheaded for not making enough rain and another is humiliatingly transformed into a horse for Tripitaka to ride. The ghost stories inset into the main narrative are pleasingly unpredictable. Let’s just say that you can’t always rely on the dead staying dead. Tripitaka and his disciples get to fight a wide range of monsters and demons. The key to defeating these monsters often lies in discerning their true forms and discovering their stories. If you want to find out how a pet goldfish was able to terrorize an entire district you’ll have to read `Monkey’.

Waley’s sparkling translation is a joy to read but he did leave out many of Tripitaka’s adventures on the road to Gandhara, including some of the naughtier encounters with seductive demons. If you fancy tackling all one hundred chapters of  `The Journey to the West’ (after all it’s not much longer than `The Lord of the Rings’) try the four-volume translation by Anthony C. Yu. If, like me, you are an arachnophobe, you may want to omit the chapter about the cave of the spider demons. Waley’s short version will still give you a clear picture of the four leading characters – Tripitaka, Pigsy, Sandy and Monkey. The virtuous Tripitaka is a bit of drip, as Monkey is fond of pointing out. Tripitaka’s standard  response to dangers and difficulties is to burst into tears but he’s terrific at meditation and scripture-reading. It’s a nice irony that Tripitaka forces Monkey to be non-violent by reciting the pain-inflicting `Headache Sutra’. Pig-faced Pigsy is a creature of insatiable appetites who was expelled from heaven for groping one of the celestial maidens during a Peach Banquet. He’s a formidable fighter who wields a magical muck-rake and constantly quarrels with Monkey. Reformed water-ogre Sandy is a rather self-effacing monster who wears a necklace of skulls as a reminder of his cannibal days.

Monkey himself is a `little guy’ who acquires superpowers – leading to some cracking battle scenes. He’s full of energy and enthusiasm and for much of the book he refuses to let anyone tell him what to do. In a culture which values deference, politeness and concealment, Monkey says exactly what he thinks and feels and he’s recklessly rude to everyone from woodcutters and monks to kings and deities. Monkey’s faults are mainly loveable ones. He does get too big for his `cloud-stepping shoes’ and his desire for instant gratification often lands him in trouble – it wasn’t smart of the Jade Emperor to put a monkey in charge of a peach-orchard. Monkey may be vain and impatient but during the journey to Gandhara he frequently battles monsters in order to save innocent or oppressed people. He is beginning to display the most important of Buddhist virtues – compassion. Some of the satire on religion in `The Journey to the West’ is still quite shocking. When the four pilgrims finally reach the Western Paradise even Buddha’s most famous disciples are on the take, demanding a bribe before they will hand over the scriptures. Wu does not mock the Buddha’s teaching, only the people who fail to live up to its spiritual ideals. His novel can be seen as a plea for religious tolerance. He allows `Dear Monkey’ to explain to a foolish king that China’s three great religions (Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism) are really one and that wise or holy men and women should be revered whichever group they belong to. By the end of the story, Monkey almost lives up to his once ridiculous title of `Great Sage’. Wu ends his book by wishing that anyone who reads it may be `born again in the Realms of Utter Bliss’. With a promise like that, how can you resist trying `Monkey’? Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

This week I’m recommending `Of Bees and Mist’, a novel by Erick Setiawan which features a character who may be the world’s most sinister mother-in-law.  Some reviewers called this book `an adult fairy tale’ but I would put it on the Magical Realism shelf.  `Of Bees and Mist’ was first published in 2010 and is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook. Setiawan was born in Indonesia to Chinese parents and moved to America when he was sixteen. He acknowledges his mother’s stories as one of the main inspirations for his debut novel. Some of them must have been ghost and horror stories.  Before we go any further – a health and safety warning. If  you happen to be pregnant, you might want to avoid this book. It is full of gruesome childbirth scenes and dead babies.

In an unnamed town a young girl called Meridia grows up in an unnaturally cold house where ghosts haunt the mirrors and an ivory mist always hovers over the front door. Her scientist father, Gabriel, seems to despise her and her bitter mother, Ravenna, doesn’t even remember that she has a daughter most of the time. Meridia is troubled by a recurring nightmare about something terrible that happened when she was small. Her nurse tells Meridia that Gabriel and Ravenna were once a loving couple who only began to quarrel after a mysterious wind got into the house. Before she can explain any further, the nurse is banished and Meridia is even more alone.

