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Archive for the tag “ghost stories”

Ghost stories by authors surnamed James

The House on Cold Hill (House on Cold Hill, #1)The House on Cold Hill by Peter James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I recently read a book of ghost stories by Henry James (see my review here) and was somewhat less than impressed. I had previously read one of the stories, “The Turn of the Screw”, and found the style convoluted and almost unreadable. It wasn’t improved on a second reading. I was in the library looking for ghost stories by Montague James, whose stories are said to be better, but they didn’t have any, but next to Henry James on the shelf was Peter James, and so I took out The House on Cold Hill.

I know Peter James primarily as a writer of detective stories featuring detective Roy Grace in Brighton in the south of England. I’d read a couple of Peter James’s non-detective stories before, and had not been very impressed. I thought he would do better to stick to crime fiction. But The House on Cold Hill is different. And I was not disappointed. When it comes to authors surnamed “James”, Peter undoubtedly writes better ghost stories than Henry. For a start they are written in plain English, where you don’t have to read every sentence three times to try to puzzle out the author’s meaning.

I suppose they could also be classified as horror. Not all ghost stories are scary. Some are meant to be scary but fail; this one succeeds. I was reminded of Phil Rickman, who began writing stories in the supernatural horror genre and gradually shifted to writing crime stories. Perhaps Peter James is on the opposite route — having started writing whodunits, he is now writing ghost stories like the early Phil Rickman. I’ll be looking out for more like this. I won’t say that Peter James is the new Phil Rickman, but perhaps he’s the old one revived, like an old ghost.

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Everything’s eventual by Stephen King

Everything's EventualEverything’s Eventual by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fourteen stories, ranging from good to mediocre. Most of them are ghost stories of one kind or another, about haunted people or places. Some have happy endings, others don’t.

The best, I think, was “Riding the bullet”, about a student who hitchhikes home to see his mother who has taken ill and is in hospital. I found the description of hitchhiking interesting, and it recalled a vanished age. Arthur Goldstuck once wrote a short story about a vanishing hitchhiker, an urban legend, actually. But it seems that all hitchhikers have vanished. No one I know has hitchhiked since about the mid-1970s, ever since car hijacking became the preferred method of vehicle theft.

The worst story in the collection in my view was “1408”, about a haunted hotel room. I kept falling asleep, even during the bits that were clearly meant to be the most exciting.

I thought some of the stories rated four stars, others rated two, so I gave the book as a whole three stars.

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Ghosts and culture

The Ghost That Closed Down The Town: Stories of The Haunting of South AfricaThe Ghost That Closed Down The Town: Stories of The Haunting of South Africa by Arthur Goldstuck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At last I’ve finished the book, after writing two “What do you think” pieces on the way. So now I can get down to an actual review.

I’ve moved the other two pieces to my blogs. First I was excited because the book mentioned as haunted places that I knew from my youth, or had actually visited. You can read that one here, if you like The missing ghosts in my life | Notes from underground.

The second one got me even more excited when the ghost turned out to be related to my wife. It’s quite something to have a family ghost. And you can read abou that one here The family ghost — it’s official! | Hayes & Greene family history.

And those were, for me, the most interesting things about the book. I have a couple of Arthur Goldstuck‘s earlier books on urban legends, and there’s something about them that applies to ghost stories too (apart from the fact that ghost stories are often themselves urban legends). The main interest in reading about urban legends is if you have heard them in the wild. And in the same way, ghost stories are interesting mainly if you know the places or the people concerned. Having the ghost actually related is a bonus.

But a long string of ghost stories, or non-ghost stories, tends to get boring rather quickly. The non-ghost stories are about places that are said to be haunted, but where no one actually claims to have seen a ghost, and there seem to be rather a lot of those, including the famed “spookhuis” in the Armscor grounds in Pretoria.

I found the most interesting parts of the book were the beginning and the end. The beginning told me some things about history that I didn’t know, and had some interesting information about Islamic ghost stories told by slaves in the Cape, which would include stories told by slave nannies to the master’s children, and so the conception of ghosts among Calvinist white Afrikaners was influenced by folktales from Muslim Indonesia.

The blurb makes much of the point that South African ghost stories are multicultural, as the different cultures influence one another, so I expected a bit more analysis and interpretation of some of the individual ghost stories, tracing the cultural influences and the different conceptions of ghosts, but there was little of that. At the end there was a potted description of how Judaism, Islam and different varieties of Christianity regard ghosts, but it too did not relate them to any individual stories. There were some quite interesting ghost stories written by children, and a description of Pinky-Pinky, a ghost that went viral among school children in the mid-1990s — a tokoloshe for the new South Africa, as Goldstuck puts it. That was one I hadn’t heard of, though our kids were still at school then.

So apart from the personal bits, I found the book a bit disappointing. If it hadn’t been for the personal bits, I’d probably have given two stars, but for them I give three.

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The missing ghosts in my life

Ghost That Closed Down The Town,The: Stories Of The Haunting Of South AfricaGhost That Closed Down The Town,The: Stories Of The Haunting Of South Africa by Arthur Goldstuck

I haven’t finished the book yet, so this isn’t a review, but rather some thoughts inspired by some of the bits I’ve read so far, that mention places that are familiar to me, or at least that I have been to.

Arthur Goldstuck has written several books about South African urban legends, and there is an overlap between urban legends and ghost stories, especially in the legend of the Vanishing Hitchhiker. Hitchhikers have now vanished in more than one sense, and I’ve written something about that here and here.

