Title: Haunting Christmas Tales by Various
Summary: It’s Christmas Eve and a group of friends have gathered round a fireside in a remote cottage. As a hushed anticipation falls over the group, the only sound is the hiss of logs on the fire.
Safe inside, where surely nothing can harm them, the friends begin to tell tales eerie stories of restless spirits eternally condemned to walk the earth, stories that will haunt you long after you have closed the covers of this book.
Tagline: Disappointingly, there is none.
Notes: No Bad Guys or Muffin Men to be seen.
So, if you listened to our podcast, you know I managed to shirk this for a year. And if you didn’t listen to our podcast, you probably still noticed that I only did half of this book last year and never finished it. So, time to get this done.
Also, you can find Part 1 here.
[Wing: I can’t believe I let you get away without finishing this for an entire damn year.]
The Cracked Smile by Anthony Masters
I hate this story. The recap is going to be as short as I can manage.
Ian lives with his mother’s unmarried sister, Jenny. His mother and older sister died in a car accident.
Jenny is described thusly, “in her fifties now, with a sharp and domineering outer shell and a soft, loving interior. By day she was secretary to the Managing Director of the factory, and for the rest of the time she cared for Ian and did good works for the aged.” Which is nice. Jenny never talks about the accident as it was too tragic, but when she talks about the past, her loathing for his father is apparent. Which I’m sure is down to him being an utterly nice bloke who totally didn’t murder his wife and daughter.
He goes into the attic one day, for no reason other than the plot literally gave him an out-of-nowhere impossible-to-ignore compulsion to go up there. He finds some broken dolls, his mum used to restore them for a second income. (I bet she didn’t make much, repairing is a long slog, and most people wouldn’t appreciate the work that went into it. It’s probably cheaper to buy a new doll than it is to repair ‘em. And where did she get the replacement hair? I order online, I wouldn’t know where to begin getting the right hair—no, that cheap plastic wig hair/hair extensions from the market won’t do. It’s too rigid.)
One doll particularly calls to him. It sounds horrible.
He moved over to them without interest until his beam picked out a single doll, sitting slumped on a tiny chair. A sense of shock filled him suddenly, making his mouth go dry and filling him with an uneasy tingling sensation. But why? There seemed no reason. The doll’s face was covered in a mask of dust and Ian rubbed at it tentatively. The result was horrific. One eye remained, the other was a dark socket. The cheeks were scaled and stained, the nose smashed, an ear hung loose and there was a hole in one cheek. But far, far worse were the lips that should have been a pouting bow but instead seemed to be set in a cracked and twisted smile.
And I suspect that description has set the bar for this story a bit higher than it can live up to. He gets dizzy and passes out, then thinks he can’t get out of the attic, but can, so it’s all good.
[Wing: At this point, it sounds like a much different story than it actually becomes!]
Now we switch to Ian being in detention the next day (broke a window while playing football [Wing: Because he was distracted by the doll and what happened in the attic. See, it all comes together! Or something.]). Detention lets out and Ian’s at a loose end because he’s got a 30 minute wait for a bus. Also, reality: even in the 80s, you couldn’t give after-school detention on the same day. You had to inform the parents so they knew what time their kids were getting home. I know this, because it saved me many a time, and I was able to bargain for lunchtime detention instead. [Wing: Interesting. Over here, you definitely could give same day detention. Not that I ever got it, but Mr Wing did often.]
So, Ian moseys about and sees a sign that reads “Dolls’ Hospital”. He’s just about to head toward it when Freddy, his mate, shows up and talks him into attempting to steal a lead roof off an abandoned house so they can sell it. Ah, the 80s. [Wing: These days, it’s copper from wiring.] Ian hears crying from in the house, Freddy thinks it’s a “dosser” (homeless person) and wants to scare them. Nice. Ian tells him it was more like crying, so they go to investigate. Ian heads upstairs first and sees a woman crying, surrounded by broken dolls. There’s a girl of about ten with her, holding a doll. The woman picks up a suitcase and they leave the room, walking straight through Ian.
