They Might Be Ghosts: Ghost Stories of an Artisan by David G. Rowlands
First published by Ghost Story Press 2003
Ash-Tree Press ebook 2012.
I read They Might Be Ghosts: Ghost Stories of an Artisan two weeks ago and found the stories uneven and bloodless. Today, after work, I reread the stories (it is a short book.)
On second reading, I found the stories much more satisfying and sharply focused.
Most could be called "hobbyist" stories. In some, phantoms intrude on the routines car and railroad hobbyists. In another, a certain haunted whistle makes a reappearance as a "steel" used by a guitar player in a Hawaii-themed cabaret act.
The strongest stories appear in the section about "pest control" workers, perhaps because this is work and not a pastime. The tales are unnerving and ghastly in many different ways, both natural and supernatural.
Below are a few underlinings I made while reading and re-reading.
11 November 2017
* * * *
....He began the fifty turns for the chimes, stopping after ten, and looking apprehensively at the gantry. Yes! There it was! Beginning to appear, damn it! He gave the handle a few more turns, muttering to himself, then stopped. No doubt about it—there was a figure, faint in outline, but growing denser, perched atop the weights chute on the gantry.
‘Thirty-two, thirty-three, thirty-four’. . . the figure growing clearer with each turn. No imagination . . . by ‘forty-two’ it was distinctly the simulacrum of an old man, grinning maliciously at him!
The Free Radical
....Several people saw him—including myself. Indeed there were hysterics once or twice. Particularly since his appearance was changing considerably as the days and weeks and months went by. I suppose cremation might have finished him rapidly, but he had been buried in a coffin and we seemed to be witnessing the decay processes, quite horridly. As they ravaged his body, presumably, so we saw them reflected in this simulacrum of our former colleague.
A Room with a View
....As one will, I stared at parts of the scene rather intently, and my gaze rested on a dark spot far down the hillside. As I looked, it grew larger until resolving into someone climbing the hillside. I was not entirely surprised to recognise my father, though I stretched out my hand to the stiff body on the bed beside me.
....‘I could use the help,’ he said. ‘But how’s your nerves? Can you keep a secret?’
I felt a creep of strangeness . . . Was there a ghost after all?
‘I’m okay,’ I said, ‘what is it?’
He said almost shamefacedly, ‘It’s nothing to worry about, but sometime in the next half hour or so, you may see an oldish man walk down these gangways.’
....There was something ghostly about the pianola, Imogen had always thought: replaying the exact notation, timing and touch of long-dead masters. If you chose to sit at the machine and ‘drive’ with your feet, it was like playing a duet with the dead performer. Quite uncanny in a way, but also quite a pleasant sort of grue. The piano could also be played in the normal way as a conventional pianoforte and you could, if you so wished, cut rolls of your own performances and replay them, or even play a duet with yourself.
The Last Reel
....It was not until the Monday that the caretaker found George’s body in the canteen, slumped over the stage. From the condition of his trouser knees he had crawled along the canteen floor to the stage and collapsed in crawling up the steps.
Tales of the Big Four Club
....The particular engine we revered was the Riley ‘Big Four’, a large four-cylinder, two-and-a-half-litre job (2443 cc actually) that was first produced in 1937 for the Riley ‘Blue Streak’ chassis of the Adelphi, Kestrel, and Continental models. It was developed after the war for the 2.5 litre cars and had its apotheosis in the Pathfinder of 1953–7.
The Dog’s Whisker
....Was it her wraith that I heard? Was her signal to me amplified by the other dogs’ hysteria, like when the Professor was killed by intense thought in Sloane’s To Walk the Night?
....In the introduction to that book, he wrote of the ‘Club Riley’ as a real fraternity and exhorted us always to be of service to other Riley owners, or in his words again: ‘never to pass another Riley in trouble on the road.’
In truth it is rare for a Riley to break down, but it is surprising that if you do, even today, an ex-Riley owner seems to materialise within a few minutes.
Not Worth a Hum?
....‘If you’ve ever kept terriers, you’ll know that letting them off the lead is a bit fraught—they dive for the nearest rabbit holes, and you travel with a spade or shovel to dig them out. This doesn’t endear you to keepers or forest wardens, who often wait around to check that it is a dog you are digging out!
From the Pastures of the Tin-Worm
....Connecting the heavy-duty battery must have induced a magnetic field, and memories and images, stored in that steel chassis as if on wire or magnetic recording tape, must have been activated by the polarity.
There was one further bit of evidence that these ‘ghosts’ were a playback. During restoration of the chassis itself, I had left on the old tyres, as they still held enough air to help move the thing around. But after welding, making good and red-oxiding after rubbing down, I removed the wheels and tyres and put the chassis on the ground, resting on its wheel hubs.
Never again, after that, could I get any impressions or reminders of past trips or enjoyment . . . I had stupidly let my own personal ghosts drain away into the ground by removing the insulating tyres.
