The (1st) Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories, edited by Robert Aickman


I wrote this during my review of the 2nd book: “…the bringing of all these stories together in one volume possibly being Aickman’s most singular and dangerous achievement?!”.

My previous reviews of these Fontana Great Ghosts by Robert Aickman linked here:

My previous reviews regarding this book’s editor:

My previous reviews of older or classic books:


36 thoughts on “The (1st) Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories, edited by Robert Aickman


    “: a surrender of the personality, the fanciful might call it a little death.”

    I know the feeling, social unease, here physical unease, too, as we imagine the foreshortening of a body to fit that very death. A very very odd story that must have appealed to Aickman immensely. Gentlemen playing hide and seek in the dark, some of them not yet introduced to each other, if such permutations within four souls (excluding servants) can stretch that far! Confusions between perambulators and coffins and ‘mad scientist’ burrowers travelling between floors from Death-in-Mortalis to some strange state of Null Immortalis … I guess.
    A farce to die for. One foot in the grave. Two feet outside it.

    “…until it became meaningless; even its absurdity disappeared.”

  2. Pingback: The Travelling Grave | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews

  3. Another farce nine gale to die for..

    THE GHOST SHIP by Richard Middleton

    The drunken disorder of ghosts that were usually respectable ghosts in a small community called Fairfield 50 miles from the sea, a disorder caused by the RUMbustious arrival of a massive ship with cannons in the pub landlord’s turnip field, during a wind storm that blew it there, a ship far weightier and tactile than the wispy ‘between and betwixt’ of more normal ghosts. Fairfield humoured the presence of their many ancestors’ ghosts, unlike in London where they interfered with them. And Fairfielders often picked up trinkets like gold brooches if a ghost should drop one.
    I generally talk a load of parrots so ignore yet another half-witted review of mine! Thankful, though, for parsons who care for us all, “dead or alive”. Even ghosts that don’t wait to be dead first. It’s coincidentally windy in my neck of the woods, too, as I write this, and I am sure I see fish fly by outside my window.

  4. Well, although the next story below is seriously disturbing when compared to the previous two, it does have echoes of the Ghost Ship’s Captain now become its half-witted parroter, as well as the need now for servants to sleep with a parson so as to obviate terror: Viz. “‘And old Captain’ (an old red parrot)…” — “I must have a parson to sleep among them, and preach down the devil!”

    SQUIRE TOBY’S WILL by Sheridan Le Fanu

    An uninhibitedly strange story where everything seems disarmingly at the constant half-measures of outright terror we all know that is being faced here, of the haunting of the half-derelict Gylingden Hall, two brothers left at severe loggerheads by the Father’s Will, a grouchy, costive trio, the elder brother Scroope, humpbacked, the other younger and originally more amenable brother, Charlie, inheriting the title Squire in the will, but later lamed by a hunting accident…and the return of the dead Squire to right wrongs, and a hidden legal deed of inheritance in a secret room named after King Herod. That only tells you half of the story, and yet I must mention the “sensual ecstasy” of the ugly dog in which the soul of the dead Squire ‘stretches,”… nor have I properly told you of the apparent importance of burying bodies properly, with due chiselling on a stone placed above them in the rightful crypt, and also I must give at least hints of the damned spell this work works, by a choice of quotations, whatever the “long-drawn caresses” and terrible grins and canine furies…supernatural alarms and ‘dream-shapes’…’tremblingly stretched face’… “mockeries and invectives”, “threats and blasphemies […] dropping words of sentences” and “horrible sentences came hurrying towards” me as “a comic piece of luck” with “several voices speaking together” that I found this story at last and it found me! The choice goes on…”ugly shadows” et al……..

    “I’m no feyther o’ that hog-backed creature.”
    “…and saw the dog straining up the other side of it, and hideously stretched out, his ugly head looking in consequence twice the natural size. His dream was coming over him again. And now between the trunks the brute’s ungainly head was thrust, and the long neck came straining through, and the body, twining after it like a huge white lizard; and as it came striving and twisting through, it growled and glared as if it would devour him.”
    “It behoves us all to act promptly on our good resolutions. There is a determined gravitation towards evil, which, if left to itself, will bear down first intentions.”

