The Shadows on the Wall by Mary Wilkins Freeman

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I like to read ghost stories in October. I’m sure I’m not alone in this predilection. I also like to read Paula Cappa’s weekly blog (linked in my blogroll) post titled “Tuesday’s Tale of Terror.” A lot of my ad hoc reading includes stories of a dark nature, but if none of my current reading fits that bill, I can always count on a quick fix from TToT. Paula is also good about including links to the stories if they are in the public domain – and also to other interesting and related material.

So this week, after discovering author Mary Wilkins Freeman via this blog, I followed one of the links to a different story, the ghostly tale “The Shadows on the Wall.”

(Below: Edward’s siblings look uncomprehendingly upon the shadow on the wall)

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I remember being fascinated with shadows early in my childhood, probably further than my average memory reaches. I remember having a terrible fright once playing outside the house after dark – maybe it was hide and seek – and running between our house and the neighbors’ to hide. I recall that the street lights soon cast a shadow of a man on the wall of the neighbors’ house. It looked like someone with arms outstretched to the side at right angles (kind of the pose of the famous “Christ the Redeemer” statue in Rio de Janeiro.) Mistaking this shadow as one of my brothers or friends’ in some triumphant “Aha! There you are!” victory stance, I walked to the front yard to find… NO ONE there. I think I was done playing for that night.

There are some other shadowy encounters in my life experience, but I won’t bore you with them here. Suffice it to say, a respect for the “power” of shadows helped me appreciate this story by Mary Wilkins Freeman.

The story (which may be read for free on line at http://www.litgothic.com/Texts/shadows.html ) deals with the Glynn family, specifically with the death of Edward Glynn and his surviving siblings, Henry, Rebecca, Caroline, and Emma. The latter is the only married sister and she has returned home and learns some troubling details about the death of her brother a couple days earlier. It seems that Edward and Henry had a spirited argument the night Edward died. Rebecca had overheard/eavesdropped the argument and related that when Henry shouted that Edward “had no business” living at the family estate, Edward replied that “he would stay here as long as he lived, and afterward too.”

The sisters are fearful to know the extent of Henry’s complicity in Edward’s death, and, to the surprise of Emma, seem afraid to light the lamp in the large front room when night falls. When she insists upon it, we meet for the first time a strange shadow on the wall… The rest of the story deals with how the siblings cope with this supernatural presence. It ended a little too predictably for me but was still a good ghost story.

Have you heard of this author before? What are some of your favorite ghost stories?

(Below: Rio de Janiero’s “Christ the Redeemer” overlooking the beautiful Guanabara Bay)

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“City of Dreams” by Richard Christian Matheson

The fate of the cookies prayed on my mind for days.”

Isn’t it funny? In my last post, where I once again briefly described the mechanics of my annual short story reading project, I mentioned how letting fate decide the order of my reading often led to curious coincidences. Then, in the post before that, I related how a collection of an author’s short stories is something like a batch of cookies. Should I really be surprised, then, when just a few pages into my latest story, the protagonist decides “to make a batch of chocolate chip cookies?” Once again I feel like Haruki Murakami’s Chance Traveler

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The Ace of Spades which I drew this morning led me to Richard Christian Matheson (son of the great sci-fi author Richard Matheson, of “I Am Legend” and many Twilight Zone episode credits fame) and his story, “City of Dreams.” It has immediately become a candidate for my favorite short story of the year (and in the process perhaps proven that literary talent has a genetic component.) Those who’ve been paying attention already know that my stories in the Spades suit are “sci-fi/horror/ghost stories,” and this one was a home run. I acquired this story when I bought the anthology “Haunts: Reliquaries of the Dead” last October (I like to read scary stories around Halloween :-)) It has thus far proved a rich source of great stories. I’ve posted before about another story (“The Door” by England’s ‘Prince of Chill,’ R. Chetwynd Hayes) in this volume.

(below: Richard Christian Matheson)

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Today’s story:

The human brain has a tendency to “fill in the blanks” in the absence of sufficient data. This is the premise or observation around which this ghost story was built. The author relates in the introduction how, in real life, while sitting on his patio, he would occasionally overhear just tiny bits of conversation, etc. from his new neighbors, who he had yet to meet, which led to speculation – and wild imaginings – about who they were and what they might be up to. The protagonist of “City of Dreams” finds himself in a similar situation when a mysterious, obviously wealthy neighbor moves in next door, updating the property with security camera and landscaping (a “leafy moat”) additions, not to mention guard dogs, in the process. The clockwork comings and goings of a black limousine only add to the tantalizing “mystery” of his new neighbor, who he only thinks of as “the Royal.”

Eventually, he seeks to break the ice by making a gift of the aforementioned batch of cookies and leaves them gift wrapped in the mailbox with a kind of introductory note. It appears at first that he is doomed to be snubbed as there is no reaction or thank you forthcoming, and he is just about to give up the chase when he finds a handwritten note in his mailbox saying simply, “We must meet. How about drinks tonight over here. Around sunset?”

When he visits, he is greeted by an “exquisite” young woman, whose smile takes his heart “at gunpoint.” He talks with her at length “without finding out much about her.” Near the end of his visit he admits, “I thought I must be falling in love. I still think I was, despite everything soon to befall me.” (Everything soon to befall me!? How’s that for in-your-face foreshadowing?) Upon their parting, she presents him with a gift, but encourages him to open it “tomorrow, when you’re alone” so he takes it home with him.

Now begins my cliched struggling with how to end this post without giving everything in the story away… Does the woman really live there? No. Is the present given really hers to give away? No. Just who is this woman? This last is the real question, and it was answered to my satisfaction… If you’re looking for a good collection of “ghost” stories, you could do a lot worse than this one. You can find it for sale at: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/haunts-stephen-jones/1103855598m which is where I bought my copy. Happy reading!

