Wednesday 9 October 2019

The Last Seance and Tales of the Troubled Dead

Image result for the last seance agatha christie

I like ghost stories, and enjoyed writing one a while back - "No Flowers", which appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and which I even recorded for their website podcast. Over the years, quite a few crime writers have dabbled in stories of the supernatural. Agatha Christie is a notable example, and now HarperCollins have had the bright idea of putting together a chunky volume of twenty of her tales of the uncanny (but not those featuring Harley Quin). It's called The Last Seance, and it's just come out.

There are one or two well-known stories here, perhaps most notably "Philomel Cottage", while  no fewer than eleven of them (including the title story) were included in The Hound of Death, an interesting and under-estimated collection. Christie is famous as an exponent of highly rational whodunit plots, but this book illustrates that she had an abiding interest in the supernatural, and quite a flair for writing about it. There is no introduction (I believe one was planned, but fell through: a pity), but there is a good bibliography.

Tales of the Troubled Dead: Ghost Stories in Cultural History, is very different. It's a non-fiction study written by Catherine Belsey and published by Edinburgh University Press. The author is an experienced academic, and although I find academic books about popular fiction interesting, all too often I find the style of writing depressingly dense. A tendency to overload the text with cross-references (surely books written for academics should assume that the readers are capable of finding page numbers for themselves) is another recurrent weakness. Happily, this book is an exception, because Catherine Belsey writes entertainingly and with insight, and doesn't feel the need to encumber her text with tedious material designed to prove that she knows her stuff.

"Ghosts don't stay put" is the opening sentence, and perhaps my favourite illustration of Belsey's pleasing literary style can be found in an engaging chapter about Women in White: "Ghostly dress codes vary". I also liked her wry reference to Tony Blair: "The ex-premier, however, is not entirely fictitious." The book veers around its subject in a discursive way that I found agreeable. It's not in any way a text book, and all the better for that. Many other academic writers could benefit from adopting a more relaxed, less insecure approach to their writing in the manner of Belsey. 

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