I decided to take the plunge and launch an author newsletter. I was in two minds about this because I’ve been very busy with the The Classic Ghost Stories Podcast and doing the audiobook version of Horror Stories for Halloween. I’m writing on Medium too and doing a bit of freelance journalism. I hardly have time to go to work…
I’ll put links at the end for those who are interested.
I have also been working on my own craft and doing a lot of Deliberate Practice. This involves copying by hand the beginnings of stories by a whole range of authors. I have been copying lots! It includes Stephen King, Bram Stoker, Ray Russell, Herman Melville, China Mieville and lots more.
It’s a very interesting practice and you learn a lot, not least about punctuation! I have learned that punctuation is not standard even in books from top publishing houses. I have been reading lots about rhetoric, and analysing the writing of these writers. Melville uses formal rhetoric a lot, as does Dickens, but others do too. Including Susan Hill.
The Mist in The Mirror by Susan Hill (1992). Four Stars ****
As Stephen King (and others) say, if you want to write, you need to read, so I do. Not least because I like it. I just finished this book on the last train from Newcastle before they locked it down.
Susan Hill has written a ton of books and her most famous is The Woman In Black. I haven’t actually read the book, though I have a copy. I have a lot of copies of books I am going to read, if only I get the time.
I’ve seen the two film versions and the stage version. I saw the stage version in London years ago, and it is the only time I have ever been scared watching a play on stage.
The Woman In Black is much shorter than the Mist In The Mirror, and I thought that ‘Mist’ could have been cut.
Her comma splices (see above for my current obsession) drove me crazy. I saw obvious references to Dickens and Wilkie Collins and it was a pastiche of a Victorian novel.
Why do we read these stories? I have my theories. Yes, we want a safe scare, but we want the cosiness of them. We want to be transported to atmospheric places, fantastic places, and places that don’t exist any more and perhaps never did.
What Hill does immensely well is conjure the places her characters wander through. The Thames-side poverty of East London, the wonderful country-house at Pyre and the Bronte-esque loneliness of Kittiscar. Kittiscar must be in Yorkshire.
The story builds inexorably towards its climax. It’s well structured, nicely foreshadowed and has that nice feeling of our man being railroaded to an end he’d do anything to avoid.
At times, we the readers, realise things before he does. But that works too.
The ending is in keeping with the Victorian style of the story, in that he survives, ruined, but alive.
If Lovecraft had written it, he would have gone mad.
If Clive Barker had written it, he would have been disembowelled.
Dr Sleep by Stephen King (2013) Four Stars ****
You might not believe it, but I had never read this book until this month. I read too many short stories now, and once again, I thought it was too long!
It’s the sequel to his smash-hit The Shining and features the son of the insane axe-wielding janitor at the Overlook Hotel. He can still ‘shine’ which is his word for telepathic and clairvoyant abilities, and he finds a young girl who shines even brighter to him.
Unfortunately, kids who shine are food for The True Knot, a bunch of sort-of immortal aged Hells Angels who ride around America in winnebagos and stay at cosy campsites.
King does pull you into the story though. I would say this was actually an Urban Fantasy story rather than a horror.
These next two stories were read out by me on The Classic Ghost Stories Podcast. They have similarities. Go to the links at the end if you want a listen.
The Waiting Room by Robert Aickman
Robert Aickman was born in London in 1914 and died, also in London in 1981. He co-founded the Inland Waterways Association. One of his colleagues there was L T C Rolt, whose ghost stories we have also featured on The Classic Ghost Stories Podcast. Aickman and his wife Edith along with Rolt and his wife Angela are responsible for the survival of the British canal system.
Aickman was born into a well-to-do family in North London. His father was an architect and Aickman went to the famous Highgate School. He married Edith in 1941.
Aickman is most famous for his stories, which he liked to call ‘strange tales’. His stories were well-received, but by his own admission, did not earn a lot of money through his writing. He is a very highly rated writer of ghost stories, and I think probably the best English ghost story writer since M R James.
Aickman was, like James, a very educated man and it shows. As well as formal education, and his stories are full of classical allusions and allusions to the canon of Western literature and culture, he had a delicate and penetrating gaze. His stories subtly paint characters who seem alienated from the post-war England they live in. But it’s not just England they are alienated from but humanity as a whole. They have the existential unease of the characters of Sartre, the sort of people described in Colin Wilson’s famous book The Outsider.
Aickman described his own father as the oddest man he had ever met, but he himself seems somewhat eccentric. He describes his childhood as lonely, and when he was diagnosed with cancer in 1979, he refused conventional medicine and went to a homeopath instead. He stated he believed in life after death and there are hints at a deeply mystical view of life, and its mysteries. Indeed, he said that we should not seek to understand everything and his stories are wreathed in mysteries and misunderstandings. Many of his strange stories involve the hero being in the wrong place at the wrong time, even though it is not always clear why it is the wrong place; we are just left with the feeling of being out of kilter.
Aickman won many awards for his stories during his lifetime. As well as being an author of weird tales, he edited the first eight volumes of the Fontana Book of Ghost Stories between 1964 and 1972.
After his death in 1981, his writings lay forgotten for many years. His works have the feel of literature. They are not old-fashioned ghost stories, though they have the form of such. Instead, his work seems more reminiscent of the weird stories of Jorge Luis Borges or Italo Calvino, or even later Haruki Murakami. Maybe even last week’s Bruno Schulz.