At thirteen, Meridia realizes that the ivory mist, and the yellow mist that surrounds her father whenever he leaves the house, are created by the  anger and jealousy Ravenna feels because Gabriel spends every night with his mistress. Meridia longs to be a comfort to her mother but the distance between them seems greater than ever. At fourteen, Meridia finds a friend whom nobody else can see, which gives her the confidence to explore her home town. At sixteen, she meets handsome Daniel during the Festival of the Spirits and falls `into devastating love’. Ignoring some sinister omens, Daniel proposes and introduces Meridia to his family – his father, Elias who runs a jewellery shop, his vibrant mother Eva, and his two very different younger sisters. Gabriel opposes the match so Ravenna supports Meridia but warns her, `do not repeat my mistakes.’

Meridia and Daniel’s `fairy tale’ wedding is not the end of the story. Meridia soon finds herself treated like a servant by her domineering mother-in-law.  She learns some dark secrets about Daniel’s family and struggles to help the victims of Eva’s domestic cruelty. When the young wife asserts her independence, it triggers an obsessive feud between Eva and Meridia. A feud which only worsens when Meridia gives birth to a son. Eva uses her distinctive form of magic to harass Elias and Daniel and bend them to her will. As the links which bind the two unhappy families become plainer, Meridia’s own marriage is threatened. Is there any hope that Meridia and Daniel can escape the curses that have blighted their parents’ lives?

`Of Bees and Mist’ has all the passion of Latin American Magical Realism without the politics. This is a novel more interested in families than nations, and the characters and setting are more important than the plot. In contrast to the speed and sparseness of traditional fairy tales (see my recent post on `Grimm Tales for Young and Old’), this narrative is slow moving and filled with luscious descriptions which build up an exotic atmosphere. Setiawan pulls off the clever trick of making the setting both very vague and very specific. Vague because we are never told the era and country in which the story takes place, just that Meridia lives `in the only part of the world where snow fell but never chilled, where the sun blazed with tropical intensity but never scorched’.  I pictured the period as early 20th century, since photographs and silent films are mentioned but there seems to be little else in the way of technology.

Meridia’s home town and its inhabitants display the odd mixture of eastern and western elements you often find in Japanese manga and animé. The names of the characters come from a variety of cultures and their physical characteristics from a variety of races. This gives the story a universal quality but could also have made it bland. That’s avoided through all the specific detail about what people eat and wear and about the objects, buildings and gardens which reflect the differing lifestyles of Meridia and Daniel’s families. Food is particularly well used in this book. One market-trader grows herbs on her own body and another swallows radishes and `spits them out chopped, seasoned, and pickled’, Meridia learns to enjoy life with her alter ego Hannah while feasting on strawberry sandwiches, deep-fried potato cakes, cinnamon pastries and preserved mango slices, and Ravenna furiously cooks for her husband eighteen dishes, such as `broiled snowfish sprinkled with nutmeg’ and `veal garnished with peaches and palm sugar’,  to mark `Eighteen years of grief and regret’. It’s the Fantasy version of fusion cusine.

The inhabitants of Meridia’s town (which almost counts as a character in its own right) also have a weird mix of beliefs, customs and superstitions.  The older generation at least still lives in fear of ghosts and spirits, so when someone is ill exorcists and soothsayers are summoned as well as doctors, fires are always kept burning in the Cemetery of Ashes and people hope to be transformed into light so that their souls will `drift like fireflies’ in an Immortal Forest. Setiawan draws on the Oriental concept of ghosts and demons being created by unfulfilled desires and uncontrolled emotions – especially those of women (see also `Peony in Love’ my Halloween recommendation for 2012). The envy of the townspeople physically strikes at happy couples, the chill that sets into Gabriel and Ravenna’s marriage after Meridia’s birth literally lowers the temperature of their home and Eva’s emotional abuse of her family manifests itself as a swarm of bees, buzzing with malice. Eva also uses pet animals to manipulate their owners’ feelings and blind them to the truth, but objects given with love can be imbued with the power to dispel this dark domestic magic.

In spite of all the magic there is nothing unrealistic about the emotional history of the two families at the heart of this story. They argue about money and the proper way to bring up children, and face common dilemmas such as how can a marriage survive when the wife goes off sex after having a baby? Setiawan makes it clear that his characters are vulnerable to magic because of their human failings. Gabriel and Ravenna are too proud to discuss their problems, Elias nearly always takes the line of least resistance, and Meridia’s secretive nature allows Eva to make her look like a disloyal wife. Eva herself becomes a monster because she demands that each member of her family love her far more than anyone else. The men in this book seem weak besides the central trio of strong-willed women – Meridia, Ravenna and Eva. The two older women change considerably in the course of the story. Eva misdirects all her energies into power-struggles and revenge but it’s a delight to see jealous Ravenna softening into the role of protective mother and loved grandmother. Meridia may be a rather reserved heroine but her constant fear of slipping into invisibility will strike a chord with many readers. `Of Bees and Mist’ is a family saga enriched by the Fantasy elements. If you like this novel at all, you will probably want to read it several times. Until two weeks time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

