Thursday, October 31, 2013

Haunting monks and Pepys

{Photos by rocketlass.}

Earlier this month, I drew on the tales of the unnamed monk of Byland Abbey, who collected ghost stories from the surrounding countryside. I imagined the monk, alone in his cell on the quiet, wintry moors, spooking himself as he took pen in hand--so I was pleased to gather some more context for my imaginings last week from Carl Watkins's The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead (2013):
The open country of the Vale of York lies to the south of this place but the moors rise steeply above it to the north. Although modest in height, they attract early winter snows, which make them a world unto themselves when the valley below is green. To medieval eyes this landscape was not beautiful but terrifying. Long before the abbey was built, the Venerable Bede thought these "steep and remote hills" more suitable for "dens of robbers and haunts of wild beasts than for men." Generations later, Bede's successors agreed. The monks who colonised the moors in the twelfth century entered "a place of horror and vast solitude," but they did so by choice, alighting on the place precisely because this was wild country, where minds could be bent to God free from distraction.
The exposure and isolation proved too much even for monks, however, and the abbey was eventually moved from the moor to the slightly more sheltered and accessible vale. But my imaginings of the spooky confines of an isolated abbey seem to have been on the mark nonetheless, at least by the fifteenth century, when the nameless monk began to collect his stories:
The heyday of the monasteries was in the past then. Outbreaks of plague and other epidemic disease had whittled away numbers at Byland and fewer recruits came forward to take their places. By 1400, a dozen or so monks were rattling around the cloisters. It was a good place to tell ghost stories and, as the abbey emptied of monks, the land round about was full of spirits.
And the monk had good reason to write down the stories he heard from the people of the surrounding country:
Stories about apparitions could not lightly be set aside and, since the chronicle of Byland warned that things not written down "slip away and wither as the sin of forgetfulness triumphs," there was reason to commit them to writing.
So the monk wrote, and so we know of a tailor named Mr. Snowball who fought a ghostly raven; and of James Tankerlay, a bad priest who walked after death and "blew out the eye" of his mistress; and of the fact that, as Watkins writes,
A soul detained [in Purgatory] suffered for its sins but could and should be helped through prayer and masses undertaken in its name. To write it off, to forget it, was a terrible thing. It was a sin. It was to rob the soul of the prayers that were its right. When a ghost walked, the living must harken to it. They must conjure it, let it speak, discover what it wanted, for it was likely to be suffering and in need of aid and deserved the benefit of the doubt.
Ghosts, however, change as we change, which makes the thumbnail history offered by Roger Clarke in his A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof (2012) particularly useful:
Medieval ghosts were reanimated corpses or holy apparitions; Jacobean ghosts, demons pretending to be human.

Post-Restoration ghosts returned to correct injustices, right wrongs and supply information about lost documents and valuables. Regency ghosts were gothic. In Victorian times, ghosts were to be questioned in seances, and ghost-seeing became far more associated with women. Late Victorians embraced paranormality, seeing the ghostly as a manifestation of as yet understood laws of nature. The 1930s found the poltergeist.
And today? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's more vague:
In one study in 1999, a group of Manchester women thought that hauntings were more to do with malign presences--in other words, a bad feeling--rather than the soul of someone who is dead making themself known.

Ghosts are no longer souls. Ghosts are now an emotion field.
As for me--still a skeptical enthusiast despite having, I'm told, seen a ghost when I was a boy--well, I think it right to end the month with Pepys. The diarist, Watkins tells us, was
an affirmed sceptic about wandering spirits. But he still relished a good story about them. And his scepticism, under the right conditions, might be a fragile thing. Several times he whiled away a dark evening talking with friends about ghosts.
Watkins goes on to mention a time that Pepys stayed in a reputedly haunted house and managed to spook himself. A bit of digging locates the incident on April 8 and 9, 1661. In his diary entry for the 8th, Pepys tells of traveling to the Hill House at Chatham, where:
Here we supped very merry, and late to bed; Sir William telling me that old Edgeborrow, his predecessor, did die and walk in my chamber, did make me some what afeard, but not so much as for mirth’s sake I did seem. So to bed in the treasurer’s chamber.
Mirthful exaggeration or not, his sleep was not untroubled, as he reveals in the next day's entry:
And lay and slept well till 3 in the morning, and then waking, and by the light of the moon I saw my pillow (which overnight I flung from me) stand upright, but not bethinking myself what it might be, I was a little afeard.
Nonetheless, Pepys, that most earthbound, most familiar, most untroubled of men, is not bothered for long, as "sleep overcame all."

