Christmas reading: ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen – An Excellent Classic Ghost Story as Comedy

 

 

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I wanted to add a post about a ghost story at Christmas. Well, I am about to read the new selection by Mari Biella, and expect to revel in those, but for now, which of the many to choose as a seasonal ghost story?

Readers of this blog over the last year or so will have endured my diatrabes on the  debilitating nature of an addiction to escapist romances and happy never after alternative views of history.  Fear not: this isn’t another…

I am in fact recomending – again, but now as Christmas reading – a  ghost story that is about as light as could be. It is also written from a wholly conventional perspective. The only eccentricity is that the protagonist is content to be that figure of horror and ridicule for previous generations,’The Old Maid’.  Still, as that was generally associated with comparative penury and economic dependence, perhaps the fact that she is a successful business woman – an unusual thing for the early twentieth century – has something to do with her contentment.

I think for sheer spooky humour,  ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ takes a lot of beating.

Marjory Bowen seems to have been an intriguing author. I was astonished to find out on Wickipedia that she wrote under six names:

‘Her total output numbers over 150 volumes with the bulk of her work under the ‘Bowen’ pseudonym. She also wrote under the names Joseph Shearing, George R. Preedy, John Winch, Robert Paye and Margaret Campbell. After The Viper of Milan (1906), she produced a steady stream of writings until the day of her death.Bowen’s work under her own name was primarily historical novels.’

To say that she came from a ‘difficult’ background would be an understatement. Her alcoholic father deserted the family, and was later found dead of drink on a London street. Her mother was seemingly a far from fond parent, and so she (Marjorie Bowen) was obliged to support the whole family by her writing for many years.  She was married twice – her fist husband died early, and both their children died in infancy. Her two children by her second husband survived, anyway…

From this, I had to be the more struck by the light, playful tone of ‘The Crown Derby Plate’. Although this is available on project Gutenberg and on Amazon as a Christmas story, the original publication date is not stated.

220px-ImariCI would guess, from the feel to it – and the fact that the heroine for her drive to the isolated house across the marshes uses as a matter of course, a pony and trap – that it was written no later than the 1920’s, before the car became common enough to have such a disastrous effect on our landscape (couldn’t possibly be an environmentalist, could I? But no ranting from me at Christmas)

It is not written as great literature, but as an effective ghost story which, unlike some of the others, is not intended to arouse deep emotion or raise questions. It could almost be used as an example of ‘How to write an entertaining ghost story with the use of humour and economy of style’.  It is set over the Christmas period, so was presumably written for some Christmas Annual or magazine for those days. Accordingly, the vocabulary is simple, and the tone is upbeat, even on such a topic as – for the women of the early twentieth century  a nightmare possibility  for themselves – the image of the Spinster Who Must Earn Her Keep:

‘Martha managed an antique shop of the better sort and worked extremely hard. She was, however, still full of zest for work or pleasure, though sixty years old, and looked backwards and forwards to a selection of delightful days.’

She is a collector of valuable china. Staying with her cousins in Essex for Christmas, she remembers that years ago she bought a set of Crown Derby plate from an auction at a local house, which unfortunately had one plate missing.

Her cousins remark that that house has a reputation for being haunted, its former owner, old Sir James Sewell, a collector of antique china, having been buried in the garden.

Martha Pym drives over to see if she can find out if the current owner, who she met and forgot two years ago, has found that missing plate.

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The description of the wintry scene is evocative:

‘Under the wintry sky, which looked as grey and hard as metal, the marshes stretched bleakly to the horizon; the olive brown broken reeds were harsh as scars on the saffron-tinted bogs, where the sluggish waters that rose so high in winter were filmed over with the first stillness of a frost.  The air was cold but not keen; everything was damp; faintest of mists blurred the black outlines of trees that rose stark from the ridges above the stagnant dykes…’

I quote that at length because so fine a word picture seems incongruous in such a light piece of writing. Marjorie Bowen obviously had exceptional talent, but wrote for the market, which often does not give much opportunity to show it to advantage.