    Then there are those half-measures…

    “He was startled half out of his wits…”
    “But there was also the deep-seated hatred of half a life…”
    “Old Cooper was half awakened by some one laughing low, near his head.”
    “And on he went, growing half angry and half frightened at the persistency with which this ugly shadow–a literal shadow he was sure it was–presented itself.”
    “Into his master’s room burst old Cooper, half wild with fear, and clapped the door…”
    “The ways of the invalid were odd: he liked, half sitting up in his bed, to smoke his churchwarden o’ nights,…”
    “I don’t half like how he is. Doctor don’t come half often enough. I don’t like that queer smile o’ his, and his hand was as cold as death. I hope in God his brain’s not a-turnin’!”
    “But there was also the deep-seated hatred of half a life of mutual and persistent agression and revilings;”
    “scampering round them in a wide circle, half crouching with that air of uncertainty and deprecation which dogs so well know how to assume.”

    A story that even has “mantua-makers’ trumpery.”

    “a sound like receding laughter, half stunned him.”

  5. Pingback: Squire Toby’s Will | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews

  6. From the quandary of one Will to another…

    THE VOICE IN THE NIGHT by William Hope Hodgson

    “I am only an old — man.”

    The eponymous Voice thus spake. Yet the sailor aboard a ship in the endless doldrums of the Pacific, the one who heard this voice in the night, is also called “old man” by his master Will. The voice that tells of a plague that has beset him and his fiancée, islanded after shipwreck and, despite the hope of clear whitened bands of sand between grey fungal growths, those growths surround and finally reside upon and within them. I also then went off nodding in the mist, a one man ghost-ship, seeing something now unmissed in that meaningless mist, something sad and swaddling that can only swaddle someone who happens in real-time to be old today…a self’s travelling grey grave. And soundless wave.
    Even if my middle name is Hope.

  7. Pingback: The Voice in the Night | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews

  8. THREE MILES UP by Elizabeth Jane Howard

    “The alternative is to go up as far as the Basin, and then simply turn round and come back, and who wants to do that?”

    I can quite appreciate what is implied there. I experienced, many years ago, having to turn round unexpectedly in a narrow boat on a canal ring. This whole story’s canal ambiance rings true with me, even the main story within that ambiance, having read it many years ago, too. But it comes up darkly fresh and seems even more telling than I remember it, a classic ghost story, no mistake, one that will haunt you forever, and then re-haunt you anew and differently! The story of two men who argue with the frustrations such travelling entails, as well as its slow motion chugging pleasures, two men who are well-characterised and individual, finding it hard with all the coping and catering, and they somehow pick up a chance young female as a foundling called Sharon who helps them by being allowed to travel with them, affecting them differently in emotional terms with gender issues (“‘She is what women ought to be,’ he concluded with sudden pleasure; and slept.”), as they find a third fork of the canal that, according to the map, should not have been there at all, as they chug slowly along it into a territory of pent-up ghostliness that each village they think they see on the bank is eventually not there at all; and the grey old man from the previous story curtly and darkly appears on that bank and later becomes a little boy on the towpath, a journey that can only be experienced by those reading this and travelling with them, “….stretching their time, and diminishing the distance” towards a distance that never diminishes but infantilises as well as infinitises. But they did want to ‘explore’, as Sharon said — as we all do. This work itself is a special byway of literature that we all need to explore at least once. Trees and banks becoming heavy and black. A little white mist hanging over the canal. Black huddles of would-be cottages. This work also possesses the Zeno’s Paradox ‘half-measures’ of Le Fanu, plus the grey fungal absorptions of Hodgson, “Half wilderness, half marsh, dank and grey…”, “Clifford had begun to hate the grey silent land”, the sunken feet to reprieve the embedded shoes in the Hartley, “his shoe sank immediately into a marshy hole”, later the boy with no shoes. And like the “fiancée” amid the grey fungus of Hope as well as of Hodgson, how should we interpret what happened to Clifford’s ration of Sharon? The search for the ultimate winding-hole, I guess.

  9. Pingback: Three Miles Up | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews


    “…if I can ride my horse, and get there, then I’m absolutely sure — oh, absolutely!”