As October closes, howling wind and spitting rain and swirls of blowing leaves and all, would that we all could lay our ghosts so easily.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The pleasures of the midcentury professional genre story

{Photos by rocketlass.}
You who sit in your houses of nights, you who sit in the theatres, you who are gay at dances and parties--all you who are enclosed by four walls--you have no conception of what goes on outside in the dark. In the lonesome places. And there are so many of them, all over--in the country, in the small towns, in the cities. If you were out in the evenings, in the night, you would know about them, you would pass them and wonder, perhaps, and if you were a small boy you might be frightened . . . frightened the way Johnny Newell and I were frightened, the way thousands of small boys from one end of the country to the other are being frightened when they have to go out alone at night, past lonesome places, dark and lightless, sombre and haunted. . . .
That's from August Derleth's "The Lonesome Place," a brief, effective little scary story from 1948 that I read this week. One of the reasons I enjoy my October reading is that it's almost the only time all year that I read any examples of stories like "The Lonesome Place"--what I think of as the midcentury professional genre story. If you've ever read any of the Robert Arthur–––edited Alfred Hitchcock anthologies, you know what I mean: twenty pages or less, written in straightforward, declarative prose that quickly sets a scene and a problem (and, often, a distinct first-person voice), then delivers a satisfying twist at the end. These are the kind of short stories that Ray Bradbury wrote, the kind that inspired the early work of writers like Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block, and that they very quickly turned to writing themselves. And they're the stories that mostly disappeared when the magazine fiction market dried up.

While I'm sure there was a lot of dross in the pages of those magazines, the winnowing of time means that when you do encounter one of those stories today, it's usually a good one--otherwise it wouldn't be in the anthology or single-author collection you've picked up. And the good ones are so good. There's satisfaction in the simple professionalism of it all, the idea of the writer sitting down to turn out a compact story that hits certain markers (a crime, or a ghost, or a sci-fi surprise), and simply doing it, month after month. There's no messing around, no extraneous nonsense. These are stories written to fill a need, and they do that: they while away a half an hour and leave you with a surprise you'll remember later.

October always finds me reading anthologies of ghost stories and weird tales, so I end up filing away a number of new favorites. I started this month a bit off target subject-wise (no ghosts), but right on in terms of feel, with Jerome Bixby's Space by the Tale. Bixby is best known for "It's a Good Life," a terrifying little story about a boy with mental powers that became the basis of one of the most memorable Twilight Zone episodes. Space by the Tale is Bixby writing mostly in a sci-fi vein, and while none of the stories contained within it is as memorable as "It's a Good Life", they're nonetheless satisfying, offering the basic pleasure of the sci-fi short story: watching an inventive idea spun out to its logical (if unexpected) conclusion. If you enjoyed the recent NYRB Classics reissue of Robert Sheckley's stories, Store of the Worlds, you should dig up some Bixby.

{Side note: I'm beginning to think that Charles Yu may be the heir to the Sheckley/Bixby tradition--and in some sense, to the midcentury professional genre story, period. Whereas Sheckley's stories are almost all about hubris, about our tendency to convince ourselves that we know everything and the bad places that leads us, Yu's sci-fi stories (both his novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and his collection of short fiction, Sorry Please Thank You) are about the opposite: being paralyzed, physically and emotionally, by the knowledge that our knowledge is incomplete, that our actions have unknown consequences, that anything we decide to do will probably be wrong. They're what happens to Atomic Age tales in the post-confidence present, and they're wonderful.}

Two new anthologies have also provided a lot of satisfactions in this genre. The first is suited for October: American Supernatural Tales, edited by S. T. Joshi for the new Penguin Horror line. It covers a broad span of time, but its midcentury American selections are very good--August Derleth, Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, and Richard Matheson all offer sterling examples of the genre. The second you should get and set aside for November, in the wake of the ghosts and ghouls: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense, a new anthology edited by Sarah Weinman that collects stories from women writing crime stories whose transgressions are seen from a distinctly female perspective. Few people know crime fiction as well as Sarah does, and she's picked some great stories from Dorothy B. Hughes, Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith, and a lot of less familiar names.

