David G. Rowlands' collection The Executor and Other Ghost Stories (Ash-Tress Press ebook 2012) is the largest available selection of the writer's work.
This is a good thing and a bad thing for a short story glutton like myself. I chewed through the book in the ten days preceding Halloween. Don't make my mistake: read no more than one per day.
I was tempted to start this note by complaining about Rowlands' uneven tone. But that is an unacceptable summation. Rowlands is a facile and energetic writer, delighted to be doing what he loves, and the tone of each story - whether solemn or mirthful - clearly conveys this.
In his introduction, Rowlands states his aethetic approach:
....Now one of the things I require myself in a ghost story—if it is to convince me—is that the setting and the ‘daily round’ of the protagonists should not only be believable but also accurate. In other words, the writer should be writing about what he, or she, knows. It is dangerous to venture among specialist subjects without adequate knowledge. The entire dénouement of J. Meade Falkner’s The Nebuly Coat, for example, is ruined for me because of utterly absurd inaccuracies in the account of the bell-ringing that brought down the tower in collapse. My immediate thoughts in such circumstances are, ‘this author does not know what he/she is writing about, therefore I must also suspect their ghost of being contrived and faked without writer’s licence!’ Harsh judgement? Perhaps....
This strikes me as a powerful indicator of success among writers of supernatural fiction. M.R. James located every story in a milieu he knew to his fingertips. Rowlands presents a variety themes within a carefully circumscribed milieu; his protagonists are hobbyists, exterminators, change-ringers, vicars, and priests, all warmly and concretely situated in their little postage stamp of turf.
Acknowledging the hubris involved in writing ghost stories today, Rowlands notes:
....Writers of ghost stories today are at a disadvantage compared to their predecessors—and the situation is getting worse. That is of course because, as with ‘westerns’ or other ‘genre’ fiction, there are a strictly limited number of plots and incidents possible. Ghost behavior is ‘old hat’, and the writer seeking acceptance today needs to come up with something a bit original or different.
My personal favorites among the stories a highlighted.
The Father O'Connor Stories
A Graven Image starts as a charming story of remembered youth: local steam railroads, hobby-scale train layouts, vacations with one's father. It picks up pace with a mannikin, a ghastly death, and what the shampoo-blinded narrator touched while washing his hair at a cottage kitchen sink.
The Apples of Sodom details perils of scything overgrown grass around an ancient churchyard apple tree. "....Shrugging in annoyance he picked up his scythe and turned back to the grass; to become aware of a short, squat figure watching him from beneath the tree. For an instant he thought it was a dense cloud of the little gnats that had been pestering him, drawn to his perspiration; then he thought it was a heat-haze mirage. Whatever it was, its scrutiny had the effect of immobilizing him while it drew nearer."
The Previous Train begins cosily enough: "It was mid-winter, and the smugness of his study provided a delicious contrast with the wind that lashed sleet against the windows behind the curtains." But the ghost train encounter story Fr. O'Connor relates...
‘Change-ringing certainly has great mental fascination, and I suppose I once achieved a fair measure of proficiency at it. By the by, there is a tale associated with it which you may care to hear. Remind me at dinner tonight.’
Sins of the Fathers
A rural inn, a mighty story at night, buried treasure, a sleepwalking landlord.‘A horrible death, shut up in that cramped, dark tunnel; even a murderer—for so he may have been—cannot deserve that terrible, lonely, slow dying. Although motivated purely by selfish thoughts of safety, he was heading for the church and Sanctuary. I hope he has—in a more true sense—found the peace he was seeking.’
‘Being Ireland,’ the good Father’s eyes twinkled, ‘the guard had the kindness to set me down near to the intersection of what they’d call “droves” in East Anglia: those grassy “green lanes” that once veined these islands, even as the Ley lines still do. As I walked toward the boggy foothills—the best place for Dermott’s type of fly—I was thinking of the superstition surrounding the intersections of these lanes; how suicides were buried there, and of their connection with ancient tribal magic; much, in fact, like the Voodoo I had battled with in the Indies....'
Wyntours is a superb story, which I already read in a Stephen Jones Year's Best. It details the perils of minutely recreating real locations on your miniature railroad. (Rowlands would be well represented in any anthology of Ghost Stories of a Hobbyist.)
The Whistling Stones
'....Stone seems to be particularly suitable. I’ve had vague glimpses even at such unromantic sites as Caernarfon Castle, when hemmed in on all sides by tourists. Once, at Kenilworth, I seemed to see the whole pageantry of Elizabethan England unfold before my eyes. Why, even on a derelict Irish railway bridge . . .’