Freddy saw nothing. He’s going to steal the lead, but Ian’s going to be late for his bus, so he takes off running.
He feels all swimmy and confused, and everything’s different—shops are different or just not there. Even his bus is different, single decker, not double. He gets on, and nobody’s on there except the ghost he saw earlier. Also, it’s suddenly day, even though it’s six o’clock on a December evening (I’m typing this at 17:38 and it’s pitch black outside).
He talks to the girl, she’s more solid than her mother. She says he needs to get on the bus, nobody new ever gets on, and it’s dangerous to ride with them. Nobody but the girl can see Ian.
The journey is all wrong too, there’s countryside, whereas Ian’s used to the city. Also, this might be set in my neck of the woods, he’s heading to Middleton—there’s a Middleton in Leeds (known as “Miggie”) or one in Manchester—who cares what the Lancashire folk call it, we’re YORKSHIRE—for those not from the north of England, for some reason there is a Yorkshire/Lancashire rivalry, which I appear to have adopted.
The bus driver is driving too fast and the girl explains that he has to drive fast, her dad lost custody yesterday, and he’s coming down from Birmingham to “get” her. She and mum are going to Aunt Jenny’s house. The bus driver is mum’s “special friend”. (Just FYI: NEVER use that phrase to describe someone who isn’t a creep. It has implications.)
[Wing: It’s used pretty frequently here when a parent doesn’t want to flat out call someone a boyfriend/girlfriend. Are we sure this author isn’t American?]
The girl says she has to ride the bus every day, she doesn’t know why, but maybe it’s because she’s so sad that her doll, Sally, gets all broken up. Yeah, don’t be pissed that you died, that your mother and a nice bus driver died because your father is a monster. Be upset that your doll broke.
Ian wonders if he and the girl can see each other because he’s seen the real doll, it’s in his attic.
Apparently mum left Ian with Aunt Jenny, and they went back to the Dolls’ Hospital to get a few more things—if this guy is so dangerous you can force a bus driver to speed while on the job, WHY ON EARTH DID YOU TAKE A CHILD WITH YOU? A+ parenting, Ian’s mum.
Girl asks Ian if he’ll repair Sally, and he promises he will. Also, Girl is called Sophie. She says he must get off the bus. He doesn’t want to, but being there is causing him pain, so he goes to the doors and the conductor gives him a push—it never actually says if the bus stops, and since Sophie says it never does, I can only assume Ian was pushed from a moving vehicle. Around him the countryside reverts to streets and houses, but before it does, Ian sees his father driving like a wazzock at high speed towards the bus.
Ok, why is the route to Aunt Jenny’s so different on the ghost bus? Countryside and all that. They’re making the same journey: town to Aunt Jenny’s. WTF, book?
He goes home, then mentally recaps everything that just happened. COME ON, YOU’VE ONLY GOT A FEW PAGES, STEP IT UP!
[Wing: He belongs in the WWE!]
The next morning he asks Aunt Jenny about it, but instead of asking directly, he asks if a single decker bus ever covered the route home and if it ever drove fast.
Anyway, she recaps: Dad was going to take Sophie away [Wing: So pretty much fuck his son, right?], so Mum called her bus driver boyfriend, Bill; and he brought his bus and best mate, Tim; and they picked them up and drove dead fast while Dad tried to speed past them. Aunt Jenny does acknowledge Mum would have been safer on a normal bus, but they were all so panicked at the idea they made bad choices.
Only dad survived, he did not go to prison, he was merely prosecuted for dangerous driving. Really book? YOU’RE A FUCKING FANTASY, GIVE ME SOME IMPLAUSIBLE JUSTICE, PLEASE!
Anyway, he asks if they can repair the doll.
He breezes through school and goes back to the abandoned house, he sees Sophie and tells her not to get on the bus or she’ll die. Sophie is understandably sarky in response to that. He follows her on the bus, and says they have to jump. Sophie says she can’t, they’re stuck in a loop. Again, being on the bus causes him pain.
Then it all kind of fades away, and he’s on the road watching the bus crash.