Oh, I forgot. I’m supposed to end blog posts with a question. 🙂 Here’s one: What’s your favorite ghost story (and why, if you’ve got the time to share)?

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“…out of the darkness beside me the whisper came: `Brenda Ford’.”

I divide the people I know who are avid readers of ghost stories into two groups:  Those who’ve read “Smee” by A.M. Burrage and those who have not.  It’s not particularly horrible.  It’s not graphic.  It’s not violent or gory. It’s not necessarily the best written ghost story I’ve ever read either. But it never fails to turn the skin on my forearms into gooseflesh.

A party of twelve people in a large old English house with “lots of unnecessary passages and staircases” decides to turn out the lights and play a sort of grownup version of hide and seek.  The rules of the game, Smee, are as follows (described by the author):

It’s much better than hide and seek. The name comes from “It’s me”, of course. Perhaps you’d like to play it instead of hide and seek. Let me tell you the rules of the game. Every player is given a sheet of paper. All the sheets except one are blank. On the last sheet of paper is written “Smee”. Nobody knows who “Smee” is except “Smee” himself – or herself. You turn out the lights, and “Smee” goes quietly out of the room and hides. After a time the others go off to search for “Smee” – but of course they don’t know who they are looking for. When one player meets another he challenges him by saying, “Smee”. The other player answers “Smee”, and they continue searching. But the real “Smee” doesn’t answer when someone challenges. The second player stays quietly beside him. Presently they will be discovered by a third player. He will challenge and receive no answer, and he will join the first two. This goes on until all the players are in the same place. The last one to find “Smee” has to pay a forfeit. It’s a good, noisy, amusing game. In a big house it often takes a long time for everyone to find “Smee”.

(I have no idea where the house pictured below is, but I do not doubt it could host a robust game of Smee…)

Sounds innocent enough, doesn’t it?  Well it would be, if you weren’t playing in a house that also had a spectral inhabitant.  In this story, the presence of the spirit becomes known by degrees – First by a seeming mis-count of the number of players in the game.  Oh well, no problem, the counter must’ve just counted himself twice, right?  Let’s try again.  Twelve this time.  That’s much better.  Second, by the young son of the hosts, who thinks he found ‘smee’ in a large cupboard (‘touching a hand’) but when the lights come on, there’s no one there.  Oh well, no problem, kids have such active imaginations – especially in a house with all the lights off.  But when the narrator himself thinks HE has found ‘smee’ and sits with her on a window seat for some time, well… you can just read for yourself.  It may be found on-line at: http://www.scaryforkids.com/smee/

Enjoy – and let me know what you think of “Smee.”  Don’t be shy, it’s jus’mee…

(A.M. Burrage)

“He knew that a battle had been fought over his soul, and that evil had not prevailed…” A.C. Benson’s ‘The Slype House’

Author A.C. Benson

Saturday mornings in 2011 have brought with them a new and welcome tradition. Thanks to my short story reading project (“Deal Me In”), it has become my custom on Saturday morning to draw a new card from the deck to see which short story I shall read next. This morning brought me the king of spades…

When I started this project (Inspired by Prongs’ “52 weeks, 52 books” reading project) I roughly assigned the stories in my pick list to “suits” with some common theme. “Diamonds” were to be stories recommended by others, “Hearts” were to be favorites that I was re-reading, “Clubs” were to be stories I had not previously read, but had wanted to, and “Spades” – ah, the darkest of the suits – were to be ghost stories, long one of my favorite reading genres.

This was also a story I had read once before, but nearly fifteen years ago. How I found it for this year’s reading project was that it was in one of my favorite ghost story anthologies, “The Mammoth Book of Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories” edited by Richard Dalby.

This is the volume that introduced me to Bram Stoker’s story, “The Judge’s House,” and also one of my all time favorites, “The Ash Tree” by M.R. James. I have a bad(?) habit of defiling the contents sections of any anthologies I own, writing the date that I read each story, and tagging it with an asterisk if I found the story particularly good (occasionally, there is even found a two-asterisk story, but that is very rare; some of them are featured in the Hearts suit if this project, however). This story was marked with an asterisk, although I could remember NOTHING about it, which perplexed me. That is why I added it to this project.

“The Slype House” the story of one Anthony Purvis. He is an unfortunate soul who has hardly known any love in his life. Though of a rich family, he was a sickly child whose mother died when he was young, while his father had little interest in raising or devoting any time to him. When he was sent to university, he was picked on by his peers and formed a resolve to gain power and make himself a name – “he had determined that as he could not be loved he might still be feared.” In part, this ambition leads him to study The Dark Arts, inspired in part by an old doctor of the college “who feared not God and thought ill of man” and devoted himself to the study of “the black influences that lie in wait for the soul.”

Anthony lives abroad awhile and returns to collect his inheritance when his father dies. He spends some of the inheritance on “The Slype House,” where he can devote himself to his studies safely away from his fellow man. The house (described wonderfully by Benson) is, fortuitously, next door to a kind of monastery or church. As he grows older and reaches the age of fifty, Anthony begins to ponder his own mortality and becomes worrisome about “what lies beyond” this life, concluding that he “had made a few toys, he had filled vacant hours, and he had gained an ugly kind of fame – and this was all.” His melancholy induced by these musings leads him to try to (presumably) call upon the ghost of his dead mother, who is the main character in the only memories of love that he possesses. Naturally, his efforts in this regard lead to unintended consequences, and the fate of his eternal soul is left in jeopardy…

You should really read this story. I absolutely loved it.

“The Slype House” can also be found for free on the Internet. Here is where one PDF of the story resides:

http://www.horrormasters.com/Text/a1316.pdf