British Library Publishing, s/b, £8.99

Reviewed by Matthew Johns

Another fascinating collection of short stories from the 19th and early 20th century from the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series. All Anglo-American or Irish in origin, they feature a range of ghostly children – some (actually, many) vengeful, some playful, some just cursed to repeat their tragic scenes over and over again until justice is served and they are laid to rest.

The authors selected for this compendium are mainly female (10 of the 13), which I found interesting. In my eyes, it seems to raise the question – did many male authors of the time deem supernatural tales of children the realm of womenfolk? Or is it just that female authors of the time were better able to depict the tragedy of the loss of a child? It seems it cannot be a complete collection of spooky tales from this period without the inclusion of something by the legendary M.R. James, who doesn’t disappoint.

M.R. James’ ‘Lost Hearts’ has a rich man invite a poor orphaned cousin of his come to stay with him, an act it seems of charity and benevolence. However, as the young boy encounters strange occurrences, it soon becomes apparent that the rich Mr Abney has nefarious plans for the boy.

Charlotte Riddell’s ‘Walnut Tree House: A Ghost Story’ introduces Mr Stainton, who inherits a substantial house that has lain empty for seven years. Being a rather pragmatic chap who had previously had little to his name, he is more than happy to sleep in the house despite its state of disrepair. He soon discovers that he is not alone, though, as the ghost of a young boy searches through the house for something.

‘Kentucky’s Ghost’ by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps is a maritime tale of terror. The titular Kentucky stows away on a ship and is greatly abused by the sadistic first mate. The title does rather give away his death (as a result of the cruelty of the first mate), but he gets his revenge in the end.

‘The Curse of the Stillborn’ by Margery Lawrence is set in Egypt, where a rather timid missionary tries to convert the nomadic tribespeople that he encounters. When a baby is stillborn, and his stubborn, narrow-minded wife insists that it is given a Christian burial as opposed to following the natives’ traditions, they soon regret forcing the burial.

While the language can at times feel a little unfamiliar due to the time that the tales were written, they still flow well and are mostly easy to read. One thing that detracted from this book was the editor including an introduction to each of the stories that, more often than not, gave away the twist in the tale. I greatly dislike spoilers and go to lengths to avoid them where I can – I found this a distraction and an irritation, but that should not count against an otherwise excellent collection of ghost stories from bygone days.