He felt that we ought to read strange tales and ghost stories to begin a reconciliation with death and to escape from the mechanistic world. In that he is an old Romantic.
The Waiting Room
This is pretty much a standard ghost story. Like so many other stories, it begins with a railway journey that sends our narrator far from where he wants to be. He is geographically within our real world, but the night, the snow and the empty waiting room set him apart from the everyday world and allow the ghosts to show themselves. Casterton Station waiting room is built on a burial ground of the old prison. It is the ghost of those executed there that our man sees, including a talented musical hall singer. Though we guess this, it is revealed at the end by the porter. All of this is very conventional. Even the revelation that the nasty-faced porter with the jerking neck had put our man there out of cruelty. He knew very well what would happen, as it happened to him, leaving him with a nasty jerk of his neck reminiscent of being hung. As I read it, I wondered whether this porter was not himself a ghost, someone else who’d been hung in the prison, but it seemed that was not the case.
There are certain hints I can’t fathom. He knows that he has seen the singing woman before, but whether that is a hint he may have seen a report of her before her execution, or more likely that Aickman is hinting that when we dream, we enter the land of the dead. That reminds me both of last week’s story by Bruno Schulz, whose hero did seem to enter the realm of the dead and the Jungian psychologist James Hillman’s idea from his book Dream And The Underworld, where Hillman seriously, or at least symbolically suggests that when we dream we die, only return to life again each morning.
Sanatorium Under The Sign of The Hourglass by Bruno Schulz
Bruno Schulz was a Polish writer. He was born in 1892 in Austrian Galicia. In those days that part of historical Poland was under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Now it is part of Ukraine. His family were well-off traders who owned a dry goods shop. I’m not wholly sure what that is, though I think I knew when I was younger.
After the First World War, Austrian Galicia became part of Poland. Schulz was 26 when that happened. His home town was a drab industrial place, predominantly Jewish, at least until the Holocaust. Schulz lived there most of his life.
Schulz was interested in the arts from his youth and studied design in Lviv. He then went to Vienna to study architecture for two years but returned to his home town to the school he had himself attended and became a teacher of arts and crafts. He is said not to have liked teaching much, but he entertained the pupils by telling them stories.
He was Jewish, and before the Nazi partition of Poland, there was a thriving Jewish community in his hometown. He wrote in Polish but was fluent in German too.
Like many writers, he was inspired to continue writing even though he received little encouragement at first.
He gained success after he went to see a famous Polish novelist, who was reputedly not too keen on seeing him at first, thinking him just another wannabe writer. However, after hearing him read out the first page of his work, she asked him from the manuscript and declared she had discovered a new genius of Polish literature.
His first collection of stories was published in 1934 called The Cinnamon Shops in English though it is often known as The Street of Crocodiles. Three years later he published Sanatorium Under The Sign of the Hourglass. He illustrated his own books.
In 1936, he translated Franz Kafka (1883-1924)’s The Trial into Polish. Kafka who wrote in German was also Jewish and also from territory that had belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
He was awarded the Polish Academy of Literature’s Golden Laurel award in 1938.
In 1939 the Nazis came. He was writing a novel at the time, but that is now lost. He died tragically in 1942. He was walking home through the so-called Aryan quarter of his hometown. He’d been to buy a loaf of bread when he was shot dead by a Gestapo officer. The story was that this Gestapo officer had a quarrel with an SS officer. The SS officer had shot the Gestapo officer’s Jewish slave, so in return, the Gestapo officer shot Schulz, who had been employed by the SS officer to paint murals.
Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass
Reminiscent of the weirdness of Kafka and the bizarreness of Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) (The Green Face, The Golem), there must have been something in the water in the Austro-Hungarian Empire that these three were born in. All three wrote stories which were oneiric. That’s a right word, meaning dreamlike.
I just feel like I’ve watched the third season of Twin Peaks, because like Lynch’s work the story, though ostensibly happening in the real world, is dreamlike from the outset.
It seems full of symbols, some of which I struggle to decipher. For example, what’s with all these cakes and pastries?
The guard dog and its kennel, the dog that morphs later into a man, and his Father and his mother (Father gets a capital in the story) are more apparent symbols. They could be Freudian or Jungian, and again we must remember that Freud was a child of Austria-Hungary and also Jewish.
In the early part of the 20th Century, there were also the movements of Dadaism and Surrealism, that definitely turned their back on realism. Weirdness was in the air.
Most of the story is mysterious to me. There seems to be something about them sending the carriage to meet him at the station and him missing it, not seeing it at all, but what it means, I don’t know.
His father is dead in “his own country”, but here in the Sanatorium and its weird landscape, time is turned back, and with the turning back of time, the possibility of a cure is obtained. That’s hinted at and not followed up.
They talk about another bed in his father’s room, but there is no bed. The staff wear felt slippers. They all snore. The snoring seems significant.
So, I didn’t understand it, but I enjoyed it in the same way I might enjoy some dance piece. It has no conventional narrative meaning, but it has meaning nevertheless.
“Are there two fathers?” I have no idea. I wish I was smarter.
Apparently in Polish, the phrase sanatorium alludes to a mortuary, and in fact, I do believe the whole story is a trip into the land of the dead. Perhaps this is what awaits us on the other side?
So that was Tony Walker Ghost Stories Newsletter first edition. The hubris! Hope it was somewhat interesting. You can see my books on Amazon and if you like ghost stories, follow The Classic Ghost Stories Podcast.