Five favourite pieces of short weird fiction not written by M. R. James.
‘The Library Window’ by Margaret Oliphant
First appearance: Blackwood’s Magazine, 1896. You can read it online
Margaret Oliphant (1828–1897) was a breadwinning writing-machine, credited with 97 novels. Other interpretations are available online, but if you take this very late-career story at face value it is a delicate, beautifully-crafted tale of the isolation and unfulfilled longing of a teenage girl, whiling away the hours at her aunt’s home reading in a window seat. Why do her aunt and her friends question whether a window in the library across the street is a functioning one, when she can see quite clearly what, and who, is in the room behind? A heart-wrenching finale, with an unanticipated moment of connection, perhaps redemption, in the penultimate paragraph. Magical.
‘Afterward’ by Edith Wharton
First appearance: The Century, 1910; you can find it in The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton, or online
Like her friend Henry James, Edith Wharton (1862–1937) wrote, for me, one of the greatest pieces in the genre. The realisation of Mary Boyne at the end of the story, of what has become of her husband, and how everything that has preceded his disappearance fits together into an unbelievable revelation, comes almost as a physical blow – even if you’ve read it before.
‘Three Miles Up’ by Elizabeth Jane Howard
First appearance: We are for the Dark (with Robert Aickman) 1951; you can find it in The Virago Book of Ghost Stories (Richard Dalby, ed.)
Co-contributor Aickman was a founder of the Inland Waterways Association, but this story, of a canal boat mini-break starting to go badly wrong, was Howard’s (1923–2014). The appearance of an enigmatic young woman to join a fractious pair of male holidaymakers seems to restore harmony, until things begin to turn decidedly strange… and then cataclysmic. Subsequent theories of the true nature of the mysterious Sharon were apparently denied by the author.
‘Consanguinity’ by Ronald Duncan
First appearance: possibly The Fourth Ghost Book, (James Turner, ed.) 1965: you can find it in Tales for Twilight (Alistair Kerr, ed.)
Elizabeth Bowen did a great line in World War Two weird, and this piece by Robert Duncan follows brilliantly in that vein. Duncan (1914–1982), poet and sometime librettist for Benjamin Britten, produced this neat little tale of wartime leave meeting/marriage, which (and I’ve borrowed this analogy) leaves you feeling like you have ascended to the upper floor of a building, only to turn and find there is no staircase behind you.
‘The Swords’ by Robert Aickman
First appearance: probably The Fifth Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (Robert Aickman, ed.) 1969: later collected in Aickman’s Cold Hand in Mine
For me, Aickman’s (1914–1981) stories work best when we sense the author feels a total connection with the central character. I have read the narrator of ‘The Swords’ described as pathetic, but he’s always seemed to me, really, to be all of us. A young man, sent out as a sales rep in a world he feels little affinity for, and is trying to figure out, arrives in a Midlands town with scant appeal. At his usual evening loose end, he stumbles across a rundown funfair with a bizarre and disturbing novelty act in its only tent. It has to be a clever illusion, but given the chance later to meet the performer, by whom he’s transfixed, he finds the truth far stranger.