I’ve long been a fan of the work of A.M. Burrage — that little of it that I’ve been able to find, that is. His ghost stories, originally published in six volumes from the 1920s to the 1960s, have been rarely in print since then and used copies are only available at exorbitant prices. I was therefore delighted a month ago or so when I found, during one of my regular searches*, that all of his works have been reprinted in a series of volumes!
There look to be at least 9 volumes — like I said, Burrage was a busy writer — and I have three of them. I’ve only read the first so far, so I’ll have more thoughts in future posts.
The British A.M. Burrage (1889-1956) started his writing career before the age of 18, at first primarily and prolifically writing fiction for boys. After serving in World War I, he wrote a bitter memoir of the experience, War is War**, under the pen-name “Ex-Private X.” He also wrote a wrote a humor novel, Poor Dear Esme (1925), which is not necessarily surprising, as I’ve long noted the connection between horror and comedy. For example, the classic ghost story writer E.F. Benson is best known for his humorous Mapp and Lucia novels***.
But on to the horror stories! The new collections likely do not present Burrage’s work in any chronological order, but the first volume includes his masterful story “The Waxwork.” This was the story that first introduced me to his writing, as it was included in the 1962 compilation Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery that I read as a child!
“The Waxwork” is, to me, a surprisingly timeless story. Told in the third person, it follows a journalist named Raymond Hewson who volunteers to stay overnight in the “Murderer’s Den” of a wax museum for a story. It seems like a routine night for the rather jaded newspaperman, but as the hour goes late and the museum’s silence drapes over him, he finds that there might be something else, something sinister, in the building with him…
One of the reasons that the story stands out to me is that it introduces a psychotic killer that, in my opinion, rivals the much later Hannibal Lecter for his diabolical nature. In the Ghostly Gallery compilation, the character is enhanced by a wonderful illustration by Fred Banbery, who also illustrated a number of Paddington Bear books!
So what of the other stories in this first compilation of Burrage’s work? I have to admit that they were a bit disappointing. Most of them are very standard ghost tales, often relayed by a narrator in the first-person in the traditional style. They are all well-written, however! One in this collection, “The Sweeper,” is also considered a classic — it is a tale of supernatural vengeance exacted when a spiteful old woman forces a poor sick man to sweep her leaves before receiving charity. The man dies, but the sweeping continues, coming inexorably closer to the house…
Another story that stood out to me is “One Who Saw.” When a young man named Simon Crutchley is looking for a quiet place to finish a historical book, he finds it in a quaint and aging hotel in the French town of Rouen. At night, though, he becomes aware of the figure of a woman sitting silently, in the dark, in the garden square situated in the center of the building. The staff learn of his observations and attempt, subtly and not-so-subtly, to dissuade him from investigating the mysterious woman further, but Crutchley’s curiosity becomes an obsession, and one night he steals out to learn the woman’s identity, and his doom.
One other story in the collection had the power to give me a little chill. In “Mr. Garshaw’s Companion,” a man is followed at all times by a mysterious beast that leaves hoof-like tracks in the mud and is always noted entering or leaving the room with him, though never directly seen.
So it is a solid collection of stories, though none of the stories quite reach the heights of “The Waxwork” for me. It also includes a short biography of Burrage at the end with interesting, hard to find information.
One problem with the volume is worth mentioning — the typesetting is of so-so quality, and uses a tiny 8-point (?) font! This made the book rather hard to read, and it might be better to read them in ebook form, where the type can presumably be enlarged. It looks like all the books were put together by someone without much experience at book preparation. All volumes even use the same cover image.
In summary? I enjoyed the stories, and I’m glad they’re back in print, though they could have used a better quality printing.
* Yeah, I periodically look to see if rare awesome books have been reprinted. Don’t judge me.
** I also just purchased this book, and will eventually blog it, too.
*** Yes, I’ve got this one to read, too.