The Bishop of Hell and Other Stories by Marjorie Bowen
At the tail end of my recent review of D. K. Broster’s Couching at the Door, I mentioned that I so enjoyed this volume of creepy stories that I was minded to immediately begin another book from British publisher Wordsworth Editions’ Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural division … and I’m so glad that I followed through on that! My latest discovery from this wide-ranging series is Marjorie Bowen’s The Bishop of Hell and Other Stories, and in retrospect the two books have happily paired quite well together. Both were released in the 1940s (1942 for the Broster book, 1949 for the Bowen) and are the products of British authoresses more well known for their historical fiction than for their work in the realm of horror. And both feature meticulously written short stories evincing a great amount of historical research.
Before I go on to discuss each of the 12 stories in this very fine collection, a brief word on the author herself. Marjorie Bowen was born on Hayling Island in Hampshire in 1885, with the rather unwieldy name Margaret Gabrielle Vere Campbell Long. She would come out with her first novel in 1906, at the age of 21; a piece of historical fiction called The Viper of Milan that went on to become a best seller. Under the Bowen pen name, as well as several others (such as George Preedy, Robert Paye and Joseph Shearing), the author would ultimately write over 150 books – historical novels, mysteries, biographies, nonfiction, horror stories – before her death in 1952, at age 67. This reader had long been wanting to experience Bowen’s 1933 collection of horror stories, The Last Bouquet, after reading Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s enthusiastic review of that collection in Jones & Newman’s Horror: 100 Best Books, but that volume is virtually impossible to find today. Happily, The Bishop of Hell… collection contains six of the 14 stories from that earlier grouping, plus half a dozen others. All the stories in the 1949 anthology were written from the period 1919 – 1933; of the 12, only 2 ½ take place in modern times (that is to say, the early 20th century), while the other 9 ½ are set anywhere from 1690 – 1845. Fortunately, Bowen was an author who knew her 18th century period backward and forward, and the net result is a collection of highly authentic-seeming and shuddery tales guaranteed to please the discriminating horror buff.
The collection starts off very nicely with its first offering, “The Fair Hair of Ambrosine.” Set during the French Revolution, this story introduces us to poor Claude Boucher, a clerk who is assigned the task of delivering some papers in the very vicinity where his ex-sweetheart, the actress Ambrosine, had been murdered three years previously. As the day of the delivery approaches, Claude has repeated dreams of entering the house where the murder took place, and of encountering the murderer himself. This nifty little chiller speeds along to a conclusion that almost seems foreordained, and even though the reader easily anticipates where this story is heading, it is still nice to see how Ms. Bowen gets us there.
The highly regarded tale entitled “The Crown Derby Plate” is a straightforward ghost story that yet manages to slip the rug from under the reader’s expectations. Here, 60-year-old Martha Pym drives her governess cart into the lonely marshes of Essex, after having heard of the reclusive Miss Lefain who lives there. Lefain, she suspects, might be the possessor of a piece of china that is missing from her own collection. But upon being admitted to the ancient woman’s decrepit home, Martha experiences a rather shocking afternoon, indeed. Simply yet elegantly written, this modern-day tale is one that reveals its many clevernesses only upon a second reading, and its surprise ending is one that no reader will see approaching.
In the wonderful ghost story “The Housekeeper,” set in the London of 1710, we meet the miserably married couple Robert Sekforde and his wife, a former countess. Now impoverished, the two spend their time sniping at and insulting each other; a relationship that one senses might turn murderous very easily. But one night, the drunken Sekforde notices that meals have begun to be prepared, and his home tidied up, precisely as his first, currently deceased wife used to do. What really puts this tale over the top is the absolute malevolent bitterness that is evident in our not-so-loving couple’s conversations, its fidelity to period detail, and its marvelous – and again, surprise – conclusion. Some very fine work here indeed from Ms. Bowen.
Another squabbling couple, this one unhappily married newlyweds, is featured in “Florence Flannery,” set in the year 1800. Here, the lady of the title regards the ancestral home of her new husband, Daniel Shute, with great disfavor, although she is intrigued by one of the bedroom windows, on which someone had long ago etched the words “Florence Flannery Borne 1500.” Conflating some more wonderfully written connubial discord, the Medici family, a 16th century love story, and a South Seas fish god, of all things, this surely is one unusual and unpredictable story, and one that grows increasingly bonkers as it draws to its conclusion. A marvelously engrossing and atmospheric story, this.
In “Elsie’s Lonely Afternoon,” Bowen abandons her usually florid and highly detailed style of writing for one that is much more simple … and appropriately enough, too, as this is a tale as seen from a child’s point of view. Here, 6-year-old Elsie, a bored little girl who lives with her bedridden grandmother and a house full of aloof servants in modern-day Hampstead, finally finds some excitement in her dreary young existence when she hears footsteps in the attic above … footsteps that she just knows belong to ghosts! And before long, Elsie does indeed encounter one of those ghosts … or is it a ghost? This cleverly written story wraps up on a sad note but remains the loveliest tale in this entire collection.
