“Party Talk” – a ghost story by John Gaskin

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It’s October and time to read some ghost stories. I was quite fortunate in my first choice. I still had a handful of stories remaining unread in my collection, “Haunts: Reliquaries of the Dead,” which features many great, scary stories. Some of those I’ve posted about before are linked below (my favorites were “Is There Anybody There” and “City of Dreams”)

Grandfather’s Teeth and Grandmother’s Slippers

Is There Anybody In There?

City of Dreams

The Door

Our narrator in the story is a party guest and writer of ghost stories. He allows himself to be trapped into a conversation with an old lady at the party who, reclining on an old-style chaise longue tells him, “Sit down. I have a tale you must hear.”

She relates a story from her youth where she, after committing an indiscretion with a youthful gardener, is shuttled off to live with an aunt, out of the way and out of the view of public shame. She is kept busy with many tasks, one of which is planting some roses amongst some old graves near the transept of the local church. During her shallow excavations, she unhappily discovers she has uncovered several bone fragments. She stores them behind the old tombstone of one Elenor Ward. She learns from a young rector that Elenor was a victim of a local knave also known for getting other young girls “in trouble.” The young ward walks her partway home to her aunt’s residence (“Toburn Hall” – described by the author as being “large and untenanted by youth or laughter”). On the remainder of the walk, she notices a discomfort in her boot and when reaching home is shocked to find the suspected “pebble” to in reality be a tooth from among the bones she had unintentionally disturbed. She resolves to return it to rest with the others the next day and places it on a mantelpiece in her bedroom. This, predictably, sets up a night of terror that completes the story of the old party guest.

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(photo from http://julieannchristian.wordpress.com/)

Gaskin’s not done with us yet, though, as a further, added twist left me with not a few goosebumps on my arms this Friday morning…

I highly recommend this story and the book which includes it. It may be found for sale at amazon.com  or Barnes and Noble

Author Gaskin lives in Northumberland in the U.K. And is also the author of a story collection called The Long Retreating Day: Tales of Twilight and Borderlands, which I may want to check out now that I’ve read this story.

This post is also written in conjunction with the R.I.P. VIII Challenge.

Will YOU be reading any ghost stories this month? What are your plans?

(below: a “chaise longue” perfect seating for a ghost story, wouldn’t you say?)

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“Grandfather’s Teeth and Grandmother’s Slippers”

You’d probably think “Grandfather’s Teeth and Grandmother’s Slippers” sounds like a strange title for a ghost story. You’d be right. It is actually two titles of ghost stories found in the same collection, “Haunts: Reliquaries of the Dead,” which I have been working my way through since last year (it’s taken me awhile because I usually only read “horror stories” in October when, after all, they are most appropriate…).

I’ve written often about how I enjoy coincidences and the little connections that seem (spontaneously) to form among the books and short stories that I read. So, naturally my radar “went off” when I got to the short story, “Grandfather’s Teeth” by Lisa Tuttle, in the collection mentioned above. “Haven’t I read another ’grandparent’ story lately?” I thought. Sure enough, last November I also read Sarah Pinborough’s “Grandmother’s Slippers,” and it was in the same collection. I thought the editor (Stephen Jones) of the anthology must’ve had a chuckle over that – two “grandparent stories” in one book!?

(Below: author Lisa Tuttle)

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(Below: author Sarah Pinborough)

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Each tale explores the premise that inanimate objects can be imbued with some remnant (revenant?) of one’s spirit after death. Though I enjoyed both stories, neither would make my favorites list for the year. “Grandfather’s Teeth” is the darker story of the two, but was, I thought, weakened by the lack of clarity regarding WHY the set of false teeth would be so malevolent. I even went back and re-read the early parts of the story, and there is only a vague reference that the grandfather was anything other than a victim of dementia.

