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Black Spirits and White: a book of ghost stories

by Ralph Adams Cram

(Tartarus Press, £ 30/ $55, 145 + xxi pages, hardcover , published November 2004.)

Review by Mario Guslandi

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.

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