Once again, I find myself thankful to the British publisher Wordsworth Editions, and in particular its Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural division, for turning me on to an author who I may not have ever discovered otherwise. In the past, I have written here of several other writers brought to my attention by this extensive and wonderful series of economically priced books: Ambrose Bierce in Terror By Night, Alice and Claude Askew in Aylmer Vance: Ghost-Seer, and May Sinclair in Uncanny Stories, amongst others. And now, courtesy of Wordsworth, my latest find: D.K. Broster, and her marvelous collection of scarifying short stories, Couching at the Door.
Before I proceed with some comments on the nine winning tales in this volume, a quick word on the author herself. D. K. (Dorothy Kathleen) Broster was born in Liverpool in 1877, and would go on to become a nurse during WW1 and to receive, at the age of 43, a Master of Arts degree at Oxford; one of the first women to do so. She is today primarily remembered as the author of some 15 historical novels and two collections of short stories, of which this volume was the second. Couching at the Door, when originally released in 1942 as a William Heinemann hardcover, contained only five stories: the title piece, “The Pestering” (a marvelous title, that!), “From the Abyss,” “Juggernaut” and “The Pavement.” The book would then go out of print for almost 60 years, until Ash-Tree Press released a new edition in 2001, which included 10 stories, those additional five presumably having been culled from Broster’s first short-story collection, 1932’s “A Drift of Firewood.” The Wordsworth edition, released in 2007, includes those five original stories plus four more; all the stories in the Ash-Tree Press volume except for “All Souls’ Day.” So yes, obviously, the 2001 volume is the most complete of the bunch, but based on my previous experience with Ash-Tree, finding a decently priced copy of one of their OOP volumes can be very challenging, to say the least. And so, this Wordsworth volume, an easy-to-find edition at a bargain price, containing these nine stories, written during the period 1932 – 1940, that are all – every one of them – gripping and exquisitely written, in Broster’s well-researched, elegant manner.
The collection happily begins with one of its strongest pieces, “Couching at the Door,” which introduces the reader to the decadent, 51-year-old poet and man of sinful repute, Augustine Marchant. All has been going well in Marchant’s debauched and voluptuary life until he begins to notice, of all things, a feathered boa that follows him about, creeps into his bed, and even trails him out of doors. What sounds in synopsis a somewhat inane setup actually becomes a story of chilling impact in Broster’s skillful hands. And when Marchant attempts to pass off this apparent curse to the unsuspecting artist who is illustrating his latest book, matters only grow more dire, culminating in a shocking conclusion. A bravura effort to get this collection rolling.
“From the Abyss” is very much a straightforward ghost story, of the inexplicable variety. Here, a young Englishwoman, Daphne Lawrence, goes on a holiday to the French Riviera and narrowly escapes death when her car goes over a cliff and crashes into a ravine. The car’s two other occupants are presumed dead, and Daphne returns to her fiancé strangely changed. Meanwhile, a woman is seen in the vicinity of the accident who looks exactly like Daphne; a woman who wanders about having lost most of her memory. Broster’s tale wraps up with still another tragedy – or perhaps it is a double tragedy – as this story of dual personality and separated corporeal bodies draws to its close.
These two opening tales serve to give the reader fair notice that no character, man or woman, is safe in Broster’s work, and the remarkably bloody “Clairvoyance” demonstrates this lesson yet again. In this one, we learn the history of the bloodstain on the rug of Strode Manor, a house that realtors have had difficulty getting off their hands. Thus, we are made privy to the garden party that Mr. Strode had thrown there some five years before, and learn what had happened when his young daughter’s teenage friend, a sensitive clairvoyant, had chanced to pick up his priceless, and supremely deadly, Japanese katana sword. Broster does not hold back here, in a tale guaranteed to please all the gorehounds in the audience. A pleasingly suspenseful and grisly tale, this.
