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Ghost: 100 Stories to Read with the Lights On chosen by Louise Welsh

Book Review: Louise Welsh uncovers two thousand years of the ghost story

EVERY culture, from ancient times to the present day, has its own ghosts, ghouls, and bogeymen. In all corners of the world there are ceremonies and rituals performed by the living to placate the dead, some barely changed in hundreds of years.Many of these have their roots in early ancestor worship and tales that have been handed down through the generations. Ghosts can take the form of people, animals, ships, and even the funfair favourite, the ghost trains. Usually they haunt a particular place or appear at a set time. Legends of manifestations have inspired many writers to delve into the supernatural and ghost stories have become an enduring literary genre.

Award-winning author Louise Welsh (pictured), no slouch when it comes to shredding nerves in her own works, spent 18 months researching and reading ghost stories. The result is this excellent and varied collection of spectral tales and unsettling yarns. The stories, arranged chronologically by date of first publication, feature such luminaries of the genre as Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, M R James and Stephen King.

There is also a strong representation of Scottish writers, from Robert Burns and James Hogg, to Ali Smith and Jackie Kay. It is a large, handsome volume that can be dipped into at any point but reading it chronologically does show how the genre has developed over the years. It also makes it easier to discern recurring themes and motifs from early stories to modern-day tales.

Welsh has taken a relaxed view on what constitutes a ghost story and the collection has benefited from some interesting selections. Truman Capote’s A Beautiful Child features a very much alive Marilyn Monroe but Welsh says that reading it she felt she was “in the company of a dead woman walking; a ghost”.

Comedic stories are also included, such as Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost, a witty tale where a ghost haunting an English stately home has the tables turned on him by a crass American family. These pieces offer light relief among some dark and disturbing tales, giving the collection a satisfyingly varied rhythm.

Welsh asserts that part of the attraction of supernatural stories is their potential to explore so many facets of the human condition, such as love and loss in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Demon Lover.

Whether directly or indirectly, they can also explore societal taboos, such as death, incest, madness in Robert Nye’s Randal, and flesh-eating in Mark Twain’s Cannibalism in the Cars. Women feature prominently in many ghost stories with the White Lady ghost being a common theme around the world. She is often a woman who has been wronged by a man and after dying tragically, appears in rural settings.

Governesses also feature as victims or unreliable narrators. Being neither gentry nor servant, these women were a ghostly presence in many households. Tales of ghost children can be very unsettling but in Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Old Nurse’s Tale, the ghost child isn’t malevolent, merely lonely and seeking a friend. The always-popular vampire stories are represented by Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s Guest, and Jewelle Gomez’s New York set, Off-Broadway: 1971.

Although largely an anthology of European stories, Welsh has included tales by African, Japanese, Scandinavian, American, Native American, and African-American writers. This is important, offering an opportunity to detect the similarities and differences in what frightens or disturbs peoples around the world. Stories set abroad, such as W W Jacob’s horror classic, The Monkey’s Paw, are as much about the fear of other cultures than phantoms.

The collection opens with The Haunted House by Pliny the Younger, written in the first century, and ends with James Robertson’s Ghost, a one-page tale written in 2014. In between, Welsh has assembled an enthralling collection of stories about apparitions, hauntings, evil-doers, madness, and psychological distress. She admits that some of her favourite stories failed to make the cut because of copyright or length but this does not detract from the overall quality of the collection.

Some of the tales could easily be read on a dark, stormy night without raising a shiver but there are some that really do benefit from being read in a brightly lit room. It will delight any lover of the ghost story genre.

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The Gap of Time – Book Oxygen Review

The Gap of Time

Jeanette Winterson

William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale Retold

Published by Hogarth 1/6 October 2015

320pp, hardback, £16.99/$25

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Click here to buy this book

To mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death in 2016, Hogarth is publishing ‘cover versions’ of some of the bard’s greatest works under the title, The Hogarth Shakespeare. A number of famous authors, including Tracy Chevalier, Margaret Atwood, Edward St Aubyn, Gillian Flynn, Howard Jacobson and Jo Nesbo, will each retell a Shakespearean play in the form of a novel, in celebration of Shakespeare’s reputation as a re-teller of well-known tales.

First into the breach is Jeanette Winterson who takes on The Winter’s Tale, renaming it The Gap of Time, a quote from the end of the play. It is set in London, Paris and New Bohemia in the present day or perhaps the near future. The author helpfully provides a synopsis of the play and main characters before launching in to her own version of the story which she says has special significance for her. As an adopted child, she empathizes with the abandoned Perdita, and says the play has haunted her for many years.

At first the novel feels clumsy and awkward as Winterson introduces the main characters in their new settings and guises. Leontes becomes Leo, a brutal, bullish man who owns a successful hedge fund company called Sicilia. MiMi (Hermione), married to Leo, is a famous American/French singer who is heavily pregnant with their second child. Xeno (Polixenes), Leo’s childhood friend, lives in New Bohemia and is a computer games genius. Leo becomes convinced that MiMi and Xeno have been having an affair and the child that MiMi is carrying is not his. Xeno’s ambiguous sexuality only serves to ramp up Leo’s fury and he decides to kill him. Leo is as obsessed by the thought of his best friend and wife being together as he is by flashbacks to his teenage affair with Xeno.

