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The Late Review: They That Dwell in Dark Places

12th Jan, 2022

Author: Peter Tennant

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They That Dwell in Dark Places (Dark Regions Press pb, 346pp) is the first collection by Daniel McGachey, a writer who owes a very clear debt to the work of M. R. James, as I'm sure McGachey himself would be the first to acknowledge. While the stories stand on their own feet there are links between them, with references to one in another narrative, and recurring characters such as the folklorist Dr. Lawrence and the evil genius of the collection Sir Nicholas Hobsgate. After an introduction by anthologist and publisher Charles Black, opening story "The Shadow in the Stacks" sets the tone for much of what follows, with the aforementioned Lawrence involved when an excavation unearths some curious tomes that bring on a supernatural incident for the one who tries to interpret them. Thematically there is nothing new here, but McGachey writes with conviction, his characterisation and tone both spot on, while the demonic creature that infests the narrative is appropriately unsettling.

There's something of James' "The Mezzotint" about "The Mound", with the spot of disturbed ground moving ever closer to the house of the protagonist until we get the final, horrific revelation. It's an assured outing, though again with little beyond the sting in the tail that is original fare. "The Beacon" details the events which follow when three lighthouse keepers open their door to a shipwrecked woman seeking assistance, except nothing is what it seems in this tale of revenge from beyond the grave. The atmosphere of the isolated spot, a place where the barriers between this world and the next may seem to wear thin, is brought to compelling life on the page, with the tales of the keepers adding extra verisimilitude to what follows.

Dr. Lawrence is back for "Shalt Thou Know My Name?" in which a colleague's attempt to punish a plagiarist turns out to be rather more effective than he had planned, with the supernatural intruding. It was an eminently readable piece, with the characterisation delightful, but to my mind the central conceit wasn't entirely convincing, hinging a little too much on coincidence. In "The Wager" inveterate gambler Style cannot resist the allure of the rumoured Club Tenebrosa. It's a tale on the theme of 'be careful what you wish for', with a central conceit that is wonderfully appealing, not least for its simplicity and the effective way in which suggestion is used to make the menace more real. Add to that the dialogue and characterisation that brings the people to life on the page and it all combines to make a winning story, perhaps the most original one so far in this collection.

A commercially unsuccessful artist gains an unusual patron in "The Crimson Picture", producing portraits that reveal the dark reality of the sitter. Again this is a novel idea, with Dr. Lawrence the recipient of the tale, and some lovely touches of detail and horrific brush strokes that help drive the narrative along. In "Rags" an out of his depth townie offends local custom with dire consequences, the story one in which the narrator's end isn't revealed until it is too late to do anything other than surprise the reader, with the story's evocation of out of the way places helping to make it stand out.

A love of ghost stories is the undoing of Endicott, the protagonist of "The Travelling Companion". He acquires a volume of tales by the writer H. S. Grace which, on reading, are found to be subtly changed from their original publication. In a tale that has about it an element of the metafictional, the reason for these changes lie at the heart of the horror Endicott has unwittingly encountered. It is the most original of these stories, the one which makes a weakness out of reading itself, while the plethora of stories within the story and other touches of detail all accumulate to form McGachey's best offering. "A Ravelled Tress" is found when an old house is renovated, but it turns out to be the agent via which a murderous revenant makes its presence felt. This is old style ghost story stuff, and done splendidly well, so that the connoisseur of this genre will have nothing to complain of, even though so much of the plot seems entirely predictable and running along familiar lines.

Dr. Lawrence himself takes the mic for "'And Still Those Screams Resound...'", relating the story of a former mentor and friend whose desire to encounter a ghost was taken too far. Beautifully written and characterised, with a wonderful setting in Wraithvale Priory, despite all the supernatural machinery powering the story it reveals that the worst evil is that of human beings, our willingness to do terrible things in pursuit of some nebulous goal. And because of that hideous and unpalatable truth, it is perhaps the most horrific of these stories. "An Unwise Purchase by Dr. H. S. Grace" presents us with a story ostensibly written by Grace, with McGachey going to some lengths to convince us of the genuineness of this unknown to wiki contemporary of M. R. James. The story's protagonist, an academic with ambitions beyond his station, is gifted an object which first proves of help in his career and then becomes a hindrance as the nature of its curse is revealed. The central conceit of the three monkeys is played to perfection, but the longer the story goes on the less credible it all comes to seem, with a finale that reeks of mayhem and bloodshed, so lacking in subtlety that it undermines much of what has gone before. In previous story "The Travelling Companion" Grace's revised tales were criticised for going over the top and proving aesthetically unsatisfying as a result, and on the evidence this could well be a revised story also.

In "The Unmasking - 'An Evening of Revels and Revelations'" just desserts are meted out to three academics at a costume ball, with cursed masks allowing them to see far more than they should be able. It's a fascinating piece, one that effortlessly draws the reader in, with the very nebulousness of what is taking place adding to its ability to unsettle us. Finally we have title story "They That Dwell in Dark Places", the account of a unique and disturbing haunting, with echoes of Hill's The Woman in Black. But while it plays on the tropes of the gentleman's club form of story and has some rather vivid and unsettling imagery, what makes the story especially memorable is that it addresses the matter of ghost stories themselves, asking what purpose they serve other than entertainment, what lies underneath our need to scare ourselves in this way. McGachey closes out the book with some story notes, detailing the origins of each of the thirteen stories, while Julia Helen Jeffrey provides black and white illustrations that capture perfectly the spirit of this enterprise.

If you love well-wrought tales of the supernatural in the mould of James, but with a modern sensibility and knowing cleverness about them, then you could do far worse than to seek out this collection.

 

 

 

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