Sorting Through Dad’s Hoard #8: M.R. James

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Dad would usually read us M.R. James’s ghost stories in the evenings, after dinner and homework and sundry other bits were done; he’d occasionally play recorded versions of several of the stories, read by Michael Horden. I always preferred Dad’s narration, the way he’d growl for the villains and gruffer types, or use a slightly higher pitch for the various professorial characters with nasty things in store for them.

Quite I’d end up cuddling on his lap during the scary bits, ear pressed against his heart as his voice rumbled through me, waiting eagerly for my favourite parts to arrive. The fear these stories create was always there, but it was the cosy kind that gets your blood pumping without bringing on the terror sweat, with the fire on and the lights dim but still there. I was secure in the knowledge that I was safe with Dad, and I was safe going up the stairs to bed afterwards.

Do I really need to explain about Montague Rhodes James? Medievalist, scholar, lecturer and writer, there was no way Dad wouldn’t have adored him. H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith paid tribute to him, Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell were inspired by him, heaps of British writers deliberately wrote in his style, forming the ‘James Gang’. (Now I have a vision of a bunch of writers and academics travelling around in a van getting traumatised by ghosts and ghoolies, and solving mysteries.) Without him, British ghost stories and stories about the supernatural in general would be very different.

Continue reading “Sorting Through Dad’s Hoard #8: M.R. James”

Sorting through Dad’s hoard #7: The Midwich Cuckoos

 

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Dad spoiled the ending of this book long before I ever got around to reading it. And I’m going to spoil it for you too, HA!!!

One day when we were intruding into his study, he got onto the subject of the film version (the 1960 version, The Village of the Damned – because apparently ‘cuckoos’ was far too subtle?) and what he personally thought to be one of the most tense scenes in cinema.

The stage: a school room. The plot: a climatic showdown. The players: a group of unnatural, all-blonde alien children who share a collective group mind and can read/control the minds of normal humans, and a desperate man who has decided he has no choice but to destroy them, for the sake of humanity’s future. The crux of the matter: he has smuggled a bomb into the classroom, hidden in a suitcase – but there’s still a few minutes before it goes off, and in that short space of time the children could read his mind and stop him. Continue reading “Sorting through Dad’s hoard #7: The Midwich Cuckoos”

Sorting through Dad’s hoard, part 5: Saki

I couldn’t have been older than eight when Dad sat me down to read me a story. The story was called Sredni Vashtar.

The main (really only proper) character was a young, frail Edwardian boy named Conradin, living with a domineering female cousin, who seemed determined to joylessly coddle, thwart and repress him into the grave. His only consolation was a shed down at the bottom of the barren garden, which to him was a ‘playroom and a cathedral’, populated by his own imagination.

(Having read The Secret Garden, I thought I knew where this was going. Conradin even rather resembled Colin Craven.)

The shed also housed Conradin’s pet hen; and, in a hutch in the corner, a large polecat-ferret that he’d bought off a friendly butcher’s boy and hid fervently from his cousin, dubbed in his hostile mind ‘The Woman’.

(Having read Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, I definitely thought I knew where this was going.)

Conradin, in his loneliness and mixed fear and awe of the polecat-ferret, named it – what else but Sredni Vashtar? And proceeded to worship the animal, giving it offerings of flowers and berries, and occasionally nutmeg, believing it to be responsible for the various ailments of The Woman.

(I still thought I knew where this was going.)

The Woman noticed Conradin’s trips down to the shed, ruled them contrary to her desires, and had the hen sold. Conradin’s hate grew ever fiercer, and he prayed to Sredni-Vashtar to ‘do one thing for me’. “The thing was not specified.

(I…was curious about where this was going.) Continue reading “Sorting through Dad’s hoard, part 5: Saki”