Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James

ghost-stories-ouija-board-skullAs befits the scariest month, I embarked at the beginning of October on a volume of ghost stories by British scholar and author, M.R. James. (Collected Ghost Stories, Oxford University Press, 2013.)

I must admit that, until I stumbled upon this title whilst browsing online, I’d never heard of Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936). Promotional material touts his work as some of the finest of the supernatural genre, right up there with Poe, Dickens, Conan Doyle, Lovecraft and Stoker. Indeed, the back cover claims he’s ‘considered by many to be the most terrifying writer in English.’ How could I have missed him?

This omnibus, in perpetual print since its publication in 1931, contains all of James’ ghostly tales, including the two most popular, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad and Casting the Runes. The 2013 edition starts with a lengthy introduction by Darryl Jones, Professor of English at Trinity College Dublin. If you get this book, don’t skip it; it offers valuable and fascinating information about James’ background and career, and of the ghost story form itself. There’s a timeline of the author’s life in relation to cultural events of the time, and an appendix of James’ notes on his stories.

I learned, for example, that the modern ghost story is dead. That is, proper ghost stories are always set at least a hundred years in the past, which by its archaic detail imbues the proceedings with a ready-made ambiance of mysterious antiquity and shadow.

It’s important, I think, to remember the era and environment in which James, a Victorian and a lifelong college man, was writing. Whilst I recognize how well-crafted his tales are, I did have some trouble with them at first. Modern audiences, so used to overwrought Hollywood blockbusters with catastrophic violence, blood and gore in every scene, will not, perhaps, appreciate James’ subtlety. Today’s fare consists of a continuous series of intense blast-’em-ups with no true climax, so the brief moments of horror in his stories might – as they did with me, at first – disappoint. After the third or fourth tale, however, I’d acclimatized to the author’s style, and found myself drawn in to his claustrophobic world of remote country houses and haunted inns, ancient churches, cobblestones, lamplight and fog.

James’ dénouements might also leave the reader wondering, “Is that it?” – or, “What happened?” The demons and fiends which so terrorize our protagonists are always shadily-sketched, and endings can often be abrupt and more than a little vague. And, as I’ve mentioned, the story arcs, whilst concise – as all good short stories should be – are rather more gentle than the sensationalism we’re used to. But all of these, I believe, are precisely what make James’ works so skillful. Rather than over-the-top, jump-out-of-your-seat horror, the ghost stories of M.R. James are designed to evoke a creeping sense of spookiness, of suspicion, mystery, paranoia and doubt. If you’re looking for some deliciously gothic shivers this season, do give this book a try.

In James’ honour, I’ve tried my hand at penning a Victorian ghost story. You’ll find it on my new creative writing site, Flagstones & Fog. The blog is intended to be a repository for my occasional jottings – short stories, poetry, book reviews, perhaps excerpts from the novel I’ve been working on for a very long time (and perhaps will never finish). I’d be exceedingly pleased if you paid me a visit there!

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Something Witchy This Way Comes!

As the two-year anniversary of this blog fast approaches, I recall one of my very first posts about books featuring wise women and witchery. This subject matter, it seems, never strays far from my bookshelf, and I’ve been happily engaged in reading another stack of necromancing novels. Some are new, some hark back a few decades, but, for various reasons, they’re all worthy of a look.

The Witches of New York by Ami McKay (Vintage Canada, 2017)
Against the bustling backdrop of 1880s New York City, a trio of proudly independent young witches, each with her own secrets and struggles, operates a tearoom that dispenses more than just orange pekoe and oolong. Accepted by desperate-to-believe customers and reviled by others, the women stand against antifeminism and religious zealotry – and stumble down dark alleys and dank cellars into mystery and danger. McKay, author of The Birth House and The Virgin Cure, has clearly done her research. Her evocative descriptions of the city’s history and culture drew me into the genteel world of the well-heeled, the city’s poor and seedy underbelly, newfangled inventions and sensations such as the Egyptomania inspired by Cleopatra’s Needle. Victorian-style news clippings and advertisements for cure-all potions and fortune tellers illustrate the chapters and help propel the narrative. I did like the book, but the author’s penchant for cramming in every imaginable type of paranormal activity turned me off, so much so that I put the book down for several months before finishing it. I was glad I picked it up again, however. If you’re willing to suspend your disbelief in a big way, I think you’ll find the novel’s atmosphere and historical tidbits entertaining and informative.