I'll leave you with a passage from another great example of the genre that's included in American Supernatural Tales, Robert Bloch's "Black Bargain":
That night, walking home, I looked down the dark street with new interest. The black houses bulked like a barrier behind which lurked fantastic mysteries. Row upon row, not houses any more, but dark dungeons of dreams. In what house did my stranger hide? In what room was he intoning to what strange gods?

Once again I sensed the presence of wonder in the world of lurking strangeness behind the scenes of drugstore and high-rise civilization. Black books still were read, and wild-eyed strangers walked and muttered, candles burned into the night, and a missing alley cat might mean a chosen sacrifice.

That's what the midcentury professional genre story does at its best: twitches the curtains in the oh-so-quiet windows of the houses on our oh-so-ordinary street, and gets us thinking again--could it be . . . just maybe . . . what if?

Monday, October 21, 2013


{From the window of Shake, Rattle, and Read bookstore in Uptown, Chicago.}

A letter sent by A. E. Housman to Grant Richards on August 24, 1909:
My dear Richards,

I shall be very pleased to dine with you on Thursday, if you are not then dead of ptomaine poisoning, in which case please appear as a ghost and cancel the engagement.
My favorite thing about this letter comes in the notes, where the editor admits to having no idea what put the idea of ptomaine poisoning in Housman's head.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Sergio De La Pava writes of ghosts

I'm re-reading Sergio De La Pava's second novel, Personae, in advance of seeing him this weekend--and this afternoon I was surprised to find that it hadn't, after all, derailed my annual October ghost hunt. To wit, from the bleakly comic play that makes up the middle third of the novel:
CLARISSA But what could be more consoling than a ghost? Proof, as it is, of human transcendence and meaning?

ADAM Credit not its words, though, as death terminates all responsibility to the living and their notion of truth.
Which is an interesting thought. Our instinct is to assume that the dead speak the truth--after all, what now inhibits them? And why would they appear if not fired by an urgent need to communicate--a need that we naturally don't associate with dissemblance? Yet why not? What, as De La Pava's characters point out, could possibly tie a ghost to us so securely that it would adhere to our notion of truth and responsibility? Why would not a person who spread mischief and malice continue to do so after death?

Later, a character asks,
Is there a greater gap we feel than between living and dead? Take an orderly century's progression through life, from bulbous infant to vital adult until ravaged ersatz corpse. The subject may marvel at what he sees in the mirror, the family may gather in secret wish for the release that comes with resolution, but when the wholly expected comes it still shocks in its finality, doesn't it? That so much can instantly devolve into a nullity.

That gap again. Try bridging it but how? Memory's a poor substitute for presence and though I may chant their names into eternity their eyes won't alight, their lips won't curl.

Then am I damned to be both reflective chanter and sole recipient?
Thus we turn, century after century, to ghosts--but not to ghosts as that undeniable gap might create them, wholly different from us, inexplicable and untrustworthy, but rather as pallid reflections of ourselves, comforting even as they frighten. A message from beyond means not only that there's a beyond, but that our here and now is important enough to still matter there. It's a seductive idea as the nights lengthen and the chill sets in, the year draws in with nary an assurance that we'll get another.

Monday, October 14, 2013

A monk hears a different sort of confession

At the start of October, I shared a story that I found in Andrew Joynes's Medieval Ghost Stories, a collection of retellings of accounts found in a number of medieval sources. The one I shared, "The Howling Ghost," from the collection of a Cistercian monk at the Abbey of Byland, reminded me of M. R. James--and it turns out that there's a reason: Joynes reveals in his headnote to that group of stories that James was one of the antiquaries who transcribed the Latin versions of the tales.

