The figure of the child has been a perennial presence in horror. Whether it’s the harrowing grief of losing a child – losing a part of ourselves, one intended to continue after our own deaths – that suffuses Don’t Look Now to the use of the child as an avatar of uncanny otherness in The Midwich Cuckoos – where the secret rituals and curious logic of children, often opaque to adults, take on a sinister aspect – children are continually depicted in their role as a threat to the supposed certainties of adulthood.
It’s to her credit, then, that Dr Jen Baker has instead chosen to use this anthology to present stories that focus not on the fears of adults, although they are by necessity the narrators, but on the needs of the lingering child-spirits. Whether that need is for vengeance, companionship or simply somewhere to go then the stories in Minor Hauntings – from obscure authors like Bessie Kyffin-Taylor as well as from the pen of well-known names like M.R. James – fill the twenty-second entry in the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series not just with mere horror but a sense of deep and chilling melancholy.
Yet, even accepting this, Minor Hauntings still sits firmly in the weird tradition. As Baker herself asserts in the book’s introduction “this anthology is a selection of short stories where, for the most part, something is not right”; the victims’ deaths are often unnatural so it is inevitable that the process of their dying is unnatural, too. In fact, if the weird is composed of things which should not be then the early death of a child and its post-mortem persistence in the world is a doubling of this weirdness. Baker, succinctly, calls these contrasting states “the pitiful and the dreadful”.
Baker has presented her stories in chronological order, spanning almost one hundred years from 1831 to 1925, and, as with other entries in the series, they are an excellent selection to represent the theme. The Old Nurse’s Story, by Elizabeth Gaskell, is one of the most obviously Gothic works in the anthology that, as Baker points out, maintains a number of parallels with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Here we find the eponymous Old Nurse telling the tale of how her younger self, with her orphan charge Rosamund in tow, are sent to live with distant family at Furnivall Manor, a darkly Gormenghastian pile in a snow-blanketed Northumberland. Eventually, the long-ago deeds which have festered in the Manor’s gloomy corridors manifest in “two little footprints” in the snow and “little hands battering upon the window-glass” as the cold of death itself tries to force its way inside and steal away the warmth of Rosamund’s young life. The Old Nurse’s Story is not just a good horror story, with some genuinely unsettling moments, but it is one where the atmosphere is so solidly constructed that it is almost palpable: the gasps and cries of the Manor’s inhabitants as their history unravels; the dusty corridors lined with smirking, hubristic portraits; the snowbound landscape that almost seems cold enough to make the reader’s breath steam.
If The Old Nurse’s Story depicts the “dreadful” of Baker’s duo then Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s The Lost Ghost is surely “the pitiful”. The narrator recounts a story of her youth where her lodgings were haunted by a young girl with a “little white face with eyes so scared and wistful that they seemed as if they might eat a hole in anyone’s heart”. Although the ghost’s appearance understandably frightens the lodging-house’s inhabitants – the narrator tells us that “cold was cloning to her as if she had come out of some deadly cold place” – she’s eventually revealed to be “a pretty harmless little sort of ghost” and isn’t, ultimately, the source of the tale’s horror. That comes from the cause of her “little thin body mottled purple with the cold” and plaintive voice which simply repeats, despite everything, “I want my mother”.
Perhaps my favourite story here, though, is Two Little Red Shoes by Bessie Kyffin-Taylor. Another unnamed, female narrator albeit a more adventurous one than previously encountered; she describes how “empty houses have always had an irresistible attraction for me” and then indulges in a slightly genteel bit of urban exploration in “a dull, red-brick house”. During her exploration of this house, as she wanders from room to abandoned room, she finds what could never really be called ghosts but more accurately the remnants of ghosts. First she stumbles over their discarded belongings – the titular pair of shoes and, that most sinister of toys, a rocking horse – and then she glimpses “two little children, hand in hand”. They seem oblivious to her presence and simply repeat the actions – actions that again reflect that “pitiful and dreadful” duality – of their too-short lives. The power of Kyffin-Taylor’s story is in its restraint. Small details become retroactively laden with horror as the true story of the ghost-children’s lives is revealed, punishment and restitution is doled out.
In themselves, these stories would be an excellent addition to the Tales of the Weird series, another thematic anthology that matches From the Depths or Queens of the Abyss. However, Baker’s expertise and doctorate research into the concept of the spectral child lifts Minor Hauntings into its own space through the inclusion of folkloric snippets of contextual material – ballads and folktales, sayings and cautionary rhymes – for each tale. Along with the biographical detail for each writer, these add a deep layer of resonance and show how the concerns and worries contained in these pages – that guardians may turn on their charges, that the mistreated dead may walk abroad – have a far longer, far deeper history than a single book can encompass.
It’s one thing to produce an anthology of this strength, especially in a series which already has entries of very high calibre, but to infuse it with such obvious scholarship, care, and heart is a triumph.