Nightshade: 20th Century Ghost Stories
(Robinson, £9.99, 464 pages, paperback; published 25 October
In his introduction, editor Robert Phillips quotes
Sir Osbert Sitwell's claim that ghosts went out when electricity came
in. Despite this, almost half of the stories collected in Nightshade
come from the last three decades of the 20th Century - the editor clearly
believes there's life in the old spectre yet.
Perhaps appropriately, I chose this anthology as part of my holiday
reading: what better for those dark nights in a tent in the depths of
the Devon countryside?
I had expected a fairly traditional bunch of tales. Whilst I would
have been satisfied with such a book, I was pleasantly surprised to
find that Nightshade is a far more radical selection than its
packaging might imply. "Ghost" is taken loosely to indicate some kind
of connection with past - or even present - lives, and a general sense
of the supernatural. This is a Good Thing, and the boldness of selection
is also, perhaps, one of the reasons why I found a good number of hits
and misses in this book, instead of the predictable mediocrity of so
many theme anthologies.
Stories that particularly struck me included those by Max Beerbohm,
Elizabeth Bowen, F Marion Crawford, Max Eberts, James Leo Herlihy, Shirley
Jackson, Joyce Carol Oates, Christopher Tilghman and William Trevor.
Those that fell flat included a number of the bigger guns: Franz Kafka,
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Rudyard Kipling and Muriel Spark, to name but
Among the more conventional stories, F Marion Crawford's "The Upper
Berth" is a gripping, chilling tale of a voyage in a haunted cabin by
an adventurer who refuses to be cowed by mere ghosts, told in the gentlemen's
club style. Max Eberts, in "Lost Lives", brilliantly unravels his story
by following a boy's development - at an early age he would obsessively
draw a particular four-funnelled ship, the writing immediately creating
a frisson of supernatural tension; and as he grows older his artwork
becomes ever more detailed and the back story expands relentlessly.
Whilst not a conventional ghost story, Max Beerbohm takes another convention,
the deal with the Devil, to tell the story of the eponymous "Enoch Soames",
an 1890s writer who could have been important yet somehow ended up left
out of the literary histories of the period. This is a clever and witty
portrait of Victorian London, and an endearing portrait of the first
person narrator, a young man striving earnestly to form opinions and
to work out his own set of values and understandings.
James Leo Herlihy's "The Astral Body of a US Mail Truck" is very nearly
a conventional ghost story, except the ghost is, well, what the title
says it is. This is not so much a shaggy dog story as a shaggy mail
truck story, and it's a lovely, folksy tale of a widow, her insights
and observations, her mail man lover and her neighbour, who is "of a
very low order of human life". William Trevor, too, comes close to the
straight ghost story, as he recounts the story of a woman incarcerated
in a mental hospital, through a letter she has written to a man she
picked at random from the telephone directory. It would have satisfied
as a straight ghost story, too, but Trevor's subtle twistings lend it
more depth whilst simultanesouly telling us that what really happened
doesn't matter: it's the people involved that are important.
Christopher Tilghman's "A Gracious Rain" is an immensely powerful and
heartfelt piece of writing, a particularly quiet account of a man, slightly
discomfited by the big thoughts in his head about the order of things.
His death is treated quite matter-of-factly, and in doing so the author
pushes up against the underlying tension of much fantastic fiction -
that the underlying premise is so often, when you think about it, just
Shirley Jackson's "The Bus" is a particularly striking story of place
and the passage of time. Miss Harper is travelling by bus, even though
she dislikes it: the ticket man is ugly, the driver surly, the bus filthy,
and she drafts letters of complaint in her head during the journey.
She gets off in the middle of the night, in a steady downpour, at the
wrong stop, leading her into a world that appears to straddle the disjoint
between reality and the place where memories end up. This is a sad and
wistful tale of the passing of things, and it is one of the highlights
of the anthology.
Another is Elizabeth Bowen's "The Happy Autumn Fields", which juxtaposes
the love of two sisters in some kind of rustic idyll from years ago
with the story of a contemporary woman in some kind of heavy sleep,
surfacing occasionally. Ghosts? Well, there's a kind of echoing across
time, a dreamy resonance, but the most ghostly thing about the story
is its marvellously tense atmosphere, created through the language rather
than through any particular incident.
One of the most quietly-done pieces in the book, Joyce Carol Oates'
"The Doll", is also the most gut-grabbing. In following academic Florence
Parr to a conference in Pennsylvania, the author manages to build up
a powerful sense of dread and suspense from the very ordinary, as she
spots a house that looks like a dolls' house Florence had been given
when she was four. Wonderful stuff!
It's a rare anthology that even comes close to satisfying in its entirety,
and Nightshade is full of stories that either worked for this
reader or, quite frankly, didn't come close. The editor's decision to
select stories that stray from conventions is welcome, and there's enough
good material in this anthology for me to recommend it highly. Because
of this book's nature, I suspect that a good number of the stories that
failed for me will press the right buttons for others.
Review by Nick Gifford