The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart (Knight, 1973)
This children’s book, originally published in 1971, comes from the author of my favourite travel-romances and the Arthurian masterpieces, The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment. I’m so happy to have tracked down a secondhand copy of this slim, 127-page novel, which I read in one avid sitting. It didn’t take long before the plot and many of the story’s elements began to feel hauntingly familiar. A lonely, awkward child of absentee parents is summoned to attend a college for witches. Amidst flying broomsticks (including a detailed description of the latest, most high-tech and expensive model), animal familiars, eccentric professors, creepy classrooms and magickal spells for Invisibility and Transformation, I couldn’t help but feel I’ve read and watched all these things before… . Could it be the author of that extraordinarily famous work (the best-selling book series in history, as a matter of fact) took her inspiration 20+ years later from Stewart’s little novel? I’ll never know, but I do know that I adore her tight narrative and descriptive passages – spare, yet so effective – such as this one:

“The trees were a dim shadowed huddle beyond the lawn. The hanging clouds above them had withdrawn a little, to show, beyond, a faint inlay of silver star-dust. The air was motionless. Two storeys below, on the darkness of the lawn, nothing stirred.”

Dark Witch by Nora Roberts (Berkley, 2013)
Having never read Roberts before, I picked this novel up only because it and its sequels, Shadow Spell (2014) and Blood Magick (2014) were bargain bin purchases. I’m always a bit leery about popular authors with dozens of titles to their names. I was half right in approaching this trilogy with caution. I liked the premise: modern American woman travels to England to meet long-lost cousins, one of whom is the local wise woman dispensing lotions and potions from her village workshop. The newcomer soon discovers a family talent for witchcraft, a new love, and an ancient enemy who traverses the ages to wreak his revenge. The prose can be repetitive – if I read the assertions “we’re family; we’re of the blood” one more time in the third volume which I’ve yet to tackle – I’ll surely cast a curse on someone! However, I am a sucker for herbs and cauldrons and the like, so this one was mostly my cup of tea. For more on the trilogy, see this post.

Witch by [Elizabeth Peters writing as] Barbara Michaels (Harper, 1973)
Note: This author is not to be confused with Ellis Peters, who wrote the most excellent Brother Cadfael series. Set in Virginia, this story follows the oh-so-familiar plot of single woman in a new town (this one full of narrow-minded, superstitious wackos), fixer-upper cottage in a secluded, mysterious wood, handsome neighbour, etc., etc. Michaels is another prolific author whose work I hadn’t previously sampled, and although this novel is suitable for a light read of a summer’s evening, it can’t hold a bell, book or candle to far superior efforts it tries to emulate (see a list here). Michaels fails to explore what could have been ghostly goodness; the eponymous “witch” is woefully underused, and the final twist too easy to decipher long before the story ends.

Herb of Grace by [Shelley Adina, writing as] Adina Senft (FaithWords, 2014)
Book One of the Healing Grace trilogy, this novel, which I picked up on spec from a convenience store on holiday two years ago, is set in the Pennsylvania Amish community and involves not a witch, pagans or the occult but a herbalist/healer-in-training on track to becoming the town Dockterfraa. References to medicinal plants abound (‘herb of grace’ is a folk name for rue), as do well-researched and respectful insights into Amish culture. Herb of Grace is nicely-written with a concise plot and good character development, served up with a gentle sweetness that I quite enjoyed. Needleworkers take heed! Senft has also published an Amish Quilt series.

Scenes from a Witch’s Cottage (Part 2)

Well! It has been quite some time since I’ve had a chance to focus on this blog. I do apologize for not keeping up with yours; I will try to catch up soon. I hope everyone is enjoying the newly-minted summer. Happy Solstice!

