Friday, August 14, 2015

Midnight Fright: A Collection of Ghost Stories (1980)

uncredited, Midnight Fright: A Collection of Ghost Stories, Watermill Press, 1980
______, Midnight Fright: A Collection of Ghost Stories, Watermill Press, 1994

Midnight Fright at Goodreads
Midnight Fright at IBSFdb
Midnight Fright at IBList

Rating: 7/10

For more Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

This tiny anthology of five supernatural tales, specifically labeled "ghost stories," is essentially made up of tales widely available over the internet as well as across numerous print anthologies. Surprisingly re-printed in 1994, the anthology will likely never be printed again, as the internet has made most tales in this vein and in this period so readily available. The initial packaging of this five-some appears quite generic and nondescript, though I do like the simple cover (pictured), while the 1994 reprint is packaged as a set of tales for young adults, with an amusingly colourful cover by Mia Tavonatti. By packaging such a volume for a younger readership, the implication is that the stories would not frighten adults, and yet many of these tales have serious threads that only adults can appreciate. (Of course I'm generalizing.)

I mention that the stories are "labeled" as ghost stories because, if we are to examine each one of them individually, four of the five are not ghost stories at all. In fact, many nineteenth century and early twentieth century ghost stories are not actually ghost stories, including some popular tales consistently labeled and anthologized as such. The separation of fiction into genres, eventually associating stories with a certain "class" of readership, was a practice popularized in the early twentieth centuries (thereby H.G. Wells and R.L. Stevenson are considered literature, M.R. James is sometimes considered literature, while latter twentieth century authors of the supernatural are most often considered trash--another generalization). In more recent years the practice of classifying stories has increased drastically and the expansion of sub-genres has exploded to the point that contemporary readers have become obsessed with classifying fiction the way entomologists have been classifying insects. From a revisionist point of view, we can examine the stories collected in Midnight Fright in light of genre, and re-classify them in light of of contemporary approaches to genre. I will here examine the stories as ghost stories and in most cases de-classify them as such, and invite others to attempt to properly re-classify them. The benefit in such an exercise is to understand the development of genre in fiction, as well as to examine our changing perceptions of genre. More importantly, the author's own intention is clearer since often specific genres have adverse affect on the fiction itself, and as discussed below, in particular the Dickens's "The Signalman" and Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" are vastly different if we were to view them as ghost stories rather than as what they actually are.

Of course this review is filled with spoilers. If you haven't already, please read the stories themselves. All are good and most are great, and they are individually a better read than my silly review.

On a side-note I will briefly look at the anthology itself. As a collection the story choices are for the most part good, assuming a young readership who hasn't yet encountered the classics and often anthologized stories by Dickens, Gilman and Maupassant. The layout and printing is unfortunately poorly done, so that the diary entries in "The Horla" are mashed together while space breaks are not always obvious.

The Signalman by Charles Dickens     5/10
First published in Mugby Junction, 1866

This excellent story by this excellent author remains powerful not for its final, climactic and revelatory moment, but for the real tragedy the situation embodies. A lonely signalman is visited by our wandering narrator who is curiously drawn to the man. After an awkward introduction, the two men strike up an acquaintance, and the signalman confides in the gentleman that an apparition that has visited him twice before a tragic event on the track, has once again appeared to him a few days past, indicating that another tragedy is about to strike.

The idea that the apparition is a ghost is inaccurate. If we are to accept that a ghost is the spirit of a deceased person that exists within the plane of the living, the figure seen by the signalman is not a ghost. Instead, the apparition is an astral projection in time; the image of a (living) train engineer in the future appearing to the signalman. There is no projection of place as the image appears exactly where the real engineer will appear at the end of the tale, and simply appears out of time. Built into the narrative is the idea that the signalman has a sensitive connection to the moment of his death, and it is not the engineer who attempts to warn him of his impending death, but he himself who is picking up this message. It is interesting that the story is titled "The Signalman" rather than "The Ghost," or "The Apparition," or pretty much anything else. The story is about the signalman more than it is about anything else, with Dickens's narrator focusing on character. Dickens's idea is that he is a signalman not only in occupation but in his innate ability to pick up this signal from the future.

Dickens's idea of a signal and the sensitive connection to the signalman's death is also shared with the narrator. This man, who we know little of and who appears to act primarily as a narrator-witness to the supernatural event, is drawn to the signalman without reason or motive. This is highlighted when he is unable to give a reason when the signalman requests one. The narrator is observant and rational, and attempts to reason with the signalman, offering up excuses as lame as it is all just coincidence, which neither of the men believe. The rational gentleman is toying a little with the signalman, trying to elevate his status and trying to lead him to believe in a rational explanation, when in reality he is trying to convince himself of reason, to explain being drawn to this spot and to this man from who knows where and across what distance.

Interestingly, a faithful and very good BBC adaptation of the story has a similar interpretation, and segments the different meetings between the two men by focusing on the wanderer as he lies in bed, unable to sleep, and clearly disturbed by not only the signalman's dilemma, but his own involvement in it. It is even hinted that he too received a spirited visit on the last night in his room. This version uses the sound of the bell and train as a conduit between the event and the wanderer: though he does not hear the bell while in the cabin with the signalman, the sounds do play out vividly as he is racing toward the track, fearing the worst, implying that a connection does exist.