A Fisher of Men
Sailors of fortune land on an island of unexpected riches: "....Here you will find treasures indeed—the joys of serving God and of forgetting yourselves. Your minds will grow pure and unsullied by lucre and you will come to rejoice in praying for others...."
‘Well, now, let us see. People believed well enough in witches that flew on broomsticks to the Black Sabbath; yet it has been demonstrated by learned toxicologists that the “witches” who anointed themselves with belladonna ointment only thought they flew: it was a hallucination induced by absorbing the poisonous salve through the skin. Likewise I think the chemicals in the dried ragweed or Fairy Horse can produce similar illusions: I was lying on the dried plants, actually inhaling the flower-dust I’d stirred up, remember.’
....Once, after moving what seemed like tons of old cisterns and guttering to get at a nondescript mass of verdigris, the clapper of which fell out heavily on to my foot, I offered to pay for the casting of a bell at Whitechapel, to be inscribed ‘Seek and Ye shall find’. But the Father smiled at my irony. ‘Patience, my dear fellow,’ he said, ‘I’m certain I shall find just what I want, one day.’
The Fifteenth Evening
....In the window, by the practice piano, it was a little lighter and I gravitated there, to wait until Treves should relent. Down in the old burial ground below I could dimly see a few of the lichened tombstones, and also something that moved along the ground as I stared out. After a few moments of screwing up my eyes, it became evident that whatever it might be was climbing up the buttress toward me.
The Uncommon Salt
‘One of the College Tutors, a Fr Campbell, was a young man only some eight or so years my senior, and possessed of remarkable intellect. In fact, his tutorials were most stimulating for the argumentative, and he turned out excellent debaters. Much as I respected his intellect, however—and young men of eighteen readily “adopt” those to whom they feel drawn—I did not take to him as a priest. Professionally I could categorise him as a “conman” or salesman, good at propaganda that he found it expedient to put over; glib and persuasive. No doubt it was arrogant and presumptuous of me—a mere student—to sit thus in judgment on an ordained priest whose talents had been selected by my superiors in the church. Nonetheless, I was aware of an inner conviction that he was an academic dabbler in ritual for its own ends. If there were truly incalculable heights to his grasp of philosophy, yet might there not be depths also?
The Executor is one of the strongest stories in the collection. Along with Wyntours, it is also an excellent place to start. A personal anecdote of the local Baptist minister, Mr Cummings, it touches on family secrets, murder, Wise Women, and the problem of uncanny bequests. Not to be missed.
....Among the traditional scenes depicted, she pointed out what my eyes could scarcely see in muddy pigments: a representation of a row of trees, probably intended as oaks, and opposite a good representation of a mediaeval church. She said that the expert eye might detect a figure atop one tree, surveying a sea of fiery brimstone for the craft of hell. This shook me considerably, for reasons which will become apparent later; but not as much as the large green snake, or whatever it was, that twined among the foliage. I don’t think I gave any indication of my surprise, however.
‘You can, perhaps, imagine my chagrin! To be stuck in this desolate, mist-girt place, with no chance of leaving for several hours, was not a cheerful prospect. I might find my way to the road, but it was still nine miles to civilisation—or what passed for it in Snowdonia—even if I could keep to the road; and the chances of meeting a motorist were as likely as meeting a dragon....'
‘ “In the chancel (south side) can be seen a row of stalls once owned by the Cresswell family, incorporating woodwork obtained from Clerebury Cathedral in 1709. A notable feature of the stalls are the elbows, which depict beasts of the chase and a comic scene of a man struggling to remove his shirt without undoing the buttons”.’
The Tears of Saint Agathé
‘But no one steals relics these days,’ I expostulated. ‘I almost wish they would—it might indicate a return to some piety....'
Gebal and Ammon and Amalek
A small miracle of churchy diabolism.
"....After the service he had crept back to look more closely at the figures. Cowls and robes hid their forms to a great extent, but each carried a staff or sceptre. While he looked at them, absorbed with interest, the vicar came by and patted his shoulder. ‘Fortescue tomb, eh?’ he sighed. ‘Philistines, my dear Willie, the lot of them; and old Jasper a philistine and a sodomite.’ He carried on down the church, leaving Willie—who did not know what a sodomite was—amazed at his own accuracy in naming the figures—‘the Philistines with them’—so that they became something of an obsession. He was not given to Bible study, though supposedly his Sunday afternoons and evenings at the kitchen table were so employed. For the first time he turned avidly to his Bible for information, about the Philistines. He was supposed to be learning the Catechism, for his Confirmation a month hence; instead he studied the Philistines: ‘Blood sacrifices are their delight’."
