THE GHOST SLAYERS, edited by Mike Ashley
British Library Press p/b, £8.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
A belief in ghosts has existed in most cultures since people began telling stories around the fire after dark. With ghost lore comes the idea that they can be banished. Though the film Ghostbusters is maybe a frivolous take on the idea, there is a history of ghost slaying in literature. From Victorian times, writers have produced stories about them. All the stories in this volume are parts of a series in which the ghost expert is called in to solve the problem. Many of them have a similar format to the well-known Sherlock Holmes stories in that the expert often has an assistant who later chronicles the events. While the main characters in some of these series are still well known, some have lapsed from the memory of most readers.
Not all the supernatural hauntings investigated in these stories are ghosts. In ‘The Story Of The Moor Road’ by Kate and Hesketh Prichard (1898), the investigator, Flaxman Low, finds that the figure seen along the Moor Road, near a quarry, is an Earth Elemental freed by a landslip in the quarry.
Algernon Blackwood’s investigator, John Silence, appears in ‘A Psychical Invasion’ (1908). The spirit of a long-dead murderess tries to invade the mind of a writer living in the house built on the site of her old dwelling. In his investigation, Silence is aided by a cat and a dog. One of the best-known ghost-finders is Thomas Carnacki, created by William Hope Hodgson. In ‘The Searcher Of The End House’ (1913), Carnacki relates the tale of a ghost child seen running through a house and leaving wet footprints in closed rooms without opening the doors. The ghost is laid by discovering the trickery that has really been going on.
One of the theories of ghostly apparitions is that intense emotion can seep into the fabric of a building and be replayed at intervals. This is what Aylmer Vance proposes in ‘The Fear’ by Claude and Alice Askew (1914) when an intense sensation of fear overwhelms anyone sleeping in a particular room. Not every ghost can be laid to rest, and this is a situation where that is very difficult. On the other hand, in some cases, very specific conditions need to be met. ‘The Valley Of The Veils Of Death’ by Bertram Atkey (1914), which features Mesmer Milann, is set in Australia. Two skeletons are found with a pouch of valuable gemstones. Milann investigates by astral projection but finds the only person that can retrieve the gems is the person they were intended for.
Ghosts might be conjured for nefarious purposes. In ‘The Death Hound’ by Dion Fortune (1922) a patient of Dr Taverner – the occult expert – believes he is being followed by a black dog that emanates fear. If he runs from it, he will probably die of heart failure. In this case, it has been raised by a love rival. Ghosts don’t always haunt places but may cling to artefacts. In ‘The Case Of The Fortunate Youth’ by Moray Dalton (1927) Cosmo Thor discovers it is the relics brought back from Africa that are the source of the nightmares and visions that he is asked to investigate.
While many of these stories are either set in English Country houses or involve characters that normally dwell in them, ‘Forgotten Harbour’ by Gordon Hillman (1931) reminds us that there are ghosts in America and other kinds of haunted buildings. In this story, Cranshawe investigates a mysterious phenomenon in a lighthouse.
‘In Death As In Life’ by Joseph Payne Brennan (1963/4) provides the more traditional haunting and ghost laying. Lucius Leffing investigates a case of a malevolent spirit that haunts the house in which he lived and died and who recommends a traditional exorcism to get rid of it.
As with all the stories British Library Press reprints in these volumes, the stories tend to reflect the society the author was familiar with and when it was written. Some of the attitudes, especially in regards to women and ethnic minorities, would have been regarded as normal for the time. As attitudes have changed, some of these are currently unacceptable. It is worth noting that although all the investigators are male, four of the nine stories are written or co-written by women.