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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.

Posted in Book Reviews

The Ice Twins by SK Tremayne – Sunday Herald Review

SK Tremayne: The Ice Twins (HarperCollins)
Shirley Whiteside
Sunday 15 February 2015

SK Tremayne is the nom de plume of a best-selling author and award-winning travel writer who, for the time being at least, wishes to remain anonymous.

This is a stratagem that is sometimes employed by writers who wish to radically change gear or genre, allowing them to break new ground while avoiding any preconceptions based on previous work.

Tremayne’s tale opens in London with a couple in crisis. Sarah and Angus Moorcroft have lost Lydia, one of their young twins, in a tragic accident and the stress is taking its toll on their marriage. Then Angus is left Eilean Torran, a tiny Hebridean island, by his late grandmother, and he and Sarah decide to take their surviving twin, Kirstie, to live there. Angus knows the island well from his childhood holidays and Sarah is caught up in his enthusiasm.

This introductory section of the novel works well as the couple are seduced by the urbanite’s fantasy of living a cleaner and simpler life away from the noise, dirt and crime of the big city. When they arrive, the reality is sobering as they realise the island’s old cottage is “a brutal nightmare”, so overrun by rats that food has to be stored in baskets hanging from the ceiling.

Just before they leave London, seven-year-old Kirstie begins to act strangely. “Why do you keep calling me Kirstie, Mummy?” she asks. “Kirstie is dead.” At first Sarah humours her daughter, believing that she is confused and this is part of her grieving process. After all, the twins were very close and startlingly identical, with blue eyes and pale blonde hair.

Once on the island Kirstie becomes more and more insistent that she is Lydia. At the local school she frightens the other children with her strange conduct and they retaliate by chanting “Bogan” at her, which is Gaelic for ghost.

Kirstie/Lydia’s confusion over her identity and her erratic behaviour are both strange and moving. As she comes to terms with losing her closest companion, she also has to cope with her parents’ marriage dissolving before her eyes. She is anxious and bewildered by her own actions, making her by far the most sympathetic character in the novel.

As her relationship with Angus disintegrates, and Kirstie/Lydia becomes more emotionally distant, Sarah feels “lost in the hall of mirrored souls”. Things come to a climax during a ferocious storm that leaves Sarah and her daughter stranded on the island as the wind and rain batters the cottage, ripping holes in the roof.

Tremayne uses some powerful metaphors to enrich the atmosphere of the story. The island’s name, Eilean Torran (Thunder Island), introduces a sense of foreboding and its isolation echoes the family’s isolation, encapsulated as they are in their own world of grief. The dilapidated condition of the cottage reflects the state of Sarah and Angus’s marriage, something that needs love and care to bring it back to life; and the menacing graffiti figures painted on the interior walls of the cottage by recent squatters are like the ghosts that haunt the family’s relationships with each other.

By introducing elements such as supernatural occurrences, wild storms, dark secrets and Sarah’s increasing dread, Tremayne builds the unsettling mood of the piece. The astonishing beauty of the landscape forms a stark comparison to the ugly thoughts forming in Sarah’s mind as she begins to suspect that her husband has been lying to her for some time.

At times the unfolding of the novel’s plot is plodding and lacking a sense of urgency. The language is occasionally clunky as, for example, when a photo shows Kirstie and Lydia looking “desolatingly happy”. Thankfully the locals are not depicted as couthy or twee but as ordinary people living in an extraordinarily magnificent but challenging part of the world.

After the complex and dramatic build up, the resolution to the story is a little disappointing. It concerns a piece of information that puts a new slant on what has happened to the Moorcroft family and, while it makes sense, it seems incongruous that it hasn’t been revealed before.

This is a pity as the advantages and hardships of island life are well depicted and the Gothic mood is suitably creepy. While Sarah, who narrates large parts of the story, is an appealing character, it is the fate of the troubled Kirstie/Lydia that intrigues.