Tales of a Pest Control Operative
The Grain Goblin
‘What is all this?’ asked the farmer, impatiently.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘this is going to be an awful shock. I’m convinced that your lost boy is buried under all the grain at the bottom of that bin. We need lorries and—yes, the Police.’
....The lad must have entered the empty bin, seeking a good hiding place perhaps, the previous summer when everyone on the farm was frantically busy. Lorry loads of warm grain would be coming in from the combine harvester, passing through the cooler and being augered into the bin. Even had there been someone up by the auger spout, the bottom of the bin would probably have been in darkness. If the lad had closed the door behind him, he would have succumbed almost instantly to the carbon dioxide collected there from the previous lot of grain. He would have passed out quickly and been unable to move or to cry for help as the incoming grain, ton upon ton of it, cascaded on top of his inert form.
‘“Well,” he continued exuberantly, unlocking the cupboard. “We can now, at last, get rid of old Duddon. I think I’ve just about sucked him dry.”
‘He shone his torch into the cupboard and I could just see a “mummy” similar to how I must have looked, but it had collapsed in upon itself, with bones and dried sinews and flesh sticking out of the enclosing coils of celluloid film: a ghastly sight, and I felt quite sickened by it.
‘However, just as Mr White reached into his darkroom to remove the corpse ready for my incarceration, those revolting, sinewy arm bones reached up and took him by the throat.
The Waiting Game
....We had some problems in the tunnels. A few of our staff proved to suffer from hitherto unsuspected claustrophobia. The ducts were supposed to have electric lights and switches every 50 yards or so, but in practice the switches were often so wet with condensation or leaks, that we found, after blowing a number of fuses, it was easier and safer to use torches. Obviously our operatives are not squeamish about insects or rodents, but it isn’t that pleasant to encounter rats at close range in a dark, foetid duct, or to have ants, roaches and other animals running over you and inside your clothing—boiler suit or not!
Lord of the Flies
....We were horrified to discover that the manure in the deep-pit house was a writhing mass of fly and beetle larvae of many different kinds. There was an automatic pesticide dispensing system operating in the atmosphere above that was supposed to control the houseflies, but clearly had failed to do so. We knew in any case that flies very rapidly developed resistance to such pesticides and the sample larvae we removed proved to be resistant to that pesticide.
Serenade to a Pagan Moon
....‘You see it’s an unlucky guitar—it’s got a sort of jinx on it, and I’m not sure if you should have it.’
‘Oh, please do!’ I cried in amazement. What a gift! He shrugged doubtfully . . .
‘Well, as soon as Barry took it over from Haili Koe things went wrong for him—broke his arm, got his fingers caught in a car door—he was off playing
for months. Then he reckoned it would never stay in tune (I can confirm that), blamed it for the break up of his marriage and all sorts of things. It had really got on his nerves. In fact he died, you know, by throwing himself in front of a tube train just after leaving it here. I’d just got all my doubts out of my system, when your picking that tune re-awoke all my dislike of it.’ He shuddered a little.
‘There was a terrific flash as the huge current built up in the chassis of his amplifier earthed itself via his body through the microphone stand. All the lights went out, and Tony fell like a log to the floor.
‘To my amazement I had the presence of mind to shout not to touch him until his amplifier was unplugged . . . in case. For clearly he had plugged it in wrong way round, making the chassis and his guitar strings and pick-ups live....'
Pua Mana (Sea Breeze)
It was early Autumn and there was a relatively calm spell, so I wasn’t expecting to find much on my routine visit. I dragged above the tide mark a plastic milk crate . . . then, in moving a pile of wrack, sea holly and thong weed, I stubbed my finger on a rusty bolt of some kind, sticking out of the damp sand. To my amusement it looked rather like a guitar steel that had lost its plating after years of immersion in sea-water and begun to corrode slowly.
My find was very similar to the Speedy West steel, being about four inches long and the same diameter as the latter. It was clearly quite old, probably unalloyed bronze, and was hollowed out like a section of pipe. There was a sort of neck or mouthpiece at one end, so it might have been a pitch pipe or something of that nature.
Low Moon at Waikiki
....From that huddled mass of artistes I saw Sonny’s face and features suddenly rush upward and toward me—it stopped when—seemingly—only inches from my own visage. He seemed to be looking steadily at me, and he nodded just as the scene collapsed and I was back with the old familiar ‘thought pattern’ of the original group playing ‘Low Moon at Waikiki’.
I got the message and gave up working at my own version of the piece. I would play it as a carbon copy of Sonny’s, whatever Mitch thought.
Tales of Boiling Pots
Returned to Steam Again
....The amazing thing was, I was no engineer myself, yet I understood thoroughly what needed to be done in terms of re-metalling bearings, brazing up the firebox and renewing the fire-tube through the boiler. Everything I needed either came to hand, as if by magic . . . or else I knew (how did I know?) exactly where it was; and what’s more, I put it back there.