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“Dougie could remember when his grandfather had been a kind, gentle man who seemed to know everything there was to know about birds and animals, and who had taught him how to make a kite, but that soft-spoken, intelligent man had gone, replaced by a big, bad-tempered baby who wouldn’t even put his teeth in at mealtimes…”

Maybe it was not the ghost of the grandfather that possessed the set of false teeth; maybe they were evil in themselves, and that’s why he sometimes refused to wear them. Hmmm… I like that. Yeah, I think I’m going to go with that interpretation. 🙂 Grandson Dougie certainly found out they were evil, though, whatever the cause.

The other story, Grandmother’s Slippers, started out scarier but ended up with a much less gruesome touch.

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Jason’s grandmother had been “dying for a long time” when she finally passed away. His mother is having more trouble accepting “Gran’s” passing, though. This is when Jason finds an old pair of Gran’s slippers in a downstairs cupboard. Not even her “latest” pair either, but one of thirty years ago. He takes them out and examines them, reminiscing. Later, he replaces the slippers and closes the cupboard door. Only to subsequently find it open and the position of the slippers changed. His efforts to dispose of them are unsuccessful, as they continually reappear. Jason realizes, or so he thinks, that they are somehow after his mother (for now, they are both staying in Gran’s house) and he senses there is some unknown, unfinished business between them that she is reticent to discuss. The climax occurs when he returns home one night to find muddy, “slipper”y (ha ha) footprints going up the stairs and leading into his mother’s room…

These stories are both worth a read, but not by themselves reason enough to buy this collection. There are however, other stronger stories that provide sufficient cause. Here is a link to where you may find it at Amazon if you enjoy a good ghost story. http://www.amazon.com/Haunts-Reliquaries-Dead-Stephen-Jones/dp/1569759847

What about you? How is your October reading going? What ghost stories have you read this month (or recently)?

A Ghost Story: “Is There Anybody There”

I’ve read, just this morning, a “ghost story” by an author I’d never heard of before, England’s Kim Newman (below).

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The story was part of a collection titled “Haunts: Reliquaries of the Dead.” It’s a book I started last October but have pretty much left alone since then, waiting patiently for another October to roll around.

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***Spoiler Alert***
If you’d like to read the story yourself, the book may be found on Amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/Haunts-Reliquaries-Dead-Stephen-Jones/dp/1569759847 (the kindle version is “only” $9.99)

The premise of the story “Is There Anybody There?” was unique to me and, I thought, brilliant. It is set in the early 1920s, where we meet “Madame Irena,” a spiritualist/medium who is involved in a Ouija board “session” with one of her sitters. One might think this story would be headed toward a “fraudulent medium getting her just rewards from beyond” theme, but that is not the case here for, you see, Madame Irena (aka Irene Dobson) does have the power to communicate with spirits and “presences.” As Newman explains:

“She was no fraud, relying on conjuring tricks, but her understanding of the world beyond the veil was very different from that which she wished her sitters to have. All spirits could be made to do what she wished them to do. If they thought themselves grown beyond hurt, they were sorely in error.”

Make no mistake about it, though, she is in this line of business for the money and for personal gain. The presence she encounters in this session, however, is somehow different from all those other spirits of the departed she has contacted. Identifying himself only as “MSTRMND,” he uses a slightly different method to spell out strange answers on the Ouija board, eschewing moving the pointer toward the “Yes” or “No” on the board, he instead compels them to move it to simply the letter “Y” or “N” as if he were using some abbreviated form of communication, YKWIM?? No, it’s not that he’s “texting” either, but he is clearly using some shorthand form of communication of a more modern time…

You can probably guess where this is leading. MSTRMND is really “Boyd,” a 21st-century internet hacker and predator (though the latter may be too strong of a word), trolling for “victims.” Somehow, his chat room messages are ending up being transmitted across time to the ouija board in Madame Irena’s parlor! Who will be “reeled in” by the other, though, and what methods will be used? The duel between these two animates the second half of this great story.

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(above: a Ouija Board complete with pointer. The pointer is called a “planchette.”)

What about you? Are you familiar with this author? Have you ever “played” with a Ouija board? You can tell me…

“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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