That night, he cries and can’t sleep, so he fetches the doll from the attic, kisses it (“Ian picked Sally up and kissed her on her battered lips. They seemed strangely soft, but when he ran his hand over them, they were simply fragmented plastic. He kissed them again…”—gotta get our incest in, I suppose [Wing: Always.]) and says he’ll get the doll mended. He knows in his heart that Sophie’s “eternal bus journey had come to an end” .
Final Thoughts: This just annoyed me. It all kind of built up to “and then I woke up”. It felt like the author realized he had a word count limit, and had reached it, so just went “and despite the fact fucking nothing resolved, that’s the end because Ian knows in his heart it’s over.”
Score: 1 for the idea, but fuck all for execution.
[Wing: I don’t hate it the way Dove does, but it’s pretty crap. Far too gentle a ghost story, but I apparently have blanked out the first half of this book, so it’s probably meant to be gentle.]
The Other Room by Jill Bennett
We meet Martin and his mum, Sharon, as they’re moving into a flat, accompanied by a social worker, Mrs MacHenry. Martin and his mum used to live with his Gran, but when she went into hospital, they moved to a room above a green grocers, then sharing a flat with a woman and her two kids, then the woman was arrested, and they went into a hostel. Now they’re moving into a two bedroom flat—it’s on the third floor, has concrete steps with graffiti on the walls and the lift doesn’t work.
So, not a lot of stability in Martin’s life. His mum’s a bit touchy most of the time, and he never even knew his dad, and then add in the fact he’s moved school districts, so has no local friends and they’re halfway through the Christmas term at school, and we’ve got a rather lonely kid.
We skip forward one week and Martin’s twice as miserable as you’d think. On the first night in the flat, it looked all hopeful, mum was in a good mood, etc, but now reality has set in. Mum’s irritable, Martin’s got no friends at school, he’s behind in school work, not involved in Christmas plays and stuff, and Mum’s no help with homework.
It’s Friday and he’s walking home, and in frustration he kicks a stone. An old woman yells at him, because him kicking stones caused her to drop her shopping. Martin helps her pick her stuff up, but is too shy/mortified to say a word at first (blushing the same colour as his red hair). Finally he offers to carry her shopping. She introduces herself as Mrs Collins.
At home, he makes himself a brew and a sandwich, and settles down with his homework at the dining table. Instead, he stares at the wall—it’s an outside wall, so no flats on the other side. The wall wavers, and then disappears, there’s now a room on the other side, it looks cosy and inviting.
His mum arriving home breaks the spell. She’s brought him fish and chips for tea, and she’s going straight out with friends. He eats alone, watches TV, and then when he takes his plate to the kitchen, he notices that other room is back.
[Wing: I do not understand parents who have kids and then constantly leave them. It’s one thing to have to work, but to never be at home with them—if you don’t want to spend a lot of time with a kid, don’t bloody well have one then!]
There’s a woman sitting in a chair, with two children at her feet. Abruptly they scramble up, and the room goes dark, and the wall is back. And in case I’m being unhelpful in my description, Martin hasn’t figured it out yet, but they’re reliving the bombings from WWII.
His mum returns home and it feels like he was only watching the wall for a minute, but she’s been gone hours. She’s in a good mood now, and Martin’s a bit more hopeful they’ll have a nice weekend (but also cautiously realistic, she usually sleeps late, invites her boyfriend, Charlie, over, then they go to the pub).
And his realism is exactly right. Charlie wants to go to the pub, but mum says how about they stay in and rent a film. Charlie basically says, “suit yourself, but I’m going to the pub no matter what”, so she caves and goes with him. Charlie gives him a tenner (which is pretty generous back then, especially since both he and Sharon seem to have a low income), but Martin’s snappy with him for calling him “Mart” as he’s getting called “Exchange and Mart” at school.
He goes out to spend Charlie’s money on a movie rental and a takeaway, and Mrs Collins is at the takeaway place and invites him to sit with her. Mum always says go straight home, but Martin’s feeling belligerent, because she’s rarely around.
