Frights and Chills, Intelligently Rendered
Ash-Tree Press specializes in classic supernatural fiction. From the village of Ashcroft in British Columbia, the husband-and-wife team of Barbara and Christopher Roden keep the tales of E. F. Benson, M. R. James, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, and H. R. Wakefield, among others, in print. Readers of this journal may be aware that Ash-Tree returned to print, in two handsome volumes, the collected eerie stories of Russell Kirk. The Wizard of Mecosta would have gotten along well with the book publishers of Ashcroft, swapping strange yarns well into the night and, later, filling his own converted factory of a library with tomes from their catalog. The couple’s main stock-in-trade is tending the lamp burning before the monuments of the genre. Like Dr. Kirk, however, the Rodens understand mere antiquarianism leads to a dead end; the lamp’s light must also illuminate the path ahead. And so the couple has committed themselves to bringing new talent, talent in the spirit of James and Benson and Kirk, to the public’s attention. In Acquainted with the Night, 27 writers from across the English-speaking world demonstrate, with imagination, intelligence, and wit, they can scare like the masters.
The title is taken from Robert Frost’s poem. These lines serve as the collection’s epigraph and organizing principle:
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street
But not to call me back or say good-by;
And further still at an unearthly height
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
No one waits at home. Come nightfall, the lonely speaker walks and walks, only to repeat his journey the next night. A lost soul, he is “one acquainted with the night.” The poem itself, in meter, calls to mind The Divine Comedy and, in subject, The Inferno. The title for this collection of ghostly stories is aptly chosen. Mind you, these are no didactic enterprises. They are not even especially theological, though the ghost story, with its glimpses of things spectral, can’t help but tread in rooms trendy theologians have long thought shut up. In one way or another, the characters become “acquainted with the night”—and much to their regret, for they stray into realms where they are neither welcome nor, as flesh and blood, suited. While undoubtedly eerie, these stories refrain from riding the waves of blood that have all but sunk horror fiction.
The tales in Acquainted With the Night remind me why such stories draw readers in the first place. In the ghostly story, something intrudes upon the day-to-day and this matter-in-motion world, or beckons the too curious. Stephen King says the weird tale remains, no matter the thrills and chills, optimistic in its underlying message: The grave isn’t the end. Yet there has to be more to the genre’s survival than feeding hopes that, at the end of our lives, everything won’t cut to black. The stories confirm and flesh out the odd incidents that many know first-hand, but that a good deal of literature has turned askance at for more than a century. How many of us haven’t spotted something out of the corner of the eye? Seen or heard something in the shadows that defies explanation? Or felt that a house or stretch of country feels uncanny, or, more troubling, oddly vile? That’s where this collection of stories picks up and connects the dots.
From those dots, the reader makes out a clergyman whose curiosity leads him to not a room, but a hell with a view; a loquacious sailor who can see the dead; stranded travelers who happen upon a welcoming country home, with a silent servant and no owner in sight; a scholar convinced that death is indeed a person (and, fittingly enough, an academic); and a tailor for the deceased. “The Cross Talk” is particularly compelling. A father has been short with his 19-year-old son; the boy isn’t shaping up, won’t amount to anything. One day the father receives a call that will haunt him for the rest of his life. The story demonstrates there’s no need to turn the clock back to the dusty corners of Victorian Britain; the uncanny can visit the here and now just as easily—and, in some cases, more easily. Author Rick Kennett makes good use of what, in ghost-hunting circles, is called “electronic voice phenomena,” the notion that the spirits of the dead occasionally find ways to communicate, if only briefly, through electronic devices. I cannot vouch for the notion, as only the inexplicable calls I receive seem to originate from call centers in India. The story, however, ably explores not only communication from beyond but the communication between father and son.
If I had to pick one and only tale as a must-read, it would have to be “Weird Furka,” set in the dying, blink-and-you-miss-it town of Furka, Montana. On the local radio station, KADE, Craig Watson hosts “an ambient / electronic / experimental music show” from 1-4 a.m. Naturally, the show draws no advertisers and probably few, if any, listeners. At that ungodly hour, and alone in the station housed in an old hotel, Watson explores to pass the time while “twenty-minute compositions of water dripping, of string instruments recorded inside vast underground caverns, of people’s voices phased into a fold of noise, and phased back into conversation” fill the airwaves. One night, he stumbles upon a treasure trove in the sub-basement, the recordings of “Weird Furka,” a locally produced show from the late 1940s. As the name implies, the show’s host had sought and broadcasted true accounts of the strange from locals. So taken by the program, Watson begins to broadcast the old recordings on his own radio program and finds himself drawn into a deep darkness. It becomes apparent author Adam Golaski has drunk deep from the well of supernatural fiction, particularly M. R. James, but this work is no simple scenery change, no switching out of English villages for Montana small towns. He works in the tradition, but inventively so.
Humor and the supernatural coexist uneasily. In many cases, the guffaws are aimed at the ghosts and those who believe in them. Admittedly, there can be humor in this, but the whole point of the ghost story—the weird, the mysterious—is laughed off stage. That’s why I was so taken by Cathy Sahu’s “You Should Have to Live with Yourself.” An untidy hack writer of the occult rents a room in an immaculately kept house. The fussy landlady gives him a hard time for his sloppy ways (“He had told her not to make the bed, but she was doing it anyway. ‘You should have to live with yourself! And then you’d see what it’s like!”’) As she harps on the tenant, he proclaims a spell, even though he admits he’s worse than minor league in spell casting, and storms out to find a new place. This time, somehow, the spell works, and, in a way, judgment is visited upon her when her fussiness turns upon herself. Let’s just say this judgment has a sense of humor.
Often collections prove uneven in quality, but Acquainted With the Night has few low points. I’m confident readers will close the volume knowing weird fiction hasn’t succumbed. Frights a-plenty wait within these pages, and frights intelligently rendered at that.
R. Andrew Newman teaches English and journalism at Western Nebraska Community College. He has written for National Review, The Weekly Standard, and National Review Online. He is currently at work on a book-length study of Russell Kirk’s ghostly fiction.
Posted: March 19, 2007