Black Spirits and White: a book of ghost stories
(Tartarus Press, £ 30/ $55, 145 + xxi pages, hardcover , published
One of the foremost American architects, Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942),
is the author of various essays on architecture, but also of a body
of literary work including poems, dramas, a novella and a bunch of short
stories, mostly of supernatural nature. Although in his autobiography,
My Life in Architecture, Cram subsequently defined his only collection
of ghost stories as a juvenile "indiscretion", some of the tales featured
in Black Spirits and White have been reprinted and anthologised
more than once. To the contemporary reader the book offers moments both
of very pleasant reading and of exasperating tedium.
The first two stories ("No.252 Rue M. Le prince" and "In Kropfsberg
Keep") are rather conventional, unremarkable tales revisiting the time-honoured
theme of the sceptical ghost hunters deciding to spend the night in
a haunted mansion with dire consequences. The lack of originality is
acknowledged by Cram himself who admits "... for the germs of the
stories in this book the Author claims no originality". Considering
the cold, detached way of Clam's narrative, so unemotional to leave
the reader totally immune from the risk of getting frightened or even
just unsettled, one cannot but wonder why the author decided to choose
this particular topic.
Fortunately, much better surprises are ahead. "The white villa", a
dark story set in southern Italy, is an engrossing episode of jealousy
and crime. The events occurring in the haunted villa are described in
an effective manner, skilfully employing the sounds as tell-tales signs
of the phantom's actions in the darkness.
In "Sister Maddalena" the restless soul of an unhappy nun haunts the
rooms of a former cloister where a cruel secret lies hidden. The story
is well written and, even if also this subject is rather over-used,
contrives to elicit cold shivers on the reader's spine.
"Notre Dame de l'Eaux" is a terrifying, excellent tale, featuring a
girl trapped by mistake inside a church, at night, facing a madman ready
to take her life.
"The dead valley", highly praised by H.P. Lovecraft in his famous essay
"Supernatural horror in literature", still stands out as
a fine example of sheer cosmic terror, where nature becomes the source
of pure evil engulfing both animals and humans in its malevolent arms.
As an extra bonus, the Tartarus edition of Black Spirits and White
is augmented by the inclusion of an uncollected, non-supernatural story,
the insipid historical tale "When Jamie rode for the king" and the controversial
novelette "The decadent". Unfavourably received when first published,
"The decadent" appears to be made by two different halves. The first
part is one of Cram's best written pieces of fiction, describing with
wonderful inspiration and ability the squalor of a train station and
the oppressive atmosphere of a town with its depressing suburbs. The
second half -- actually the core of the story -- is constituted by an
unbearably dull discussion about political and sociological themes which
can hardly interest the current century's reader.
All in all the volume -- gorgeously produced as it's always the case
with Tartarus -- offers some superb supernatural stories by an author
not generally included in the top class of ghost story writers, although
mingled with less engaging material.