Having greatly enjoyed Curfew and other Eerie Tales, let me again recommend this fine volume from Swan River Press. It's unusual in that, as well as offering a small selection of short stories, it also contains the author's only play. Lucy M. Boston was obviously interested in the witch mania that beset this country in the 17th century, and 'The Horned Man' is a remarkably economical treatment of the theme. Set in a small rural manor house, it shows how the crazy logic of the persecutors (if there are accusations, there must be witches) plays into the hands of genuine evil.
Not everyone enjoys reading plays, but for me there's something refreshing and direct about a story told almost wholly through dialogue. The script - intended from an amateur company - is straightforward and doesn't mire the reader in flummery-tushery dialogue. Instead Boston employs clean, direct language to show how a culture of suspicion and terror turns people against one another. There's a lot of dark humour in 'The Horned Man', plus a genuinely disturbing climax. It's a great pity that she didn't write more for the stage.
Of the stories, the most famous is 'Curfew' and I think it's success is well-deserved. It has all the ingredients of the classic ghost story - ancient artefacts, a lurking figure, the gradual build-up towards the final horror. But it also has that special charm of the nostalgic story, the tale of childhood remembered, with all its joys and terrors. In this respect it comes close to the M.R. James' model of the ghost story. The conclusion, however, is rather more direct than that of the good provost.
'Pollution', one of the unpublished stories, is altogether different. It's a post-war tale of an undergraduate who takes up the post of tutor to a disabled boy, who lives in a rural area rapidly falling victim to industrialisation. Boston was clearly ahead of the game with regard to what we now call green issues. Her account of strange and rather disgusting creatures turning up in the water supply straddles the bounds between horror and science fiction. Again, the climax is very well handled.'
'Blind Man's Buff' is different again. It's account of unpleasant shenanigans involving an English gentleman and a native mountain guide owe a little to Kipling or Rider Haggard, but the overall tone resembles that of H.R. Wakefield. Again there's a harsh, unforgiving undertone to the story, with the reader left wondering exactly where justice lies in a world where such horrific supernatural retribution is possible.
'Many Coloured Glass' is a bit lighter in tone, at least at first. It's a timely story, too, with its account of somewhat scruffy protesters denouncing the excesses of the wealthy. There is a very good set piece involving one of those mechanical toys that provide writers with so many nightmarish possibilities. This is how Aickman would have written if he'd had slightly more straightforward dreams.
'The Italian Desk', the third unpublished tale, falls into the fine old tradition of 'somebody went stark-staring bonkers in this house, but we don't talk about it. Well, since you insist...' That said, it's a very good variant on the theme, thanks to Boston's gift for economical description. As in 'Curfew', the growing influence of something ancient and best left undisturbed is conveyed perfectly. Indeed, I much prefer this story to 'The Tiger-Skin Rug', which - while enjoyable enough - has a rather obvious plot. (Or am I alone in thinking that Mr Sathanos is not a very subtle name for a baddie?)
Overall, this handsome volume is a good read and (for me) a good introduction to a writer whose fiction passed me by when I was a wee lad. It's a pity I didn't encounter Lucy M. Boston;s books at a more impressionable age, as she was a first-rate storyteller. As Robert Lloyd Parry observes in his introduction, her 'debt to James runs deep', but she had her own unique voice. It's a pity that voice can only be heard in a handful of ghost stories.