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Nightshade: 20th Century Ghost Stories

edited by Robert Phillips

(Robinson, £9.99, 464 pages, paperback; published 25 October 2001.)

In his introduction, editor Robert Phillips cover scanquotes 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 four.

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 plain silly.

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

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