In one of his earlier books Goldstuck mentioned the Uniondale ghost as a story belonging to this genre and he has dealt with it more fully in this book. I found it quite interesting as I recently travelled the road in question, though when he mentioned the Barendas turn-off the name didn’t ring a bell, but when I looked it up on a map I did find that the road we had travelled along passed a railway halt called Barandas. Perhaps the ghost entered the typesetting machine to add a little more mystery to the story.

The story is of a motorcyclist who have a hitchhiker a lift, and lent her his spare crash helmet, and a little further on he felt the bike swerve a bit, and looked round and the hitchhiker had gone, and the helmet was in its usual place.

We travelled that road four years ago, and again in September this year. On Friday 29 April 2011 we drove down the N9 from Graaff Reinet, noting the empty dam on the Groot Rivier (a trickle), and about 40 km south of Willowmore we turned west on to the R341, leading to De Rust. I think this is what Arthur Goldstuck refers to as “the Barendas turn-off”.

We had only gone a few kilometres when an ambulance came the other way, lights flashing, and the driver signalled to us, and stopped, so we stopped, and he asked if we had seen an accident involving a motorbike. We said we hadn’t so he turned around and passed us going the same way we were, and past the turnoff to Uniondale we came to the scene of the accident. The ambulance had obviously come up from Uniondale and hadn’t known which way to turn.

We didn’t stop at the scene of the accident, but passed by sending up a silent prayer for the rider, since the ambulance was there. Now, having read the stories in the book, I wonder if we had stopped, would we have found that the accident was caused by a ghostly hitchhiker?

The other thing that struck me in the book was the mention of the Sandringham Dip. I lived for 6 years at Sunningdale, on the ridge above the dip in question, from the age of 7-13, and four years down the hill in Sandringham itself. The dip actually leads from Silvamonte to Senderwood, and as you go that way the grounds of the Rietfontein Hospital were on the left, and on the right was the Huddle Park Golf Course. At the bottom of the dip is a stream, a tributary of the Jukskei, which runs between Sandringham and the golf courses. As a child I used to play in the stream, and I went through the dip many times, by car, bicycle and on horseback. I rode on horseback with friends to see another friend who lived in Bedfordview, and a little way up the hill past the dip was a gate that opened to the Huddle Park golf course. When the gate wasn’t locked we would take a short cut through the gofd course, galloping down the fairways. There was a danger of being hit by a sliced ball perhaps, but we were more afraid of municipal officials who might accuse us of trespassing and make us go back. Nothing could be further from our minds than the fear of ghosts.

Goldstuck mentions a grave at the bottom of the dip. I never saw that, but I did know of a graveyard at the top of the hill beyond the dip, and took photos of it because I thought it was picturesque, with mouldy wooden monuments and crosses rotting under the trees.It may have been the graves of people who died in the hospital, but I doubted it. It was too far from the main hospital, and looked more like old farm graves.

As children we also used to ride on horseback through the grounds of Rietfontein Hospital, because there were plenty of wide-open spaces, which were (and are) getting harder to find in an increasingly urbanised landscape. We gave the hospital buildings (a few old Victorian houses) a wide berth, partly because of the fear of Authority, which might chase us away, and also because it was an isolation hospital for infectious diseases, and we were afraid of catching something.

More recently I have been in correspondence with people who are concerned about proposals to develop the site, because apparently a lot of people who died at the hospital have been buried there over the years, and local history groups believe that these sites should be respected.

So I seem to have missed the ghosts. Though I was in the right places, obviously it was at the wrong time.

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Recent reading: In the dark of the night

In the Dark of the Night In the Dark of the Night by John Saul

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I was looking for a no-brain-strain novel to read before going to sleep, read the blurb on a few, and picked this one, and brought it home a couple of days ago.

It’s a ghost story, sort of.

Three American high school boys are staying with their families in adjacent lakeside cottages for the summer. One family has rented an old house that has been unoccupied since the previous owner disaappeared a few years previously, in mysterious circumstances, but the reader already knows that he drowned in the lake trying to escape the voices in his head.

The boys discover a hidden room in an outbuilding with a lot of broken or dismantled objects, a table without a leg, a hacksaw without a blade, a doctor’s bag without surgical implements, a lamp without a shade. There’s an old ledger that shows that exorbitant prices were paid for some of these.

Then the boys start having identical nightmares of violence, in which one or all of them are involved. When some of the nightmares start coming true, they get scared, and think they myst keep away from the hidden room, but something keeps drawing them back.

It’s an interesting plot idea, and at times I thought it might be a four star book, but in the end the author chickens out, and it degenerates into an unconvincing slasher story, a bit of an anticlimax after the build-up, and the symbolism of the objects isn’t really made clear.

But still, wasn’t looking for great literature when I bought it, just light bed-time reading.

The author is John Saul, who is apparently not the same as John Ralston Saul, another author whose books I have read.

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Recent reading: Her fearful symmetry

I finished this book more than a week ago, but have spent so much time trying to get my computer working properly again that I haven’t had time to write about it until now.

Her Fearful Symmetry Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a difficult book to review; I suspect that many people, like me, will have been influenced by Audrey Niffenegger‘s first book, The time traveler’s wife, and by the expectations aroused by that. Comparisons are inevitable. I certainly was influenced by such expectations, and found Her fearful symmetry a little disappointing.

It’s a ghost story. It’s about twin daughters of twins. It’s set in Highgate Cemetery in North London. The cemetery is one of the characters in the book, as much so as any of the people. It’s hard to say more than that without giving away the plot.

I found it an OK read, but I was expecting and hoping for more.

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