    Well, we all know this classic ghost story of a “filthy lucker”, resonant with a foul word in Chatterley, in a house that does not chat but whisper like automatic breathing, of the boy who grows up with his own “nerves” and this household without luck, and he ever finds luck (until it might run out) for his poor mother and unlucky father by endlessly getting there, getting there astride the eponymous horse that he had almost outgrown as his two sisters had perhaps outgrown their dollshouse …but have you related, as Aickman surely must have done, that boy’s obsessive gamble or gambol or gallop of getting there to the Zeno’s paradox half-measures of the stories above, those constant halves of the Le Fanu, the slow progress of the Travelling Grave and its embedded footsteps, the slow progress into neverwhere ever three miles up, and through the stodgy grey fungus of Hodgson, and, yes that of the Ghost Ship, too, through turnips?
    Ever rocking, three miles up, three miles down, three miles up, three miles down…

  11. Pingback: The Rocking-Horse Winner | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews

  12. THE WENDIGO by Algernon Blackwood

    I do not need to cover the ground slowly, or even quickly, of this already famous novelette’s terror tall-tree territory of shock and awe, nor the term ‘Panic of the Wilderness’ genuinely induced in the readers as well as in its characters. And I should concentrate on the Wendigo / Défago and its eventual jaw-juddering journey across ground and sky, in short jolts then vast ironic contrastive leaps to this book’s otherwise gluey resistances (now to be exorcised?), Défago already susceptible and superstitious, readily morose when hunting moose, and the symbiotic effect on his various companions on this hunting trip, including the young man called Simpson, all brilliantly evoked …SO, it is for me to set this work into context of this book so far, i.e. the half-measures and other aspects of Zeno’s Paradox described in my previous review entry above and the Hartley feet now set on fire! — “There’s no end to them – no end at all.” — “…half fascinated, half deluded, to their death.” — the ‘prodigious scale of the land’ slowing progress — “it seemed as if a million invisible causes had combined just to produce that single visible effect.” — “Too big – too far off?” — “the night has weight” — the pervasive, cloying odours of lions and a pungent perfume — the burning feet and a height of fiery speed as the travelling grave is now exorcised and made faster than light itself! — feet later as hoofs vaguely seen — terror or madness, probably both — “carried him across these astonishing intervals” — “and this change, so far as it concerned the footsteps of the man was in some undecipherable manner—appalling.” — now footsteps tinged with blood…there is even “false lights like a ship at sea”! — “The Power of untamed Distance.” — And as at the finale of the Hartley above : “Oh, Gawd, his feet!”, not to mention, more obliquely, the wads of moss in his swollen cheeks!

    • I have now looked up, since writing the above, my original real-time review of this work in the context here: (please ignore the page numbers)…

      The Wendigo
      Pages 13 – 20

      “…no mention in his book on Collective Hallucination for the simple reason (so he confided once to a fellow colleague) that he himself played too intimate a part in it to form a competent judgement of the affair as a whole…”
      …like the real-time reviewer dreamcatching a book’s gestalt via all its leitmotifs – or upon a moose hunt in the blackwoods…sorry, “his first visit to Canadian backwoods”…
      An ill-tantalising glimpse of a scent, this scene-set, a crafted atmospheric rugged place … a well-characterised foursome (plus Punk) of miscegenate political-incorrectness, whereby native guide gives us a tangible sense of fear whither civilised men like us plan to hunt their moose … with a couple of N-words used by the presumedly civilised narrator that would get us evicted from reality TV shows should we use them today!

      Pages 21 – 43
      “It seemed as if a million invisible causes had combined just to produce that single visible effect.”
      Down to two as a splinter reconnaissance party, guider and guided. The forest ‘too big’, we shudder at its immensity and what lies there as part of or born from our earth more terrifying than any alien in the distant stars. With. Sweet. Pungent. Odour of lions. And vast leapfrogs from the tent of nightmare betraying the path of the human guider gone awol and ill-envisioned monster: Défago and Wendigo, even these two words resonate together as a smell, also a Crusoe as if crucified by the going, the wending. And the guided, woken, follows from the tent of broken confused sleep these impossible tracks, “and if it were really the case that something was hunting himself down in the same way that he was hunting down another–“

      Pages 44 – 70
      “…the entire structure threatened to fly asunder and become – incoherent.”
      Reunited with the rest of the moose-hunting party, our ‘guided’ one tells of the lost ‘guider’ being carried along, according to the tracks, in increasingly fiery footsteps by the down-to-earth cosmic terror of the moss-eater: finally creating two versions of the same man as the hunter itself and the hunted that used to be himself, both entities made to be seen by us with the words becoming semantic footprints as well as being seen for real by those in the story. I claim that this story is the only story ever been written conveying inchoate terror straight into the room where you read this story. You will have ‘seen the Wendigo’. You will have been the Wendigo. When I Die, When I Go. “…the final Loneliness.”