Mrs Collins tells him that she’s always lived around here, her dad owned a shop before it got bombed in the war. The houses where Martin’s flat is now used to be four large houses with big gardens.
Back home, the other room is back, and it’s clearer than ever. The mother is sitting in the chair again and the boy and girl are playing cards in front of the fire. Again he thinks how cosy and inviting the room looks. The mother is reading a letter, and Martin can see that strips of words have been cut away, leaving very little behind. She tells the kids that Dad sends his love, the Germans didn’t cut that out. Just like last time, the family scramble to their feet without warning and the room goes black and vanishes.
He briefly considers telling his family or social worker, but decides against it because it sounds “daft”. That’s right, Martin does not think he’s crazy. Nor has anyone else used that word in this story. MAJOR KUDOS. [Wing: I enjoy that a lot.] And more important than not wanting to sound daft, he wants to keep it all to himself. He’s feeling fond of that family, and has a strong desire to be a part of them. He suddenly realises what the mum meant by “the Germans”. It’s WWII, so he decides to do some research in the library about that time.
He forgets to watch the movie he rented.
Mum stays in the next night, and he’s frustrated with her because he knows the room won’t come with her in the flat.
Martin becomes obsessed with the other room. He watches it endlessly, and resents mum when she stays in. He tries to learn everything he can about WWII, and the teachers think he has an obsession with the war. The kids at school tease him by throwing up the V-sign (the “peace” sign, to non-Brits—also, never reverse that in England, it means “fuck you”, not “peace” over here) and make air-raid siren noises (that is a fucking impressive sound to mimic), but when they notice he couldn’t care less, they stop.
He learns their names, Shirley is the girl and John is the boy, and he thinks of them as his family.
He learns the music on the radio and sings along with the family when they do. Sometimes he thinks John locks eyes with him. One time he laughs at their joke, and he thinks they heard him.
His mum starts to worry about him—while a quiet, non-clingy child is easier to deal with, he hasn’t even decided what he wants for Christmas, which is weird.
On Christmas Eve, his mum is working until lunchtime, and asks him to run errands. He bumps into Mrs Collins while shopping. He’s delighted to see her, because she knows all about the war. He asks her about the letters with the words cut out. The letters used to be censored—by our higher ups. She received one that was simply filled with holes, ‘and’ and ‘but’ and her husband’s sign off. Martin asks why the Germans would do it, and Mrs Collins says they would have censored letters from prisoners of war.
[Wing: This is the first time I’ve heard of prisoners of war being able to send letters at all. What an interesting thing.]
He asks if the Germans stopped bombing for Christmas, and she says no. The houses near his flats got bombed hard on Christmas Eve. She says there was something odd about the bombed house, but Martin cuts her off to ask if the girl (Shirley) was dead.
He runs home to see “his family”. The mother is asleep, and the kids are doing a puzzle. John sees Martin and nudges Shirley. Martin is elated, then mum arrives home and breaks the spell. Martin asks her why she always spoils things. She’s hurt by this and says she’s staying in tonight.
The next morning he goes shopping—I guess the last day wasn’t Christmas Eve, it was just telling us what was happening on Christmas Eve—he feels bad he’s been out of it. He buys presents for mum (soap and talcum powder) and cigars for Charlie—although at the time, he wishes he could send them to Dad. Then he remembers he doesn’t have a dad, he was thinking of John and Shirley’s dad.
Charlie gets them panto tickets for Christmas, and Martin feigns sickness to stay home alone.
When Mum and Charlie leave, his other family appear. They’re decorating for Christmas. When they’re done, John looks over at Martin to ask what he thinks. Martin says “Lovely,” and they hear him.
He saw John and Shirley exchange a look and turn together to their mother. They whispered something in her ear. “Of course,” she told them, and she turned too and smiled at him. “Come and join us, Martin,” she said, holding out her hands.
And he walks towards them.