Mr Batchel Stories
From the Diggings
....Whereas the surrounding clays have yielded their due of fossil reptiles, the gravel has been excavated less in the cause of zoology than of profit and the Great Eastern Railway. It is an indisputable fact, however, that these sordid delvings, which have done so much to give the parish its unlovely character, have themselves yielded archaeological and zoological spoil on occasion.
One Man Went to Mow
....Through previous decades, even centuries, and right up to this newly-entered twentieth century, the lawns of Stoneground vicarage had been lovingly—if laboriously—tended by a succession of gardeners and their assistants plying scythes in graceful sweeping movements, and keeping the ground and turf under strict control by much heavy rolling.
One Good Turn . . .
....According to Thrapston’s account, he had awakened in the early hours of Sunday to find the form of his wife at his bedside—in her night-attire, in which she had died—looking at him reproachfully (or so it seemed). He had asked what she wanted, but the form had not answered, and had merely pointed vaguely at a corner of the room before giving another accusing look and then vanishing.
The Marsh Lights
....From the Middle Ages up to more recent times many fenland churches burned a night light to show late travellers the way. By contrast, the flickering lights that sometimes appeared on the marshes were supposed to be a lure of the devil to mislead the wanderer into the swamp. The question was, what were these strange lights? Were they animal or insect? Or simply luminous gases rising from the bogs?
Providing a Footnote
‘Well, anyways, I saw it move, Mr Batchel, sir, and—well, look you here.’ She blushed and with a sudden movement pulled up the hem of her skirt and showed a pretty leg which would have delighted William Burchell, but which caused poor Mr Batchel no little embarrassment. Alice pointed out where a series of red marks ascended round the limb from ankle to knee, before reverting to her usual modest self. Mr Batchel wiped his forehead and coughed. ‘You had better tell me about it, child.’
Off the Record
....To his amazement Miss Wilkins was waving and calling him from the vestry roof, and clearly her recorder was playing back the sounds of those ghostly monks recorded via the chantry flue, whence the clouds of incense were intended to rise straight to heaven. Unmindful of his inadequate attire for a rendezvous with a lady, Mr Batchel climbed nimbly up the ladder, and was about to clasp her helping hand when his slipper came off, and he fell backwards and down.
....During his early years in the parish Mr Batchel had absented himself on Christmas Eve to attend Evensong at Kings’ College, Cambridge and to help stage a supper and an entertainment for the choristers, after which the lads were packed off to their beds, while their seniors indulged themselves with food, some impromptu music, a good deal of reminiscence and a chilling ghost story from the Provost, to speed on their way those—like Mr Batchel—who had to return home by pony and trap. The vicar enjoyed these occasions immensely, and when the weather was favourable he could be back in his parish in plenty of time for the early Communion on Christmas Day.
The Train of Events
....Mr Groves, on the other hand, was, in the mould of many clergyman, a great enthusiast of the steam locomotive, and he combined this love with his photographic skills. His occasional ministerings to the railway employees brought entrée to the sidings and the engine houses, from whence he brought back much dirt and grime, to the dismay of his long-suffering landlady, Mrs Rumney. It was seldom that camera, tripod and plates did not accompany him on such pastoral visits, particularly when there were new locomotives to be seen being prepared.
....He had turned momentarily from the honest toil of the carpenter and his son, and was regarding with displeasure the really very ugly monument behind the choir stalls, when a cry from the workmen startled him. ‘Here’s a go, Vicar! Gorsh, it’s a skellington!’ And he beheld the older Rockford leaving his hole in the floor considerably faster than he had entered it. Sure enough, there—a considerable way beneath the floor, where a space had been made in the foundations to contain a body—were the dusty remains of a person buried for many decades.
The Long Hundred
‘I have listened to your arguments. Now, I have become aware,’ (he coughed) ‘from my research into old documents, that the “long hundred” is based on error. Why not’—he turned to Whittle—‘pay last year’s rate for the true hundred? You sell the bricks by the true thousand or by the ton, I believe. Could you then pay the same rate for twelve bricks less per batch?’