‘The house sprang up suddenly on a knoll ringed with rotting trees, encompassed by an old brick wall…It was a square built, substantial house with “Nothing wrong with it but the situation,”  Miss Pym decided…She noticed at the far end of the garden, in the corner of the wall, a headstone showing above the colourless grass’.

The person who answers the door presents a startling appearance: ‘Her gross, flaccid figure was completely shapeless and she wore a badly cut, full dress of no colour at all, but stained with earth and damp from where Miss Pym supposed that she had been doing some futile gardening…another ridiculous touch about the poor old lady was her short hair.  (In that era, women were not expected to cut their hair at all).

An absurd conversation follows between Martha Pym and the owner:

‘“…I generally sit in the garden.”

“In the garden? But surely not in this weather?”

“You get used to the weather. You have no idea how used one gets to the weather.”

“I suppose so,” conceded Miss Pym doubtfully…’

Later on, the person whom Martha Pym assumes to be the last owner Miss Lefain informs her visitor that she frightens people away from the house:

‘”Frighten them away!” replied Martha Pym. “However do you do that?”

“It doesn’t seem difficult; people are so easily frightened, aren’t they?”

‘Miss Pym suddenly remembered that Hartleys had the reputation of being haunted – perhaps the queer old thing played on that. “I suppose you’ve never seen a ghost?” she asked pleasantly.  “I’d rather like to see one, you know –”.’

The reader doesn’t have a great talent for solving mysteries to begin to have suspicions about the house’s owner.

This is as excellent an example of the ghost story as light entertainment, as distinct from the ghost story which makes a profound impression and is written as literature, as in ‘The Wendigo’.  There is no particular moral to ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ – unless it is the very obvious one that if you are too attached to material objects, then your spirit will be unable to move on.

I am astonished by the output of some of these late nineteenth and early twentieth century authors. Even given that they wrote for a living, however did they manage to get so much writing done – particularly when this was in an era when most of it was done in longhand?

 

 

 

 

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‘The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories’ edited by Robert Aiman – Wonderful Classic Tales of Terror

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I recently re-read ‘The Fontana Book of  Great Ghost Stories’ Edited by Robert Aikman, dated 1964.  I would still say that this is one of the best collections of tales of terror – not all of them are truly ghost stories – that I have ever read.

To some extent, I would say that for sheer spine tingling thrills, I have never found this collection to be beatable.

Of course, arguably some of it might be ‘learned response’ if that is the term. I did read it first at an impressionable age, and I was living in a notoriously haunted house at the time, the infamous and then isolated ‘Plas Isaf’.

My father, mother and sister were all in the house at the time; but they were corridors away as I foolishly sat up late, fnishing reading ‘The Wendigo’ by a dying fire, with the wind howling outside.

And yes, it did come from  – wait for it – those inexhuastable bookshelves in my family houses, like ‘The Outcast of the Family’  ‘Eve and the Law’ and so many others…

All the short stories in the anthology are written by renowned authors –the one by D H Lawrence, which naturally is largely psychologically based, came as a surprise.

There is also a very peculiar, and horrifying, tale which is more of a horror story, ‘The Travelling Grave’ written by L P Hartley, who of course wrote that wonderfully evocative tale of the Edwardian schoolboy in ‘The Go Between’.

The anthology contains some funny ghost stories. I still find ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen grotesquely hilarious, and there is an amusing tale about a landed pirate ship.

There are also ones on conventional lines – ‘The Old Nurses’ Tale’ by Elizabeth Gaskell is a wonderful example of the haunted house and threatened innocent variety. ‘Squire Toby’s Will’ by Sheridan le Fanu is of course, another wonderful example of the traditional ghost story.

The tales of terror, include  some perturbing ones by comparatively recent authors, such as that sinister one about deserted waterways which has always puzzled me by Elizabeth Jane Howard  ‘Three Miles Up’. There is also one by the editor Robert Aikman, ‘The Trains’.

