Merry Christmas (as merry as you can, anyway!, in the circumstances of the resurgence of this wretched virus) to all readers.
I posted on Twitter, offering to read and review a new indie ghost story for Christmas, but got no responses, so here is a review of a fine ghost story by fellow writer Mari Biella whose work I much admire.
This is a gripping Christmas ghost story; I expected it to be well written, obviously. One tends to take that for granted with this author – the day Mari Biella starts writing about cardboard characters or sprinkling their dialogue with exclamation marks is the day I start to offer guests marmite sandwiches for dinner.
It is first of all, very atmospheric, the first requirement of a ghost story, and I think particularly a Christmas ghost story. We want a comfortable shiver as we read, perhaps sipping a glass of something festive and alcoholic, and wriggling our toes by the fire.
Here, we get that at once:
‘Maynings, the house was called: a large and rather gloomy building that dated from the middle of the last century. It looked proud but also somewhat forlorn as I approached it that dim winter afternoon… It was oppressive, too: I felt a deepening sense of gloom creeping over me as I walked along the overgrown drive. That could, however, have been due to nothing more than the dimming light and the loneliness of the spot.’
Set early in the twentieth century, this story revolves around the Christmas visit of Charlson, the protagonist, to a deserted house belonging to the family of his only friend at university, Atherton. Atherton, who comes from a far more affluent background than Charlson, has suggested that as he has declined an invitation to spend Christmas with Atherton’s family, he might like to spend it there instead.
Charlson, who is convalescent after a bad bout of ‘flu, and who wants to catch up with his studies, is happy enough to accept the invitation to spend his Christmas there. He is an orphan, and has no relatives with whom to spend Christmas. He doesn’t want to be an object of pity to Atherton’s relatives, and sees himself as something of a natural recluse, prickly and gruff.
Inside the house is substantial, but pervaded with melancholy. Charlson comes to learn that Atherton’s great-aunt Airington lived there. He sees a faded sepia portrait of her in the room where he decides to set up quarters, a seemingly stern and conventional looking woman.
Charlson begins to hear noises that he should not, and discovers that one of the attic rooms still has a barred window. He begins to feel unwell again, shivery and feverish, and though he had intended to spend the holidays studying, he finds it a great effort to concentrate on them.
Then, from the local station master, Charlson learns that the house was rumoured to have a grim secret…
I won’t write a spoiler and reveal any more of the plot, save to quote to paragraphs which I particularly admired:
‘My voice sounded weak, cracked. It elicited no reply, other than a sudden explosion of rooks from the trees. They burst into the pallid winter sky, and their cries and the beating of their wings filled the air.’
‘The snow glittered, reflecting the moonlight back at the sky, and stars pricked the mantle of heaven. Something moved on the edge of the lawn, near where the trees stood in a protective circle. I caught my breath, and then watched with mounting horror as something emerged from the woods and began to lurch across the lawn…’
Tersely written, and full of elegant word pictures and a mounting atmosphere of fear, ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear’ is a short but powerfully written gem of a story.