Joynes also goes into a bit more detail about the whole collection:
At the end of the fourteenth century, a monk at the Cistercian abbey of Byland in Yorkshire wrote down a series of stories concerning ghosts and spirits which he had been told by local people, and set them in the villages and ales of the countryside around his monastery. The stories were written on a few blank pages in a collection of manuscripts dating from the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, and the anonymous monk must have intended them to be used as exempla in the tradition of Caesarius of Heisterbach.
The monk may have had heavenly intentions, but, as Joynes points out, that didn't keep him from attending to the stories' more earth-bound details:
The monk of Byland seems to have been more concerned to record the eerie, grotesque, and fantastic details of ghostly occurrences than to draw moral conclusions from his stories. In that sense, these fragments of popular legend, written down by the person to whom they were recounted in the neighbourhood where the various spirits supposedly appeared, bear a basic resemblance to the modern notion of a ghost story as an entertaining narrative which can be both frightening and enjoyable.
I just love the image that conjures up: a quiet monk talking with the people of the area, and perhaps the occasional traveler, hearing their stories, asking questions, and then in the wan light of a northern winter afternoon painstakingly writing them out as part of the essential record of the region.

And that night, come the starry winter darkness, amid the silence of the abbey's seclusion, perhaps he found that that writing them down proved to be no banishing force, as they returned to trouble his sleep. "It is said that downy cobwebs hung in strands from her right hand . . . "

Friday, October 11, 2013

Looking devilish

Just in time for October reading, the good people at NYRB Classics have published a new translation of Jeremias Gotthelf's 1842 novel, The Black Spider, complete with horrifying Renaissance waxwork cover art. It's mostly a lurid Christian morality tale: peasants in a rural village in Switzerland, suffering under a ruthless lord, make a deal with the devil, with results that are predictable if pleasantly surprising in their execution. Unexpected, however, is the level of grotesque detail, and even gore: the way the black spider of the title sets about his dark work, you can imagine John Carpenter reading it and immediately getting his creature team on the phone.

What I'll remember longest, however, is Gotthelf's portrayal of the devil, who appears at the moment of the peasants' greatest despair at their lord's impossible demands for labor:
[A] tall, spindly huntsman, dressed in green from top to toe. Upon his jaunty cap swayed a red feather, a little red beard blazed in his swarthy face, and, nearly concealed between curving nose and pointy chin, like a cave under an overhang, a mouth opened and asked, "What is the matter, good people, that you sit here wailing so piteously as to drive the very stones from the earth and the branches from the trees?"

Then the green man's face grew even blacker, the red beard so red it seemed to crackle and spark like fir twigs on the fire, the mouth contracted to an arrow-like point.
The devil, I think, should be jaunty. And, as he does later in The Black Spider, he should show pity: he sees your plight, and he wants above all else to help you!

All of which calls to mind my favorite screen devil, from the 1941 adaptation of The Devil and Daniel Webster: Walter Huston's Ol' Scratch.

Who could refuse that face?

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Dr. Johnson tells a ghost story

I've written before that it's hard to imagine a much better writer to choose for an encounter with a ghost than Samuel Johnson. He has the appropriate mix of openness to experience and inherent skepticism, as well as an unusual (and gratifying) blend of empiricism and belief in the world beyond. (Who can forget his explosive response to the question of what he meant when he spoke of his fears of being among the damned? "Sent to Hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly.")

There are a handful of references to ghosts and contemporaneous ghost stories scattered throughout Boswell's Life, though most of them involve Johnson dismissing an account as lacking sufficient evidence. Skepticism on this front really does seem to have been his mode: though it is barely mentioned in Boswell's book, Johnson was part of the commission that determined that the famous Cock Lane Ghost was a fraud, and he played a role in publicizing that fact afterwards.

{Photos by rocketlass.}

There is one ghost story in Boswell's book, however, that is both more extended and treated with more credulity, and thus seems worth sharing in this ghostly month. Boswell, seeing Hogarth's engraving Modern Midnight Conversation, asks Johnson what he knows of Parson Ford, "who makes a conspicuous figure in the riotous groupe," then mentions that he thought he'd heard that the Parson's ghost had once been spotted. "Sir, it was believed," replies Johnson. He continues:
A waiter at the Hummums, in which house Ford died, had been absent for some time, and returned, not knowing that Ford was dead. Going down to the cellar, according to the story, he met him; going down again, he met him a second time. When he came up, he asked some of the people of the house what Ford could be doing there. They told him Ford was dead. The waiter took a fever, in which he lay for some time. When he recovered, he said he had a message to deliver to some women from Ford; but he was not to tell what, or to whom. He walked out; he was followed; but somewhere about St. Paul's they lost him. He came back, and said he had delivered the message, and the women exclaimed, "Then we are all undone!"
I'll admit to not being entirely sure how to interpret the women's reaction. Are they assuming that the delivery of a secret message to a secret--female--recipient means that Parson Ford had a hitherto unknown illicit life, and thus they are "undone" in a moral sense? Or are they simply reacting to seeming proof of supernatural forces at work?

