"Lady Stanhope's Manuscript"
          by Dale J. Nelson
[from Lady Stanhope's Manuscript and Other Supernatural Tales, edited by Barbara Roden]

    Reviews by Cooper Renner

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As As Barbara Roden notes in her introduction to the original edition of Lady Stanhope's Manuscript and Other Supernatural Tales (Ash-Tree Press, 1994 ; second edition, 2002), "(T)he ghost or supernatural tale has fallen out of favour somewhat in recent times, replaced by its cousin the horror story, with its emphasis on gore rather than atmosphere." One reason, perhaps, for this shift is the issue of quality-- gore is rather easier to deliver than atmosphere, by which I suggest that a horror writer can more likely fulfill his reader's expectations than a ghost story writer. Another reason may be sociological-- horror stories are as much an indicator of late twentieth and early twenty-first century culture, with its emphasis on the breaking of taboos, vivid depictions of violence, and garish self-display, as the almost demure tales of M. R. James are of Victorian England.

But of course atmosphere has not wholly given way to gore, as the popularity of the recent ghost story movie The Others indicates, and as Roden goes on to point out in her introduction. "(G)ood ghost stories," she writes, "have been produced over the past few years, and are still being produced." Indeed the success of the Ghost Story Society-- which Roden and her husband operate [along with the magazine All Hallows and the book publisher Ash-Tree Press (all represented at www.ash-tree.bc.ca)]-- emphasizes the continuing interest in the classic ghost story among English-speaking readers on at least three continents, as does the history of this booklet, a collection of five then-new ghost stories, by five authors, originally issued in an edition of 150 copies. Roden recounts in her "Preface to the Second Edition" (Ash-Tree Press 2002) how the first edition went from initially modest sales to a subsequent quickening, then to out-of-print status and true collectability, "with copies rumoured to fetch upwards of US$200 on the secondhand market." At the heart of the collection, of course, is the title story.

Horror stories are an indicator of late twentieth and early twenty-first century culture, with its emphasis on the breaking of taboos, vivid depictions of violence, and garish self-display.

Written by Dale J. Nelson, about whom I know nothing, "Lady Stanhope's Manuscript" is a marvelous work, worthy to stand alongside the best of M. R. James and utilizing a Jamesian device-- the ancient manuscript-- and a Jamesian setting-- a small English town in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The protagonist Mr. Fletcher, "the proprietor of a general goods store," is a foil for the reader-- practical, happily comfortable in his business and family life, not very imaginative, but possessed of a good heart and a desire to be helpful. Thus, when he receives a letter from a childhood friend he has not seen in a quarter of a century, requesting Fletcher's visit and noting that his health is failing and that he hasn't long to live, Fletcher immediately makes plans to leave the store in his wife's hands and to journey to renew his acquaintance with his old friend. If the reader finds Fletcher's response too good to be true, she is nonetheless likely to wish that she too would respond so and is likewise hooked, as Fletcher was, by the unexpectedness of the letter and the mystery of its writer's illness. Or, to approach the issue of suspension of disbelief in another way, even if the reader doesn't quite accept Fletcher's immense charitability, she will almost certainly accept the supernatural nature of what follows because a man like Fletcher could hardly be an unreliable witness.

The key to the success of "Lady Stanhope's Manuscript" is twofold: ideational and aesthetic. As regards the latter, Nelson is a master at creating what Roden correctly posits as the heart of the ghost story-- atmosphere. First, as already mentioned, he makes use of a setting in which the reader will more easily buy into the supernatural events. Second, he roots those events in two particularly effective narrative elements: 1) the ancient Near Eastern manuscript which Fletcher's dying friend Cleeve is attempting to be the first to translate; and 2) Fletcher's hazy childhood memories of a "nervous collapse" suffered by Cleeve and his own father's forcible sundering of the boys' friendship. Thus the mystery at the story's center is also twofold: first, Cleeve's condition; second, what, if any, connection his current state bears to his childhood frailty. Perhaps the most effective and compelling scene in the entire longish story (30 pages of smallish type) occurs about ten pages in, in reference to that frailty. Cleeve attempts to describe to Fletcher how he felt, often, as a child, after they played the "word-games" which Fletcher remembers only sketchily. "I used to nearly have fits, sometimes," Cleeve says,

    in the dark, in my little upstairs bedroom, after we had been playing during the day. Once or twice, I am sure, I saw myself sitting on the edge of the bed, just ready to walk away from my body and never come back. (p. 53, second ed.)

The reader will readily recognize the terms of an out-of-body or even near-death experience, and thus Nelson conditions her to accept what follows. "The old man," Cleeve goes on,

    --you remember him, too? the one who taught us?-- he could come through walls. He would just walk through the wall into the bedroom and. . . it's horrible, I'm sorry-- he would stretch himself out across me and cover my mouth with his mouth-- I would just about swoon-- I was breathing in through him somehow--

"Geoffrey-- dear God!" Fletcher responds, and then Nelson provides the reply which once again conditions the reader to believe in what is happening. Cleeve says, "All some kind of juvenile madness, Wilfred, of course."

Or is it? What roots the scene so firmly into the reader's imagination is both the ease and "rightness" of Geoffrey's conversational style and the imagery itself. Besides recalling, for contemporary readers, images of sexual abuse, the depiction also hearkens back to medieval images of succubi and, even more distant, to the Biblical scene in which the prophet Elisha stretches himself out upon a dead boy to raise him back to life. And notice here that, as unlikely as that last may seem to you, Cleeve remembers feeling as though he were "breathing in through" the old man. And so the plot elements tighten, with the childhood word games echoed in the adult's work as a translator, and the reversal of the archetypal wise old man into a diabolical old man.

Nelson is a master at creating what Roden correctly posits as the heart of the ghost story-- atmosphere.

But just as powerful as Nelson's aesthetic capabilities are his ideational ones. In addition to dextrously manipulating the traditional elements of the secret manuscript and the gloomy English village, Nelson takes great care with the characterizations not only of Fletcher and Cleeve, but also with Cleeve's two almost constant companions-- Miss Fieldfare who tends to him, takes care of the house, and loves him; and Parson Trefillan, the "retired" cleric who has been missionary in various countries and who brought the untranslated manuscript back to England from the Middle East. Trefillan and Fieldfare clearly dislike and distrust each other, and Trefillan-- unusually for a "good parson"-- is sharp-tongued in his sarcasm toward Miss Fieldfare and often equally dismissive of orthodox Christian practice. And so every hint of the supernatural in the story is counterbalanced by solid reality: household sniping, an old man's tales of his years "in the bush," childhood reminiscences, Miss Fieldfare's sweet-tempered devotions.

In short, "Lady Stanhope's Manuscript" masterfully pulls together elements both traditional and individual to weave an eerie and unified tale the reader wants to have faith in. And a ghost story can hardly be asked to do more.

Lady Stanhope's Manuscript and Other Supernatural Tales. Edited and with an introduction by Barbara Roden. Ashcroft, B.C. : Ash-Tree Press, 2002. 1-55310-035-2.

+In the interest of "full disclosure," I will note that I am a member of the Ghost Story Society and that Ash-Tree Press has twice published ghost stories of mine.-- Cooper

**The Rodens also operate The Arthur Conan Doyle Society and The Calabash Press.

Mail to Cooper Renner

About Cooper

Cooper Renner also reviews books and engages in various critical activities for the online magazine 'elimae', under the name b. renner. He is a published poet and a very eclectic fellow.