This is an extraordinary story; it is partly psychological, partly a tale of terror with horribly plausible elements, and it has many unexplained elements. It is set in the 1950’s, when trains were in fact, still the predominate form of transport for most people in the UK, before the sorry onset of car culture.

I can date the age I was when I read it, because that was the day I made my first apple crumble at school, and the scent of apple and cinnamon was in the air when we were re-heating it and I began reading, ‘The Wendigo’.  In fact, ‘The Wendigo’ will always make me think of apple crumble, and vice versa.

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I still find ‘The Wendigo’  a truly terrifying story, for all the florid language of Défago when he is taken by it is so improbably poetic: ‘Oh, these fiery heights, my burning feet of fire’ etc.

My own prosaic memories about apple crumble aside, the depiction of those huge, Canadian forests, the Northern Woods, struck me with awe then and does to this day:

‘And now he was about to plunge even beyond the fringe of wilderness where they were camped into the virgin heart of uninhibited regions as vast as Europe itself…The bleak splendours of these remote and lonely forests rather overwhelmed him with a sense of his own littleness. The stern quality of the tangled backwoods which can only be described as merciless and terrible, rose out of those far blue woods swimming on the horizon…’

It is an alarming story. Défego’s fate also seems to be unfair, in so far as he is not some casual tourist, viewing these secret regions for a thrill. On the contrary, he dreads the Wendigo as an apparition personifying the awe these forests should inspire:

‘”All the same, I shouldn’t laugh about it, if I was you,” Défego added, looking over Simpson’s shoulder into the shadows. “There’s places in there that nobody won’t ever see into. – Nobody knows what lives in there, either.”’

I must confess my ignorance as to whether that is still true today as it undoubtedly was in 1910, when this story was written,  before so much of the forest was destroyed. I assume it is, but I may well be wrong.

Algernon Blackwood, who of course, wrote the story, does seem to have changed the Native American legend, although I gather that there are many versions of the legend.

The Wickipedia entry states:

‘In Algonquian folklore, the wendigo or windigo is a cannibal monster or evil spirit native to the northern forests of the Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes Region of both the United States and Canada.[] The wendigo may appear as a monster with some characteristics of a human, or as a spirit who has possessed a human being and made them become monstrous. It is historically associated with cannibalism,, murder, insatiable greed, and the cultural taboos against such behaviours.’

In these regions of harsh winters and traditional food shortages, to me that makes sense as the behaviour of the predatory Wendigo in Blackwood’s tale does not. It does not take its victims for food, but is described as a ‘moss easter’ and when the terribly damaged Défego returns from his sojourn with it, he reveals that he too has become ‘a damned moss eater’.

Therefore, the Wendigo does not take its victims to eat, and the sheer illogic of its bothering to take victims at all makes it the more horrible. I have heard that some of our relatives, the great apes, like humans, keep small orphaned baby animals as pets. Perhaps this is the explanation for the Wendigo’s behaviour?  Perhaps it doesn’t like people intruding on its domain.  Or – worse – perhaps its actions are meaningless to the human mind?

I thought one of the few weaknesses of the tale was the fact that it seems the Wendigo initially tries to pull the sleeping Défago from his tent.

That so powerful a monster should be temporarily defeated in this merely by Simpson’s wakening seem slightly absurd, though still horrible. The guide might even have been saved.

Another weakness is, of course, the racist assumptions about Native Americans of the era.  Inevitable though they may be for 1910, they are dismal to come across.

Overall, though, it is a powerfully written and wonderfully evocative story, and like all the stories in this anthology, it sums up images that you will never forget.

Perhaps one of the reasons that these stories are so good is that they come from an age when ‘short stories’ could begin at 3,000 words – ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ is this length – and go up to near novella length at approximately 14,000 words, as in ‘The Wendigo’.  There was none of the modern pressure to write an extremely brief short story.

This post is too long for me to continue with accounts of the wonderfully comic, ‘The Crown Derby Plate’, or the puzzling and sinister story, ‘The Trains’. I will have to make that my next post.