Thursday, 13 February 2014

Ghosts and Gargoyles - Review

Ghosts and Gargoyles is the second collection of weird tales by Elsa Wallace, the first being The Monkey Mirror, which I reviewed here. Like the first book, this one offers value for money - there are seventeen stories, all of them readable, and some are very good indeed. While The Monkey Mirror had the unifying theme of breaking down the supposed moral and/or spiritual boundaries that traditionally separate us from other species, this collection offers more traditional fare. That said, there are still some shocks and a few tales that work by stealth, offering subtle pleasures.

Ghosts there certainly are. 'Ralph's Up Aloft', for instance, is a tale that might have been penned by Elizabeth Bowen, if she'd been a bit less posh and had Wallace's African background. It's all very genteel and restrained, but the plotting is so well-handled that I honestly didn't see the payoff coming. To describe a tale as deceptively simple might sound like a backhanded compliment, but it's not in this case.

The same applies to 'Grave Goods', a story of ladies of a certain age who love cats. The author takes a certain grim pleasure in revealing, in a series of nicely-crafted scenes, just what is going on. Suffice to say that there's a distinct 'Tales of the Unexpected' vibe about this and some other stories. 'Gargoyles', with its reclusive family pursuing creative - and increasingly monstrous - lives also has a whiff of Mr Dahl. So do some other non-supernatural vignettes, such as 'On the Bone' and 'The Jacaranda Dress'.

Then there's 'The Dutch Wife', one of several stories that hinge on the problem of distant relatives or acquaintances imposing themselves on upper-middle-class folk. In this case the visiting nuisance brings the eponymous bolster, a device that supposedly helps Europeans sleep in the tropics. The moment when surreal horror rears its head is truly nightmarish.

A few stories are lighter in tone, though the suggestion of impending horror is still there. Thus in 'Something Pipeth Like a Bird' we get some good 'sceptic v. believer' bickering at a Psychic Fair. A strange object, apparently insignificant, is found after the event. The protagonist is clearly going to have some trouble getting rid of it - assuming she wants to.

There is a feminist subtext running through many stories, and it surfaces here and there. Thus in 'An Unattended Lady' the traditional ghost story device of the spirit photograph reveals a monstrous but not uncommon injustice meted out to supposedly unbalanced females. 'Rootwood', by the same token, might have the subtitle 'Heaven Help the Working Girl', as it pivots on the severity with which working class women could be treated. And 'Grown Men', with its theme of supposed helplessness as a kind of psychic vampirism, struck me as a feminist take on Mary Wilkins Freeman story 'Luella Miller'.

Another impressive story, 'The Glass Screen', also nods to the classics, with one character referring to the Great God Pan. But it seems that particular deity is not what emerged from the screen created by an eccentric artist shunned by her peers - no small thing in the claustrophobic world of post-war Southern Rhodesia. Barely glimpsed, the horrific entity is barely glimpsed by the narrator, but is heard as 'at first a buzzing hum, like a great insect, and then a high-pitched whine that seemed just on the edge of audibility'. This is one of the most interesting and original variations on the haunted picture concept.

All in all, Ghosts and Gargoyles is a good collection, and is perhaps in danger of being overlooked because it's not published by a genre imprint. It is available from Paradise Press.

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