I take back all the bad things I’ve ever said about Christmas. Christmas is great. The schools close, adults everywhere get to behave like ten-year-olds, and the booze flows freely. Above all, Christmas is the traditional time for ghost stories, and with school out I actually had time to read some for a change. I chose these two books – both short story collections dealing with supernatural and/or horrific themes – for my seasonal reading. ‘Tis the season for spooky stories, after all: the weather’s gloomy, the days are at their shortest, and the worlds of the living and the dead seem to overlap.
Naima Haviland’s Night at the Demontorium begins on a horrifying note: “It seems like yesterday that Téa carved a big circle out of her belly and tried to scoop her entrails into the toilet. Before starting, she’d put duct tape over her mouth so her screaming wouldn’t bother the neighbours.” In the opening story, Aunt Téa’s Addiction, Haviland writes about a woman addicted not to drugs or alcohol, but to something far more fundamental. This is an original, and disturbing, story; the occasionally visceral content notwithstanding, it’s ultimately a story about the search for attention and approbation – the search, ultimately, for love.
He Dreams in Yellow, meanwhile, is a story about a man haunted – not just by a ghost, but by the wrong turns he has taken in life, and the pain he has caused, to himself and others. Malcolm’s world is a drab, colourless place, apart from the bright yellow of his dreams. This is a story about love beyond death; I was going to say unconditional love, but perhaps it isn’t that at all, because the object of Malcolm’s love torments him mercilessly: she is always there, but cannot be kept, confronted, or held.
The Entrepreneur is more bloody, and probably the most disturbing and effective tale in the collection. At first sight, you might be charmed, as the narrator is, by John. He is, after all, a friendly, likeable guy – or so, at least, he appears. John, though, is hiding a dark secret. And, more to the point, there are others like him: “They’re regular guys,” he explains. “You’d never pick them out of a crowd.” This is a tale of slowly mounting discomfort leading at last to absolute horror, and it is the stuff of nightmares.
Bedring, meanwhile, is a bizarre and thematically rich story about the darkness that lurks behind the façade of normality. Fittingly for a story of suburbia, it begins on a banal, and even rather benign, note: a man coming home to discover an empty house and an unmade bed. From there, it rapidly descends into a world of madness: a world where survival is paramount, and where danger lies in wait in the most ordinary surroundings. And it’s about the fight for survival, and how principles and even love can amount to little compared to the desperate, primal urge to survive. It’s also about the internal politics of the family, and how people slip into certain roles within a family which do not necessarily reflect their characters or wishes.
Overheard in a Graveyard, nine tales of the supernatural from Susan Price, is a gentler and more psychological collection. Having previously read Price’s Nightcomers, I knew I was going to enjoy this one: Price’s writing is exquisite, and her version of the supernatural more refined (and ultimately realistic) than the shock tactics of other writers. These tales delve down into the psyche, and unearth many of our deepest fears – and longings.
The opening story examines the extent to which we both yearn for, and are repulsed by, the dead. It is about the “burning wish to hasten/Down to that tomb already more than mine,” as Emily Brontë wrote; but it is also about how we turn away from the dead, cover our eyes and ears, and fear them. Who is haunting whom, here? Is it the dead beloved who is the ghost, or the grieving, living lover? The writing style is beautifully terse and elegant; it consists simply of dialogue, stripped even of tags. No “he said”, “she said” – just the characters’ words, expressing emotions so universal that you might wonder if you yourself are saying them.
Missing the Bus, meanwhile, is a change of pace. The characters here are all alive, but – being trapped, strangely static, and doomed to repeat certain meaningless actions again and again – they resemble ghosts. There’s a rich streak of humour here, as well as some social commentary.
In Cruel Mother, a particular kind of modernity – soulless, brightly-lit, banal – is contrasted with older, darker themes: guilt, death, and dependence. The horror is all the more effective for the ordinariness of the world in which it is set, and the ordinariness too of the protagonist, who sleepwalks through life, and is not even awoken by the intrusion of the supernatural into her existence.
In the two stories that are my personal favourites, the horror derives not from the ghosts – both of whom are rather comforting presences – but from the cruel and brutal world of the living. Mow Top is a heartbreaking (and horribly plausible) story about loss and grief. It is plausible not only in terms of what has happened to the girl, Carla, but in how her younger brother experiences her loss. We are left with a haunting image: a toy car slowly rusting on a stone in the middle of bleak moorland. In The Footsteps on the Stairs, meanwhile, the kindliness of the ghost is contrasted with the transience and precariousness of human relationships, and the extent to which children are at the mercy of their parents and their elders.
Another change of pace comes with Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld, in which Price retells the old Sumerian myth: “These demons of the Underworld, they never eat, they never drink. They never accept gifts. They never know a warm hug, or a sweet kiss. But to fill their dark land, they will snatch a little son from his father’s knee, they will snatch a bride from her wedding-feast, a man from his wife’s embrace, they will take a baby from its mother.”
Overheard in a Museum, the last story in the collection, is a stunning piece of writing, as exquisitely crafted as the ship it celebrates. The ship has outlived those who built it, those who sailed in it, and those who uncovered it; it will outlive all the visitors to the museum, who stand and stare at it. It is, in a sense, a material ghost: a deathless, silent witness to all that has gone before, all that is happening, and all that is to come.
Many of Price’s stories are set in the Black Country, and I think that it is from this strong sense of place that they derive some of their power. This is a world that Price knows intimately, and evokes fully. It feels real to the reader – and, as a result, the supernatural events feel real, too. The ghosts here are not really the pale, ineffectual wraiths of many ghost stories, but shockingly real and vivid beings, who may be either malign or benign. And again, there is the question of who is the real spectral presence. Are the ghosts haunting our world? Or is it our sprawling, vivid, colourful world that is invading and disturbing the quiet, shadowy world of the dead?