NR: The Travelling Bag and Other Ghostly Stories

Published in 2016, this volume contains five stories, all of novella or novelette length. The title piece, “The Travelling Bag”, consists of an account of his strangest case given to a member of his club by the psychic detective Gilbert and concerns misdoing in the medical community of Victorian times. The fruit of his labour stolen by another, Craig is given a chance to wreak revenge years later by confronting his nemesis with the thing he fears the most, though there is a price to be paid for his settling of scores. It’s a beautifully written piece, one that is rich in atmosphere, with the fog ridden streets of the metropolis brought to vivid life on the page, and a compelling plot. I wanted to like it so much, but there are inconsistencies in what Gilbert reveals to his friend, facts that would not be accessible to him and indeed which he denies knowing almost immediately after recounting them. It’s a gaff that undermined the work for me, with a story that should have been an unqualified delight left high and dry by the receding waters of credibility.

In “Boy Twenty-One” a lonely boy at a public school finds his fortunes change when a new pupil arrives, the two becoming fast friends, but the boy’s subsequent disappearance and then an encounter at a stately home the school visit give the matter a spectral dimension. Again there is a fine talent at work here, with a convincing depiction of public school life and the cliques that form, the narrative holding the attention right to the end when, for my money, it all seems to just fizzle out in a random ghostly explanation for most of what went before. I expected something more aesthetically pleasing.

There is something weird about office temp “Alice Baker”, though nobody can put their finger on precisely what it is, other than perhaps the smell and her aloofness from everybody else. Matters reach a head when the firm relocate to a new building and something terrible is discovered when the old site is excavated. This is perhaps the closest these stories come to a traditional ghost story, and Hill does a splendid job of creating tension, with endless small details that steadily accumulate until the final revelation seems almost inevitable, despite which I, once again, felt that it was a rather random resolution to a story that demanded anything but. Too much is left hanging in the air and without credible explanation. Why did Alice seek employment and how did she pass whatever checks were required?

With “The Front Room” going spare, a young family take in an older relative as an act of charity, but no good deed goes unpunished as the venomous Solange turns their lives into a nightmare for no reason other than pure malice. And for the first time in this collection there is a narrative that I found entirely satisfactory, with the evil nemesis of the story truly memorable and the steps by which her perfidy is revealed both credible and convincing enough to disturb.

Finally we have “Printer’s Devil Court” in which a book is discovered that purports to be the journal of an eminent physician. It tells of an attempt by his colleagues to bring the dead back to life and how it all went tragically wrong, and then goes on to describe his own attempt to bring succour to the spirit his peers wronged so badly, though in doing so he makes a terrible misjudgement. Again, this is a compelling story, with the narrative arc perfectly pitched and some pleasing effects along the way to a gratifying end twist, one in which the author no doubt took a gleeful delight, as did this reader. It is, as in some sense are all these stories, an engrossing read, one that slips down so easy even as it rattles the cage of the reader’s psyche. Complementing the text are some striking black and white illustrations, though I could find nothing to reveal the name of the artist. Overall, regardless of any reservations I might have expressed above, this was an eminently readable and enjoyable collection of stories, one that, if I am permitted the pun, more than captured the spirit of the ghostly tale.

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