When the heat haze is rising from a field of sunflowers, and the song of the cicada is percussioned by the tapping of the swimming pool filter, all seems bright and open. It’s an odd time to read ghost stories, for where are the ghosts to hide? Where are the dark corners and half-glimpsed shadows?
It took a holiday in the sun-bleached region of Deux-Sevres to reignite my love of ghostly fiction, Over the past year my mind has been on other things: my mother, my Badger, my work. I haven’t blogged in months. All my efforts have been very much in the earthly world. It’s taken months for me to write this post, as now the evenings are cold and long and the rain drips onto swollen Somerset fields.
But with the summer sunshine came a chance to rebuild my affection for the macabre. I wrote the first draft of this in Lavender Cottage, a stone barn in the hamlet of Mandegault de Mellaran. Hollyhocks, nearly at the end of their time, lean and sway against the door. A fat tabby cat prowls the garden, tummy brushing against the grass. The swimming pool scatters flashes of light over the courtyard. And beside me is a small, curated pile of spooky tales, books that I’ve been meaning to read for some time, books that have been waiting patiently on the shelves longer than they should.
I’ve selected three of these to write about. They have a common influence- the refined horror of M.R. James and his haunted, scholarly young men who unwittingly unleash ancient evils.
Jonathan Aycliffe’s The Matrix was an Amazon stumble-upon. If I were in an M.R. James story, it would be one of those predestined moment that appears to be a coincidence. It’s a heck of a book, though, and one of the best chillers I’ve read in years. The main character is a young academic, numb from the loss of his wife, relocating to Edinburgh to study outlandish cults in and around the city. He is attracted to the Fraternity of the Old Path, a group of odd individuals who recreate lost rituals of Ancient Egypt with unintentionally comical results. One of their members, the enigmatic Duncan Mylne, draws the academic to him and away from the cult and their eccentric capers. A unsettling book with malefic illustrations falls into the academic’s hands through some unexplained means (rather in the manner of James’ ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook’) , and an strange scratching noise is heard in the walls of his room (as in Lovecraft’s ‘Dreams in the Witch House’).
As Mylne becomes his mentor, there’s a feeling of horrible inevitability about the fate of the academic – his feverish dreams spill over into his waking life, and when Mylne asks him to accompany him to North Africa to find the real truth behind the Old Path, you know that this is a doomed voyage. The sequences set in Morocco are especially chilling, as he stumbles through the walled city in search of Mylne only to find a dark, ancient room where nothing human now lives. Aycliffe is a marvellous writer, and although the ending seems a little rushed, you’re left with a sense of oppressive, nameless horror that stays with you for a long time.
F.G. Cottam’s The House of Lost Souls is a real romp through the tropes and phantasms of supernatural fiction. There’s even an ex Special Forces character with a ghostly tale to tell of occult murder in Central Africa. It’s greatly enjoyable, playing fast and loose with the debauched legends of Aleister Crowley and Dennis Wheatley, while weaving the past and the present together in a masterly fashion. Again, there’s a main character, Seaton, with a tragic past, drifting through life and unable to fully shake off the demons that haunt him (there’s a particularly chilling sequence in a deserted university, where reality seems to drop away and another, darker, world takes over ). He’s approached by a shady character who may not be all he seems, and is asked to investigate the death of a young girl during a visit to the derelict Fischer House. Seaton has his own history with the Fischer House, which is tied to the death of his brother, the disappearance of his girlfriend and, years before, of enigmatic photographer Pandora Gibson-Hoare. As he delves deeper, the novel becomes a heady chase through the past and present, with Pandora’s diary and Seaton’s memories intertwining as a background cast of creepy characters attempt to thwart his efforts to finally understand what took place at the Fischer House.
The last book on my pile was Andrew Pyper’s ‘The Demonologist’. I’ve struggled with Pyper before, finding him too restrained and self-consciously literary to be fully enjoyable, but this was a fun experience. ‘The Demonologist’ was marketed as a similar tale to Elizabeth Kostova’s gorgeous ‘The Historian’ but it’s not quite at the same level – however, the scenes set in Venice’s dark and haunted waterways were atmospherically evoked, even if the rest of the book became a drawn-out road trip of anonymous American towns with danger lurking behind every motel room door. Pyper’s demon is a Milton-obsessed literary fiend who toys with our academic main character like a devilish kitten with a ball of wool, taking ownership of nearby bodies with alacrity and spouting Paradise Lost at every opportunity. I’ve seen ‘The Demonologist’ described as subtle and erudite – it’s certainly not subtle and wears its literary learning heavily, but it is quite a page-turner, and deeply creepy.
I have a number of books still to read this winter – the reissues of Robert Aickman’s stories are next on my list – but my summer of ghostly fiction was a reminder that to walk in the dark while the sun shines is a very satisfying way to spend a summer holiday.