  13. Pingback: The Wendigo | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews

  14. *Beware possible spoiler below*

    THE CROWN DERBY PLATE by Marjorie Bowen

    “Talking of ghosts,” said Mabel, “I wonder how that old woman at ‘Hartleys’ is getting on, for ‘Hartleys,’ you know, is supposed to be haunted.”

    Well, it had to be called Hartleys after L.P., with all the latter’s slow logjam in progression of graves, now here in the Essex marshes close to where I myself live and the Wendigo wafts of odour and flights above sluggish flooded fields, and Hodgson’s grey gruey lichen etc, most of these elements pre-betokened by all the stories above, as carefully chosen by Aickman, maybe even the ghostly square-rigger…’stagnant dyke’ et al…and “a colony of tall trees”…”and straggling bushes matted together above the dead grass”…and…
    “Under the wintry sky, which looked as grey and hard as metal, the marshes stretched bleakly to the horizon, the olive-brown broken reeds were harsh as scars on the saffron-tinted bogs, where the sluggish waters that rose so high in winter were filmed over with the first stillness of a frost; the air was cold but not keen, everything was damp; faintest of mists blurred the black outlines of trees that rose stark from the ridges above the stagnant dykes; the flooded fields were haunted by black birds and white birds, gulls and crows, whining above the long ditch grass and wintry wastes.”
    “The house sprang up suddenly on a knoll ringed with rotting trees, encompassed by an old brick wall that the perpetual damp had overrun with lichen, blue, green, white colours of decay. […] …the sea damp which rusted and rotted everything. It was a square-built, substantial house…”
    Then there is the “cracky” woman at this Hartley house with “gross, flaccid figure… doing futile gardening …. waddling.”
    The first story ever with a transvestite or transgender character?… who knows, but this Bowen writer must not be confused with my favourite Bowen one. And it was surely not a coincidence that I recently studied the poem ‘China Plate’ by Robert Graves… A cockney expression, that, too.
    Finally, what are “horrible health huts”? Who knows, but I do know that this is one of those truly great ghost stories of all time. To know the ending ahead of time is no drawback to its shuddery effect. The empty plate with no toast, nor even Hartleys jam.

    “…as there seemed no sign of tea or anything pleasant and comfortable she had really better go.”

  15. Pingback: The Crown Derby Plate | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews

  16. …and I’ll leave you to guess the strong connected metaphorical transliterating of the next story with the previous story! And its Zeno-paradoxically sticky distances with ALL the previous stories!

    THE TRAINS by Robert Aickman

    “The distance to the road was negligible as the crow flies, but it took them thirty-five minutes by Mimi’s wristwatch, and the crawling train had passed before them almost as soon as they had started.
    ‘I wish we were crows,’ Mimi exclaimed.
    Margaret said ‘Yes’ and smiled.”