For the last few weeks, I’ve been on a mission to spruce up my Etsy shop. I hadn’t made anything new for quite some time, and many items have been languishing on my work table, waiting to be finished, or to be photographed, written up and posted. I’ve now added several items, including a new line of beaded gemstone jewellery which I’m really excited about, and will soon be posting more.

I’ve also been wracking my brain, trying to come up with a new shop name using gillyflower somehow, so that the shop, this blog and my Facebook page are all tied together. (Wood So Wild was fine, but it seems removed from what I do here.) “Gillyflower” was already taken, so I’ve pestered my friends and co-workers, and even held an informal Facebook contest; the winner gets a custom-made item from my shop if I end up using his or her suggestion. There were some good submissions, but none was exactly right.

It was just this week, when I arrived at work, that my friend and co-worker gave me a wonderful book called An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures by Katharine Briggs (1976, Pantheon Books). This volume, which is an alphabetical listing of all manner of mystical and mythological beings, customs and lore, was originally published in England as A Dictionary of Fairies by Allen Lane (Penguin Books). It was a lovely and welcome surprise!

As I flipped through its pages, looking particularly at the G’s (to alliterate with gillyflower), I came upon a term (not a G) that was so obvious – and so perfect – that I wondered why on earth I hadn’t thought about it before!

I still have work to do before I’m sure I can use the name. Etsy has rules about such things, and I will secure a domain name, too. Then there are the not inconsiderable tasks of switching the name wherever Wood So Wild appears in my listings and across other social media platforms. And, of course, I do have to come up with a new photograph for my shop banner, and design and order business cards and branded packaging. If all goes well, I’m hoping to unveil the new name this weekend and spend the next little while making the transition. And I owe my friend a piece of jewellery, for, although she didn’t suggest the actual name, she did give me the book from whence the idea came! Fair is fair, after all.

I haven’t had much time to read, so I’m still enjoying Dark Witch by Nora Roberts. Yesterday, after a spectacular lightning storm had ravaged the night, a gentle, nourishing rain fell steadily throughout the morning and afternoon. I read a little, worked on this article, and tended my herbs before heading off to work. My window garden has expanded to include a selection of culinary and medicinal herbs, and they’re all coming on nicely. As I was potting up a couple of new ones, this scene played in my mind:

Last e’en, lightning flashed and thunder shattered;
today the storm’s settled to soft June rain.
The hedgewitch steps barefoot from the garden,
basket a-brim with lavande and fresh thyme.
Rosemary, too, to remember with,
and basil – well, that’s for supper!
The warm windowsill waits with aloe for balm,
and oregano grows to flavour a stew.
What shall it be, this aft, for the cauldron?
A tincture, an oxymel, chamomile tea?
In leather-bound grimoire, receipts will be written
in spidery hand and iron gall ink.

Scenes from a Witch’s Cottage, Part 2
© 2017, Valerie Barrett

Scenes from a Witch’s Cottage (Part 1)

Where I live, the woods are greening nicely, fruit trees have finished blooming, and lilacs are coming to their end. Now is the time for longer, warmer days with lots of sunshine, perennials … and herbs. I yearn for a garden, but, living in an apartment, the most I’ve managed so far this year are pots of lavender, thyme and basil. But I have fond memories of herb gardens past, and, if I had a plot of land, I’d devote it to a few old-fashioned flowers, lots of vegetables and tons of herbs. It seems only natural, then, that my theme this month is In the Herb Garden.

I’m currently reading Dark Witch by Nora Roberts (Berkley, 2013) – first in the Cousins O’Dwyer trilogy along with Shadow Spell and Blood Magick (both published in 2014). Set in Ireland, the story involves the descendants of a 13th century sorceress, magick passed down through generations, and the power of strong women and family. I’m not happy with the inclusion of hokey elements such as the witches’ ability to conjure fire from their hands, make plants grow with a flick of a finger, and send up fountains of water with a thought. But there are spells and misty woods and a workshop filled with the scents of rosemary, basil and lavender. And the main character works in a riding stable and communes with horses: something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s light reading that I enjoy in the morning when I’m gearing up for the day, with a pot of tea and delicious local wildflower honey.

