Monday, 2 December 2019

"Number Ninety" & Other Ghost Stories by B.M. Croker

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This collection has a superb cover and boards, courtesy of Megan Kehrli, from artwork by Alan Corbett. As you can see, a map of India is prominent. Bithia Mary Croker (nee Sheppard) married an Irish officer who served in Madras and Burma. Many of her ghost stories deal with aspects of life under the Raj that are - to some extent - already familiar to readers of Kipling. The main difference is that Croker's point of view is more domestic - concerns over accommodation, servants, generally organising family life are central.

In an excellent introduction the late Richard Dalby gives a literary biography of Croker, who wrote 42 novels and several short story collections. Colonel Croker, on half pay for many years, was no doubt pleased to have a wife who made a tidy sum from her writing. And Croker was popular, her novels combining romance and details of military life in India. But how was she at supernatural fiction?

Pretty good, on the evidence collected here. She is a typical late Victorian, in that she carefully sets up the tale with close examination of the situation, the characters, the landscape etc. It's also notable that she is never dismissive or contemptuous of 'the natives', and in fact some of her best stories show Indians in a good light. They are invariably more sensible than the British when it comes to obscure but very real dangers.

A typically well-crafted story is 'If You See Her Face', in which the ghost of a horribly disfigured dancer manifests, to terrible effect. In the hands of a lesser writer the appearance of a pair of tiny, nimble feet might be rather comical, or at least fall flat. But Croker makes it clear that there is more than meets the casual eye going on here - the use of a 'partial ghost' reminded me of the Hong Kong horror film The Eye, and I suppose Gautier's 'The Mummy's Foot' might be among the story's antecedents. I suspect A.M. Burrage might have read this one, and taken the idea for one of his own best stories. 'If You See Her Face' also has a slightly Jamesian feel, with its young British official casually disregarding a threat until it is too late.

The other Indian stories tend to revolve around haunted bungalows or similar properties. Sometimes the ghosts are discreet, not really seen at all. But at other times they are truly disturbing. 'The Red Bungalow' is especially disturbing. A young family move into a property considered cursed by the locals. The usual problem with retaining servants occurs. A small child sees something that is not visible to adults. There is no real back story for the haunting, which gives it a distinctly 20th century feel. We know only that the natives 'spoke of "It" and a "Thing" - a fearsome thing, that dwelt in and around the Bungalow'.

Croker has a knack for sympathetic characterisation. 'Her Last Wishes' features one of those well-meaning clergyman so familiar to ghost story enthusiasts, the Rev Eustace Herbert. After going through a rough patch in England, Herbert sets out to try and convert Indians, only to find himself far out of his depth. But when he encounters an unquiet spirit he does manage to do the right thing, laying a ghost in the approved fashion. As a traditional tale, it's very well-handled.

Some good stories here are set outside the vast canvas of the Raj. 'The Former Passengers' is a good evocation of a sea voyage to Singapore, in which a haunting reveals a terrible wrong. 'La Carcasonne' has elements of dark social comedy, with its strait-laced English lady coming under the spectral influence of a cursed opal, formerly the property of the eponymous 'painted Jezebel'. Far more grim is the title story, the tale of a haunted house in which an unwary man (and his dog) choose to spend the night.

Overall, this is a solid collection of stories that deserve to be better known. While fairly conventional, they are all enjoyable ghostly tales, and ideal reading for the long winter nights - whether you are at home or abroad. As well as Richard's Dalby's fine introduction there is a glossary of Hindi and Urdu terms, and a good essay on Croker by Helen Black.

I received a review copy of this book from the Swan River Press.

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