Mrs Collins sees the ambulance and the figure of a boy on the ground—falling three floors would likely kill most people—and she remembers that on Christmas Eve during the war, there’d been a redhead boy in the rubble when those houses got bombed. Nobody knew who he was. And come to think of it, he looked a lot like Martin.
Final Thoughts: Probably the saddest ghost story I’ve read. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ghost story that reads like a metaphor for depression. Mark slowly withdraws from the real world, into the preferable construct where everything is safe and kind and loving, and it culminates in a suicide. I kind of did this a long time ago, I felt like the real world wasn’t the nicest place, so I used to just watch the same movie over and over and refused to engage in anything else. The only thing that confirms it’s more ghostly than someone just tuning out of the real world is the final line about the kid who died in the bombings.
[Wing: It’s a really great metaphor for depression, and heartbreaking, and really doesn’t belong in this collection.]
Score: 5 (and it’s all downhill from here. This was the absolute best one of the lot.)
The Chime Child by Ian Strachan
Ok, so we start with someone saying they don’t really believe in ghosts, but what happened to a friend is making them reconsider. I have to say, it’s already putting me off. I don’t like short stories to sound like clickbait junk mail “This totally happened to my friend’s cousin’s next door neighbour’s Sunday School teacher’s nephew…”
[Wing: Who says it’s a dude? Also, though, the narrator/frame story narrator talks like an old person, but Christy is a teen. CREEPY.]
So basically, his friend is Christy, due to turn 13 on Christmas Day, and her Dad suddenly decided that it was time to pack the entire family into a car, rent a cottage in Suffolk and get the fuck out of London. Actually, to be honest, I absolutely support getting the fuck out of London at any time, for any reason, because it’s fucking London. It’s filled with fucking southerners, it’s dirty, it’s noisy and the sky is brown. But then, I’m an ex-southerner who is now northern and I’m conditioned to hate the south! (Just kidding, I don’t hate all southerners. Or the south. I actually don’t like London, but that’s because I don’t like hectic places.)
After a long journey, hampered by epic snow, they arrive at the cottage, and Christy later reports there was a rotten smell as the door opened. Why this couldn’t just be written from Christy’s point of view, I don’t know. Also, the dog, who usually loves to be inside, refused to go in. Never a good sign. And there’s no power, so they all go to bed hungry, thirsty, freezing and in the dark.
The next morning, things are better as Mum has managed to get the AGA going. I swear to god the whole selling point of an AGA is that it’s always going, but hey. Mum and Christy want to leave—mum because it’s crap, Christy because she has a feeling. Dad is overjoyed at an old-fashioned Christmas and Emily (younger sister) wants to stay because she told Santa she’d be here.
A woman named Mrs Pargeter arrives with supplies for them—milk, eggs, bread—so you guys are living off eggy-bread? Or, “French Toast” if you’re a poncey southerner. [Wing: Or American. Eggy bread sounds like the cheap knockoff.]
Mum says thanks, but we’re thinking of heading off. Mrs P says that the roads are blocked—she had to come over the fields. God, she must have thighs and ankles of steel. Walking in deep snow on uneven terrain? Hats off, Mrs P.
Mum realises they can’t live off eggy bread over Christmas and asks where the shops are. Mrs P says follow her footprints and then head towards the church. Mum asks if Mrs P will be back tomorrow. Mrs P says “Christmas Eve? No, I’ll not set foot in here again till Christmas is over.” which sounds dead suspicious, I’d have just said, “No, I’m tied up with family stuff over Christmas,” which is a very reasonable thing to say. [Wing: But then she wouldn’t be cryptically warning anyone.] She says she’ll see them at the Christmas Eve carol service. The family pretend to be into church and say they’ll be there.
They head into town to stock up, Dad takes the groceries and Christy hits the ironmongers. I literally have no clue what an ironmongers stocks.
*hits a conference hall named “The Ironmongers’”*
*feels that’s not right*
*next link gets hijacked by Yelp*
Oh, it’s what I’d now call a “chandlers”. Don’t ask me why I call it that. The Yorkshire way is not to ask why, just use the word, as long as it’s not offensive. Hence I say fuddle, ginnel (with a guh-sound, not a juh-sound), and chandlers. Just realised, that doesn’t help clarify: household misc: batteries, lightbulbs, tools, cleaning products, that kind of thing.
