I suspect that most people are unaware of the pivotal role that publisher Arkham House played in the history of weird fiction. Founded in 1939 by authors and H.P. Lovecraft fans August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, the original goal of the publishing house was to preserve the fiction and legacy of Lovecraft. It did not take long, however, before they branched out to publishing a wide variety of weird fiction by a variety of authors, often providing the opportunity for many new authors to get established in the field. Arkham House is evidently still in existence today, though they do not seem to be producing much new right now.
I’ve been cultivating a collection of Arkham House hardcover volumes, which are distinguished by their high quality and their often beautiful covers. Recently, I went on a short buying spree of Arkham classics, and among those I purchased was Kecksies and Other Twilight Tales (1976), by Marjorie Bowen.
Though published in 1976, the collection was in fact put together in the 1940s, not long after Bowen’s other two collections of “twilight tales”: The Last Bouquet (1933) and The Bishop of Hell (1949). Of the twelve stories in Kecksies, seven of them come from these earlier volumes.
Before I discuss the stories, I should say a bit about the British-born Marjorie Bowen (1885-1952), starting with the fact that Marjorie Bowen is simply one of several pseudonyms that Mrs. Gabrielle Margaret V[ere] Long née Campbell used during her career. Her short weird fiction comprises only a small part of her astounding bibliography: from 1906 until her death, she was a prolific writer, penning some 150 volumes, ranging from mystery novels and thrillers to historical romances and popular histories. As noted by Wikipedia, she adopted a male pseudonym for her very first book because publishers “considered it inappropriate for a young woman to have written such a novel.” Her work was very successful, and six of her books were made into movies from the 20s through the 40s.
Reading Kecksies, one can see her success was well-earned. Though, like in many short fiction collections, some stories are more powerful than others, Bowen undeniably has a talent for writing scary and even horrific stories.
A brief synopsis of the stories follows.
- The Hidden Ape. When Professor Awkright’s assistant rescues his son from a deadly fall, Awkright realizes that he has been treating his assistant shoddily and tries to establish a better rapport with the man. This kindness is not entirely welcome, however, for the assistant has a secret: and the revelation will lead to brutal and deadly consequences.
- Kecksies. When two upper-class gentlemen get caught in a storm while out riding, they seek shelter in Goody Boyle’s home. But Boyle has another guest — a man recently deceased — who had a bitter history with one of the gentlemen. When the gents decide to play a cruel prank on those coming to pay their respects to the dead, a horrible force is awakened and none will escape it untouched.
- Raw Material. Linley, a successful barrister, is fond of the amount of “raw material” he’s gathered in the course of his career: nasty tales that he could one day use as fodder for a writing career. When challenged on whether he has any good real-life ghost stories for Christmas, Linley is happy to oblige.
- The Avenging of Ann Leete. Curiosity about the portrait of an unknown woman hanging in the home of a wealthy banker motivates a man to investigate her past. He is led to a dark history of murder, betrayal, vengeance, and the restless dead.
- The Crown Derby Plate. Martha Pym is obsessed with her china collection, but has been vexed for years by the absence of one single plate from her Crown Derby setting. When she learns that the plate might still be at the old and remote Hartley house, where she originally bought the collection, she decides to visit the residents and see if she can track it down. Martha is not a believer in ghosts, but by the end of her visit, she will be.
- The Sign-Painter and the Crystal Fishes. This genuinely surreal tale of love, murder and magic centers on a reclusive sign-painter and his best work: the sign in front of his shop featuring a pair of beautiful crystal fishes. Nothing is what it seems in this haunting tale, and you will be left wondering about it long after.
- Scoured Silk. When Mr. Orford finally is engaged to be remarried, he takes the unusual step of bringing his young bride-to-be to visit the grave of his first wife. The visit deeply disturbs Elisa, who becomes frantic about calling off the wedding. Her fears turn out to be justified, though nobody can imagine what true horror lies in Orford’s history. (This is the nastiest story of the collection.)
- The Breakdown. When the train to London breaks down unexpectedly at night, on Christmas Eve of all times, John Murdoch decides to walk alone several miles to the nearest lodging. He becomes lost along the way, and nearly succumbs to the cold when he finds a place called The Wishing Inn, where he learns it is rumored that one’s wishes will be granted on that very night…
- One Remained Behind. M. Rudolph pressures the antiques dealer, M. Dufors, into selling him the Grimoriam Veram, a satanic text. With the book, Rudolph can cast a powerful spell, which will allow him to summon four people to his room and force them to do his bidding. Rudolph cast the spell, even talking to Lucifer in the process, but he fails to heed or understand the fine print of the spell: “One remains behind.” (This is a very fun and effective tale of a deal with the devil.)
- The House by the Poppy Field. Another dream-like tale, in which a man inherits a house known as Bothal which has a magnificent field of poppies. Maitland, the man in question, finds himself increasingly attached to the house and obsessed by the poppies outside, as well as the man who harvests them.
- Florence Flannery. The young and beautiful Florence Flannery has just moved into her new husband’s run-down ancestral home, where she finds that another woman named “Florence Flannery” had lived 300 years earlier. As she learns more about this earlier Florence from the groundskeeper of the house, she becomes increasingly distressed that something awful is coming for her — something that lives in the murk of the deep and ancient pond on the property.
- Half-Past Two. When Roger Hoby arrives back at his room late at night, he is startled to find another man hiding there. And “hiding” is the appropriate word: as the visitor soon explains, he has fled his own room upstairs in an attempt to avoid an angry business partner seeking vengeance. It may be that nothing can stop this sort of vengeance, however.
As I have said, all the stories in Kecksies are well-written. Some, like The Sign-Painter and the Crystal Fishes, have a surreal beauty and artistry to them. Others, like Scoured Silk, are so incredibly horrifying that it is hard to imagine them being written in the 1930s.
For a number of these stories, Bowen taps directly into the horrors that real women would have faced in her era and eras past: abusive husbands, obsessive would-be suitors, and violent jilted lovers. She does not shy away from these horrors, or shield the reader from them; I found them to be quite shocking and effective.
Overall, I found Bowen’s Kecksies to be a potent collection of “twilight tales.” It is well-worth reading for fans of classic ghost stories and horror.
It turns out that I’ve long had a cheap copy of Bowen’s The Bishop of Hell on my shelf that I haven’t gotten around to reading; looks like I’ll have to pull it out, now!