THE GHOSTLY TALES OF ELIZABETH WALTER

by Jeffery Scott Sims

Introduction

I first heard of the British writer Elizabeth Walter through her "best of " volume published by Arkham House, In the Mist and Other Uncanny Encounters (1979). That group of creepy tales is generally good, contains at least one instant classic. As a devotee of solid, old-fashioned ghost stories, in the fullness of time I dug deeper, sought and found her previous five original collections of spooky short stories, all brought out between 1965 and 1975. Reading them avidly, I came to a better understanding of this, to me, largely unknown author; discovering much unevenness, many good works, some excellent, and certain recurrent themes. Now I propose to review those five volumes, story by story, that other interested readers may arm themselves with knowledge of fresh books worth seeking.

I do not claim to be the expert on Elizabeth Walter, nor pretend to discuss her entire corpus. At this juncture my ignorance on several points dismays me. She wrote two earlier works, The More Deceived and The Nearest and Dearest, which I take it are novels, but I can't swear even to that, much less whether they deal with matters supernatural. Also, in her Arkham House volume I find reference to a forthcoming collection. Further literary exploration has not revealed the existence of such a work, nor any other subsequent publication. What happened there? Perhaps I will turn up more later.

Meanwhile, let me tell you about five batches of ghost stories.

Snowfall and Other Chilling Events (1965)

Miss Walter starts off with a bang, presenting many of her best tales in this (to my knowledge) first collection. Every one is good, several incorporating greatness.

"Snowfall" is an oddity, in that it presents unusually clashing settings to a noteworthy degree. The lurid events unfold during an English snowstorm, during which our hero finds himself stranded alone with a truly peculiar, increasingly menacing individual; the source of the supernaturalism, however, emanates from the tropical Caribbean. The fall of snow, therefore, serves no thematic purpose, functioning merely as a plot device to trap Bellamy with his tormentor. The story does work deliciously, though. The subsequent investigation of the hero's claims drags in this very long story, but it is during this period that the hideous truths are revealed. The downbeat ending marks the first suggestion of a major Walterian theme, the callous, unforgiving cruelty of the supernatural.

"The New House" is the least impressive tale, by a tad, in the book, yet it's still pretty good. Eileen and John, with their baby Sarah, having moved into their new house atop the hill, begin to experience disquieting events and make unsettling discoveries; the finding of an old skull, for instance, or the realization that their property sits on the summit of what was once known as Gibbet Hill. Well, there is a ghost at work, "naturally", and it means only ill. The surprising conclusion is one of the most disturbing in all of Miss Walter's tales.

"The Tibetan Box" is a thrill from beginning to grisly end. Three nice old ladies run up against the evil lurking in the foreign, dragon-inscribed item of the title, which one of them purchased from an estate sale after the previous owner suddenly died. There are those, like well traveled Miss Whittaker, who suspect the box, originally the property of a Tibetan magician, brings bad luck. Certainly Mary has suddenly contracted heart trouble so soon as she acquires it, and the first time her sister Alice handles the thing she contrives to lose three fingers! Terrible, only it doesn't stop there. As so often the case, our well meaning characters don't take the hint in time, leading to a heartlessly grotesque conclusion.

There follows Elizabeth Walter's masterpiece, "The Island of Regrets", one of the most enthralling stories of its kind I've ever read. This tale, which appears in the AH volume, chronicles the doom of passive Peter Quint and his overbearing fiancee Dora Matthews, who choose to "get to know one another" by venturing to France together on vacation. While staying in a coastal backwater they hear of the Ile des Regrets. Can there be anything to those crazy yarns told of the place: that its population consists of one lone madman, plus assorted "unseen" inhabitants; that it's a magical island, granting the first wish of those who set foot there, but doing so in such a way that the wisher wishes he hadn't? Dora insists on paying a visit.

