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The Collected Macabre Stories

by LP Hartley

(Tartarus Press, 35.00 / $55.00, 393 pages, hardback, published 1 December 2001; ISBN: 1872621627.)

The ghost story, arguably man's oldest attempt to lend recognizable shape to the unknown isn't simply "the most exacting" form of art, as expressed by one of its leading practitioners, L.P. Hartley, but, as both process of discovery and emotional artifact, also requires the seemingly contradictory use of realism to lend the fantastic believability and effectiveness. Lending substance to human anxieties through symbolic images and archetypal patterns that other forms of literature lack the willingness and aesthetic tools to confront, the macabre tale, and the supernatural story in particular, invites readers to face aspects of their internal and external worlds that they ordinarily wouldn't be capable or willing to explore. Through a re-examination of the seemingly normal, expected, or logical is revealed the surreal and fantastic -- the supernatural -- which succeeds most potently as art (and perhaps physical/spiritual possibility) when not too far removed from the actions of everyday life.

In The Collected Macabre Stories, by L.P. Hartley, questions of supernatural possibility and evil as both human behavior and independent entity are realistically treated, lent impressive power by the author's creation of aesthetically believable environments, characters, and perspectives which, as a result of their almost banal normalcy (as well as their ability to lull the reader into a suspension of disbelief) produces shudders and, perhaps more importantly, invites questions of faith when the most disturbing of phantoms pour from even the sturdiest of human stock.

The terror tales and ghostly visitations of Hartley's superbly crafted, chilling ghost stories reaffirm life by paradoxically exploring death and, to a greater extent, speculating on what, if anything, exists after the last sigh is silenced, the last breath stilled. Yet it is with fear that the macabre tale is primarily concerned, not salvation, and the secret geography of fear is a territory L.P. Hartley walked with both enthusiasm and authority, the mastery of his ideas and expression evidenced in "A Change Of Ownership," whereupon an isolated, delusional little gentleman's insecurities are granted horrid solidity as someone or something keeps him out of his house, and in "Podolo," where a monstrous man-beast, not a ghost, forces a lovely young woman's friends to end her suffering with grim violence, just as she herself had opted to do for a starving kitten earlier in the narrative -- a moving bit of ironic counte cruelle exploring the various implications of seemingly kind acts.

Hartley, by first crafting a mirror-image context of naturalistic life, and secondly, by investing solid characters with lyrically charged prose, lent his literary nightmares what he liked to refer to as "a natural as well as a supernatural interest." In this collection of his best supernatural fiction, he often seduces the maximum effect from the smallest of coincidences, allowing the natural psychology of characters as much attention as to take as the fantasy in such tales as "Night Fears," "The Face," The Corner," and the enchanting if somewhat out-of-place Faerie Tale "The Crossways." In Hartley's universe, supernatural forces interact with humanity as a result of misdeeds, guilt, misplaced emotion, or, more horribly still, through no discernible reason at all. This later type of tale is particularly chilling, and employed to good effect in "Feet Foremost," whereupon a house owner is implicated in a generational supernatural conflict with an extremely attractive, extremely deadly female spirit through no other reason than the blood in his veins. If innocence is no promise of reprieve, culpability is a promise of torment, expressed to masterful effect in "A Visitor From Down Under," a tale whose flesh-creeping ending revises a well-worn pattern from European folklore.

An admirable gift for devotees of fine fiction, this over-stuffed buffet of midnight transformations and traveling graves, caroling specters and raging shadows includes thirty-seven of Hartley's best macabre tales, from such traditional ghost stories of suggestion as "Three, or Four, For Dinner" through the vicious sensibilities of "The Traveling Grave," to the ambiguous nightmares of "Home Sweet Home." Although a certain degree of repetition lessens the effect of the cliche-driven "The Stain On The Chair" and "Someone In The Lift," Hartley's innovative flair for drama, careful structure of events, and emotionally evocative language makes his explorations of alienation, the danger of relationships, and the macabre threat of loneliness a treat to read. In short, this collection, introduced by Mark Valentine, is a celebration of the darkly comedic, the tragic, and the unknown -- a chronicle of midnight encounters between the haunters and the haunted better known for his mainstream novels than for the work where he truly stood out.

Review by William P Simmons.

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