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Hello, Old Ghosts

Many of the things I owned before I got married half a decade ago are still in my old room, where they now share space with other things owned by other family members. The place where I used to sleep is now a storeroom for everybody, and I’ve long since rediscovered it as a place for the unexpected, or at least as unexpected as it can be without being any less domestic. I went there today and this is what I took back:

Dark: Stories Of Madness, Murder And The Supernatural (Clint Willis, editor) is a strange little anthology (TOC) I bought a decade ago just so I could read “Smee” by A.M. Burrage and “The Cicerones” by Robert Aickman.

The former story is often cited as a favorite by many enthusiasts of the “classic English ghost story.” Despite that, however, my attempts to find an anthology that included it were frustrating. I picked up Roald Dahl’s Book Of Ghost Stories because Dahl chose two stories by Burrage; though both were enjoyable, neither was “Smee.”

The story is now available online, though I notice some differences in the text uploaded online and the one in Dark. The Web version starts

No,’ said Jackson with a shy little smile. `I’m sorry. I won’t play hide and seek.’It was Christmas Eve, and there were fourteen of us in the house. We had had a good dinner, and we were all in the mood for fun and games – all, that is, except Jackson. When somebody suggested hide and seek, there were loud shouts of agreement. Jackson’s refusal was the only one.

but the text in my copy from Dark begins this way, with passages in red to mark the discrepancies:

‘No,’ said Jackson, with a deprecatory smile. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t want to upset your game. I shan’t be doing that because you’ll have plenty without me. But I’m not playing any games of hide-and-seek.’

It was Christmas Eve, and we were a party of fourteen with just the proper leavening of youth. We had dined well; it was the season for childish games, and we were all in the mood for playing them–all, that is, except Jackson. When somebody suggested hide and seek, there was rapturous and almost unanimous approval. His was the one dissentient voice.

There’s an even more amusing difference. The following sentence appears near the end of my copy of the story:

It seemed that, in his opinion, if I must sit out and flirt with Mrs Gorman–in circumstances which would have been considered highly compromising in his young days–I needn’t do it during a round game and keep everybody waiting for us.

In the Web version, this becomes lines of dialogue:

`Tony,’ he said, `I suppose you are in love with Mrs Gorman. That’s your business, but please don’t make love to her in my house, during a game. You kept everyone waiting. It was very rude of you, and I’m ashamed of you.’

To have “make love” appear in a version that appears on a Web site called Scary For Kids is hilarious, especially when you try to picture what the other guests imagined went on with Mrs Gorman and the narrator in one version and then the other.

As for Aickman, after I read “The Inner Room,” I became obsessed with him. Just like this “poor law student,” however, I also couldn’t afford the gorgeous two-volume collection of his stories that, if I recall correctly, cost US$ 130 back when it was still in print. Instead, I simply and desperately kept my eyes open in shops selling used books for any volume that contained his work. If an anthology contained an Aickman story, I’d immediately buy it, even if I didn’t care for any other story in the book.

Along the way, I did find two copies of Cold Hand In Mine, one of which features Edward Gorey cover art, but I read what few stories of his I could find from anthologies like Dark:

  1. “The Trains”
  2. “Ringing the Changes”
  3. “The Visiting Star”
  4. “Larger Than Oneself”
  5. “Ravissante”
  6. “The Inner Room”
  7. “Never Visit Venice”
  8. “The Unsettled Dust”
  9. “The Cicerones”
  10. “Mark Ingestre: The Customer’s Tale”

Of those stories, as well as the eight from Cold Hand In Mine, “The Cicerones” stands out because I saw a television adaptation of it before I read the text. (“The Swords,” “Ringing The Changes,” and “The Hospice” have also been adapted, but I’ve yet to watch them.)

“The Cicerones” is very good, like every single Aickman (no exaggeration!) I’ve read, and pretty much impossible to describe, like ever single Aickman. I could tell you “cicerones” are “guides” and the premise of the story is a tourist visiting an old church where he encounters something strange, but that impresses nobody. It’s the atmosphere that counts in Aickman, and while this sentence can’t really be appreciated outside the context of the rest of the story, I just love how it ends the story:

“His questions went quite unanswered, his protests quite unheard; especially after everyone started singing.”

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