Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The Monkey Mirror & Other Stories

There's a long tradition of supernatural stories about animals - by which I mean 'real' animals, not unicorns, dragons, basilisks and what have you. Le Fanu did a good job with a monkey in 'The Familiar', and E.F. Benson's 'Caterpillars' has the authentic chill factor. If we expand our scope to include the Gothic tale we have Poe's domestic horror 'The Black Cat'. Out in the wilds there's 'The Green Wildebeest' by John Buchan, and a few others. However, animal ghosts, or ghostly animals, remain a relative rarity. So Elsa Wallace's collection The Monkey Mirror is a distinct curiosity, as all fourteen stories are about animals.

Are animals as scary as people? That's problematic, for me. The traditional ghost story focuses on death and what may survive death. Animals are (again, traditionally) the 'beasts that perish'. But why shouldn't they have souls, or psychic residues, or whatever? The rather facetious answer is that animals simply don't have the kind of motivation to come back and terrify people that motivates dead humans. There's the more sophisticated answer that ghost stories are about the very human perception of, and fearful fascination with, our own mortality, and that animal ghosts distance us from this.

But to hell with it, I'm just going to leap gracefully over all such objections - having noted them - and give you some idea what these stories are like. Firstly, some of them are set in the old colonial days of empire, with tales of Rhodesia, South Africa and other areas that were once pink on the school globe. The title story is one of the most effective tales, because little is really explained about the baleful mirror itself. It is sufficiently ambiguous to be memorable, and this is true of other colonial tales such as 'A View of the Sea', 'Different on the Ground' and 'Kalingwa'.

There are also some enjoyable stories set in Britain, though the settings and characters here are arguably less strongly evoked than those of the African tales. The ideas are just as good, though. 'Horse Power' offers a clever commentary on 'The Turn of the Screw' before offering us evidence of an equine ghost - a bit bonkers, really, but fun. The same could be said for 'Pink Feet' (pigeons) and 'I Can Hear a Cat Cry'.

For me some of the weaker stories are those that beat the animal rights drum very loudly. Yes, I think the fur trade and bullfighting are barbaric, but the stories on those subjects here do little more than state a position I happen to agree with. Altogether better is the nightmarish horror of 'The Other Room', in which someone who has not been nice to animals (or indeed people) gets a comeuppance that involves some rather unusual interior decor.

Overall, The Monkey Mirror is an above-average collection, with a handful of outstanding stories and perhaps one or two duds. That's rather good going, and I look forward to Elsa Wallace's forthcoming collection of 'human ghost stories'.

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