The book inspired this vignette:

Ancient sandalwood a-waft i’ the air;
strong tea brewed with sweet water.
In rich black soil she pots the herbs,
her bench alight with bees’ candles.

Scenes from a Witch’s Cottage, Part 1
© 2017, Valerie Barrett

 

 

Literary Apothecary

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George (Penguin Random House, 2015)

My mother found this gem in her condominium’s lending library and gave it to me with glowing reviews. As I began to read it (the fourth of my 16+ goal for this year), I was immediately drawn in to this charming and sometimes heartrending world of lost love, regret and redemption, set in the streets of Paris and the canals, rivers and vineyards of southern France.

The Little Paris Bookshop was originally published in German as Das Lavendelzimmer (The Lavender Room) in 2013. The English-language version is pretty good; there are only a few passages that hint of this being a translation, and even they lend a quaintly amusing air to the book.

The title is a bit of a misnomer. Only the first few chapters take place in Paris, and the bookstore in question is of a rather peculiar nature: it’s a renovated barge operated by Monsieur Perdu, a self-styled “literary apothecary”. Like the bonbon-dispensing confiseuse in Joanne Harris’ Chocolat, Perdu prescribes just the right book to his customers, each of whom is searching for more than a good read. The lonely and broken-hearted, the damaged and bewildered – even the stereotypical silly tourist – all board the floating bookshop in search of Perdu’s particular brand of pistou for the soul.

When it comes to helping his patients, the apothicaire may be skilled, but he is unable to find a cure for his own despair. Just as the book barge is permanently moored to the banks of the Seine, the middle-aged Perdu has lived-but-not-lived for twenty years, transfixed by grief, regret, missed opportunity and the fear of death. Will he, with the aid of several eccentric companions, be able to cast off the tethers which bind him to the past and navigate the winding and sometimes treacherous route to wholeness and a peace-filled mind, body and soul?

Literary references, gustatory delights and lyrical landscapes abound in this novel which is equal parts travelogue, culinary journey and paean to books and food, friendship, France and love. It is by no means perfectly written; there are some tiresome clichés, and I can’t stomach the fact that all the characters spend every moment of their lives in deep, hand-wringing angst. However, I’m a sucker for evocative novels set in sun-drenched, lavender-scented France and Italy (think: Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes and Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert), and George’s take on the countryside, traditional food and wine, plus the quirky French-ness of the protagonist and his friends, came at just the right time. As the stubborn vestiges of winter still cling, The Little Paris Bookshop is a welcome breath of fresh air.

Up next: Do-it-yourself springtime scents, inspired by The Little Paris Bookshop!

Detail, 12″ x 12″ Recollections scrapbook paper in “Paris Florals” from Michaels

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

dsc_5618-4This novel (my third of 16+ to read in 2017) was another bargain-bin find which I snapped up at the beginning of January. The choice was a no-brainer. How could I resist the title, the cover illustration of aged parchment, herbs and an old key, plus reviews which promised “spine-tingling witchery”, “a captivating thriller of the hidden powers of women throughout the centuries” and “literary alchemy”? I dove right in, and, for the most part, wasn’t disappointed.

This debut novel by Katherine Howe (Hyperion, 2009), is set in New England in the early 1990s, with flashbacks to the Salem witch trials of 1692. (Howe claims to be a descendant of two trial victims – one who survived, and one who did not.) I was snared from the start by yet another case of the Stone Cottage Syndrome; I fall for this woman-inherits-old-fixer-upper plot every time. But there’s much more to the story, and it kept me turning the pages well into the wee hours.

Into the cauldron of delicious witchiness, Howe throws the discovery of a centuries-old relic and the search for a long-lost book of shadows, plant lore and spells, a taste of ivy-league academia, plus fascinating facts about the Puritans and what may have led to those 17th century witch trials – all the criteria, as far as I’m concerned, for a ripping good yarn.

I wanted to love this book, but found that, the farther in I got, I could only like it. There were times, however, when I was just plain irritated.

