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13 July 2017

Algernon Blackwood’s Ghost Stories and why horror is better in the heat

Actress Ruth Gemmell chills on BBC Radio 4 Extra.

By Antonia Quirke

A story by one of the pre-Great War writers of horror (10 July, 12.45am) was read so marvellously by the actress Ruth Gemmell, it sounded as though she’d taken immense pains preparing, marking the text in different pens and doodles and directions – an aural latticework of minutely choreographed technical decisions.

The story, The Transfer, is about a child obsessed with a stretch of the garden in a smart country estate, an “ugly patch where nothing grew” beyond the rose bushes. Gemmell, with a hint of sourness, described it as a “bald, sore place, cracked with fissures”, and then increased the vocal pressure (only infinitesimally, none of this was blatant) when quoting the child on this peculiar corner of the garden: “It’s empty, it’s hungry.”

How stupendous. A yearning patch of ground, to which a child offers dead rabbits and trapped mice. Even better was the description of the child’s uncle – whom he fears – and who is coming to visit. This drooping man, writes Blackwood, “grew vital in a crowd”. Absorbing, like a vampire, the “loose vitality” of other people’s enthusiasm is his special skill. This character sounded precise. Blackwood had surely closely observed one super-efficient and deeply impersonal type as he worked a plush Edwardian drawing room.

Rather than around a winter fire, such readings are best when (writes Blackwood) “the haze of summer lay over the garden like a blanket”. Not a blanket to coddle, but to make you sweat and twitch. Last week Four Extra was playing H G Wells’s lesser-known stories such as his brilliant The Inexperienced Ghost, about an unimpressive young man weakly haunting a London club. The dead, it seemed horribly to tell us, have little of interest to impart. They are sluggish, like a mid-July night.

Hearing ghost stories in a heatwave especially lends the experience a dreamy indistinctness, a sensation of journeying back in thought, images muted with heat and distance, with lobed sun flecks and patterns of greenery. Until, as Blackwood puts it, “a sudden darkness comes, taking the summer brilliance out of everything”. 

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This article appears in the 12 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions