Winterwood and other hauntings by Keith Roberts

Morrigan Publications, 1989, 188 p, including 6 p Introduction by Robert Holdstock, plus illustrations by the author.

Roberts was one of the best prose stylists ever to write SF in Britain. His scope was not restricted by the genre though. One of his best novels, The Boat of Fate, was historical, set in Roman Britain and his stories of Kaeti (on Tour) plus Kaeti (and Company) and Gráinne used more contemporary surroundings. I reviewed his Irish Encounters written about his experiences while researching Gráinne here.

As the appendage to the title suggests the contents of this book are essentially ghost stories. To each Roberts has given us an introduction which describes how and perhaps why it came to be written. All the stories are invested with Roberts’s precise manner of story-telling. Some exude a Victorian/Edwardian sensibility. Taken as a whole, though, he has a tendency to employ a throat clearing scene before we get to the meat of the story or else to utilise a framing device.

In Susan, Roberts conjures up the atmosphere and look of an old-fashioned school Chemistry lab with eerie precision. The titular Susan is a self-contained and assured fifteen year-old schoolgirl with a strange air about her who has an after school conversation with a teacher on the brink of retirement, an encounter with a disturbed man on her way home and a mother who senses she is unknowable. At the end the reader doesn’t know much more about her either but it doesn’t matter, the story works as what it is.

Roberts’s Introduction to The Scarlet Lady contains the surprising information that Kyril Bonfiglioli wrote its last few lines and also suggested the ending to Roberts’s celebrated Altered History novel Pavane. The Scarlet Lady is a car – a between the wars one, with a face like a grinning skull, bought by the narrator’s brother. She turns out to be a heap of trouble; with a side order of malevolence.

The Eastern Windows is set at a party whose attendees have all experienced a close shave on their journey to the venue. The story is largely made up of snippets of overheard conversation as it roams between guests. Gradually the same voices and phrases begin to repeat. Eventually a woman called Eileen says, “‘Sometimes I think Hell must be like a party. A big room full of people you don’t know and you have to talk to them for ever.’” A short while later the man she is speaking to counters, “‘I don’t quite agree with your conception of Hell. I think it would be worse if you were stuck in a room forever with people you knew too well.’”

Winterwood is a variation on the haunted house story, though it is the narrator who ends the more haunted.

Mrs Cibber is in a similar vein, dealing with the obsession of a man with a painting of an eighteenth-century actress called Mrs Cibber which he sees hanging in a London pub. It is more about how it affected him and his life story, though. The detail is utterly convincing.

In The Snake Princess a shy boy on holiday is attracted by the NUDE PRINCESSS WRESTLES WITH LIVING SNAKES sign at a fairground and visits the exhibit. The “princess” is not naked and the snake is merely draped over her. The next day on the beach she – all that his mother would disapprove in the one package – befriends him and encourages him to become what he wishes for. This being a Roberts story (and one of the hauntings of the book’s subtitle) things are not quite as straightforward as that.

Everything in the Garden is in the form of what she refuses to call diary entries (and strictly no dates) by a woman named Diane who has it all – husband, big house in the country – but not everything in her garden is rosy; in particular the big tree. A coda in italics somewhat counterpoints the thrust of her tale by questioning the details of her life.

Reading Roberts never disappoints.

Pedant’s corner:- in the Introduction – smokey (smoky.) Otherwise; “‘to seek counsel of a fifteen year pupil is an act that I consider gross, and that I can only describe old as an obscene privilege’” has that ‘old’ misplaced, the illustration of the Scarlet Lady, while beautifully done does not resemble the description in the story, maw (it’s a styomacn, not a mouth,) “that never will lay flat” (lie flat,) “‘I wouldn’t have missed it for world’” (for the world,) “I wish I cound forget his hame” (‘his name’ makes more sense,) miniscule (minuscule,) celi (ceilidh?) “as soon as I reasonably dare” (dared,) Ingres’ (Ingres’s,) Candales (Candale’s,) “a paint wholesalers” (wholesaler’s,) “a greengrocers” (greengrocer’s,) “a tobacconists” (tobacconist’s,) the grocers (grocer’s,) whiskys (whiskies,) “at the doctors” (the doctor’s.)

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