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'Number Ninety' and other Ghost Stories
by BM Croker, Richard Dalby's 'Mistresses of the Macabre' Volume 3
(Sarob Press, 21 + 2 P&P, 152 pages, hardback; published April 2000, received 12 April 2000.)

This, the third volume in Richard Dalby's Mistresses of the Macabre, a series making available work by lesser known female writers of the supernatural, features fifteen stories, an introduction, and two appendices (an essay on Mrs Croker by Helen C Black, and a glossary of Hindu and Urdu words). Bound together in a svelte black hardback, and with black and white interior illustrations by Paul Lowe, this really is a beautiful volume. I did feel it was perhaps a little expensive, though the collector, at whom it is clearly aimed, would probably disagree.

It is obviously with the collector in mind that this series has been put together. Though prolific in her day - the latter part of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth, as both a writer of the short ghost story and as a best-selling novelist - BM Croker's supernatural work, so Richard Dalby writes in his introduction, had, until now, "sunk into total neglect, and none had ever been revived in anthologies (not even by Hugh Lamb or Peter Haining)". Dalby goes on to relate the research that went into this edition, and to give a rich and insightful précis to both Croker's writing and to Croker as a person, a précis ideal for the newcomer.

So why has BM Croker been, it seems, so unfairly overlooked, especially considering how successful she was amongst her contemporaries, with "Number Ninety", the title story here, published originally in Chapman's Magazine of Fiction alongside the likes of MP Shiel and Arthur Machen. The stories themselves, set mainly in the India of the time, are perfectly of their day. They are similar in that each narrative follows a chilling and sometimes fatal encounter with the netherworld, but that's not to say that they're wholly prescriptive. Where they shine is in the detail; a single sentence, perhaps two, that will resonate in the mind once you are out of the book, out of India, and alone (?) in your bedroom. Take, for example, the description in "The Red Bungalow" of two infants watching a ghost, which is invisible to the adults, move around the room:

"It was a beautiful afternoon, the sun streamed in upon them, and the room, as far as we could see, was empty. Yes, but not empty to the trembling little creatures on the table, for with wide, mad eyes they seemed to follow the motion of a something that was creeping round the room close to the wall, and I noticed that their gaze went up and down, as they accompanied its progress with starting pupils and gasping breaths."

What is perhaps most impressive is that these stories don't have as their location the bleak and windy moors, or the ruins of castles, farmhouses, ancient monasteries, or indeed any territory common to the ghostly tale. The hot, claustrophobic places in which Croker puts her characters are, however, equally unsettling. These are places and situations that Ramsey Campbell might have written about had he been around a hundred years ago. And it's for this unnerving quality, smoothly and artistically construed, rather than for the plots, most of which are relatively basic, though some less so, that I would recommend this volume.

Books published by Sarob Press may be ordered from:
Sarob Press, "Brynderwen", 41 Forest View, Mountain Ash, CF45 3DU, Wales

Review by Jason Gould.

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© Jason Gould 22 July 2000