Haunters at the Hearth – Tanya Kirk, Editor

Another cold December and another descent into the catacombs of the British Library for editor Tanya Kirk, lead curator of the archives covering the seventeenth to twentieth centuries, carefully selecting the stories which will comprise Haunters at the Hearth, her latest offerings to the ongoing Tales of the Weird series which have brought to light long forgotten wanderings and ruminations in twilight and shadow on the longest nights.

Described as Eerie Tales for Christmas Nights, the eighteen stories “from across the spectral spectrum” span just over a century and open with an escape from the inclement weather on a frozen night aided by the arrival of The Phantom Coach, its passage chronicled by Amelia B Edwards in 1864 in a tale of two parts which don’t entirely flow together, the first incidental to the second, the substance of which is entirely summed up in the title.

Marginally better known in as much as it was later adapted for the stage by author W W Jacobs, Jerry Bundler of 1897 is a slight tale which depicts the misfortunes of a group of men telling ghost stories to scare each other and prompting tragedy with their foolishness and excitability, and the following tale, 1912’s Bone to His Bone is markedly superior, establishing a history of the parish of Stoneground and the people who have lived there and the love of books shared by most of them, E G Swain conveying the attempts at communication from former to present occupant via that medium.

A solicitor of invariable routine is persuaded to try a shortcut via Oberon Road on his daily commute in A M Burrage’s charming story of 1924 which echoes A Christmas Carol and perhaps looks forward to It’s A Wonderful Life, while the following year D H Lawrence has The Last Laugh in an oddity of strange behaviour on a winter night, his collection of characters parading through the abstract piece answerable only to themselves.

Kirk commenting in her notes that Doctor Browning’s Bus bears a resemblance to the opening story, E S Knights’ work of 1933 is better written and structured, and most importantly it is more atmospheric, as is Eleanor Smith’s nightmarish dalliance of 1943 with Whittington’s Cat, depicting a wealthy loner whose theatrical obsession follows him home, making demands and taking over his life much to the consternation of the servants and housekeepers who are almost ubiquitous in these stories.

The Rector’s daughter avoiding her fathers’ church except when obliged to attend out of necessity, and even then occupying her mind with other things, the evil in the church, the devil in the gargoyles, the witches in the village, The Earlier Service of Margaret Irwin reminds of the style of Shirley Jackson as Jane questions everything around her and her place within it in a surprisingly modern jolt of Satanic Panic dating to 1935.

More understated is Howard Spring’s Christmas Honeymoon of 1939, a walking trip which would have suited Cornish Horrors just as easily, the references to the artist Paul Nash far from arbitrary, his paintings depicting the Cold War conveying cold broken hellscapes devoid of populations or hope, counterpointed by The Cheery Soul of Elizabeth Bowen’s bizarre comic melodrama of 1942 where a young woman participating in the homefront war effort is offered a place to stay for the festive period but finds her hosts curiously absent, met instead by a hostile aunt who has no inclination to be welcoming.

The horrors of rural isolation Between Sunset and Moonrise conveyed by R H Malden in his tale of 1943, he recalls a priest obliged to attend an elderly spinster and his suspicion that she was expecting another guest whose sinister visit could not be forestalled, while James Hadley Chase gets to the point with The Mirror in Room 22 of the following year, albeit ambiguously; is it an expert recounting a ghost story pertaining to that specific lodging or a savvy individual taking advantage of happenstance to get what he wants?

Poldark creator Winston Graham venturing far from the area with which his most famous works are indelibly associated, the weather during a trip to the Alps forces emergency accommodation At the Chalet Lartrec, a mystery and a cunning act of misdirection originally formulated in 1947, while the December date for the recurrence of a strange event is almost irrelevant to W F Harvey’s tale of 1951, one observation taking place in the South Seas in high summer, the date perhaps chosen to emphasise the darkness of the nights when the majority of the incidents take place; regardless, Account Rendered is entertaining if somewhat predictable.

It was in 1957 that Mildred Clingerman ventured into The Wild Wood, a disturbing tale of a wife and mother smothered by Christmas trees and first denied her voice then her very being, pulled into an annual ritual she has come to despise and unable to escape, the theme of direct threat continuing in The Waits of L P Hartley from 1961 where a wealthy family receive an unwelcome visit from a pair of persistent carol singers who bring little good cheer.

A fireside tale of a curse passed on to any who pass Deadman’s Corner at midnight, George Denby’s 1963 tale is obvious but jolly in the telling, leaving it to Celia Fremlin to conclude the volume with a believable and very human comedy of old friends and their flaws from 1974, the twist obvious with hindsight but a shock when the admonishment Don’t Tell Cissie has been made with genuine if exasperated affection, the various Haunters at the Hearth diverse in tone and style but offering something for every late night mood.

Haunters at the Hearth is available now from the British Library



Show Buttons
Hide Buttons