Monday, 24 December 2012

My favourite short stories (2)

The Shadow-Cage by Philippa Pearce
Philippa Pearce was a children's writer from Cambridgeshire, and she is most famous for her children's novel Tom's Midnight Garden.

'The Shadow-Cage' is a supernatural story about witchcraft and I particularly like the rural setting for the story. It obviously has a Cambridgeshire setting, which is similar to the area where I myself grew up in South Lincolnshire. Ned Challis is a farmer, who finds an ancient glass bottle with a stopper when he is ploughing a field. He allows his daughter Lisa to keep the bottle, before remembering only later that he found it near the site of an old witch's house that burnt down. His daughter Lisa takes it to school, where her cousin Kevin wants the bottle and takes it from her. After a day at school, he forgets it and leaves it in the school playground. In the middle of the night Kevin remembers it, and decides to go and fetch it at the stroke of midnight...only to fall into the grasp of old sorcery. When Kevin returns to the playground he encounters the shadow-cage and the mysterious, elusive Whistlers...

The whistlers were in no hurry. The first whistle had come from right across the fields. Then there was a long pause. Then the sound was repeated, equally distantly, from the direction of the river bridges. Later still, another whistle from the direction of the railway line, or somewhere near it.

The Room in the Tower by E.F Benson
Edward Frederic Benson was a late 19th-century/early 20th century English author of novels, short stories and biographies. His elder brother Arthur Christopher Benson wrote the lyrics to Edward Elgar's patriotic song "Land of Hope and Glory".  E.F Benson wrote a broad range of material, including numerous horror and supernatural stories of considerable power. One of the best of these is 'The Room in the Tower'.
It begins with the protagonist experiencing a recurring dream of attending an old school friend's gathering at a mysterious mansion. Everyone there sits in silence. The old school friend's name is Jack Stone, and at the end of the tea party, Mrs Stone (the old school friend's mother) announces: “Jack will show you your room: I have given you the room in the tower.” The protagonist experiences the dream for many years, and curiously the people in it age accordingly over that period of time. After a while, the dreamer understands that Mrs Stone has died, and on that occasion the people attending the party wear black. Yet it is still Mrs Stone's voice who announces "I have given you the room in the tower" and the dreamer sees a gravestone on the lawn: In evil memory of Julia Stone. When the dreamer goes up into the room in the tower, it is darker than normal and he feels a sense of decay. He wakes up screaming.
Then, one fateful day, the protagonist is invited in reality to stay at a house by another friend, John Clinton. He arrives at the house only to discover that it is exactly like the mansion in his sinister dream...he is given the room in the tower where he discovers a portrait hanging:
It represented Mrs Stone as I had seen her last in my dreams: old and withered and white-haired. But in spite of the evident feebleness of body, a dreadful exuberance and vitality shone through the envelope of flesh, an exuberance wholly malign, a vitality that foamed and frothed with unimaginable evil. Evil beamed from the narrow, leering eyes: it laughed in the demonlike mouth. The whole face was instinct with some secret and appalling mirth; the hands, clasped together on the knee, seemed shaking with suppressed and nameless glee.

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