Of course that is a big mistake. What they find there is mighty scary. Peter and Dora both make wishes; both regret it, to the maximum. In the end Peter struggles valiantly to save Dora, but he faces horrific perils of his own. How does one best such dark forces?

Don't, not for a minute, write this one off as yet another retread of "The Monkey's Paw". It's the same basic idea, yet presented so beautifully, with such imagination, with mastery of form and incident-- all the while laced with quirky humor-- as to allow "The Island of Regrets" to stand on its own. Also, more than in any of her other stories, Miss Walter creates an awesome "place". That island is incredible, one of the eeriest locales in weird literature. The descriptions of setting and events there read like something drawn from the most frightful nightmare.

She rounds off the volume with "The Drum", which self-centered Colonel Lawson hears when just fate steals upon him. The drum beats when the regiment's colonel is about to die, or so goes the legend. As his cramped life begins to spiral out of control, Lawson finds he must take that story with utmost seriousness, but the realization doesn't do him any good at all.

The Sin Eater and Other Scientific Impossibilities (1968)

"The Sin Eater", another entry in the AH volume, invokes the legend of supernaturally transferring the penalties of sin from the evil doer to a feckless second party, in this case Clive Tomlinson, who goes along with the weird ritual practiced by an old couple for the benefit of their dead son. We never learn how the latter gains by it, but the poor hero finds himself burdened with plenty more than he bargained for. Dealing with a skulking murderer is the least of his problems. Don't expect a happy ending to this one.

"Dearest Clarissa" didn't make the Arkham House cut, for reasons that escape me, for this wonderful tale rivals "The Island of Regrets" in quality. Utilizing the archaic device of epistolary story telling, it comes to us as a series of letters written by the hapless Julia to her sister, "Dearest Clarissa". Julia, suspected of encroaching insanity, has been shut up in a sanitarium, her life in ruins, her husband apparently drawing away, only her sister seemingly standing by her. This is one of those delicious stories in which the knowing reader discerns more between the lines than the narrator understands herself. Sure, we figure out what is really going on before long, but will Julia; can anyone else, in time? I am amazed that I never came across this one before.

Wry humor pervades "A Scientific Impossibility", in which a conclave of scholars gather following the reported death of their leader, only to be joined by him in council. Miles Crabstone is hale, hearty, and brisk for business like always, but something isn't right. As the meeting progresses, affairs take an increasingly curious turn. It's a fun story.

In "A Question of Time", a young man reacts oddly to an old picture. Dating back centuries, it portrays a famous victim of religious persecution, unjustly condemned, betrayed by the very man who drew him. The modern fellow imagines it was he, in a prior persona, who did the evil and made the portrait, but at this late date, can he and his inquiring friends substantiate such a loony idea? Well, maybe.

This next one caught my attention for two reasons: because it's good, and because it obviously forms the basis of a clearly recalled "Night Gallery" episode. If ancient memory serves, I prefer Miss Walter's version of "The Spider". Justin Ancorwen, self-centered slob, cruelly uses loving Isabel Bishop. That's too bad for her. Meanwhile, Justin suffers from a maniacal fear of spiders. That's too bad for him. These twin elements unite when a supernaturally enormous spider invades his apartment, and in order to avoid this loathsome nemesis he must rely on the good wishes of Isabel. Justin, it is clear, has made many poor decisions in his life; this, his last, is the most tragic for himself, if entirely deserved. The story climaxes beautifully. I'm intrigued by the absolute lack of explanation for the weird developments. They simply happen, to be accepted on the story's terms, and that does work here. Most authors would not dare leave it at that.

The last story in this volume is by far the least. I do not care for "Exorcism", in which murderer Benjamin Shrubsole is haunted by his victim Simon Snipe. Mrs. Shrubsole, widow of Snipe, desires to exorcise the vengeful spirit. This she does, leading me to expect surprises that don't materialize, and when all is over I find the point of the tale escaping me.

