Some Thoughts on Good and Not-So-Good Ghost Stories…

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The cover of my upcoming anthology of Ghost Stories, published by Wick Press.

At the end of this post is a paragraph from a very very good ghost story that is 135 years old. But, first, I had to work out my thoughts about why I wanted to share it. And, it ties in with the premise for my ghost story anthology.

This is why I do what I do: I have been reading ghost stories and “mystery and suspense” stories and “uncanny” stories and “stories of the supernatural”—since the beginning of 2017, when I first began to narrow a list of hundreds of stories—maybe more—down to a growing longlist and then a shortlist for a 2-volume ghost story anthology—because, I thought, there is something about the stories written before 1920-ish, that were just better. They are better fiction, hands down, and I needed to explore this so I understood it better. After reading umpteen stories from 1780s-1915, give or take, I have come to the conclusion that, it is not about flowery language or “purple prose” or antiquated anachronistic plot structures, etc. etc. It is about being better-educated writers during a time when more was expected of our mind, our manners, our mores, our work ethic (even in writing), our reputation before “the world” (these periodicals made their way around and were widely read).

I had heard that a lot—the “overwrought prose of yesteryear” angle—and I was open to it being correct…and as I went along I compared some ghost stories from that time with some from the 1950s forward and all I could think was: ‘why does it seem that we have dumbed down fiction writing in the ghost story genre to a level of a Sport’s writeup in the Times?’ Nothing wrong with Sports writeups in the Times.

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One of the stories that I will be including in my upcoming anthology: The Greatest Ghost Stories Ever Told, ed. Sanguine Woods, Wick Press, 2017

But, I don’t want to read fiction like that. I want depth, thoughtfulness, a sense from reading that the author is well-read, the characters, too; I want them drawn in 3D and not over-described.I want atmosphere. And, I want to feel like the entire story took time to build, like a cathedral, not a hut made out of hay bales.

I know some amazing writers today who are writing cathedrals. And I am so thrilled as a reader about it.

I remember reading a quote in college by Henry James, or maybe it was Joyce Carol Oates…about writing the “telling detail”…but I think we still struggle today, especially in genre or “pop” fiction, which can also be very high quality, (sometimes), with telling the “wrong” detail(s). Wrong is a subjective term. Maybe the better descriptor is the “unthoughtful” detail, the “rushed string of details” the ones that sound OK, but that when strung together fall short of showing something cohesive about the character (e.g., the red-head waltzed into the room wearing a black dress cut down to there and orange lipstick, emerald earrings that dangled like stars from her earlobes, a matching bracelet on her right wrist, bright-red patent-leather 10-inch pumps, black nylons like the ones you wore in the 1940s with a line up the back, and a purse made out of the skin of some animal, but oddly, with all of that bling, she wore not a single ring on any of her long graceful fingers, the nails of which were painted “hotlips red”).

I would argue that the only telling detail here, is that she wore no rings. Why? That detail interests me. The others don’t. They are part of a “formulaic” writing style, noir, Roger Rabbit meets Raymond Chandler, but isn’t written as well as Chandler, etc.

I don’t mean to be negative, just reflective about why some stories seem to inspire more awe in me; whereas others feel utilitarian, not unnecessary, just thin.

The writers of the 1800s weren’t writing “horror” or “weird” fiction. Because those weren’t genres yet. They were states of mind or emotion, or behavior. And they made their way into this high quality fiction. What I especially love in these stories, is the way the entire story is treated with such respect—from the pacing to the tension and from the atmosphere to the characters—these writers were grand writers, and they had been brought up not on “the milk of fiction” but on its “meat”. I fear today, we are if not back to the milk, then at least to some protein-shake-gluten-free, non-dairy, lactose-free milk substitute, with vegetable-product thickeners.

I am still on my longlist, because I thought I would find more stories and novellas, sooner. Last night I found two, that may skip the longlist and jump right to the shortlist. I’m so impressed. One is by Sir Walter Besant. I’d never heard of him until today. And, here is a paragraph from the second one, a longer story by “Mrs. Oliphant” (Margaret O. Wilson Oliphant)—and published in a two-part serialized format in a new periodical of the time, that went on actually to become very successful.

This story is 135 years old. You tell me if it doesn’t read like the best literature published today. Purple prose? Outdated style? I don’t think so. And this is just one paragraph. Imagine the whole story, about the solemn, wandering ghost of a woman, long-dead—Stay tuned for The Greatest Ghost Stories Ever Told, ed. Sanguine Woods, December 2017.

“They asked me to come at Ellermore when we parted, and, as I have nothing in the way of home warmer or more genial than chambers in the Temple, I accepted, as may be supposed, with enthusiasm. It was in the first week of June that we parted, and I was invited for the end of August. They had ‘plenty of grouse,’ Charley said, with a liberality of expression which was pleasant to hear.