Johnson, obviously intrigued by this story, goes into the evidence for its veracity:
Dr. Pellet, who was not a credulous man, inquired into the truth of this story, and, he said, the evidence was irresistible. My wife went to the Hummums; (it is a place where people get themselves cupped.) I believe she went with intention to hear about this story of Ford. At first they were unwilling to tell her; but, after they had talked to her, she came away satisfied that it was true. To be sure the man had a fever; and this vision may have been the beginning of it. But if the message to the women, and their behaviour upon it, were true as related, there was something supernatural. That rests upon his word, and there it remains.
Is that Johnson's wife, Tetty, out investigating? It certainly seems like it--and the spunk the story suggests makes a nice counterpoint to the lingering sense we still get of Tetty as an unpleasant invalid.

So chalk one up for the ghosts, sayeth Dr. Johnson. Oh, what I'd give for a whole book of Johnson's analyses of tales of hauntings--imagine teaming him up with John Aubrey's (too credulous) ear for rumor!

I'll close with a line from a story found in Otto Penzler's great anthology The Big Book of Ghost Stories, Joseph Shearing's "They Found My Grave." The story itself has nothing to do with Dr. Johnson--it's about seances and table-turnings in the late Victorian era--but this description of the most prominent of the spirits conjured at the sittings struck me as quite Johnsonian:
"Oh," smiled Mr. Lemoine, rising to indicate that the sitting was at an end. "He is a common type, a snob. When he was alive he boasted about his distinctions, visits to court, and so on; now he is dead he boasts of having seen God, being in Heaven, and the marvels of his grave."
A merciless analysis of character, a hint of ironic amusement, an eye for the power of vanity--doesn't that sound like the good Doctor?

Monday, October 07, 2013

Defoe on apparitions

These days Daniel Defoe is remembered almost solely for Robinson Crusoe--oh, Journal of the Plague Year is in print, which, centuries after its publication, any of us would surely accept as a legacy, but it's read primarily by specialists and students. (Though I recommend it--it's fun!) But he made his living by his pen for decades (with the occasional bonus paycheck for spying; 'twas a good era for spying), and while he's not inexhaustible the way, say, Dr. Johnson or Hazlitt are, his body of work nonetheless offers plenty of pleasures for the browser.

Which is why it perhaps shouldn't surprise us to learn that he is solid on the topic of ghosts, as I learned on a recent visit to Los Angeles's Museum of Jurassic Technology, whose modest but satisfying bookshop features a limited edition hardcover of a 1999 reprint of Defoe's 1729 compilation The Secrets of the Invisible World Disclosed (An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions). There's something rewarding on almost every page. Here, let's play a bit of sortes defoeiana--page 223:
Thus if the invisible Spirits give a due alarm, they do their part; if they jog us and awaken us in a deep sleep, and pull us again and again, and give us notice that something is coming, that some Danger is at the Door; if we will sleep on 'till it comes, if we will go on, happen what happen may, the kind Spirit has done its Duty, discharg'd its Office, and if we fall into the Mischief, the fault is our own, we can by no means blame the insufficiency of the Notice, and say, to what purpose is it? feeling we had due and timely warning, but would not take the hint; we had due notice of the danger, and would not step out of the way to avoid it; the fault is wholly our own.
Two important notes to help you enjoy that passage to the utmost:

1 Remember that in the facsimile of the 1729 edition, every "s" that isn't capitalized or ending a word looks more like a cursive f.

2 Stop for a moment to think about just how uncannily like Javier Marias's inimitable style the back-and-forth run-on of that narrative self-argument sounds.

