The Dark Companion: ghost stories by John Gaskin

Breathing new life into the art of darkness
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The Independent Culture

"There are other places," TS Eliot wrote, "which also are the world's end, some at the sea jaws,/ Or over a dark lake,/ In a desert, or a city..." The other places – dangerously otherworldly places – evoked by John Gaskin in his ghost stories include concealed caves, abandoned pit-shafts, railway cuttings, a neglected burial ground and a remote hotel in winter. These are appropriate settings for encounters with the unfathomable.

The human craving for supernatural sensation is ineradicable, and these well-crafted stories are geared to appease it. By turns scholarly, atmospheric, urbane and understated, The Dark Companion's hauntings are presided over by the shade of MR James. The pleasure or enjoyment "of a certain sort", specified by James in the preface to his Collected Ghost Stories (1931), is richly available here.

The framework of Gaskin's collection, too, harks back to the provost of Eton at Christmas during the 1890s, reading such tales as Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book or Lost Hearts to a small, agog audience. The Dark Companion and its companion pieces, the author tells us, were likewise designed to be read aloud at suggestive times of the year, conforming to a piquant tradition as well as keeping their content bewitchingly traditional.

The allure of alarm – or, as Edith Wharton put it, "the fun of the shudder" – is encompassed to the utmost in this book's 11 stories. They feature discomposing figments (a dark shape "like a dead tree trunk seen in the middle distance or a blackish coat hung in a dim light on the far side of a room"), soon-to-be-subverted sceptics and an engagement to the full with murk and desolation. In "Blaeweary", the howling of a dog across an expanse of frozen fields chills the blood of the protagonist. This is the "chill of things beyond reason", in the words of the narrator of "The Dublin Epictetus", who inherits an infernal volume of translations from the Greek.

The puzzlement of the sane individual confronted with a hair-raising impossibility is at the root of a good many ghost stories. Their impact depends on the skill with which the suggested supernatural enormity is brought to pervade the plot.

The Dark Companion opens with "The Pit", in which a financial consultant, out of his depth in the country, unwittingly plays out the last dreadful act in a bygone local tragedy. Elsewhere, we find hill-walkers straying on to tainted ground and anecdotes about the past that include the senior common room of an august institution in the 1960s and the sudden intrusion of a spectral chess player. The odd incident is mysterious but mild in tone, such as "Single to Burnfoot", with its weirdly reactivated branch line.

On a darker note, unearthly miasmas are forever massing just beneath the surface of things, awaiting an outlet. The grimly charged object makes a frequent conduit for the uncanny: a Roman amulet, an inscription carved on a wall, a mishandled effigy. Then the old house resistant to unsympathetic occupiers (as in "Look Closely") has its own way of putting paid to them.

The author sometimes indulges a playful impulse by proffering an explanation for his unnatural occurrences, only to undermine this supposed rationality of outlook by adding a disquieting twist. Those who play tricks, acting the apparition, may see a truly ghostly manifestation follow after. The spook is stronger than the spoof.

These memorable stories go a considerable way towards reinvigorating an old genre (though one that has never lost its singular appeal, as the many anthologies devoted to it show). The Dark Companion's only flaws are technical: a lot of missing commas; "alright" for "all right"; and "for Peter and I" when it should be "for Peter and me". These errors, trivial in themselves, are at odds with the overall decorum of John Gaskin's delectably unnerving and inviting visitations. As Brigid Brophy once wrote in relation to fairytales, they are like all good supernatural stories, "to be believed utterly – but strictly in the realm of the imagination".