The first half of the story is well-paced and forms the bones of the book: a spooky thriller. But I feel that the author loses her way and allows events to bubble over the brim just a bit near the end. That’s not to say what’s left in the pot is a burnt mess; only that a tighter narrative and more judicious editing would have made for a rather more satisfying brew. But I cannot forgive Howe for making Connie, the heroine – a gifted Harvard PhD candidate – incredibly obtuse when presented with the most obvious of clues. I had the mystery figured out from the very first one (basic facts that a specialist in American colonial history like Connie couldn’t fail to know), but it takes her pages and pages before the lantern finally flickers on.dsc_5600-3

Those sins aside, I’m glad that I picked up this novel – happier still that I paid only $3 for it. (It was, by the way, originally published in the U.K. as The Lost Book of Salem, and retitled later.) And I’m willing to give Howe another try; her subsequent novels are The House of Velvet and Glass (2012), Conversion (2014) – which includes brief cameos by two Dane characters – and The Appearance of Annie van Sinderin (2015). She has also published The Penguin Book of Witches, a 2014 work of non-fiction.

Snow Good: Two satisfying winter reads

20170113_141853-2First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen (2014, St. Martin’s Press)

I was initially attracted to this bargain bin paperback’s cover image of a frosted rosy apple on weathered barn board and the synopsis on the back cover. In a modern yet genteel North Carolina college town of rambling, turreted old Queen Anne houses, Hallowe’en and the first frost of autumn approach. A family of eccentric women who handcraft magical confections from their herb garden is threatened by the ominous arrival of a mysterious stranger who may be every bit as powerful as the women themselves. When I read the author’s dedication, in which she refers to her work as ‘a strange little garden book’; I was pretty sure I was in for a good ride. Sold!

I loved this novel from the very first page. The story immediately brought to mind Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman’s 1995 book and the 1998 film starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock. Like that story, the Waverley women of First Frost have peculiar “gifts” which, in the eyes of the townspeople, mark them as odd and suspicious. Their magic is never malevolent, however, and each woman has her own way of using – or denying – her power. Their surroundings are also imbued with quirky magic: doors lock out those lacking inner peace, rooms spontaneously tidy themselves, and an ancient tree angrily lobs apples when it feels neglected. The main character, a teenaged daughter named Bay, has her own angst to deal with and choices to make. Will she accept her gift, or will she reject what she knows to be right and live to regret it? I was happy to find that this book is not a pale imitation of Practical Magic, but a well-crafted tale that follows its own lavender-lined path.

This story is rooted in the garden and kitchen, and is peppered with food imagery and exquisite description appealing to all the senses. Allen writes, “Simmering soup on a cold day was like filling a house with cotton batting.” Fallen leaves “looked like the world was covered in a cobbler crust of brown sugar and cinnamon.” And people’s moods are expressed in olfactory auras: the silvery-grey smoke of the mysterious stranger, and aloof Bay who “smelled like cold air and roses.” Insightful characters and a tight plotline kept me reading, and I was enchanted.

A bonus book-club section at the end of the novel offers opportunities for discussion, an epilogue following up on some secondary characters, and a few recipes featured in the story. There it’s revealed that First Frost is a sequel to Allen’s 1997 work, Garden Spells, which deals with the earlier years of the two oldest Waverley sisters. I’m conjuring it up on Amazon right now!

April Snow by Lillian Budd (1951, J.B. Lippincott Co.)

I’m also re-reading this old classic, which is set on a snowy, windswept island in 19th century Sweden. I first read April Snow as a teenager and was drawn to the resolute tenacity of its main character, a peasant woman named Sigrid. Life is hard on her isolated farm, and her lazy, selfish husband’s affections wane with the birth of each of their eleven children. In quiet rebellion, Sigrid harnesses her vibrant creativity, faith and hope to cope with the rigors of farm life and a loveless marriage, all the while staying true to her heritage. Although the prose is simple and rather stilted at times, this novel is a fascinating insight into Swedish tradition and culture, and, if you can snag a copy, is well worth a read.