Anyway, today what I've happened on is the tale of an apparition sent, it seems, to warn James IV of Scotland not to continue to make war on England. The entreaty failed; the outcome was the Battle of Flodden, which cost James his life and Scotland its last real hope of independence. Defoe writes that James was at his palace in Linlithgow when an "antient" man with "Hair the Colour of Amber, (some Accounts would represent it as a Glory painted round a head by the Limners)" forced his way through the crowd, and
came close up to the King, and, without any Bow or Reverence made to his Person, told him with a low Voice, but such as the King could hear very distinctly, That he was sent to him to warn him, not to proceed in the War which he had undertaken at the Sollicitation of the Priests, and in Favour of the French; and that if he did go on with it he should not prosper. He added also, that he should abstain from his Lewd and Unchristian Practices with wicked Women, for that if he did not, it would issue in his Destruction.

Having deliver'd his Message, he immediately vanish'd, for tho' his pressing up to the King had put the whole Assembly in disorder, and that everyone's Eye was fix'd upon him, while he was delivering his Message to the King; yet not one could see him any more, or perceive his going back from the King; which put them all into the utmost Confusion.
After reiterating that the people and the king were convinced that the speaker was an angel because they didn't see or feel him making his way out after delivering his message--which is entertaining because of the way it calls in physical evidence to support a claim for the supernatural--Defoe laments that James ignored the warning, pressing ahead with his army to the Tweed, the traditional boundary between the kingdoms.

But the angel wasn't through with James, Defoe tells us. As the king sat drinking wine "very plentifully" in a hall in Jedburgh, he was accosted by the messenger yet again,
tho' not in the Form which it appear'd in Lithgo; but with less regards or respect to the Prince, and in an imperious Tone told him, he was commanded to warn him not to proceed in that War, which if he did, he should lose not the Battel only, but his Crown and Kingdom: and that after this, without staying for any Answer, like the Hand to King Ahasuerus, it went to the Chimney, and wrote in the Stone over it, or that which we call the Mantle-piece, the following Distich,

Laeta sit illa dies, Nescitur Origo secundi
Sit labor an requies, sic transit gloria Mundi.
I was raised, like Shakespeare, with little Latin and less Greek, so I'm forced to turn to Google Translate for help on the Ahasuerus-style mantlepiece warning:
Proud to be that day, do not know the origin of the second
Let there be toil or rest, so passes the glory of the world.
I'm going to guess that "do not know the origin of the second" really means something like "does not think of the life to come."

Alas, the warning was not heeded: as Defoe writes,
that he marcht on, fought the English at Flodden-Field, and there lost his Army, all his former Glory, and his Life, is also recorded; I need say no more of it.
Defoe goes on to speculate a bit about the spirit's origins, building his speculation on his accumulated store of tales of apparitions:
Had it been a Heavenly Vision, 'tis more than probably it would have laid hold of the King's Hand, as the Apparition of Angels did to Lot, and as it were dragg'd him away, and said You shall not go forward, that you may not be defeated and slain, both you and your Army.
After offering a few reasonably convincing arguments as to why the spirit couldn't be the devil (the devil loves war and death and thus wouldn't send an emissary to prevent them), Defoe essentially throws up his hands: It's a spirit, probably of someone deceased with some sort of stake in the outcome, and we can't know more.

As a fan of Dorothy Dunnett, and particularly of her House of Niccolo series, I can't help but come up with a different answer. The eight books of the House of Niccolo series end in 1483, five years before James IV took the throne. But throughout the series Niccolo spends substantial time and energy on James's father and his dangerously wild siblings and family, trying to instill in him the wisdom and control required of a good king. Is it so hard to imagine that Niccolo, though essentially retired from meddling in affairs of state, saw the disaster of Flodden approaching and came up with one of his typically convoluted schemes in hopes of preventing it?

Saturday, October 05, 2013

The Haunted L

Creative writing instructors in Chicago learn quickly that you need to lay down at least one ground rule right off the bat: no stories set on the L. If you don't . . . good god, the stories you'll get of Highly Significant encounters between sensitive twenty-year-olds and representatives of the Other--emotionally charged scenes of cross-racial understanding (or misunderstanding), encounters with the aged or the homeless or the mad, unprompted confessions from the unappreciated wife of a coked-up commodities trader. A young Midwesterner with pretensions to creativity usually finds his first encounter with the forced proximity of the L so bracing that he dive-bombs right at the nearest mountain of cliches, and the casualties tend to be legion.

