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A Handful of Ghosts - George H. Bushnell

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Author: George H. Bushnell / Genre: Fiction

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      17.11.2007 08:20
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      Reprinted by St. Andrews Preservation Trust (1945, 1993).

      This neat little paperback published by the St. Andrews Preservation Trust is a loving reproduction of George H. Bushnell’s original and sole collection of ghost stories, originally published by the University in 1945. Set in and around the area of Scotland’s oldest University, these stories, however fanciful or based on alleged truths, were originally told to Bushnell’s Celtic Society as entertainment during blackouts in the Second World War. The local basis serves to make it a little unapproachable for the wider readership that it never particularly sought out (and will never attain), but also adds a rather quaint and authentic atmosphere to the five tales, even if it’s a little naive to assume anyone outside of his immediate, local, 1940s audience will be aided by directions such as “where Henderson’s corner shop now stands.”

      There’s a fair degree of variety across the stories in terms of subject matter, style, length and enjoyment, and it should be enjoyed by readers partial to the old-fashioned sort of ghost stories that insist on grounding themselves in specific facts, locations and dates at great length, perhaps in an effort to balance out the supernatural happenings. This is the book’s most annoyingly outdated feature, as some stories such as the brief ‘The Shadow Man’ read like nothing more than a dull overview of a historical event that manages to be extremely long-winded despite lasting only seven pages. The conveyance of specifics also spoils some of the better stories by trying the reader’s patience and thereby dispelling the atmosphere that had been fairly successfully built up by that point, leading to the odd meeting of dull lecture and exciting ghost story of ‘The Screaming Horsemen,’ which would be the best of the lot if the balance had been shifted towards the latter events rather than the former, unnecessarily long set-up.

      As with some of the best ghost stories, the supernatural elements are all toned down into mere apparitions that could, at a stretch and with a considerable degree of scepticism, be put down to natural occurrence or sick tomfoolery. The first story, attractively titled ‘The Closing of the Cloisters,’ is the most substantial and among the most effective in its tale of an eighteenth-century University professor getting his comeuppance from beyond the grave, in the form of appearances of his erstwhile associate’s skeletal corpse clad in academic robes, but is curiously and distractingly divided into two chapters; the second is not entirely related to the professor’s story, and rather concerns a far less interesting account of Johnson and Boswell getting a little creeped-out by the skeleton on their famous Tour through Scotland. The second story, ‘The Tenement,’ is a shorter and wholly less satisfying account of a supposedly haunted house that it turns out, wasn’t really haunted at all, but nevertheless allows its sole buyer to get a bargain purchase. It’s not so much a ghost story as something a particularly boring relative would repeatedly tell you with a smug look on their face, but Bushnell’s descriptions of location remain commendably vivid.

      ‘The Screaming Horsemen,’ when it finally gets round to it, has the book’s most prominent ghostly appearance as a group of horse-mounted riders gallop into a frozen swamp, taking the body of a crazy old man with them, and it’s a shame there’s so much tedious preamble as the encounter itself is Bushnell’s writing at its best: genuinely creepy and descriptive, while grounded in realism, though the author’s long career as St. Andrews University librarian do lead him to catalogue every detail in irritating depth. ‘The Shadow Man’ is the only story based entirely in the past and suffers for its lack of relation to (then-) contemporary events, centred around the apparent ghost of a warrior, but thankfully the final offering of the collection makes for a fitting exit. Titled ‘I Shall Take Proper Precautions!’ for reasons that will only become clear once the whole thing has been digested, this is the apparently true story of one of Bushnell’s previous assistant librarians (although everything here most likely stems almost entirely from his imagination, it’s nice to imagine that there’s a basis for all of the stories), who finds a curiously new book arriving at the library just as she is closing up on Christmas Eve, and she is forced to take it home for a personal delivery to its local owner and author. This story is filled with everything I enjoyed about spooky short stories when I was a child, from the uncanny book itself that suddenly appears to be old, worn and stained when viewed in the dim bedside light, to the librarian’s experiences and encounters with its supposed author and the ultimate revelation that the blank pages at the book’s conclusion were never blank after all, containing everything she experiences on that fateful, snowy morning. This is the most enjoyable story of the lot, largely unhampered by the burden of far too much detail and making a nice link to the University library itself, from whence this whole thing originated.

      As George H. Bushnell’s only collection of stories, this noticeably lacks a distinctly characteristic style aside from its tedious insistence on relating all the information possible, but it fits in rather nicely with the tradition of gothic ghost stories and is interesting in its blending of the author’s contemporary early twentieth century and the history of his local Scottish region, mostly through the 1700s. It’s a little uneven in tone, with some such as the first story quite clearly being written for speaking without much in the way of adaptation for the page (mostly evident through repeated sound effects), but it’s a nice gesture that this book was ever considered worth reprinting at all. This paperback is a slim volume of just over sixty pages, and features pretty pencil illustrations from one Mrs. D.H.L. Scott (née Bushnell) relevant to each tale without spoiling its conclusion. If the University of St. Andrews still entertains a Celtic Society, it’s nice that they have something to show for their history (in a University steeped in history, as Bushnell’s stories prove more than anything else), and I’m sure his own ghost must have been pleasantly surprised to see this new arrival in the Local Fiction section of a library he still watches over to this very day, the silent old man in the old-fashioned clothes...

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