On Information Received
....Mr Batchel forced himself out of his chair in a panic and moved away, but the muffler followed him. Then he was seized from behind, and the muffler was placed gently round his neck. Relief swept over him, and he tried to turn, only to see his fallen coat rising in the air and approaching him. He turned his head as far sideways as he could, but the presence behind him was as invisible as the one in front.
With This Ring
....The course of this narrative may possibly have warned the reader of the shock that awaited the vicar; for, once his ears had adjusted to the cold metal and to the acoustic reverberation of his bloodstream echoing in the airspace, he detected another noise. Not the singing whistle of elevated blood pressure, nor the affliction of tinnitus, but a sibilant sound, rather like—yes, rather like a whisper; the distant voice of a woman.
....Save for the lectern glow, the lights were turned down, and the Provost read the story ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book’ in his dry, unemotional tones to a spellbound silence. During the reading Mr Batchel allowed his eyes to wander up to the Gallery and all but started. Looking over the rail was the craggy, hawk-like face and bushy eyebrows of the late Mr Henry Luxmoore. Then, of a sudden, the face was withdrawn. He nudged Lombard, looked at the new portrait, and whispered, ‘I’ll swear I saw Luxmoore up in the Gallery.’ Lombard nodded, re-packing his pipe. ‘You’re not the first—but Monty doesn’t want to believe it,’ he confided, sotto voce.
The Saints Which Slept
....Suddenly he was aware of a company of men in the south aisle, who were also looking at the dead Man hanging on the Cross. They were strangely stiff and still, rather like a waxworks group of ‘Parsons through the Ages’. It seemed to Mr Batchel that he should know them . . .
Ghost-Tales of Eton College Choir School
Every Picture Tells a Story
....After Evensong that afternoon Stokes had me dusting the ante-chapel while he ‘guided’ two parties of tourists round the chapel before he could get away to his tea. As the last party disappeared down the stairs, M looked round the curtain screening the entrance to chapel, and beckoned me in.
"The Passage" is a masterful tale of supernatural horror. Its directness and lack of affect give it an exalted rhetorical authority.
What’s In a Name?
....I knew all about the ‘googly’, that seeming leg-break that deceives the batsman by turning out to be an off-break; and I had pored over numerous Boys Books of Cricket, trying to understand the diagrams that purported to show how to deliver this bowler’s equivalent of sleight-of-hand. However, the professional who coached us could not show me how to master it either (in fairness, he was a batsman by trade). Yet I felt instinctively that it was what I wanted—nay,must have, if I was to become a useful bowler rather than the economical change-man who kept runs down while the fast bowlers took a breather or changed ends, and skittled a few ‘tail-enders’ with straight balls or the occasional dramatic leg-break.
....they were playing ‘Fizz Buzz’, a mental exercise in counting invented by a late colleague, Tony Oliver. That was a puzzle indeed. Where had these boys come across that? Choristers had been taught by Oliver in the past, certainly, but not for six years or so.
Truth Will Out
....During the balmier weather of a late autumn we fell into a routine for a while of doing music for Hawaiian-type luau parties at plushy houses, catered and organised by brother Tim. Luckily we were Hawaiian music enthusiasts (‘Coconuts’, as they’re known in such circles), and enjoyed this otherwise undemanding fare. Tim usually laid on some girl waitresses in muumuus or raffia skirts . . . and in our spare moments we could attempt to fraternise with these dollies—who were actually a pretty hard-boiled bunch: changeable and unreliable. Who’s to blame them? Any sort of waiting is pretty thankless, but at a party populated by inebriated twits and louts who fancy themselves it is also a job that calls for certain muscle and forthrightness of speech.
On Wings of Song
‘ “When we did the post mortem on Chris,” said Dr Edmonds, “we found what at first we thought was a growth in his intestine; but it was a large hookworm, which had fastened there and been draining his blood. The eggs of these things are carried by Mansonia as well as the viral encephalitis. I discussed it with Ross, and we worked out the incubation period for eggs in the bloodstream to be about four months. Just the time you boys were looking around here. How right your vampire notion proved to be! Not just the original bite and infection—for by the way, like the vampire of legend, Mansonia will return to the same source for blood meals until replete and ready to lay its own eggs—but in the parasite that grew within poor old Chris, feeding on his blood.”
King John’s Ditch
....It was Prior Aldwin, of course—and with an acolyte who, judging from his dress and sleepwalking demeanour, could only be this year’s ‘Round’ beneficiary. Getting below to the cellar was relatively easy; surviving the poisonous atmosphere of the ditch was less so, and I was very conscious of my laboured breathing.