Dickens makes it clear that the narrator has a connection but that the connection is not as strong as that of the signalman, and it is possible that the signalman's sensitive nature is extending to the narrator, so he is psychically reaching out toward the narrator or anyone else who might be passing by. Among the many nineteenth century notions that Dickens believed strongly in was mesmerism, and the idea of a kind of attraction between these two men is heightened by this fact, and also by the fact that mesmeric connections also exist in other works, notably The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Man-Size in Marble by E. Nesbit     6/10
First published in Home Chimes, December 1887

A young, loving couple move into a lovely, strangely inexpensive home in a rural community outside London. They soon learn from their hired help that the house and the nearby church are cursed: On Halloween night of each year the two churchyard marble statues walk the grounds over to their very home, and should they encounter anyone on their journey, that person shall perish. Not a bad story as story's go, but highly predictable. Author Nesbit fills her stories with many standard supernatural tropes, such as including a rational witness to the events (a neighbour, also an outsider, and a doctor disbelieving in all this nonsense), and leaving physical evidence via a marble finger in the hand of the eventual victim.Not deftly handled as the reader wonders how such a frail woman can break off a marble finger that has survived so many generations, and our narrator proves himself to be an imbecile with the idiotic decisions he makes (returning to the churchyard with the doctor when he is convinced the stones have walked and his lover might be in danger).

As far this being a ghost story, it does not work as such. The marble figures come to life, or more accurately, become animated as part of an ancient curse. There is no indication that a ghost is involved, or that the figures themselves are in any way haunted. This is a supernatural story that involves a curse. The titular object in "The Monkey's Paw" is also cursed, and no one would suggest that paw is a ghost, even though it might give a slight curl when in the wisher's hand. Cursed objects are not ghosts, and instead are more akin to stories of witchcraft since some spell is involved, even there is no direct evidence of a witch.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman     9/10
First published in New England Magazine, January 1892

There is a reason "The Yellow Wallpaper" is among the most anthologized stories in both non-genre and genre publications: it is a powerful story, well written, that acts well as a suspense story as it does as social commentary. As sub-genre the story can be classified as psychological horror and not at all as a ghost story. In fact, claiming "The Yellow Wallpaper" to be a ghost story removed its social implications and hence the author's obvious point. If the shape behind the wallpaper exists outside of the narrator's mind, then it is that supernatural force that is driving her mad, rather than the incarceration by the rational individuals around her. The implication that society is incarcerating women, segregating them as ill and removing them from their function within society is weakened by the ghost theory. Our narrator does, near the beginning when describing the house they are spending the summer in, refer to it as being haunted, but she does so to indicate the impression she has received from the house's seclusion, and is not being literal. It is she who will, in a sense, haunt that house and haunt the nursery, her room she is essentially trapped in. The mysterious figure behind the wallpaper is undoubtedly stemmed from her overwrought mind, a projection of herself onto, or into, the wallpaper itself. Since she is unable to escape the barred room of the nursery, and her husband unwilling to leave that house even if just for the summer, it is the constraints of her mind that the woman has successfully escaped from. There is nothing in the text that in any way implies a ghost is present, and the powerful final moment, that creepy "creeping" scene, is powerful and horrific because there is no ghost.

The Cigarette Case by Oliver Onions     7/10
First published in The Weekly Tale-Teller, 13 August 1910

This story employs the all-too familiar setting of a narrator telling of a man who in turn is telling a ghost story, this time to the members of their club. The man recounts his experience visiting France with a friend many decades ago, when they encountered some ghosts with whom they visited. "The Cigarette Case" is the only genuine ghost story of the fivesome collected in the anthology. It is fairly standard in concept and approach, yet it is well written and entertaining. Like many ghost stories we are here given a witness who simultaneously corroborates the tale and yet does not: the friend was present at the time and yet is not in this story with the implication that he has since died. We are also given physical evidence of the ghost in the form of the cigarette case of the title.

The Horla by Guy de Maupassant (translator not credited)     8/10
First published in Gil Blas, 26 October 1886; first English translation published in Modern Ghosts, 1890

Maupassant's famous story is a diary narrative of a man losing his mind under the stress of being pursued by an invisible creature from Brazil. Not a ghost story at all, the creature is clearly an invisible Brazilian vampire (a sub-genre all of its own). The idea that the creature is a vampire is mentioned in the text itself, yet as a suggestion and not as fact. The creature is a kind of parasite, invisible and possibly humanoid in form. The invisibility can suggest a ghost and that our narrator's home has suddenly become haunted, yet the being is clearly alive, a living, thinking parasite, and is also mobile, not restricted to the house as standard ideas of haunted houses suggests. The creature closely resembles that of Ambrose Bierce's invisible creature from "The Damned Thing," a being whose colour is not visible to the human eye.

free counters

As of 24 December 2015