[Wing: I was going to say, don’t make me fucking google chandlers, because that’s no clearer to me than ironmongers.]
The guy behind the counter is going to give us backstory. Apparently some girl was walled in by her uncle and left to die alone over Christmas hundreds of years ago, which is why nobody goes there at Christmas.
Christy says she doesn’t believe in ghosts, and besides the house isn’t hundreds of years old—smart cookie, I like her. After the girl died, the house fell down, so they rebuilt parts of it, the back is the old part, the front has been rebuilt.
Christy gets the items on her list, then asks for birthday candles—she was born on the last stroke of midnight as Christmas Eve became Christmas Day, that’s why she’s called Christy.
“The last stroke of midnight,” the man said thoughtfully. “Then you’re very special aren’t you?”
“You’re what’s known round here as a Chime Child.”
“What’s a Chime Child?”
“It’s said, anyone born while the clock is chiming the magical hours of three, six, nine or twelve has special powers.”
Powers include: power over animals, herb knowledge and herbal healing, and able to see and talk to ghosts.
Christy doesn’t tell her family what was said, but she explores the house once they get back and finds the old part. She finds a wall with a crack in it, and it’s damp. Mum comes by and moans that the picture on that wall is crooked again, even though she’s set it right a dozen times.
Christy is convinced the crack is getting wider, so dad puts some sellotape across the crack on a dry part of the wall, reasoning if it does get wider the tape will break (or, more likely, give up the ghost and fall off a wall. Has anyone ever tried taping anything to a stone wall using sellotape? The tape practically leaps off the wall in defiance on first contact).
She goes to bed and wakes up to hear the dog, Sam, howling. She tries to drag him up to bed, but he won’t go past that wall. Sam whines and asks to go out, and bolts as soon as she opens the door. She calls several times, but Sam doesn’t come back, and she hopes he finds shelter because it’s snowing again.
She hears crying. At first she thinks it’s her sister, but then she realises it’s coming from the wall. Also, the sellotape has broken and the crack is much wider. She doesn’t get any sleep until the sun is up.
She has to get logs from the store room the next morning. The store room is on the other side of that wall. The room above it is much deeper, by about 1.5 meters—Christy checks this by pacing. Big enough to hide a body. Dad rationalises, saying stone walls are hard to build, and don’t keep in the heat, so they probably built it thicker. I have no idea if this is plausible or not, but 1.5 meters is a big chunk of extra rock, so it sounds shaky to me.
Christy finds a local guide book in the house and reads about its history. Basically, Rachel the ghost, was in love with a Catholic boy, but her uncle “Ezra Be-Thankful Dexter” was a Puritan, [Wing: EZRA BE-THANKFUL DEXTER.] so Rachel’s love for this boy would screw up his political ambitions. If she was out of the way, the problem would be solved, and he’d have the added bonus of all the money he had forced her to Will him. She went missing, but unfortunately so did the Will. Ezra tore the house apart looking for it—literally, all but the part where Rachel’s remains are said to lay.
Why hasn’t anyone bothered to check if they actually are there? If I bought a house that allegedly had a girl in the wall, I would sure as hell rip out that wall and find out. After reading that, the window blows open and she smells that rancid smell again. Nobody else notices it.
And this is where I check out of the story. I liked it up to here. Now I’m bored and annoyed.
They go to the church service and some random fucking dude from the “Ancient Order of Druids” comes up to Christy and hands her a knife, says, “Remember, to retain the power, cut only with this.” Then vanishes. [Wing: They’re basically staying in Crypticville, County Cryptic, Cryptic Kingdom.]
She wakes up in the night to a crash. The wall has collapsed, and Rachel is behind the wall—a corporeal Rachel, not a skeleton. She’s been waiting for Christy to arrive and save her. Ezra is filled with the devil’s power and keeps trying to drag her to hell, and only when Christy gets rid of him can she go to heaven with her boyfriend. Rachel needs to confront Ezra on the anniversary of her death, 4am.