    Later a train engine whistle ‘crows’, and the two temperamentally, if not actually, Sapphic young-women often concentrate on the sweaty nature of their hiking clothes in the lost ‘trains’ infested wilds; they end up with ‘Food for the crows’… having left a trail of ‘anchoring’ stones with no map stretched between them as an escape route? Every time I read this story, I am amazed how disturbing it actually is. And with each reading it becomes even more disturbing. And now I am able to shout GO BACK AT ONCE! to them, knowing full well what is in the story patiently waiting for them, such as Roper and Beech in their barred ‘trains and railway-tickets and didcotts’-infested lockdown house, later involving a perceived-with-the-go-back-at-once art of hindsight dream, a truly classic covivid dream as experienced here by one of the women. The two women soon to become a new Rapunzel and Lady of Shalott waving at the drivers of the passing trains who in turn wave back…. Meantime 2.26 to 2.27 small hour schedules, this significant work by Aickman himself takes on a whole new ambiance in the context of this book so far — viz. a train chugging, but perhaps faster than light in the opposite direction; a black house without its due dot on the wind-snatched map; the women’s sticky bodies amid humidity as well as coldness and cloying, soaking rain; the ironic Quiet Valley like Blackwood’s; a “baking endless road”; “It was as if the striking of the match had conjured up the means to its extinction”; a “sweetly sensual” wind; the need to avoid fever in their sweaty clothes; a rucksack like ‘the old man of the sea’; Psycho hospitality as well as Go Back At Once; improbable cakes of soap; overlarge food vessels; ‘almost immovable waiting room chairs’; ‘a rampart of mashed potato’; “It’s difficult to leave the rails altogether and still keep going at all”; “The impression of furtiveness”; a book on early fishplates (Cf Margaret’s mört in a different Aickman story and the plate in the M. Bowen); a cake “choked with candied peel”; talking along the length of Mimi’s body; clinging blankets; a narrow suffocating bed; the lengthening intervals between trains…”not yet awake, not yet out of the dream…”

    “She struggled to make consistent the consciousness of the nearly endless with the consciousness of the precisely brief.”

  17. Pingback: The Trains | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews

  18. THE OLD NURSE’S STORY by Mrs. Gaskell.

    “Flesh is grass, they do say;”

    This byline certainly is so certain as to be obvious enough about its
    gender, unlike George Eliot’s! I don’t know what that says. Anyway the story itself about a story links to ghosts and to a confinement, and the child of that confinement who now haunts the snow with invisible footprints. The story of a large rambling house, an organist as another ghost, an attritional pair of spinsters in their grey attritional and explicitly heavy world that remains attritional till the end of the story. And the innocents that arrived there to be trapped by the same attrition….until one of them tells this story to us, indicating that life goes on. And on. Nothing ends, as if a metaphor of an endless winter of frost, lightened by imaginary summers perhaps, until, now and again, ended by stories such as this. Books such as this. That ‘stillness of dead cold weather.’ And the ‘rolling music’ between.
    “What is done in youth can never be undone in age.” Or even in story-telling.

    “…old China jars and carved ivory boxes, and great heavy books,…”

    “I never looked at her feet,…”

  19. SEATON’S AUNT by Walter de la Mare

    “…two slippers dozed, with noses each to each,…”

    We come full circle from Hartley’s embedded feet now softened by being conserved like jam in death, their hard day’s night of travelling now complete. Life versus death in their own chess match declared a draw by the eponymous dusky faced aunt, having done something to her equally dusky nephew just prior to his equivalent death, as it were, by marriage, as she saw it. The attritional experiences of the narrator Withers from boyish schooldays into adulthood — having been reportedly the strange nephew’s only school friend — and he tells us one concluding day that this nephew “looked out at me for a mere instant of time” from the still living aunt’s eyes — as if, I infer, she had sin-eaten him, and thus effectively added, in my eyes, to Aickman’s own tropes of cannibalism in his own work.
    A death wish by the nephew who, I noticed, bought rat poison from his local chemist right at the start of the very first of the three visits that Withers makes to the Seaton House. Some incredible material here that must have influenced Aickman. And you need otherwise to map out its plot and dense emotions and attritionally heartfelt, arguably political but essentially mad speeches by the Aunt for yourself without my help, as I feel helpless to do so. I am staggered yet again by yet another rereading of this work. Its many God’s eyes upon me, and its monstrously overlarge meals readying me, very soon now, for my own Hospice of Palliation. Seaton’s Aunt or Seaton’s Haunt — the de la Mare character who ‘fills’ the “collective consciousness” of all us ghosts who recurrently or sporadically populate this story as readers — played the piano and its Beethoven music seemed to me like an exhumation of the organ’s ‘rolling music’ from the previous Gaskell story….
    “All you read in ghost stories, that’s all rot,” the aunt explicitly stated in supreme irony at one point…

    “That’s what it is — a cannibal feast. She’s a spider.”


  20. Pingback: Seaton’s Aunt | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews

  21. Pingback: Elizabeth Gaskell: Six Weeks at Heppenheim | The Gestalt Real-Time Reviews of Books

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