Sunday, January 13, 2019

Spirits of the Season - edited by Tanya Kirk

Tanya Kirk is the lead curator of printed heritage collections (1601-1900) at the British Library (co-curator of one of the best exhibitions I've ever seen on the Gothic Imagination) and she puts together a fabulous anthology. I'm not sure which I find most impressive, but I'm definitely a fan.

Her previous anthology of ghost stories for the BL, 'The Haunted Library' was excellent, and 'Spirits of the Season' is every bit as good. Kirk's trademark seems to be a mix of comedy and the genuinely chilling, it's a winning combination.

I don't mind being unsettled by a ghost story, I don't want to be terrified, and I particularly like the ones which are more funny than frightening so this kind of collection works perfectly for me. It seems a shame that ghost stories have been somewhat relegated to Halloween, winter generally seems made for them, especially if they can be read aloud to susceptible family members. (They couldn't in my case, but I like the idea).

For fun F Anstey's 'The Curse of the Catafalques' and Frank R. Stockton's 'The Christmas Shadrach' are both particularly satisfying. 'Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk' by Frank Cowper, and Algernon Blackwood's 'The Kit-Bag' were the pair that I was glad to have read in daylight, and everything else is on a scale somewhere in between. All of them are entertaining- J. B. Priestley's 'The Demon King' is another favourite.

If you're thinking Christmas has been and gone now and that the season has passed for these stories, it's more of an underlying theme, something that recalls dark nights and the strangeness that disrupted routines give. 'Smee' by A. M. Burrage is the perfect example of this - a group are gathered for a house party, not all the guests know each other before hand and when they take to playing a game something between hide and seek and Sardines in a darkened house. The scene is set, the players have a growing suspicion that there's an extra person playing, but who, or what?

The genius of this particular story is that it's something and nothing - 'The Curse of the Catafalques' works on a similar principle but with added humour - with 'Smee' it's enough to make you look over your shoulder and be glad of bright lights. It's also the sort of story you could convincingly tell to an audience - which I don't think I've sat around and done since I was in my teens (do teens still scare themselves silly with ghost stories and the like?).

A brilliant collection, and brilliant addition to the Tales of the Weird series.

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