In the book’s title piece, “The Bishop of Hell,” we meet another very nasty character indeed: Hector Greatrix, known as the Bishop of Hell to his comrades in the London of 1770 due to his sinful and profligate ways. But even his closest associates are aghast when Greatrix seduces the wife of his cousin – an innocent woman of high station – runs off with her to Italy, and there proceeds to corrupt her in unspeakable ways. This story wraps up with as grisly a duel as can be imagined, followed by a supernatural coda of sorts in which we realize that Hector’s nickname is more than a little apropos. A terrific story, truly, narrated by one of Greatrix’ closest mates, who himself becomes appalled at the proceedings therein.
“The Grey Chamber,” apparently, was not written by Marjorie Bowen, but rather by an anonymous French author; Bowen merely served as the translator. Another straightforward ghost story, set in what appears to be the 1700s, this one introduces us to young Blendau, who visits his cousin in north Germany and is put up in a room that is supposed to be haunted. In this titular chamber, in the year 1550, a young woman had been raped before she could achieve her dream of becoming a nun, and had later poisoned herself. And our young Blendau does indeed get to verify the legends of eerie manifestations in the Grey Chamber during one long and frightening night spent there. This is the collection’s shortest tale, but still a very effective one.
Going back farther in time than any other story in this book, “The Extraordinary Adventure of Mr. John Proudie” is set in the London of 1690. This tale forsakes the supernatural for the more realistic realm of murder, mystery and intrigue. In it, 60-year-old Proudie, an apothecary and bachelor of settled habits, undergoes a very trying night when a black nobleman and a mysterious woman barge into his shop, seeking medical assistance. Proudie’s lodger, a young doctor, goes off with them and is not seen again. Thus, Proudie himself is drawn into this bizarre case, ultimately uncovering multiple murders in a web of dual domestic disputes dating back many years. Proudie makes for a terrific nonhero here, timorous and completely believable.
In “The Scoured Silk,” Bowen presents us with not only one unhappy marriage, but with another that promises to be. Here, the middle-aged scholar and widower Humphrey Orford, who lives near Covent Garden in 1733, becomes engaged to a much younger woman, Elisa Minden, who is strangely repelled by the man. She is also somehow frightened of anything pertaining to Orford’s first wife, Flora, and especially of Orford’s private library, in which a portrait of Flora is hung. The mild-mannered and erudite Orford has the reader’s sympathies throughout, however … until, that is, we discover a bit more concerning that private library, and the secrets that it contains. A surprisingly grisly and macabre story, as things turn out!
“The Avenging of Ann Leete” gives us a tale in which the mental use of force leads to a case of spiritual displacement and an ironic vengeance. In the Glasgow of 1845, our narrator becomes obsessed with the portrait of a woman in a green dress, and after some casual sleuthing, finally tracks down a very elderly man, Eneas Bretton, who tells him the story of his would-be fiancée, the woman in the painting, Ann Leete, some 70 years before. The old codger sadly relates to our narrator the story of Ann’s murder, at the tender age of 20; of his suspicions as to the foul perpetrator of the deed; and of how he managed to take a most unusual tactic to expose the killer. This is still another lovely tale, wrapping up on a note that should appeal to all fans of the great fantasy The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.
In “Kecksies” (the title story of Arkham House’s highly collectable Kecksies and Other Twilight Tales, from 1976; the first collection of Bowen’s short fiction published in the U.S.), we meet two more debauched men of the 1700s, Nick Bateup and Ned Crediton. After the two are forced to seek shelter in a cottage during a sudden downpour, Crediton decides to play a little joke on the mourners who will soon be arriving there to pay their respects to the body of one Robert Horne, who lays in the back room. Substituting himself for the shrouded corpse, Crediton plans to frighten the wits out of all the gathered mourners. But things don’t go quite as expected, in this tale of vengeance from the grave and a carnal desire that transcends even death.
The Wordsworth edition of The Bishop of Hell and Other Stories concludes with a tale of profound clairvoyance, or race memory, or reincarnation – our narrator is not sure what to call it – in “Ann Mellor’s Lover.” Here, a modern-day book dealer becomes obsessed with the pencil drawing of a woman that falls out of one of his volumes, dating from 1749. As in “The Avenging of Ann Leete,” our narrator engages in some amateur sleuthing to learn about the object of his fascination, but here, his powers of clairvoyance – of being able to pass by a church and feel its significance to his quest, for example – and his ability to just close his eyes and journey back in time prove even more useful. This is a rather lovely story, actually, even though an essentially tragic one.
So there you have it … a dozen wonderful and chilling tales, brought to indelible life by the hand of an evident master. As a matter of fact, I enjoyed this Bowen collection so much that I think I am about ready to tackle the author’s sixth novel, 1909’s Black Magic: A Tale of the Rise and Fall of the Antichrist, which has been sitting unread on my bookshelf for years, and which was itself chosen for inclusion in Cawthorn & Moorcock’s Fantasy: The 100 Best Books. Stay tuned…