Jane Gardam's "A Spot of Gothic" in her collected stories is a perfect short story for fall and for RIP reading which just around the corner. As a matter of fact I read it several years ago as it appears in a few other collections. I have a handful of stories that I like to revisit and this is easily one that I could add to it. I don't suppose what happens in the story is a case of déja vu exactly, but the unexpected and the uncanny happens. Less scary or chilling but nicely atmospheric and definitely mood setting is this one.
It happened one night on a lonely road under a full moon after a dinner with friends. Maybe the meal was too rich or a little too much wine was drunk, or the light hit in just the right way, but Mrs. Bainbridge sees something rather frightening.
"I went flying through High Thwaite, hurtling through Low Thwaite and the same landscape spread out still in front of me--endlessly deserted, not a light in any cottage, not a dog barking, not a cry of a bird. It was just after what appeared to be the loneliest part of the road that I took a corner rather faster than I should and saw the woman standing in her garden and waving at me with a slow and decorous arm. You could see from the moonlight that her head was piled up high with queenly hair. I think I was two miles on before I really took this in and I was so shaken by it that I stopped the car."
Mrs. Bainbridge is living temporarily in this northern village while her husband is away for a short stay in Hong Kong. Not being overly fond of big cities or crowds she decides to remain behind. It's a friendly enough village and the residents have taken her under their wing concerned that she's bored on her own. Two local sisters invite her to Mealbeck, a big Gothic house--"magnificently turreted, slightly idiotic" that is a cross between the Brighton Pavilion and the Carpathians. With a house like that it seems almost a given that she would come across the unusual.
"She had been waving kindly. Not afraid. Not asking. Not even beckoning. She had been waving in some sort of recognition."
"I had never been so frightened in my life."
The next day she returns to the spot where she thinks she saw the woman and at first can't find the right place. The houses all look the same and she must find a spot in the road she recognizes, get out of the car and walk back. At first, nothing. And then she feels as though she is being watched. And there she is again. She looks as if she had walked out of an old Vogue photograph. Waved hair, pearls and kid gloves--"the trappings of the whole figure were all the very soul of order and confidence. The figure itself, however, almost yearned with uncertainty and loss."
The woman asks the time and when she hears the response is thrown into a state of misery.
"The dreadful sense of loss, the melancholy, were so thick in the air that there was almost a smell, a sick smell of them."
There's a noise. A distraction, and when Mrs. Bainbridge looks back the woman in gone again. When she asks the local doctor at the woman, what he tells her disconcerts her so much, Hong Kong began looking rather more attractive than originally thought. As ghost stories go, this is a good one--one for the the faint of heart!
Next week another story or two by Jane Gardam. Next up is "The Tribute". I'll keep reading from the collection through the end of the month and then it will be time to shift gears and look for spooky stories for September and August. I hope to finish the Gardam collection before the end of the year. It is a pretty hefty collection with nearly thirty stories, but I never like to rush a story collection so will just keep chipping away at it.
If, by the way, you've come across a good (relatively new) collection of good stories suitable for RIP reading, do let me know. I will have to share my own top ten or so stories and perhaps will revisit a few of them, too.
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I loved this week's (August 4 issue) New Yorker story, "Action", by Paul Theroux. You can read the story, too, here. Paul Theroux is another author who I feel as though I should have read (but haven't yet gotten around to), so this little taste is hopefully just a teaser. Thankfully there were no deaths this week or illicit drug taking and it was wonderfully evocative with its 1950s Boston setting. The story is about a young man, a boy really, venturing out in the world on his own for the first time and the getting of wisdom. The son of a widower, he works in his father's shoe store and is sent out to do an errand. The journey he makes is through a Boston he knows, but has never experienced entirely on his own, and the result isn't entirely a happy one.
"The way my father worried about me made me think I was dangerous."
His father is trusting but gruff. Albert thinks of him as two different people, the father he is to him and the man he is to others. Of course it works the other way around, too. The beauty of the story is the surprise at the end--he doesn't know his father as well as he thinks he does. In a way, this is a picaresque tale since the errand takes him on an adventure of his own devising but one that doesn't work out as well as when he set of on adventures with an older, maybe not entirely wiser, but certainly more experienced friend.
I'll be looking for Paul Theroux's forthcoming short story collection, Mr. Bones, which is due out late next month. I'm just a short story away from being (save one earlier fiction issue) caught up with my New Yorker short stories. There might still be time to squeeze it in tonight! I may not be doing as well with the rest of my reading this year, but I have actually managed to read my weekly New Yorker story(ies).