Davy Jones's Tale and Other Supernatural Stories (1971)

"Davy Jones's Tale", an AH selection, deals with the lingering consequences of a long ago shipwreck, which intrude into the present day in horrific fashion. One scene especially, in which the hero, David Jones, confronts the vengeful spirits of the ghost ship-- arisen during a frightful storm akin to the one that sank her-- is bizarre and grotesque. I find interesting how the weird events impact the private lives (for the ill, of course) of the main characters.

"The Hare" is another AH choice, a poor one in this case, for the story doesn't thrill me. Something about mixing up witchery with Communist spies left me cold, struck me as clumsy. I don't know what, but as with "Exorcism", I wanted something else from this tale.

"In the Mist", a solid and simple ghost story, lent its title to the AH volume; while not that good ("The Island of Regrets" deserved that prize), it's good. One night a couple meet a young airman trying to get back to base. Later they learn the base has been long closed, begin to realize they've experienced a phantom from the past. Their deductions are confirmed in a most definitive manner, with an entertaining little kick at the end.

"The Lift" elicits a great big "huh?" from me. I don't care for it, don't really get it. This guy-- he's a spy, or something-- marked for death by mysterious enemies, seeks a contact, a Dr. Godfrey, who may aid him. Oddly enough Dr. Godfrey, who seems at first so important to the story, and is referenced countless times, ends up being meaningless to the plot. Instead, that concerns the hero's fears that a lady friend has betrayed him. Getting out at various floors from an elevator, he walks into unjustified historical scenes in which women destroy their men. The hero's suspicions never amount to more, and then he's bumped off by his nebulous foes. What gives?

"The Street of the Jews" didn't make the AH cut, but it should have. Maybe the editor rejected it because the supernatural element is so slight and fleeting, drowned out by the genuine horrors of record underlying it. A pity, for this is a great, if harrowing, story. Michael Mayer, non-practicing Jew, visits the German town of Weselburg on business, wanders into an old Jewish quarter abandoned since the Nazi period. Something happens to him there, at first a strange episode without meaning, but as he begins to uncover the ghastly story of what occurred there a generation before, the import becomes sickeningly clear. The final revelations, both personal and historical, are stunning. It is a painful, unsettling tale, yet strongly recommended.

"Hushabye, Baby" recounts the tragedy that overtakes the Braithwaites, formerly so happy with their new son. Suddenly that baby becomes hideously abnormal, so changed that mother Sarah suspects someone switched babies with her. She actually tracks down a peculiar woman, Ann Forest, who Sarah claims has the Braithwaite child. Husband Bob investigates, with the result that he and Ann become lovers! Poor Sarah, at her wit's end, intervenes, makes a deal with the sinister Ann: handing over Bob "body and soul" in return for the restored baby. Later Sarah, completely over her head in all this, attempts to renege, with shocking results. No surprise, really, except that practically everything in this warped story surprises, for Ann Forest isn't quite human, and her motivations prove complex and deeply evil. Quite fun, this one, for all its nastiness.

Come and Get Me and Other Uncanny Invitations (1973)

"Come and Get Me", a superb story, appears in the AH book. Lieutenant Michael Hodges and his men, on maneuvers, come to the manor house of Plas Aderyn, shut up since old General Derby died, there to find evidence of haunting. Who haunts the spooky place? Why, Captain Jack Derby, of course, the general's son, whose cowardice in battle led him to flee home and drown himself in the pond. End of story? Not quite. Hodges investigates, learns discordant facts, later meets up with Colonel Anstruther, comrade of Jack, who expresses great interest in the matter. Back to the house they go, where the truth of what happened there is finally revealed in spectacular fashion. This one ends perfectly, and-- a choice bit-- the cries of a parrot offer vital clues.

Oddly titled, "The Concrete Captain", another AH choice, takes journalist Jeremy Sparrow to the Cornish village of Nancarrow, where he investigates the unusual legend of the Concrete Captain. That seafarer's body lodged tightly between rocks during a storm, so his pragmatic mates poured concrete over the immovable corpse, a unique form of burial. Sparrow gets his story-- rather more than expected-- but he fails to derive benefit from his scoop. The captain may be dead, but he isn't quiet, and he can be thoroughly dangerous.

