Tuesday, 22 January 2019

The Slightly Chilling Adventures of Mr. Batchel

I've been re-reading E.G. Swain's The Stoneground Ghost Tales, which are very pleasant and diverting when you spend a lot of time on Metro trains in the Tyne-Wear area. You can, however, read them while not in motion. The point is that they are a collection of M.R. Jamesian ghost stories that, in some ways, come closest to emulating Monty. This is not surprising, as Swain was present when some of those classics were first read aloud to the Chitchat Society.

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Swain's Mr. Batchel, vicar of Stoneground in East Anglia, is a fairly Jamesian figure. A bachelor, clergyman, and antiquarian, Batchel is constantly encountering supernatural phenomena in his parish. Stylistically, Swain is not unlike James, though his prose is less spiky in its humour - as a rule his character studies are kindly. The main difference between James and Swain is essentially that the latter is milder in his approach to horror, where there is horror at all.

Monday, 21 January 2019

'The Lost Gonfalon'

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Rounding off the excellent collection Inner Europe is Mark Valentine's tale of Venice preserved, in a way. Seymour, a scholarly gentleman, journeys through the old Venetian colonies of the Adriatic just before the First World War. In one small port he finds echoes of the great republic in dialect and in other, odder respects. Mr Seymour is greeted by local dignitaries as 'the English Consul', and is confused by table talk of far colonies in Asia. It is a kind of waking dream - or perhaps a vision of how things should have been?

This is a kind of parallel universe/alternate history story, complete with an Anglo-Venetian alliance, forged between Doges and Stuart kings. It is tricky to get this kind of thing right, but I think here the author succeeds in offering a fascinating glimpse of how Europe might have been. Mercantile and colonial, yes, but perhaps not so ruthless and mechanised. It is an appropriate ending for a book that celebrates Europe's glories but also laments its failings and disasters.

Inner Europe is a remarkable achievement, straddling genres to offer the reader strange, moving, and always entertaining tales.

Saturday, 19 January 2019

'Threshold'

John Howard's last story in Inner Europe is set in the early years of Weimar, when Germany had become a model democracy.

The protagonist is an East Prussian aristocrat faced with selling his family estates. Not only has he lost his ancient birthright, his wife and child died in the Spanish Flue epidemic. The Count Philip von Stern is a sympathetic character, a civilised and kindly man who hopes that Germany's future will be secure and prosperous. But, as the title hints, we are on the threshold of something very different. And central to this idea is a focus on money, more specifically coinage.

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As a boy the count did magic tricks with coins - the heavy gold ones of the old regime. The new currency consists of notes and lightweight coins. We know that soon the Weimar mark will be hit by hyperinflation and people will be taking their wages home in wheelbarrows. The count's rediscovery of his conjuring skills, then his awareness that he is capable of something more than sleight of hand, suggests that something mysterious but vital was lost in the fall of the old order.

This is a sad, elegiac tale of people caught in the turbulence of history, and the way in which they cling to memory, love, and even less definable things. It reminded me slightly of W.G. Sebald's book The Rings of Saturn, which also looks at the decayed, forgotten resorts and estates of the old Europe.

One more story to go.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Still time to vote for your favourite stories in issue 39!

You can go here to vote in the great Make An Author Feel Valued poll.

If you haven't read ST #39, why not give it a try? It's full of stories, which is probably something you're in favour of, given that you're reading this blog.

Go to the Buy Supernatural Tales page, click on the link and purchase a copy. You know it makes sense.