Once the characters are secured in their settings, Winterson lets the story take flight while remaining true to the plot of the play. She seems to be having fun; referencing herself at one point and breaking the fourth wall at another. It is a witty interpretation of Shakespeare with King Leontes’ court becoming the money markets of London, and one of the king’s henchmen remade as a used car salesman. The man who rescues the abandoned Perdita is called Shep, in reference to the shepherd who adopts Perdita in the play. This light touch works well, especially with the more unfathomable Shakespearian plot points such as Hermione’s sudden reappearance. The blossoming romance between Perdita and Zel is handled with tenderness that contrasts well with their warring elders.

There is no doubt that familiarity with the play will enhance enjoyment of the novel but the book stands as a droll piece in its own right, too. As a method of enticing readers to pick up Shakespeare’s works or attend a play performance, it has every chance of succeeding.

Posted in Book Reviews

The Fishermen – Book Oxygen Review

The Fishermen

Chigozie Obioma

Published by Pushkin Press UK, Little Brown US

304pp, hardcover, £14.99/$26

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is set in his Nigerian homeland in the 1990s, and centres on the lives of four young brothers growing up during turbulent times. The story is told through the eyes of Ben, the youngest brother, both as an adult and in flashbacks as a child, and starts when he is just nine years old.

Their father, Mr Agwu, works for the Central Bank of Nigeria and he is transferred to a branch in a faraway town. He tells the boys he will whip them if he hears they have misbehaved while he is away.  However the four boys, the eldest in a family of six, start to rebel against their father’s strict rule. They go fishing, hoping to earn a little money, but get much more than they bargained for when they meet Abulu, a bizarre local man said to have the power of prophecy. He tells Ikenna, the oldest brother, that he will be killed by one of his brothers, by a fisherman. This affects Ikenna badly and he withdraws into himself and becomes wary, ‘a python’, waiting for one of his brothers to deal him a fatal blow.

Obioma skilfully builds the family dynamics. The strict Mr Agwu wants his sons to become a pilot, a lawyer, a doctor, and a professor, to make him proud and envied by his neighbours. The boys just want to be boys and find it easier to slip away from their mother’s watchful eyes to fish and have fun. Their fun comes to an end when Abulu makes his prophecy known.

There is a beguiling, mythic quality to Obioma’s tale as his characters straddle the modern Nigeria and an older land with its own ancient customs and beliefs. The boys’ parents often speak in parables, particularly Mr Agwu, which adds to the mythological quality of the story. The Nigerian oral storytelling tradition looms large and that, along with the rhythm of the language gives a very strong sense of place and time. At times Obioma’s language becomes a little too florid and his descriptions feel overextended but this does not lessen the intense atmosphere he creates.

The fate of Nigeria, from the heady days of MKO Abiola’s ‘Hope 93’ political campaign, when everything seemed possible, to the dark days when Abiola was imprisoned and later died, form the backdrop to the story. There are parallels to be drawn between the collapse of the new Nigeria and what happens to the Agwu family, but they are subtly drawn.

This is a universal story of family love, loyalty, and discord. Through Ikenna, Obioma asks whether our destiny is already written or whether we are the agents of our own fate. It is a vast area to explore but Obioma distills the question down to the complicated relationships between family members and shows how opposing beliefs and misunderstandings can lead to catastrophic conflicts. This is an accomplished first work, from a new and distinctive voice.

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Tennison by Lynda La Plante – Independent on Sunday Review

Tennison, by Lynda La Plante – book review: She’s got previous

Simon & Schuster – £20

Lynda La Plante was not involved in the television series of Prime Suspect after the third instalment, but she was not shy about expressing her disappointment in how the series concluded in 2006, with Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison struggling with alcoholism and imminent retirement. In this novel, she attempts to snatch back ownership of her most famous character by going back in time to document Tennison’s first, faltering steps in the Metropolitan Police force.

It is 1973 and 22-year-old WPC Tennison is a probationer at an East End police station. She is keen but curiously naive for a woman who has just graduated from the police college at Hendon. The common jargon of police officers is a mystery to her; for example, she doesn’t know what a “bung” is. Tennison becomes involved in a murder case, typing up reports and filing information about the brutal killing of a young woman. La Plante excels in describing the minutiae of police work, the grinding day-to-day work of an investigation in pre-computerised days. She is a bit heavy handed in demonstrating the sexism inherent in the police. The female officers frequently being sent to make tea for senior male officers doesn’t need any commentary to make the point. Tennison develops a crush on DCI Bradfield, who is leading the murder investigation, seeing him as the kind of officer she aspires to be. La Plante uses this admiration to foreshadow Tennison’s later professional methods which echo Bradfield’s sometimes ruthless way of working.

La Plante also pulls back the curtain on Tennison’s family life, revealing her loving mother and father bewildered by her choice of career, and her younger sister wrapped up in her forthcoming wedding. This slice of domestic detail is interesting as Tennison seems as much an outsider in her own family as she does at work. Suffocating at home, Tennison moves into police digs, her first foray into independence.

She grabs you by the lapels, shoves you up against a wall, and doesn’t stop talking until you have heard the story she wants to tell. Tell is the operative word as La Plante’s writing style is not subtle and she will tell you exactly what all her characters are wearing, drinking, eating, and thinking. She is as present in this novel as her protagonists and she rarely leaves room for the reader to draw her own conclusions. The pace is breathless, and the plot is satisfyingly full of twists and turns. It reads more like the basis for a television series than a novel so it is not surprising to learn that La Plante has already adapted her novel into a six-part series for ITV, due to be screened in 2016.