In fact, until tonight I would have said it's not possible to write a good story about the L, period. Then--as I made my way through Otto Penzler's consistently rewarding Black Lizard anthology The Big Book of Ghost Stories, I encountered Robert Weinberg's "The Midnight El" (1994), which is so good I'll forgive not only the setting, but also his (all too common) misspelling of L.

Like most ghost stories, it depends significantly on surprise, so I won't share too much beyond the premise. Chicago-based psychic detective Robert Taine, a character about whom Weinberg wrote regularly, sets out late one winter night to catch the Midnight El, a perhaps mythical ghost train that picks up dead souls. It starts its run at exactly midnight every night, from the station nearest the most deaths that day. Taine is after the wife of a client, a woman whom he--like his client--is convinced shouldn't be dead. It won't hurt the story if I tell you that the train does arrive, and Taine, having employed a potion, slips aboard, where he finds a conductor who totes an anachronistic pocket watch of unusual powers. Taine appeals to the conductor:
"The Greeks considered Charon the most honorable of the gods," said Taine, sensing his host's inner conflict. "Of course, that was thousands of years ago."

"Spare me the dramatics," said the conductor. A bitter smile crossed his lips.
Who has earned the right to a bitter smile more thoroughly than Charon? I'll admit to not knowing that he was regarded as highly honorable, though it makes sense: for life and afterlife to remain in balance, the ferryman must be ready to accept his due payment, but be proof against bribery or histrionics.

Ultimately, it's the honor of the conductor on which the story turns, used by Weinberg to bring about a resolution that feels appropriately myth-based and ancient, even as the story's trappings are the screeching and rumble of the L. It's a great ghost story, well worth seeking out.

The most unbelievable aspect--in a story built around a train car full of the dead? That the L arrives right on time and operates properly throughout its run. In reality it would be ten minutes late and then run express, leaving legions of reanimated corpses fuddled on the platform to horrify the early commuters the next morning.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

October is here!

{Photo by rocketlass.}

It doesn't feel like autumn. It's too warm. The leaves remain too green, as does the grass. The air is damp, but the rain this week has felt more nourishing than punishing, with nary a hint of end-of-life remonstrance. Nature may be in retreat, but she has yet to strike her banners and acknowledge the rout.

But . . . when I was running in the lakefront park this morning at five, the darkness was near total, broken only by the merest sliver of moon, the lake beneath barely grudging it a shimmering reflection. Had I met myself coming, or spied myself going, the encounter wouldn't have seemed out of place. October, with all its concomitant spirits, is here.

For the seventh year, then, I'll turn this shop over to the ghostly for October. Today, a quick visit with a surely long-laid ghost, found in Andrew Joynes's Medieval Ghost Stories: An Anthology of Miracles, Marvels and Prodigies (2001). Many of the tale Joynes recounts have their roots in religion: tales of saints and saintliness, or of pagan tradition forced into the Procrustean bed of Christian belief. But Joynes tells a number that are more straightforwardly uncanny, tales from which no teaching can be extracted, no moral adduced. The following, adapted from the fourteenth-century tales of the Monk of Byland, in Yorkshire, is one:
This is an account of how another spirit followed William of Bradford crying out "how how how" on three successive occasions. And at about midnight on the fourth night he was returning on the road to the new town of Ampleforth when he heard a terrible voice shrieking a long way behind him, as though it was on a hill. A short time afterwards it shrieked again, but closer to him, and on the third occasion he heard it calling at the crossroads ahead of him. Eventually he made out the shape of a pale horse. His dog growled briefly but then retreated and hid itself behind its master's legs, whereupon, in the name of the lord and by virtue of the blood of Jesus Christ, William forbade the spirit to harm him and obstruct him on his journey. When these words had been spoken, it fell back and took on the appearance of a square piece of canvas with corners which flapped and rolled about. All of which might lead one to believe it was a spirit in dreadful need of recognition and help.
Or might lead one to conclude that one was reading an M. R. James tale, no? Small surprise that the M. R. James Newsletter says that Joynes's books is "strongly recommended."

Speaking of James, he will of course be appearing soon, as will his many confreres. Don't bother checking your locks, folks. Our friends this month need neither burglar's tools nor keys to get to where they can be reading this over your shoulder right now!