Christy will know what to do when the time comes, but for now she needs mistletoe, which she needs to cut from the tree outside. It’s 3:30, and she gets lost looking for the right tree, then she falls over and knocks herself out.
She’s woken up by the church clock chiming the three-quarter hour (if my local church chimed every 15 minutes, I’d scream—as it is, it chimes whenever it feels like, with no regard to timekeeping or even logic. I remember counting fifteen chimes as 2:09am once.) Luckily, she brained herself right under the tree with the mistletoe, and she remembers to cut it using the knife the Druid gave her.
She hurries back, gives a sprig of mistletoe to Rachel, then, as per Rachel’s directions, pares the branch to a sharp point and she has to stake Ezra like a vampire with it.
Ezra throws her around a mind controls her a bit, then she hits him with the branch and he melts where it made contact. She continues hitting him with it, until she loses the branch, then she lunges at him with the knife just as he trips over the rug and he gets impaled. Well, that was lucky, wasn’t it?
He disintegrates into powder and Rachel peacefully fades away.
The next morning Christy wakes up in the living room. There’s no evidence of a fight and the crack in the wall has vanished, but Christy still has the knife in her hand.
And then the narrator’s like, “Yeah, you may not believe me, but I’m looking at the knife right now.”
Final Thoughts: Was really enjoyable until Random Druid Randomly Showed Up with a McGuffin. After that I tuned out. Also, the narrator was a stupid mechanic that made the story harder to get into. Nobody likes hearing stories about a friend of a friend. And if it was just done for the final line about how the narrator’s looking at the knife, so it’s like totes true, that’s unnecessary, we could have just ended on Christy realising she’s still holding the knife, it wasn’t a dream.
[Wing: The narrator was completely unnecessary, but I think the actual author was trying to capture that feeling of stories told around the campfire. Which would make a lot more sense if the frame of the damn book itself was clearly that set-up, which I remember complaining about in the last recap, too.
That being said, I really like this story. Supernatural adventure! Teen girl getting adventures! Snowed-in cabin! Ghosts! It’s not super well written, but I’m down with it.]
Crespian and Clairan by Joan Aiken
I’ve gone into great detail on two stories I didn’t enjoy. This is the one I most actively hate. This will be short. I’m hoping no longer than five paragraphs.
- Narrator was a dickhead child. He was a late and unwanted addition to his family, so was often sent to stay with cousin Becky. Becky got better toys, and narrator was jealous.
- Narrator had a party trick of making his eyes vibrate to scare Becky into doing what he wanted.
- One year Becky got two dolls, Crespian and Clairan. Narrator really wanted them. Narrator hid them, pretended they had fallen in a hole in the frozen pond. Becky went in after them and caught pneumonia and died.
- Now the dolls’ eyes vibrate.
- Ooooh, spooky.
Final Thoughts: OMG I HATE THIS FUCKING STORY.
[Wing: This is possibly the worst thing I’ve read yet for this site. Stine is a peach compared to this. It’s not offensive, at least, but just terrible. So, so terrible.]
Across the Fields by Susan Price
It’s 1924 and we open with some mine workers standing around a fire in the dark, handing around beer, before they go home after a shift in the mine. It’s Christmas Eve, so they’ve got tomorrow off.
Honestly, I’m not a period piece kind of girl. Nothing makes me bow out of a story quicker than knowing it was in the past (this is filled with “tha” and “thee”). Anything earlier than 1975 is not something I’m really into. However, since it’s Susan Price, the wonderful lady who wrote The Cat-Dogs, I’ll hang around.
[Wing: I’m not super into period pieces the way some people are (my sister, for example), but I do enjoy a good, solid old fashioned story, and I love the last Price short story we read, so I’m filled with hope.]
Emily, a thirteen year old girl, shows up to walk her brother, Jon, home, having been sent by her mother to get him to buy the meat for Christmas with tonight’s wages. There’s talk of whether she saw Grace, a girl who drowned in a clay pit and now allegedly walks the fields, trying to drown others.
