What better way to indulge my Anglophilia than by immersing myself in the British tradition of seasonal ghost stories? The Haunting Season, published by Pegasus Books, contains eight wintry tales that don’t embrace the notion of “’Tis the season to be jolly.” Au contraire. Within the anthology are narratives that depict cruelty, physical and mental abuse, murder, and ghosts with grudges. Chilling stuff for chilly weather. The stories’ British writers have garnered an array of awards, but the sole author I was familiar with is Andrew Michael Hurley. It was Hurley’s name that cemented my interest in reviewing the volume. His lauded novel The Loney is brilliant; a joy for me to read and then review for Diabolique. Happily, his contribution to The Haunting Season shows that he likewise has a great flair for short story writing. Two other authors’ tales represented in the collection also greatly appealed to me. So, with full-blown subjectivity, I will discuss the three yarns that rendered the most shivers down my spine.
Hurley’s “The Hanging of the Greens” is a harrowing look at a man’s intense aversion to decking the house with boughs of vegetation. It is not a mere “bah, humbug” denial of the celebration of the holiday. This is a traumatic reaction: “It’s the smell of the greenery I can’t stand. Or, rather, what the smell reminds me of, even now, years later, when I’m miles away from Salter Farm.” What occurs at Salter Farm is terrifying and to say anymore would lead to spoilers. For all of us Christmas curmudgeons out there, “The Hanging of the Greens” will reinforce our feelings about that time of year.
“The Chillingham Chair” by Laura Purcell is a period piece that explores the downside of marrying for status and societal approval. When protagonist Evelyn Lennox refuses the marriage proposal of a member of the landed gentry, the suitor simply transfers his affections to Evelyn’s younger sister Susan. Despite the social awkwardness of Susan marrying before her elder sibling, the betrothal seems a most satisfactory arrangement. For all the appropriate superficial reasons, Mr. Chillingham appears to be quite a catch. He is solicitous and concerned for Evelyn when she becomes mobility compromised from a horseback riding injury sustained on his estate. And he subsequently presents her with some limited maneuverability via his deceased father’s wheelchair. Because of being chair-bound, Evelyn will be unable to participate in the wedding as a member of the bridal party. The chair, however, gives her something more than her brother-in-law-to-be had anticipated. Gothic menace is beautifully executed by author Purcell. The narrative ends on a heart-stopping cliffhanger; a literary ellipsis that works perfectly for the tale told.
The last story in any anthology ideally should be a corker, which is the case with “Monster” by Elizabeth Macneal. This character study is remarkable in its insight and pathos. Protagonist Victor is desperately trying to prove his worth to his new bride and to the world at large. As a youth, he engaged in myriad undertakings but couldn’t aim his attention at a specific career path. His much more focused brother has achieved prestige in botany. Victor consequently views his renowned sibling as a rival. He therefore decides to one-up his brother by making a paleontological find that will astonish the field, bringing Victor the eminence he so craves. With his comely wife in tow, he travels to the fossil haven of Lyme Regis determined to fulfill what he perceives as his destiny. Febrile and dangerous actions ensue, making this Victor rather like Doctor Victor Frankenstein in his pursuit of greatness. The delusional monomania is dementedly comprehensible when jealousy is factored into the equation: “He thinks of the great Valhallas that his brother will plant, Highgate and Abney Park and Brompton—their Egyptian Avenues, their vaults, their tombs hewn into the hillsides, their wide paths with carriage turning circles.” “Monster” is a behemoth of a tale in terms of power. Aptly titled, the narrative is a perfect end to the anthology. The Haunting Season spotlights the tradition of winter ghost stories and showcases the skills of extremely talented contemporary writers. I raise a glass of sherry to the seasonal British custom and to the authors who reverently perpetuate it.