Friday, 12 February 2016

Malevolent Visitants - Review

Lovers of the traditional English ghost story need no introduction to the work of C(live) E(dward) Ward. His first two collections from Sarob Press sold out quickly and I'm sure the same will be true of this latest book.

Malevolent Visitants consists of eight stories, two of which are previously unpublished. They're all, like Ward's previous collections, very much in the M.R. James tradition. His characters are usually prone to investigate historical matters best left unexplored, and pay the same sort of price as Mr Wraxall or Mr Paxton. The main difference is that Ward's interest in military history means that events of the Civil Wars or similar turbulent periods often provide the basis of a story.

That said, one tale - 'The Mound' - is entirely devoid of historical framework. Instead it concerns an ordinary man who gives in to the excusable desire to investigate a road that, according to a sign, leads to the eponymous landmark. It turns out that, far from being an historical site, the Mound is something else entirely. The story stands apart from the rest as a tale of unexplained horror, and is oddly effective.

More traditional is 'At Dusk', in which a tourist explores a small market town, in search of the grave of a writer. We are in M.R. James country, figuratively and literally, and the sense place is nicely evoked. Part of the fun of such a story is that we know something nasty will befall the protagonist, but can enjoy the mechanics of how he ends up in a climactic pickle.

The same can be said for 'The Return', which provides the inspiration for Paul Lowe's splendid cover. Here, again, is the hapless traveller - bookish, of course - who finds himself in a town about to celebrate a Civil War anniversary with a costumed pageant. The contrast between quaint, touristy attitudes to historical events and the real violence that happened at the time is brought home to our 'hero' in no uncertain terms.

There's more military history in 'Squire Thorneycroft', in which a young solicitor has to try and sort out the affairs of a recently deceased squire. A battlefield diorama of one of the British Army's worst defeats provides a hint as to the grim secret that made a former colonial general become a recluse. 

'Merfield Hall' is arguably the most Jamesian tale, not surprisingly since it is Ward's completion of an unfinished story by M.R. James himself. It offers a good evocation of the kind of dream sequence the latter produced in 'Lost Hearts', and the ending is clever. I certainly didn't see it coming. Just enough is left unsaid, but much is implied, which is an authentic touch that I think the Provost would have approved.

'One Over the Twelve' also takes its lead from James, using a plot device he mentions in 'Stories I Have Tried to Write'. It has the framing narrative of a tale told on Christmas Eve, plus a mysterious family vault and a sinister secret. 'The Gift' is another excursion to East Anglia, and is a Victorian period piece in which a clergyman ignores sensible advice and probes too deeply into the history of his parish.

Perhaps the besr of the lot, however, is 'The House of Wonders', one of the new tales. It concerns an author who investigates an old-time seaside attraction as part of research for a book. There's a wealth of fascinating detail about the paraphernalia of sideshows, and a satisfying plot that offers a new twist on a familiar horror story trope. The malevolent visitant in this case is memorably disturbing.

All in all, this is another satisfying collection of 'old school' ghost stories for discerning readers of any school. And here's that excellent cover again.

'No tourism 'ere!'

Note: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

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