The “Old-Fashioned” Literary Ghost Story Has Risen from the Grave—The Fellow Travellers & Other Stories by Sheila Hodgson!

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I usually have trouble finding modern ghost stories I like. I prefer the longer, old style of prose from the past. But I am thrilled to discover this collection. Sheila Hodgson wrote these in the antiquated style, which seems to have been forgotten, unfortunately, or, worse, relegated to remain imprisoned in a specific time that we are now past. Here is an excerpt and the Contents of this 1998 collection. I haven’t yet discovered which story contains that thing with no eyes on the cover. 😬

Table of Contents

Introduction
The Villa Martine
The Turning Point
The Lodestone Childermass
The Backward Glance
The Boat Hook
The Fellow Travellers
The Hand of Gideon Chant
Echoes from the Abbey
Here Am I, Where Are You?
The Smile
Come, Follow!

Introduction

“It began in a pub near Shepherd’s Bush. Several of us, scriptwriters at Television Centre, had been debating why the ghost story is so much more effective on radio than on television; why unseen terrors prove far more alarming than explicit visual horrors. Even in the hands of such a master as Nigel Kneale, there is a real danger that once you show your haunting phantom, one or two people in the audience will fall about laughing.

What frightens you may strike me as ridiculous; what terrifies me may cause you to hoot with derision. Fear is personal. I am not talking here of mass panic, which is a different matter altogether —a kind of infectious hysteria —but rather of icy, isolated dread, the conviction that one is utterly alone yet something has gone bump in the night. As a very small child I got lost under the bedclothes, and to this day feel a horrid frisson every time I read ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’. That face of crumpled linen, you see.

As a result of our pub argument, I wrote to Broadcasting House suggesting that I adapt one of M. R. James’s stories for radio. I got a letter back saying thank you, they believed all the good ones had been done already. I checked with the Public Library. They were right.

There it might well have ended; but my husband, glancing through the collected edition of James’s stories, came across an essay called ‘Stories I Have Tried to Write’. In it, James (with remarkable generosity) detailed plots that had misfired, rough ideas which came to nothing; a sort of writer’s notebook for —he wrote —‘the benefit of somebody else’. It seemed a direct challenge. I drafted a project which the BBC accepted, and then wrote three plays loosely based on those notes. I used James himself as the principal character and narrator —for they were, after all, his scenarios —and pictured him telling the stories to friends at Christmas. Then I hit a snag.

The programmes were popular —in fact, very successful —but when asked for more, I discovered there were no more. I had used up all the viable story lines. It seemed a pity to lose a well-liked formula, and by then James had become a powerful influence on me. I decided to continue with the series, inventing my own ghosts, and trying as far as possible to imitate James’s style. We did eight in all.

Half way through I went into reverse and started to turn the radio scripts into short stories, and several of these appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine. Unfortunately for me, Blackwood’s ceased publication; but at that point Rosemary Pardoe of Ghosts & Scholars came to the rescue. It was a great piece of luck, as the late Karl Edward Wagner then reprinted them in his anthologies.

I had begun the writing of supernatural tales simply as an exercise; an extension of my usual work, which consists mainly of crime plays and thrillers. I think the moment when I realised I had accidentally entered a private world occurred at a cocktail party given by the Crime Writers Association, the guest of honour that night being a forensic expert from Scotland Yard. As one does, I pressed forward through the crowd and introduced myself, anxious to pick the expert’s brains. He turned. He looked at me accusingly. ‘You don’t write crime books,’ he said. ‘You write ghost stories. I’ve got one of yours.’

It has to be one of the great moments in a writer’s life: finding yourself face to face with that mythical creature, Dear Reader. Yet I felt as if I had been detected in some awful prevarication, trying to hide not just the skeleton, but the ghost in my cupboard. Then, as he talked, it dawned on me that I had gate-crashed a kind of private club; I had joined a group of immensely knowledgeable people who formed a world-wide network and knew more about the supernatural genre than I would ever learn. I am still learning. I have still to get up the courage to go to one of their conventions; I should be exposed instantly as a Jennie-come-lately.

I have gone back to crime writing, but the spirits have never entirely left me. Violent horror books leave me unmoved. We are back to the subject of personal fear. What really terrifies me is sudden laughter in an empty room —the sound of someone clearing their throat when there is nobody there —a whisper in the ear —and, of course, that face of crumpled linen.”

– Sheila Hodgson, The Fellow Travellers, Ash Tree Press, 1998

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