Do Your Best
‘Now I heard the “grand howl” done as it would be done by wolves—and a very frightening sound it was too. Very convincing and menacing . . . I felt my spine tingle with apprehension. I knew I ought to cut away back to the house, but there was a horrid fascination about this moonlight vigil.
‘The “howl” was not readily interpretable as “Do your best” nor was the response “We’ll do our best!”: but it suddenly occurred to me that their best might be the worst for me! I was aware of mental pressure and panic—the atmosphere charged with oppression.
Akela suddenly rose and cried out in human tones: ‘“Hear the call! Good hunting all that keep the jungle law!!” and he swept his arm towards where I was hiding. . . .
The Abomination of Desolation
.....‘I sat on a wooden seat, and applied myself to bottle of pop and paper of sandwiches, while watching the panorama of passing goods trains. After a couple of hours, the first “ghost” train passed through from Kensington on its way to Clapham, just as the dusk began to fall. And just as the dusk began to fall, so the temperature began to fall also, and a mist began to rise from the embankment to roll across the platforms. It was momentarily dispersed by a passing goods train on my side, but began to thicken again, and as I stared into it, began to congeal—I can’t think of a better term—into groups of people, or what seemed to be people. They made quite a dense crowd and seemed to be greyish in accoutrement, but were uncannily silent—though I sensed, and indeed began to feel myself, considerable distress—misery even.
Some Old Friends
Plural (M. R. James)
....He stepped over to a big chest and unlocked it. Turning over a number of mezzotints, he then approached and put one in my hand.
‘People have been wondering for years if this existed,’ he remarked impishly. ‘Look!’ He pointed at the picture.
It showed a considerable expanse of lawn, and beyond that a not very large house, with three rows of plain sashed windows with rusticated masonry about them, a parapet with balls or vases at the angles, and a small portico in the centre. There was a black blob on the edge of the engraving—the head of a man (or woman), a good deal muffled up, the back turned to the spectator, and looking towards the house. As I held the picture, the blot began to emerge from the foreground rim and became a figure crawling houseward....
A Gift of Tonges (Fr O’Connor)
‘“I am worried about Roger,” she wrote, “this bell thing is becoming an obsession. He was bad enough before, but now the metal is cast, he seems a different person. He keeps striking the bell with a wooden hammer and muttering about the quality of the note. He potters off to the chapel (where the bell is) all hours and is there half the night. The housemaid Rebecca told me she heard him chiming the bell and talking to himself late last night. (She meets the Agent’s son down by the lake I think!) I’m rather afraid of Roger in his present mood and I wish you were here for both our sakes!”
A Job Not Done (Mr Batchel)
'....I imagine it’s been going on for hundreds of years. It’s quite harmless, just a vision of something from the past that is permanently or temporarily fixed in this place. I doubt that even Groves could capture it on film: I expect it’s something that produces an image in our brains. . . .’
The Sleeping Partner
Blood and Thunder
'....Well, you see, Art here can only get hold of what I know by writin’ it down. It’s a mess and he writes across what he wrote before and from all angles. I can only get what’s floatin’ in his mind; and by the way he thinks quite a lot of you at the moment! Anyways, I have a hard time gettin’ him to write it down accurate. Now, with you in between us I can talk it over with you and get the rights of it.’
The Show Must Not Go On
‘That’s right, Mr Fortune. The sexton of the church phoned me—in a rare taking he was—said it was real spooky up there: dogs howlin’ and all, and the master asleep among the tombs and he not able to wake him. I took the car and sure enough, there he was, lyin’ across a mound, dead drunk and all a-twitch. As I carried him off, there was a biggish bat a-flappin’ round me, for all it’s winter time and freezin’ cold.’
‘You are still collecting tin trains then?’ I pursued.
‘Yes, indeed,’ he said with satisfaction. ‘My long term hobby—which you all thought so peculiar—has become respectable. As soon as an eccentricity “catches on” or makes money, it becomes the cult of thousands.’
‘You’ve certainly been doing it long enough,’ I said. ‘Since we were lads, eh?’ (He nodded.) ‘Well,’ I continued, ‘it’s not going to put your sanity at risk collecting tin trains.’
He looked at me peculiarly.
‘Funny you should say that. It nearly did once.’ He smiled bleakly....
Twice A Fortnight
‘You once wrote that for you places are prolific in suggestion. Did you, then, think of a place or setting first and put a ghostly happening into it; or a ghost first and then pick the setting?’
He chuckled. ‘Oh, that’s easy. I always had a place in mind first and I thought of the normal events in that place and how they might be made to go wrong, or be disturbed. For instance, the tale I gave you tonight. It was set here as you all realised. The chapel and cemetery are on the site of Eddington wood and in the middle of the wood there was once an older chapel, like that of the story. I thought of the wood and the chapel and the story just wrote itself.’
THEY MIGHT BE GHOSTS: Ghost Stories of an Artisan
Ash-Tree Press eBooks