Klavan On The Culture

In Ghostly Company

I bought Amyas Northcote’s “In Ghostly Company” along with half a dozen other samples of the Wordsworth Mystery and Supernatural collection. Cool editions with excellent covers. In fact, the cover of this book was so scary I had to hide it from my wife when I was reading in bed. (Well, just look at it.)

Not much is known about Northcote (1864-1923). He was an English contemporary of M.R. James, loved America, lived there a while and married an American; served as a Justice of the Peace—that’s about it. This slim volume of ghost stories is his only book.

He gets compared to M.R. James a lot and suffers by comparison, as who wouldn’t. His stories are nowhere near as inventive, chilling or creepy as the master’s—as whose are? But some of Northcote’s tales do have some staying power. I found myself remembering them, and sometimes getting spooked out after the fact.  Especially good and original was the last one “Mr. Oliver Carmichael,” about a rather wan and effeminate civil servant who is haunted by a malevolent woman he meets in a shop. I would’ve preferred a different ending, but the bulk of the story is haunting. “Brickett Bottom,” “In The Woods,” “The Late Mrs. Foulke,” and a few others are also quite strong. Just about every one of them is at least an interesting read, especially for fans of the ghost story genre.

Northcote’s best trait as a storyteller is his willingness to sacrifice innocent characters to the evil purposes of his ghosts. There’s no moral explanation for why a rejected suitor gets to come back and claim his reluctant bride—which makes it all the scarier when he does. The author’s understanding of sexual psychology is also strong, giving his stories a very basic, foundational feeling—almost like blueprints for ghost stories. Some of them may well have served that turn. It wouldn’t surprise me if Elizabeth Bowen read “The Steps” before writing her far more terrifying classic “The Demon Lover,” for instance. I could think of a few other writers who also may have found inspiration here.

All in all? This is a compelling, entertaining and educational read for ghost story buffs. Not always scary enough on the page, but haunting all the same.

Oh, and a criticism about these Wordsworth editions. They could use better copy editing. There are a lot of typos, which is very annoying, especially at tense moments. One I remember said something like, “He felt as if he had been plunged into the very depths of bell.” He should count himself fortunate. It could’ve been hell. As Coleridge might have said: Do a better job, Wordsworth.