Monday, 11 August 2014

Building a Spooky Library - Ralph Adams Cram

The ghost story tradition is dotted with good 'one off' collections. Ralph Adams Cram's 1895 volume Black Spirits and White is a good example. Subtitled 'A Book of Ghost Stories', it consists of half a dozen tales. All are readable, and two or three are arguably first rate. Adams was an American architect who travelled widely in Europe, and his fiction reflects this, with lots of local colour and historical detail.

Cram's tales are relatively terse compared to the more bloated examples of mid-19th century Gothic, but they still have some of the sillier (and staler) elements of the genre. Thus 'In Kropfsberg Keep' offers a story (within a story within a story) that has too much flummery. But, like all of Cram's best stories, the supernatural threat is well-realised. There's a memorable 'dance of the dead' scene that shows a playful, rather poetic mind at work.

The same can be said of 'No. 252 Rue M. Le Prince', with its theme of devil worship discovered. The descriptions of strange chambers within the eponymous Parisian house are excellent, foreshadowing similar 'posh Satanism' in the works of Wheatley and others. When the Nasty Thing finally emerges it is better than the usual demonic presence, consisting of something rather proto-Lovecraftian:

'Suddenly a wet, icy mouth, like that of a dead cuttlefish, shapeless, jelly-like, fell over mine. The horror began slowly to draw my life from me...'

It would interesting to know if Cram had read Maupassant - it seems likely, if he spent any considerable time in France. There is certainly a touch of old Guy about 'Notre Dame des Eaux', with its Finisterre setting and its theme of unrequited love and madness. It's arguable that Cram chickens out where Maupassant would have gone for the kill, but the central premise is strong and the climactic scene is effective.

Less enjoyable, for me, is 'Sister Maddelena', with its gentle, ghostly nun. It's a little dull, and the revelation is somewhat unconvincing. Perhaps its religiosity is part of the problem (Cram underwent a conversion experience and became a fervent Anglo-Catholic). The same might be said for 'The White Villa'. In this and other stories, one can't help noticing that Cram seems to have a very American 'thing' for  aristocrats. His stories are full of noble folk and peasants, the former doing despicable deeds, the latter recounting the toffs' crimes to tourists.

The final story, 'The Dead Valley', is arguably the best. Lovecraft felt that in it Cram achieved 'a memorably potent degree of vague regional horror through subtleties of atmosphere and description'. It works well precisely because of that vagueness - an old man's account of a valley that's filled with mist and where nothing seems able to live is just that, an account. Nothing is explained, no back story even hinted at - it's a very modern tale in that respect.

All in all, Cram is worth reading and his sole book of ghost stories isn't hard to obtain. Midnight Press has a nice paperback, and there is also a cheap Kindle edition.

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