Re-reading The Stoneground Ghost Tales of E.G. Swain this last week I was struck by how much I'd forgotten about them. It's conventional wisdom to say that Swain, while obviously resembling M.R. James as an author in some respects, offers cosier fare. This is true, but I wonder how many people have noticed that Swain is also a bit of an old romantic?
Spoiler alert, and all that...
While Dr. James famous rejected romance (which he rather confusingly referred to as 'sex') in his fiction, Swain rather embraced it. Thus in 'The Richpins' Mr. Batchel has a 'keen sympathy with young people of all ages' and often tries to reconcile lovers who have 'little differences'. Batchel is an altogether more kindly and avuncular figure all round than most of the clergy in Dr. James's stories - perhaps because the latter had no personal experience of ministering to a flock?
That the vicar is himself no immune to feminine charms is revealed in 'Lubrietta', which is interesting because of its unorthodox (for an Anglican priest) view of Eastern mysticism. The plot is simple enough. Mr. Batchel ekes out his stipend by marking exams, some of which are sent from the European College in Puna i.e. Poona, or as it's now called, Pune. It so happens that one script he has to mark is from a pretty teenager called Lubrietta Rodria, who is described as 'belonging to the Purple of Indian commerce', and notable for her 'beauty and amiable temper'.
Lubrietta's name suggests she is Anglo-Indian, or Eurasian. This is confirmed later when it emerges that she is engaged to an 'Oriental gentleman'. Mr. Batchel has been told by a friend in the Indian Civil Service that obtaining a European education is greatly valued by 'ambitious Indians and Cingalese'. So it's important that, to make a good match, Lubrietta passes her exams. Cue a plot involving the occult powers of the mysterious East, which ends with Mr. Batchel marking up Lubrietta's paper so that she passes and can marry.
From the story it is clear that Lubrietta has powers of astral projection and teleportation. She intervenes across thousands of miles to persuade the clergyman to give her a better grade. As a token of her regard, or a bribe, she gives him a jewelled ring. There is no suggestion that there is anything wrong in this - it's a fiddle, but in a good cause, that of romantic love. There is no hint as to how Lubrietta obtained her fairly powers, or that there's anything sinister in her use of them. She's a pretty girl asking a kindly old man for a favour. No problem, concludes Swain.
The same romantic theme appears in 'The Indian Lamp-Shade'. Again, the strange ways of the Orient are to the fore, as the eponymous shade proves to have the power to somehow energise a mirror so that it replays tragic events. These events concern the death of a young woman, Amey Lee, who was much loved by one of Mr. Batchel's predecessors. The story is slightly comical because it involves not one but two characters swooning from shock within a few minutes, but the pay-off - the discovery of a severed finger - is effective.
Distinctive jewelled rings feature prominently in both stories. Uncharitable critics might suggest that Swain re-used the idea for lack of a better one. But the obvious significance of rings as tokens of love and commitment suggests another, and perhaps better reason. Along with the very Jamesian humour in Swain's tales, there is a very un-Jamesian wistfulness.