“The Pavement” gives us the story of 74-year-old Lydia Reid, who lives with her invalid brother Simon in an isolated cottage in the country. Lydia’s obsession in life is the Roman pavement that happens to lie on her property; a relic of historical importance for which Lydia serves as tour guide and caretaker. But trouble looms when a letter arrives from the authorities, saying that the British government has decided to assume all responsibility for the ancient artifact. Lydia, thus, is driven to extreme methods to keep her beloved property her very own, in this tale of an obsession that goes just a bit over the line. Not exactly a frightening story here, but a beautifully written one, with an abundance of historical detail.
“The Window” is yet another straightforward ghost story, but this one comes with a rather convincing explanation at the end. In this tale, Romilly, an aspiring British artist and currently a soldier serving in France during WW1, explores an abandoned house and becomes inextricably trapped when one of its windows crashes down on him. Unable to lift the casement off his body, he is stuck there, on his knees, with no one to call out to for assistance, and contemplates the horrible hours that he must endure before death’s sweet release. Broster’s tale later hearkens back to the year 1793, as we learn about the house’s tragic history following the Vendean defeat at Cholet, an era that might be an unknown one for many, as it was for me.
In “Juggernaut,” middle-aged Flora Halkett, a writer of murder mysteries, goes to a seaside resort to recuperate from a sprained ankle, accompanied by her niece Primrose. While there, the two women encounter a real-life mystery of sorts: an elderly man who pushes an empty wheelchair up and down the strand, in fair weather or foul, and who refuses Flora’s request to hire him for her stay. No, this is not another ghost story, as it turns out, but one in which the haunting memories of a foul deed committed in the past have a drastic effect on the present. This tale concludes quite suspensefully, indeed, atop a precipitous clifftop, with the lives of our two heroines very much, uh, up in the air.
A marvelously written tale conflating obsession, murder and madness, “The Promised Land” gives us the sorry story of Ellen Wright, a mousy, 61-year-old woman who finally fulfills the dream of her bleak existence by taking a trip to Italy. The only catch: She has consented to be accompanied by her older cousin, Caroline, who completely dominates her and goes far in ruining Ellen’s Tuscany experience. And so … what’s a poor, frustrated woman to do, but perpetrate a little homicide and take off for Florence, on her own at last! This truly memorable story is one that shocks the reader on occasion and then grows increasingly uncomfortable as pitiful Ellen descends ever deeper into delusional fantasy and madness.
Up next we have what is probably my favorite offering of the bunch; certainly the longest. In “The Pestering,” a husband and wife, Ralph and Evadne Seton, purchase a cottage called Hallows, only to quickly discover that the centuries-old abode is haunted. An old man knocks repeatedly on their door seeking for some kind of chest, a young man in 17th century garb appears in their bedroom at night, a rolling pin stolen from the kitchen is used to batter at the attic door. Eventually, after some fascinating sleuthing, with the assistance of an historian at Oxford, the cause of their poltergeist is revealed … one dating back all the way to the time of King Charles II. A splendid tale, this, wonderfully paced and not a little frightening.
The Couching at the Door collection concludes with still another stunner, “The Taste of Pomegranates,” at once a modern-day take on the Persephone myth and a fantasy involving time displacement. In this one, two English sisters, the dreamy Arbel and the more practical Roberta, go to France and wind up exploring, by themselves, a cave in the Dordogne region, hoping to see the Neanderthal paintings therein. But things take an unexpected turn after a roof collapse traps them inside … uncomfortably close to two cave bears that should have gone extinct 15,000 years before! This is still another elegantly written, impeccably researched tale from Ms. Broster that attains to quite a fair amount of suspense, as we wonder whether or not the two sisters will ever survive their macabre ordeal.
So there you have it … nine exquisite pieces guaranteed to fascinate, enthrall and chill, penned by the hand of an evident master. Any fan of meticulously worded horror, with an emphasis on European culture and history, should certainly pounce on Couching at the Door, I feel. As a matter of fact, I enjoyed this Wordsworth offering so much that I think my next book will be another one from their Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural division; another book of short horror stories by another British authoress of mainly historical fiction, Marjorie Bowen. Stay tuned…