At Christmas, a very kind lady (and fellow bibliophile) living in the village next to my parents’ village gave me a copy of Mist and other stories (1928) by Richmal Crompton. It was published last year in a nice (limited) edition by Sundial Press, in a series called Sundial Supernatural. I’ve been aware of this collection for many years, but it was virtually unobtainable – so this reprint is very welcome.
You might be surprised to hear the name ‘Richmal Crompton’ and the word ‘supernatural’ mentioned together. She is, of course, chiefly remembered as the author of the William books, starting with Just William; in our corner of the blogosphere, she may also be known for her addictive domestic novels featuring wide casts of family members or villagers. Yet, though Crompton often used the William books to tease those who believed in the occult (who can forget the spiritualists she lampoons in those stories?) she had a longstanding interest in the occult herself.
In novels, this only came to the fore in The House (published as Dread Dwelling in the US), which I was lucky enough to borrow from someone a while ago. In that novel, the evil spirit of a house manages to terrorise its inhabitants. As Richard Dalby writes in his introduction to this collection, The House presages works like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, but it was also a theme very much in the air of the time.
It’s also returned to often in Mist and other stories; houses and their inhabitants have inextricable links or apparent enmities. Here, for instance, is a section from ‘Marlowes’:
It was a bitter disappointment to us. We’d looked forward so long to this. We’d found exactly the house we’d wanted. And then – it wouldn’t have us. We decided at the end of the first month that we couldn’t stand it. We’d have to go. You can’t live in an atmosphere of hatred like that. We felt bewildered and unspeakably wretched. We couldn’t sleep. We weren’t going to try to find another house. We wanted this and no other, and as this didn’t want us we’d have to back to America. Often when we were out on the fresh sunny downs behind the house the whole thing seemed ridiculous.
You’ll be pleased to know that things work out ok for them, once they’ve sorted out some of the anxieties the house has about its present and former occupants.
More often, the stories here deal with love triangles – often a previous spouse or lover haunting the current one, whether as a ghost or through possession. ‘Harry Lorrimer’ doesn’t deal with a previous lover, but does include possession:
They were not Harry Lorrimer’s eyes. Or, rather, they were Harry Lorrimer’s eyes in shape and colouring, but – it was not Harry Lorrimer who looked out of them. And there was worse. For the eyes were the eyes of a man without a soul. And if you’ve never seen eyes like that then pray God you never may.
I was a bit worried that the stories would be scary, particularly since I read most of them on dark winter evenings – but I needn’t have worried. Those looking for stories in the manner of M.R. James will be disappointed, but I welcomed stories that were interested in the psychology and minutiae of dealing with the supernatural, rather than trying to scare the reader.
Crompton, bless her, doesn’t do twists. In none of these stories was I shocked. The good people invariably remain good; the bad people are clearly bad. Never does it turn out that the haunted damsel was deviously behind everything all along – which could have been quite fun, thinking about it, but it was also reassuring to see short stories about ghosts that are preoccupied with other things than terror. Essentially, it is precisely how a domestic novelist would approach the occult.