Here comes my least favorite story from all Miss Walter's volumes. Something went badly wrong with "The Thing"; after a wholly promising start the tale completely breaks down, becomes in the end something else, entirely disconnected from what went before. Roswitha Edwards, traveling in the Austrian Alps, rides a mountain chair-lift, observes a monstrous, inexplicable fate overtake a passenger in an oncoming chair. She escapes that appalling doom, which no one believes, but years later, via an intricate series of circumstances, strange fate takes her again to that spot, and back onto the chair-lift. To her horror it begins to happen again... and then the story disintegrates. The climax is so lame, so unsatisfying, that I refuse to discuss it. Skip this one.

There's nothing new in "The Traveling Companion", which like most tales of its kind telegraphs its conclusion way early, but it's good. Jennifer Mallory is returning home after a terrible car accident, escorted by the pleasant, unassuming Tim. As they approach their destination Jennifer notes increasingly disquieting facts which eventually lead her, at Tim's kindly prompting, to re-evaluate her situation. Read a couple of pages and you will know what I mean.

"The Spirit of the Place" is a very slight story, good as far as it goes, in its suggestion of the ancient past haunting an Italian village. It excels in atmosphere, lacks plot.

"Prendergast" disappointed me, with what could have been a fine vampire tale suddenly degenerating into an "ah ha!" surprise story. I enjoy surprise endings (perhaps not as much as some, but appropriate ones thrill me as well as anybody), except when the mystery is maintained, as here, solely by plot weaknesses. The police in this one are really stupid, otherwise no surprise. It has possibilities, doesn't realize them.

Rather more enjoyable is "Grandfather Clock", a tale of fateful revenge which rounds out this unhappily uneven volume. Rose Bartrum, eager to inherit from her stern grandfather so that she can marry her good for nothing boyfriend, decides to hurry the old man into his grave. She manages that, but where is the will that leaves her everything? Why did the grandfather clock stop at the precise moment the grandfather died? Rose's own actions lead directly to her well earned undoing.

Dead Woman and Other Haunting Experiences (1975)

This last collection commences grandly with "Dead Woman", in which the heroine Jane retires to her new-built home on the Welsh border atop the hill an antique map refers to as "Dead Woman". Distressed by the unfriendliness of the villagers, she investigates local history, learns that the reputed witch Jennet Paris went to the stake on that hill. Meanwhile, death strikes too many people with whom Jane comes in contact. The villagers work themselves up for another lynching. In extremis, Jane discovers that she possesses an improbable ally. There is lots of satisfying creepiness in this story, one of Miss Walter's best. It should have made its way into the AH volume.

"The Hollies and the Ivy", on the other hand, should have been a better story. In this one supernaturally inspired growths overwhelm the house of a new couple who have moved in where sinister tragedy may once have occurred. The underpinnings of this one are vague, the conclusion rushed, as if there ought to have been more.

Here is another with great potential that goes flat. "A Monstrous Tale", involving horrors lurking in Lake Constance, starts off very much like "The Island of Regrets", yet peters out woefully without a decisive climax. Again, I expected more.

"The Little House", though, is more like it. The Burchalls move into The Gables, an old place with a small children's play house in the back yard. Their two kids take to the latter, especially young Janice, who entertains there a mysterious playmate, Monica, who the parents suspect is a fantasy. Well, she isn't, being rather the ghostly survival of long ago evil doings, evil which now threatens peace and life in the modern day. The ending isn't a surprise, but it's mighty spooky, and the whole thing is really clever.

Here comes another tale of fitting supernatural fate, "Dual Control". Freda and Eric, unhappy and unpleasant couple, run over a young woman on the way to a party. Refusing to stop, they attend the party, where they're amazed to see the girl, and see her again in still stranger circumstances after they leave. As tensions mount, Freda and Eric slowly realize their grotesque predicament.

"Telling the Bees", didn't impress me, what with its uneasy mix of folk superstition involving bees and depressing family tragedies. Diana Lockett has an unhappy life, and everyone comes to a bad end, and its supposedly important to "tell the bees" about it all, and then the climax is just peculiar, almost as if belonging to a different story. Maybe I just don't get it.

Arrives the final story, the misleadingly titled "Christmas Night". Sounds like it ought to be charming and cheerful, right? Wrong, dead wrong. 'Tis the season for good cheer, only John and Mairi break down on the drive back from a family gathering, must spend the night in an old inn located in a strangely isolated spot. Oddity number one: Mairi somehow knew it would be there. Oddity number two: John comes to suspect the landlord of evil designs against them. Oddity number three: well, to tell that would give away the excellent and alarming conclusion.

Observations On the Stories of Elizabeth Walter

These are, in the main, good old fashioned spooky tales. One seeks enjoyment instead of insight from them. Rather than descend into the dry technicalism of abstract academia, I prefer to just throw out some general impressions on these works, hopefully of aid to the general reader.

Grounding hauntings and other weird irruptions of the bizarre in horrid incidents of the past is common enough, perhaps a stock form, which identifies Miss Walter for me as a writer of the old school, despite many modernistic devices and characters. I appreciate this element, which may be why I readily warm to her stories. Horrors of long ago, derived from discrete, documented dark or desperate deeds, reach out to the living in "The New House", "The Tibetan Box", "The Island of Regrets", "The Drum", "A Question of Time", "Davy Jones's Tale", "The Street of the Jews", "Come and Get Me", "The Concrete Captain", "Dead Woman", "The Hollies and the Ivy", and "Christmas Night". The evil of the past refuses to lie quiet in such tales. Miss Walter obviously has a fondness for this variety.

Miss Walter's horrors are routinely evil and cruel, and she seldom relies on the popular form of supernatural justice, in which ghosts or other nasties reach out from the grave to exact vengeance or right wrongs. There are such-- "Come and Get Me" is a classic example-- but the cases which catch my attention are those in which evil lashes out randomly and forcefully, without apparent motivation. The doomed heroes and heroines of "The Island of Regrets", "The Sin Eater", "Hushabye, Baby", "The Hollies and the Ivy", and a host of others don't really deserve what they get. They're simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. That they're blameless, even decent folks, does them no good.

Folklore, real or invented, plays a role in several tales, especially those set in or near the Welsh country, the region Miss Walter calls home. I point to "The Sin Eater" as a striking example, along with such as "The New House", "Dead Woman", and "Telling the Bees". From references in the book blurbs I gather the author has long been interested in these quaint, often alarming, notions.

I find much unevenness in quality, considering it well nigh incomprehensible that the same writer penned "The Island of Regrets" or "Dearest Clarissa", and "The Thing", "The Lift", or "A Monstrous Tale". This point hazily leads me to my final question, which concerns the publication history of these stories. I know nothing of that beyond their appearance in these volumes. Did these stories, or some of them, first see light in magazines or anthologies? Lacking data from the collections, I suspect not, but can't be certain. I wish to know more than I presently do. I say that the finest stories tend to appear in the earlier volumes, with Snowfall being easily the best over all package.

In the meantime, we have these five books, all of which I can recommend, for each contains worthy efforts. Miss Walter may not be one of the absolute mistresses of the macabre, but she usually knows how to darkly entertain. That their gloomy education not be lacking, connoisseurs of spooky tales must read "The Island of Regrets", "Dearest Clarissa", "The Street of the Jews", "Come and Get Me", and "The Little House". The readily available Arkham House collection will only provide you with two of those. One must seek the relatively rare original volumes for the remaining three, and the many other delightful stories created for our pleasure by Elizabeth Walter.


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