Wednesday, 5 December 2012

An Edwardian Ghost story

A drinking companion told me a fascinating story concerning a walk he and a group undertook one day along Monsal Trial in Derbyshire. Being a fit man Derek, not his real name, was well ahead of the other walkers. Derek was striding out with another chap. Suddenly they were over taken by a curiously dressed figure. Derek heard his companion say, “ It’s a long time since he has been on a train”. The figure did not respond but with fixed stare marched steadily on ignoring their good morrows. I said curiously dressed for indeed he was. The middle aged  man was dressed as a railway worker from around 1900. He was wearing three-quarter length coat with brass buttons a kepi cap and polished boots, very fashionable in the Edwardian period but a trifle bizarre in the 21st century. The figure marched past them into a cutting and vanished before their incredulous gaze. There was no where he could have gone. The larger group who were some distance away had not seen the railway guard. The trail had been a former railway line opened in the 1860s closing a hundred years later.

 The incident led me to discuss with another friend the Edwardian ghost story. We both agreed that the past master of the type was MR James. James’s world is an evocative one of railway branch lines, country houses, flickering gaslight, dusty archives and ancient legends. The provost of King’s College Cambridge his annual Christmas treat was to invite undergraduates to his study and over port read his latest ghost story. My friend and I spoke of our favourite. I would select “ A Warning to the Curious” a story of what happens to an archaeologist who delves too far into a legend concerned a buried Saxon crown and its dead protector. He liked “ Whistle and I’ll come to you my lad”. Both stories are set in the Suffolk town of Aldeburgh. James is not the only master although his name is the one most frequently evoked. Another name to suggest for those interested in a spine chilling read is the shamefully neglected Algenon Blackwood. His stories such as “ The Empty House” and “Keeping his promise” are worthy of perusal but preferably when not alone or highly susceptible to unexplained noise