[Wing: And we start off with a bang, because the brief description of Grace creeps me the hell out.]
Jon and Emily go to the market and buy the things they need (goose, sweets, etc), then set off across the fields for home, because it’s much shorter than going along the roads. Emily doesn’t want to, but Jon says that’s what he’s doing, and Emily decides that it’s better walking across spooky fields with Jon for a shorter while, than walking down spooky streets alone for a long while.
I will say, just like The Cat-Dogs, there’s excellent description in this. If I stopped and paid attention to it, this recap would be as long as a regular PH, so just rest assured that Price can really set a scene—and I’m not even that much into description. She hits the balance just right, enough to spook me, not enough to turn my brain off.
In the darkness, a man says “Evenin’.” While Emily delighted he’s not a ghost, she’s now worried he’s a robber. He asks if Jon would be interested in taking part in a wrestling match with prizes. Emily again doesn’t want him to, but their house could always do with extra money or food. Jon tells her to go on home alone, but she says she’ll stay. She worries that the man will murder Jon and steal their purchases from the market, but if he did, she would fight him, she would scream, she would, at least, make sure he didn’t get away with it. And I kind of love her for that.
[Wing: Right? She knows she’s not strong enough to do much, but she is absolutely determined, and therefore my favorite protagonist in the whole damn book.]
There are men gathered around a fire, and one approaches and offers to wrestle for the goose.
While the boys wrestle, Emily glances around the fire and recognises a few faces, but can’t think of their names. As Jon loses the fight, Emily places the faces—a boy from her school who died of consumption, a woman who died, another man from the mine who had died in a cave-in. Even Grace, with her hair constantly dripping from her drowning. [Wing: SO FUCKING CREEPY.]
She wants to tell Jon, but can’t find her voice, and Jon wants to fight again for the goose, this time he offers his heart and soul.
Jon recognises the challenger as Tom Rugeley and knows he’s dead. Tom clarifies that if Jon loses, he will live as Jon, and Jon will die. Jon says that Emily has to go free if he wins, and that’s agreed.
Jon loses, and everyone crowds in on Emily, who points out that she didn’t lose anything—Jon did, and he never bartered her life away, so instead she’ll ask them a riddle, if they answer it, they ask her one, and so on until one can’t be answered. The wager is for both her and Jon’s heart and souls.
[Wing: RIDDLE OFF. I LOVE RIDDLE OFFS!]
They have a back and forth, and Emily starts to worry, because they’ve been dead longer, they know more. When it’s her turn, she comes up with this: [Wing: A new riddle!]
“I nothing fear but morning bird-song.
My heart is still, but still it longs.
By day l am gone, by night I show clear
What be I?”
Hours drag by, and the dead keep suggesting the same things—moon, stars, etc—because they just don’t know. Eventually, morning comes and the ghosts vanish—they have no power on the twelve days of Christmas.
And what is the answer? It’s a ghost.
They get home and claim they got lost in the fields. They have a lovely Christmas day, and Jon never walks across the fields again.
Final Thoughts: Pretty good, not my usual cup of tea, and again, the description is a perfect balance for a reader like me. The actual ghost part did not chill me at all, but the lead-up certainly did, with the emphasis on the dark and the cold, and the fear of ghosts on the fields.
[Wing: I would give it a 4, because the creepiness did fade a lot after the actual ghosts show up (except for that Grace), but it’s a good, fun story, and a fitting ending.]
Jingle Bells: 2.5
The Woodman’s Enigma: 4
The Weeping Maid: 3
The Investigators: 3
The Cracked Smile: 1
The Other Room: 5
The Chime Child: 2
Crespian and Clairan: 0
Across the Fields: 3
Total: 23.5 out of 45 (52%)—in case you didn’t know it, I’m a data analyst in real life. I live for percentages.
[Wing: Overall, a terrible collection that doesn’t hold up at all to the 13 Tales set. And I still wish the damn frame story was a real thing.]