NR: The Haunting Season

With the tag line ‘Ghostly Tales for Long Winter Nights’, and released in time to catch the Halloween/Christmas markets, The Haunting Season was the last book I read in 2021. With no named editor, it’s a collection of eight longish stories by authors with reasonable credentials, though only two of whom I’ve read before (Purcell and Hurley).

Opening proceedings is “A Study in Black and White” by Bridget Collins, the story of Morton, who while out in the country to avoid a bit of difficulty back home stumbles across a house with topiary cut in the fashion of chess pieces, and decides to rent it despite ominous rumblings from the locals. As the story progresses we realise that Morton is not a very nice person, but the chess obsessed spirit that haunts the house has plans for him. This is a ghost story in the classic style, immaculately written and building its effects with a sure touch, drip feeding us the information we need to make events fit a sinister pattern and knowing more than the protagonist. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

There’s more of the same in “Thwaite’s Tenant” by Imogen Hermes Gowar, this time with the addition of a feminist subtext. The protagonist has left abusive husband Lisle and taken her son with her, but the social mores of the time are not sympathetic to women who abandon their partners, whatever the circumstances. Mother and child are taken by her father to a rundown and isolated house, a property he uses for nefarious purposes and which is haunted by the spirit of the previous owner and his wife, and they are to stay there until she comes to her senses and agrees to return to Lisle. The haunting elements here are rather predictable; undoubtedly well done but with nothing to surprise the reader, not even the final revelations, or the way in which past events helps to shape the present. What makes the story so compelling and adds a real degree of horror is the plight of our heroine in a patriarchal society; nobody, not even her own father, wants to pay heed to her complaints of abuse and fears that her son will grow up as a chip off the old block, and it is this spiritual and emotional isolation that makes her plight so touching.

Natasha Pulley’s “The Eel Singers” is the most unusual and offbeat of what the book has to offer. Mori can remember the future, which makes life in the metropolis an endless nightmare for him, particularly at Christmas. With friend Thaniel and the girl Six he heads off to a place in the Fens where his ability will be neutralised, a blank spot on the psychic landscape. But the locals seem odd and Thaniel starts to sleepwalk placing his life in peril, while an even greater danger to Mori lurks in the background. There’s so much to the good here – the unusual setting, with its unremitting feel of bleakness and isolation, while its inhabitants are intriguingly odd, cranking up the tension as we learn more about them, though the ‘big bad’ isn’t all that unusual. What makes the story special are the three leads – Mori, with his ability that proves more curse than gift; Thaniel and his unrequited love for Mori; the girl Six, with her blend of OCD behaviour and assertiveness – with the interplay between them, the telling details and the humorous banter, all part and parcel of what makes this story stand out from the rest. I’m not sure I’d log it as the best piece here, but probably the most memorable.

A photographer of the deceased, Walter Pemble is commissioned to do the portrait of the luminously beautiful “Lily Wilt” in Jess Kidd’s story. But Lily’s spirit is lingering and not at all happy with her deceased status, coercing Walter into finding a way to bring her back to corporeality, with dire consequences for all concerned, not least Walter himself. This story is the black comedy in the pack, and very black too. The interplay between dead Lily, live Walter, and the maid Nan, who seems to have a handle on what’s going on (the only person who does), is deftly handled, while the excesses Walter indulges in to achieve his end are wild and exuberantly portrayed.

From Laura Purcell we have another traditionally slanted story, “The Chillingham Chair”. Evelyn has rejected the proposal of Mr Chillingham, who is now to marry her sister Susan, a conclusion not everyone is pleased by. Injured in a riding accident, Evelyn is given the chair of the title to get about in, but the chair appears to have a mind of its own. As ever Purcell doesn’t put a foot wrong, with the story travelling along familiar lines to an expected destination. The reader will probably guess the end twist long before the protagonist does, but that makes it no less satisfying. A highly enjoyable romp among the Austen set, with prose as mannered and well presented as the high tea at a stately home.

“The Hanging of the Greens” by Andrew Michael Hurley is probably my favourite story in the collection. Ed used to be devoted to God and looking out for ways to help people. He acted as informal counsellor to a man with a terminal illness, Joe Gull, and on his behalf agrees to visit isolated Salter Farm and make peace with Murray and Helen Oxbarrow, a couple who tried to help Joe when he was an alcoholic and who he feels he let down badly. But Ed finds the place deserted and is granted visions of the past that paint a very different picture of what happened at Salter Farm. It’s powerful stuff, with beautifully rendered characters and a vividly realised setting. At the story’s heart is a compelling and repulsive picture of an extreme form of religion, with preacher Crawland a mysterious and charismatic figure, one who persuades Murray to commit to a path he knows in his heart is wrong, at the same time driving a wedge between him and Helen, while the picture of the more mundane attempts to redeem an alcoholic offer an appealing and non-denominational alternative to the craziness that follows.

In “Confinement” by Kiran Millwood Hargrave a woman believes that her newborn baby is desired by the malevolent spirit of a hanged witch and child thief. This is one of those stories where the writer fills the plot with ambiguity, so we don’t know if the protagonist is really fighting a supernatural being or simply suffering from delusions. The atmosphere of creeping evil/madness is put over well, with more than a touch of “The Yellow Wallpaper” about it, while the tyranny of male doctors over women’s bodies adds a contemporary aspect to what goes down.

Finally we have Elizabeth Macneal’s “Monster” in which a small minded man with a large ego visits Lyme Regis in search of a dinosaur fossil to establish his reputation in the world of science, but nothing goes to plan. It’s a convincing picture of thwarted ambition, of a man so obsessed with himself that he is completely ignorant of how he appears to others, and to be fair the author lays some of the blame for this at the door of a disciplinarian father. Our hero wants to act in a certain way, but daddy dear has told him this is not how a man conducts himself. There’s sadness here, behind all the egomania, and it is this extra dimension that makes the story a bit more than it could have been, with the strong feeling of wasted or missed possibilities for happiness, those that our hero doesn’t see because of his wish to be something much more than he is, while his spurned brother is a perfect example of a man at peace with himself and the world. It’s a fine end to a very strong collection.

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