Friday, September 30, 2011

Ancestral Spirits

Although ghost stories are as old as human storytelling, they began to take recognizable form as a variety of fiction during the Victorian era, and while their settings, themes, and metaphysics have continued to evolve over the past hundred years, homage to the classics is of course very common. Too often such homage takes the form of dull pastiche, mistaking the choices of particular writers for a formal straightjacket. Happily, the stories in Ghosts by Gaslight, a new anthology edited by Jack Dann and Nick Gevers, make no such errors. Their styles, although rich with period diction, are as lively and readable as any contemporary fiction, and their content incorporates modern psychological and social wisdom without violating the mores of the setting. And, just as important, they're all thoroughly spooky. Packed with excellent stories and without a single dud, Ghosts by Gaslight is one of the finest anthologies of the year.

As the editors observe in their introduction, the popular image of the Victorian era has as much to do with gentleman scientists as with shadowy specters, and it's no surprise that several of the ghostly manifestations here are linked to experiments gone wrong. In James Morrow's "The Iron Shroud," a story whose ghosts have a perfect steampunk twist, an attempt to prevent the dissolution of the soul at death turns a promising inventor into a cruel tyrant. Sean Williams records how the study of mystical transformation leads to haunting, and murder, when Dr. Hugh Gordon encounters "The Jade Woman of the Luminous Star." And in "Mysteries of the Old Quarter," an atmospheric epistolary story of old New Orleans, research into communication with the dead gradually reveals an old personal tragedy.

Victorian colonialism, with its putative distinction between British rationalism and "Eastern" superstition, drives other stories. Robert Silverberg's "Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar" subtly reflects the prejudices of race, class, and gender in a story about the secrets of the Great Indian Desert. Peter S. Beagle's "Music, When Soft Voices Die" posits an alternate history of relations between the British and Ottoman Empires, adding a further note of confused melancholy to a story of isolation and grief in which four socially awkward residents of a rooming house tap into something beyond their ken. And in "The Shaddowes Box," the ever-brilliant Terry Dowling builds on the discovery and exploitation of Egyptian mummies to explore the power of unmitigated darkness over the human mind.

Victoria may have been queen of the British Empire, but the Victorian era was a worldwide phenomenon, and several stories with non-European settings add a dash of variety to the anthology. John Langan's "The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn's Balloons" has a title that might sound parodic, but there's nothing funny in its meditation on terminal illness, regret, and Dunn's rather upsetting creations. In "The Grave Reflection," Marly Youmans uses Nathaniel Hawthorne as a character in a sequence of events reminiscent of the author's own darkly romantic allegories. Laird Barron's "Blackwood's Baby," set at a hunting lodge in post-WWI Washington State and subtly linked to one of his earlier stories, is furthest in tone and setting from the Victorian/Edwardian model, but so intense is its air of harshness, strangeness, and inexplicable human impulses that there can be no cause for complaint.

While most of these tales are quite dark and serious, a couple have a delightful comic edge. Garth Nix's "The Curious Case of the Moondawn Daffodils Murder" introduces an eccentric sleuth of the supernatural with unusual powers and the female medical student who keeps him under control. Their banter is so sharp, and the story's final line so tantalizing, that one can only hope Nix will revisit these characters. Jeffrey Ford's "The Summer Palace," on the other hand, is revisiting established characters, from his Well-Built City trilogy. I'm not familiar with those novels, but after reading this darkly hilarious social satire with a magical flavor, I intend to seek them out.

The names already mentioned will have given some sense of how distinguished is the anthology's author list. From established masters like Gene Wolfe and Lucius Shepard to rising talents like Margo Lanagan and Theodora Goss, the rest of the contributors are equally impressive, and while one or two of the stories are less powerful than the rest (the homage to Hawthorne in "The Grave Reflection" is somewhat awkwardly achieved, and "Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar" suffers from an excess of straightforwardness), all are well-crafted and evocative of traditional ghostliness. Perhaps the standout is John Harwood's "Face to Face," which like all great ghost stories achieves heights of terror so subtly that one can hardly say how it was done, unless by simple mastery of language. The conceit of "Face to Face" is a familiar one, but Harwood breathes new life into it, as all the writers in Ghosts by Gaslight do, reinvigorating the nineteenth-century strange story in high style. Whether your tastes in horror are classical or contemporary, you can't afford to miss this anthology.

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