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Friday 11 January 2013
The 13 Ghosts of Christmas edited by Simon Marshall-Jones
Over the years Christmas, as well as a time of festive joy, has become synonymous, at least for some of us, with the traditional ghost story. How many of us look back fondly on the BBC's series of Ghost Stories for Christmas, based on M. R. James' classics, starting with The Stalls of Barchester back in the early seventies?
Even for those too young to remember these when they first began it has become something of a tradition. And one in which this collection more than amicably fits. With a suitably macabre cover, the work of Vincent Shaw-Morton, this is a handsome 201 page volume whose look and feel are filled with promise. Thankfully, it is a promise fulfilled by the thirteen stories in it. There are ups and downs, but the ups are always of exceptionally good stories and the downs are never worse than adequate. Beginning with a lively and interesting introduction by horror-enthusiast Johnny Mains, the stories start off with perhaps the best in the volume. An Odd Number at the Table by John Costello is a cracking tale, beautifully well written, with enough twists and turns in its plot to intrigue anyone right up till its chilling climax. This sets a high standard, up to which Jan Edwards' Concerning Events at Leinster Gardens amply lives, wherein the ghosts could be echoes from the past, but echoes that have terrible consequences for those who experience them. I have never been a great fan of William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki stories nor in psychic sleuths in general, but William Meikle, who obviously loves these tales, makes a more than adequate stab at them. And at least in atmosphere sustains the ghostly Yuletide theme of the anthology with a strange story of a possessed ring. Raven Dane's A Taste of Almonds is a densely written atmospheric tale of murder, intrigue and the hallucinogenic properties of absinthe, grotesquely Dickensian in a fascinating way, with some interesting details about poison. The seasonal aspects of the story, though not strictly speaking essential to the tale, do add a nice touch to it. Where the Stones Lie by Richard Farren Barber is set in more modern times, though it concerns a family curse in a country farmhouse in Ireland. Nicholas Martin's story All That Is Living, like William Meikle's Carnacki tale, is about a ring. Unlike the previous story, though, this also includes a demonic snowman, which is far more effective than I would have expected. Snow plays an even more pivotal part in Thana Niveau's And May All Your Christmasses... Evil snow, in fact. And, as we have become accustomed to with her tales, this is a relentlessly bleak, harrowing story, colder even than the season. A strong addition to the middle of the book. This is followed by a shorter story by Martin Roberts. Now and Then is all about guilt, loss and consequences, effectively and eloquently packing a lot into its four pages. I have long loved Paul Finch's stories. And December is no exception, a macabre warning on the paganisation of Christmas, with a final ominous twist. Inspired by Arthur Machen's Ritual, Gary McMahon's Ritualism updates the original to the hopelessness in a bleak modern northern city. Its unsettling depiction of the alienness of children and the potential violence, loneliness and nihilism of urban life is as dark as it gets. Which leads us to the rural violence inherent in an ancient village monument in Neil Williams' We Are a Shadow, whose amateur dramatic society, the Railway Players, are part of a larger pagan survival reminiscent of the Wicker Man. In The Green Clearing by John Forth two families, friends for years, share an annual Christmas holiday in a log cabin miles from anywhere, but as in some of the other stories in this anthology, echoes from the past bring horrors into the present day with horrific results. The final story, Lost Soldiers by Adrian Tchaikovsky ends the book on a strong note in the East Anglian fens where ghosts are resurrected by a band of hapless parapsychologists into finishing off a violent task the fens and death prevented them from carrying out during their lifetimes. Some great details, atmosphere and a truly horrific climax bring this anthology to a satisfying close. Well nearly, because there is a brief extra in the opening pages of Stephen Volk's upcoming novella Whitstable, due from Spectral Press later this year, a fascinating four page snippet whose central character is none other than the late Peter Cushing.
Apart from one story these are all original to this collection, making it an even greater achievement that it lives up to its premise so successfully, showing just what outstanding talent there is these days. It would be nice to think that Spectral Press and Simon Marshall-Jones could repeat this with another volume next Christmas, but they have already set a high benchmark.
Plus the good news for those who missed out on the 100 copy limited edition hardback is that it is being reprinted in paperback. spectralpress.wordpress.com