As usual, I will try to avoid dishing out a bucket o' spoilers about the contents of The Sea Change by Helen Grant.
The dust jacket illustration perfectly captures the mood of the title story. A solitary figure stands, head bowed, in a small boat. The waves are choppy, there are grey crags, and the general mood is sombre. There is nothing overtly horrific, but much is implied. And that sums up the appeal of most of the seven tales here - the horrors we do not see, but are aware of, are much more effective than those showily displayed in less subtle stories.
Of the stories on offer, my favourite is 'The Sea Change'. Well, I would say that, as it first appeared in ST. I've always liked nautical spookery, especially when things are not over-explained (a serious flaw with some traditional ghost story authors, it must be said). I also like a story with clean lines, and this one is very simple. A diver becomes obsessed with what seems to be the wreck of an ancient ship on the seabed. The diver spends more and more time underwater at the wreck site - indeed, he eventually stays under for times that are, for all practical purposes, impossible. The end is inevitable. But what has really happened and why? The key to the tale's power is that nothing can be said about the true nature of the mystery. To seek to understand it would be to invite destruction.
Two stories are based on ideas by M.R. James, and were written for Ghosts & Scholars competitions. 'The Game of Bear' is a solid attempt to finish a story that James barely started. It uses typical Jamesian ingredients - disputed inheritance, country house, an unpleasant relation who dabbles in black magic. It also offers a monster or 'Thing' that, like the best of James' terrors, is only vaguely glimpsed rather than clearly described. 'Alberic de Mauléon', by contrast, takes the Canon Alberic of scrapbook fame and gives us an interesting insight into his somewhat complex career. Suffice to say that it offers a genuinely startling take on the original plot - a good example of 'What if?' writing.
Also Jamesian in content, and jolly enough in tone to please the Provost himself, is 'Self Catering'. This reminded me slightly of R. Chetwynd-Hayes' grim whimsies. In her novels Helen Grant often leavens horror with humour, and she has an admirable lightness of touch as well as a clean, uncluttered prose style.
By way of contrast, 'Nathair Dhubh' is a cold, stark tale of two friends who, back in the Thirties, climbed a pinnacle or stack in the Scottish Highlands. In tone and content it reminds me very much of 'The White Sack' by A.N.L. Munby, which is a good thing as that old story is the genuine article. The main difference is that Malden's menace pursues its prey, while Nathair Dhubh harbours an unseen entity that, spider-like, reels in its prey. The story illustrates how to write effective horror without showing a monster or a hint of gore, while at the same time leaving the reader in no doubt that something terrible and malign lurks just out of sight.
'Grauer Hans' is very different, swapping the stark romanticism of granite crags for the domestic terrors of childhood. This is a tale of a bogeyman that seeks to consume small children. The power of folk beliefs and the effectiveness - or otherwise - of nursery rhymes preoccupy the author and the reader. It is, again, very straightforward. We know that bogeymen cannot be dealt with with weapons and the like, we know they will always return. Here is the darkly cobwebbed magic of early fairytales - the kind you wouldn't read to small children today. Here also is the fear that the loss of traditional wisdom exposes us to terrors we cannot quite believe in, yet have not quite forgotten.
Rounding off the collection, 'The Calvary at Banská Bystrica' is a modern quasi-vampire tale (I'm not entirely sure what is really going on). A pompous English writer vanishes in central Europe after becoming engaged to a beautiful young woman in an obscure village. We sense early on that the writer's put-upon brother will not be able to retrieve him. Here, as in 'The Sea Change' and 'Nathair Dhubh', Grant has the decisive and (presumably) horrific action take place off-stage so to speak, leaving us to explore the aftermath. True horror cannot be shown because it can never be truly described to any third party. But a few deft touches can hint at a great deal.
All in all, then, this is a fine collection, made all the more admirable by an excellent cover, and of course Swan River's all-round high quality production standards.