Charlotte added, ‘But you must be prepared for homely life, Mr. Temple, and a very quiet one.’ I replied, of course, that if I had chosen what I liked best in the world it would have been this combination: at which she smiled with an amused little shake of her head. It did not seem to occur to her that she herself told for much in the matter. What they all insisted upon was the ‘plenty of grouse;’ and I do not pretend to say that I was indifferent to that.

Colin, the eldest son, was the one with whom I had been least familiar. He was what people call reserved. He did not talk of everything as the others did. I did not indeed find out till much later that he was constantly in London, coming and going, so that he and I might have seen much of each other. Yet he liked me well enough. He joined warmly in his brother’s invitation. When Charley said there was plenty of grouse, he added with the utmost friendliness, ‘And ye may get blaze at a stag.’ There was a flavour of the North in the speech—of all not disclosed by mere words, but also by an occasional diversity of idiom and change of pronunciation. They were conscious of this and rather proud of it. They did not say Scotch, but Scots; and their accent could not be represented by any of the travesties of the theatre, or what we conventionally accept as the national utterance. When I attempted to pronounce after them, my own ear informed me what a travesty it was.”

– Mrs. Oliphant, “The Lady’s Walk,” Part I, Longman’s Magazine, 1882

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Le Visage Vert—A Pretty Cool Little French Review of Creepy Literature… Issue February 2017

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‘I’ve been too busy to study deeply the latest issue of Le Visage Vert, even to the point of being remiss about calling attention to its publication some months ago. So here’s a belated notice. Ordering details can be found here (scroll down), and a full table of the contents of this issue here. The lead story is by Perceval Landon, “Thurnley Abbey”. Lafcadio Hearn is represented with an article (from 1875) on spirit photographs. François Ducos contributes a study of the occult detective in France, 1930-1960. There are some older materials by Kirby Draycott and Gustave Guitton, as well as contemporary stories by Jean-Pierre Chambon and Achillèas Kyriakìdis. All in all another fine issue.

The Kirby Draycott story is additionally given in its original English, as “The Clock Face of Schaumberg”, in a supplementary booklet, reprinted from The Royal Magazine, November 1898, with the intriguing original illustrations. The story concerns a sixteenth-century historical figure, Goetz of the Iron Hand, who wore an iron prosthetic after losing his right arm in battle. Michel Meurger contributes an article about the historical Goetz, to complement the fictional treatment by the mysterious Draycott, about whom very little is known beyond his authorship of a small number of tales.

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The above is from the opening pages of the supplementary booklet. The illustration shows the interesting use to which a clock tower is put in the story…’

(From a review at Woormwoodiana)

The Greatest Ghost Stories Ever Told in Two Volumes (ed. Sanguine Woods), 2017 & 2018

My new book is coming this December from Wick Press! Just in time for the ghost story for Christmas tradition. I’m excited and hope you will be too! Click here for more info…

 

“A. V. Laider” a Creepy Tale by Max Beerbohm, 1919

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A. V. Laider

Max Beerbohm, 1919


‘“My hands,” he said, staring at the backs of them, “are the hands of a very weak man. I dare say you know enough of palmistry to see that for yourself. You notice the slightness of the thumbs and of he two ‘little’ fingers. They are the hands of a weak and over-sensitive man—a man without confidence, a man who would certainly waver in an emergency. Rather Hamletish hands,” he mused….But Hamlet was luckier than I in one thing: he was a murderer by accident, whereas the murders that I committed one day fourteen years ago—for I must tell you it wasn’t one murder, but many murders that I committed—were all of them due to the wretched inherent weakness of my own wretched self.’


I unpacked my things and went down to await luncheon.

It was good to be here again in this little old sleepy hostel by the sea. Hostel I say, though it spelt itself without an “s” and even placed a circumflex above the “o.” It made no other pretension. It was very cozy indeed.

I had been here just a year before, in mid-February, after an attack of influenza. And now I had returned, after an attack of influenza. Nothing was changed. It had been raining when I left, and the waiter—there was but a single, a very old waiter—had told me it was only a shower. That waiter was still here, not a day older. And the shower had not ceased.

Steadfastly it fell on to the sands, steadfastly into the iron-gray sea. I stood looking out at it from the windows of the hall, admiring it very much. There seemed to be little else to do. What little there was I did. I mastered the contents of a blue hand-bill which, pinned to the wall just beneath the framed engraving of Queen Victoria’s Coronation, gave token of a concert that was to be held—or, rather, was to have been held some weeks ago—in the town hall for the benefit of the Life-Boat Fund. I looked at the barometer, tapped it, was not the wiser. I wandered to the letter-board.

These letter-boards always fascinate me. Usually some two or three of the envelops stuck into the cross-garterings have a certain newness and freshness. They seem sure they will yet be claimed. Why not? Why SHOULDN’T John Doe, Esq., or Mrs. Richard Roe turn up at any moment? I do not know. I can only say that nothing in the world seems to me more unlikely. Thus it is that these young bright envelops touch my heart even more than do their dusty and sallowed seniors. Sour resignation is less touching than impatience for what will not be, than the eagerness that has to wane and wither. Soured beyond measure these old envelops are. They are not nearly so nice as they should be to the young ones. They lose no chance of sneering and discouraging. Such dialogues as this are only too frequent:

A Very Young Envelop: Something in me whispers that he will come to-day!

A Very Old Envelop: He? Well, that’s good! Ha, ha, ha! Why didn’t he come last week, when YOU came? What reason have you for supposing he’ll ever come now? It isn’t as if he were a frequenter of the place. He’s never been here. His name is utterly unknown here. You don’t suppose he’s coming on the chance of finding YOU?

A. V. Y. E.: It may seem silly, but—something in me whispers—

A. V. O. E.: Something in YOU? One has only to look at you to see there’s nothing in you but a note scribbled to him by a cousin. Look at ME! There are three sheets, closely written, in ME. The lady to whom I am addressed—

A. V. Y. E.: Yes, sir, yes; you told me all about her yesterday.

A. V. O. E.: And I shall do so to-day and to-morrow and every day and all day long. That young lady was a widow. She stayed here many times. She was delicate, and the air suited her. She was poor, and the tariff was just within her means. She was lonely, and had need of love. I have in me for her a passionate avowal and strictly honorable proposal, written to her, after many rough copies, by a gentleman who had made her acquaintance under this very roof. He was rich, he was charming, he was in the prime of life. He had asked if he might write to her. She had flutteringly granted his request. He posted me to her the day after his return to London. I looked forward to being torn open by her. I was very sure she would wear me and my contents next to her bosom. She was gone. She had left no address. She never returned. This I tell you, and shall continue to tell you, not because I want any of your callow sympathy,—no, THANK you!—but that you may judge how much less than slight are the probabilities that you yourself—

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“The Time is Right for Reaping” … a New Flash Horror Trip by Sanguine Woods

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I was excited to see this creepy little piece I wrote this fall find a home over at a very cool website: HorrorMade.com. And I really dig the original artwork by Jeanette Andromeda that the piece inspired! It’s perfect.

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Check out both here…

https://horrormade.com/2016/10/26/flash-fiction-submission-from-sanguine-woods/

Jeanette also sells her cool artwork, here…

http://www.artpal.com/horrormade?i=71677-17

Thank you for your support!

– SW

My Flash Fiction Sherlock Holmes Story: “The Adventure of the Unburied Hatchet”…

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You can grab a cheap copy of the ebook at the Amazon link below…

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https://www.amazon.com/Family-Memories-Anthology-Murder-Mischief-ebook/dp/B01LVV0CNL/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8#nav-subnav


20160917_111858(c) 2016 by Michael Albright Quinn. “The Adventure of the Unturned Hatchet” first appeared in Family Memories: An Anthology of Murder & Mischief, edited by M. J. Sydney and McKenzie Johnston Winberry.

My Gothic Story-in-Progress, The Dressmaker’s Lament …

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The Dressmaker’s Lament is a story I began working on in August. It is a Gothic story set in and around an old Brownstone in New York that was long-ago converted into apartment homes. But something is different about this particular Brownstone and at least one of its occupants…

  •  Who is the young and beautiful Evie Piper?
  • How long has she been living there, on the uppermost floor of an aging brownstone?
  • Why does she cover the walls of her apartment in a hundred ornately framed silver-backed mirrors?
  • Why does she hide her other collection of antiquated sewing shears?
  • Why does a bent, elderly shadow appear some nights against the lamp-lit shade of her upper-right window?
  • What makes Beverly Sams so intent on making Miss Piper’s acquaintance?
  • Why has no one else ever been recorded as having rented the apt across from Evie Piper’s? (Surely that must be a mistake in record keeping?)
  • What is the sensation of cold that lingers in a slice of air, right where the final step of the old stairway meets the uppermost landing between the two apartments?
  • Why is Beverly Sams having so many strangely familiar nightmares?
  • And why does she not see Evie for days even weeks at a time?

Beverly must be losing her mind. She knows, in her gut, that there is something very wrong about Evie Piper … and the stairway … and the dank air that seeps into her room from the brownstone’s basement…

Stay tuned for excerpts from “The Dressmaker’s Lament,” here, and at http://www.thesanguinewoods.wordpress.com.

SW

(Cover design: Sanguine Woods. Font by 500 Fonts. The Dressmaker’s Lament: Story title, excerpts, and ideas presented on this blog are protected under copyright law; (c) 2016 by Michael Albright Quinn.)