 

This week I’m recommending something suitably scary for Halloween – a collection of old-fashioned but far from cosy ghost stories. When I was student at King’s College, Cambridge it was a privilege to eat in the splendid Gothick hall but there was one portrait hanging in the hall that I didn’t like. If I sat facing it, there was something about the intense gaze of the man in the painting which bothered me. If I sat with my back to it, I had the uncomfortable feeling that his fat white fingers might start reaching out for me. It was a portrait of the eminent scholar and former Provost of King’s, Montague Rhodes James, who is now more famous for the ghost stories he wrote in his spare time. James composed his first ghost story in around 1893 and his last in 1935, a year before he died. The collected `Ghost Stories of M.R. James’, which came out in 1931, is still in print and available on Kindle. There are also paperback editions of selected stories published by Wordsworth or Penguin Classics. Audio versions are well worth considering because James wrote most of his stories to be read aloud. The BBC recordings narrated by Sir Derek Jacobi are particularly good.

The thirty tales in `The Ghost Stories of M.R.James’ are set in England or Europe and mainly take place in the 19th or early 20th centuries, though they often go back into earlier periods to explain the hauntings. Collectively, they create a world in which old sins cast long shadows, evil is manifest in terrible forms, and the unwary may meet with `persons walking who should not be walking’. James is my favourite writer of ghost stories, by which I mean that he’s the one who frightens me the most. Film and television adaptations of his work rarely do it justice because they can’t resist adding complications to James’ relatively simple plots. `Night of the Demon’ is an effective horror film but it doesn’t bear much resemblance to the brief story it’s based on (Casting the Runes). Atmosphere is everything  In an M.R. James story, and that atmosphere is created by the slow building-up of convincing detail. He loved to create spurious documentation for his ghosts and demons in the form of old manuscripts, letters, diaries or court records. Reading these may require some patience but if you let yourself become absorbed in the dusty worlds they evoke, the shocks to come will be all the greater. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that many of the stories were written to amuse school boys, the plots often involve the murder of children. There are scenes in these stories as nightmarish, and far more haunting, than anything in a modern horror film.

You won’t find screaming blondes or dashing action heroes in James’ stories. His leading characters tend to be rational, emotionally repressed, middle-aged men. They are not the sort of people who believe in ghosts or demons and that makes their bizarre experiences seem all the more real. James’ greatest talent was for infusing ordinary places and objects with horror. Some of his stories are set in traditionally spooky old libraries, manor houses or churches but, in many of the best tales, terrors are encountered in places you would normally think of as dull and safe, such as a hotel room (Number 13), a commuter train (Casting the Runes), a country inn (Rats) or a rose arbor (The Rose Garden).  He turns woods (A Neighbour’s Landmark) and shingle beaches (A Warning to the Curious) Into landscapes of menace and in  James’ dark imagination a doll’s house (The Haunted Dolls’ House), the puppets in a Punch and Judy show (The Story of a Disappearence and an Appearence), an engraving of a house (The Mezzotint) and even a pair of binoculars (A View from a Hill) become disturbingly sinister objects. He’s the only author I know who can make the pattern on a pair of bedroom curtains terrifying (The Diary of Mr Poynter), while the grotesque behaviour of the linen sheets in `Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ could put you off sleeping alone in a room with two beds for the rest of your life.

James wrote of his own work that, `The ghost should be malevolent or odious: aimiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story’. His apparitions are varied and memorable, including the ghost of a drowned woman singing in a dreadful squalling voice, a feline creature who comes to `fetch away’ a clergyman with blood on his conscience, the toad-like guardian to an ancient treasure, and a `great roll of shabby white flannel’ with an earth-coloured face and dry eyes `as if there was two big spiders in the holes’. James’ ghosts are disturbingly solid. They are not just  ghastly visions, they can sound, smell and feel horrible as well, and are capable of strangling, suffocating or even poisoning their victims.

One of the collections published in James’ lifetime was called `A Warning to the Curious’. It’s a title that might apply to all his work. In a number of stories, scholars are cruelly punished for morbid curiosity, perhaps because they are seeking knowledge for their own selfish ends rather than to share it. In `Count Magnus’, the over-inquisitive Mr Wraxall becomes fascinated by the legend of a wicked Danish Count and the creature he brought back with him from the `Black Pilgrimage’. In spite of warnings about men who’ve had the flesh sucked off their faces, Wraxell lingers near the Count’s tomb while one by one the locks fall off Magnus’ coffin. Wraxell flees to England, but it is inevitable that his doom will catch up with him, just as it is inevitable that I will once again give in to the dark lure of this grim story and go on reading past the point of safety. Have a horrifying Halloween…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk