A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Christmas and ghost stories are inextricable linked – as if the shadowy corners of our psyches yearn for a dark antidote to the enforced jollity of the ‘festive season’. When better to be reminded that the ultimate lot of man is death, darkness and madness than in the depths of winter … when the days are short and the nights are long and it requires so little imagination to see evil lurking just beyond the circle of light and warmth in which we huddle?
The Longest Night, a self-funded short story collection published by the authors as a chapbook, contains five disparate tales that unfashionably eschew shock-horror in favour of atmosphere and psychological tension. These are ghost stories in the tradition of Sheridan le Fanu, M R James and Oliver Onions: stories that need to be read with care, savoured at length and digested slowly to be appreciated.
The first – Winter Closing by Alison Moore – is set in the former home of a deceased writer – referred to only as ‘Mary’ whose works were hugely popular but critically panned. Now open to the public, we arrive on the final day of the season and it gradually becomes apparent that not only was Mary psychologically damaged, but there is also something terribly wrong with the house itself. If you’ve ever had nightmares about being trapped in a sinister house with no power, no heat, no light and no way out … this will give you sleepless nights for a month.
Next comes Emma Jane Unsworth’s In, which is less a ghost story than a study of how mundane external factors that most of us would find merely irritating – a swinging gate, bolshie call centre customers – can prey on and ultimately derange a fragile mind, with appalling consequences. It’s ‘Turn of the Screw’ territory, brought up to date and beautifully executed.
The middle of the five tales is the most gothic of them: Drums at Cullen by Richard Hirst. Our young narrator is a schoolboy whose parents have gone off on holiday by themselves at Christmas leaving him to his own devices, so he has accepted an invitation from the quiet but likeable Belsham to spend Christmas with him and his father at Cullen Hall. His mother is dead, and by way of explanation, he offers our narrator this curious comment …
She died before I was born.
The fourth story is Tom Fletcher’s superbly creepy Bedtime. It centres around David and Jo and their three year old daughter Holly, who move back to Jo’s native West Cumbria and rent a remote farmhouse. Although cheap and convenient, it’s really too big and too isolated for them and it’s not long before they begin to feel uncomfortable in it. Jo works nights, leaving David to look after Holly, who refuses to sleep in the room, or even on the bed, that they’ve chosen for her. This is not because she’s frightened of anything in the room. Oh no. Far more chillingly, Holly is drawn to another room and another bed. The child is totally unperturbed by all of this of course … it’s David whose fear we share as the remoteness and the darkness and the inexplicable behaviour of his only child begin to prey on his already troubled mind. Terrific stuff.
Finally comes Jenn Ashworth’s Dark Jack. The setting is a telephone listening service – à la Samaritans – manned by volunteers. There is one particular caller, Jack, who starts to haunt a specific volunteer. That volunteer is Catherine, a single woman with time on her hands, who just wants to do a little good in the world.
He says the same things over and over again to her, down a whistling, crackling line:
It’s dark and its cold and I can’t get out.
Of the five stories in the book, Dark Jack is the one that reminded me most strongly of the master himself – M R James. Nothing very much happens: just a series of telephone calls and a voice coming out of the static – but really, in the hands of a story-teller this accomplished, that’s all you need.
All ghost stories deal – to a greater or lesser extent – with the unwanted and unwelcome presence of ‘the other’. Sometimes it’s a specific presence, sometimes it’s the ‘other’ that lies within us all – subdued through necessity and habit. In all the stories in The Longest Night, ‘the other’ is an almost tangible presence … whether it’s a house, a dead mother, a box spring bed, a troubled psyche or a voice on a telephone. Each tale in this wonderful little collection is very different to its companions, but together they make a very satisfying and chilling whole – aided and abetted by Beth Ward’s eery and unsettling artwork.
I should also mention that physically, it’s a beautiful and pleasing thing: a real collector’s edition and a perfect stocking filler – but only for people who thoroughly enjoy having their deepest fears exposed and their marrows comprehensively chilled …
The Longest Night anthology can be purchased from the project’s official website HERE.