Sometimes Ghosts Are the Only Survivors

Those of us who write and blog in relative obscurity can be forgiven if sometimes we find comfort in meditations on the fleeting nature of fame. I recently found food for such thoughts while reading The Complete Wandering Ghosts, a collection of the eight (8) short ghost stories written by F. Marion Crawford.

Before this, I knew very little about Crawford, though I’d read a couple of his ghost stories that turned up in anthologies. (Yes, his–another thing I didn’t realize before. ‘F. Marion’ sounded like a woman’s name to me.)

Apparently, if I’d been around in the early 1900s, I would have had to be living under a whole pile of rocks not to have heard of him. His novels were read all over the English-speaking world. He was so famous that when he fell ill, the New York Times carried daily reports of his health on the front page. In the Italian town where he died, they shut all the shops in mourning, and one of the streets was named after him.

Today, pretty much all that’s left is this handful of ghost stories. (Well, I guess the street is probably still there, too.)

So what about the stories themselves?

The Dead Smile
You can see the plot twist in this one coming from a mile away, glowing brightly, waving its tattered cerements around, and wailing like a banshee. But Crawford builds the atmosphere up skillfully, and the upbeat ending is refreshing.

The Screaming Skull
Bad things happen to sailors who retire to live alone in the country, while keeping boxes of skeleton parts around the house. Particularly those who have given helpful advice to an opportunistic murderer.

Man Overboard!
Worse things happen at sea…especially when there are twin sailors who both fall in love with the same woman, before one of them falls (or did he?) overboard. This story moves slowly but it also captures the helpless, trapped feeling you can get when you know something bad is going to happen, is happening, but you can’t do anything about how long it will take to play out.

For the Blood is the Life
I’m not a big fan of vampire stories, but this is a good one with a picturesque Italian setting. It’s also unusual in that the vampire is original–created, it seems, by the circumstances of her death rather than the bite of another vampire.

The Upper Berth
Even worse things happen at sea. This is Crawford’s classic, anthologized more times than I can count. The ghost here is disconcertingly solid, closer to a Norse draugr.

By the Waters of Paradise
More of a romance than a ghost story, and almost a deconstruction of nineteenth-century romanticism–the brooding, melancholy hero, instead of getting consumption, grows a spine and wins love despite the opposition of dark forces.

The Doll’s Ghost
The book’s introduction dismisses this one as ‘sentimental’, but it’s my favorite story of Crawford’s. I defy any parent who ever thought they lost one of their children, even for a moment, to read this without tears. And of course it features a very unique kind of ghost.

The King’s Messenger
A fitting last story for this collection. Not surprising, but beautiful, and with a bit of a twist inherent in the structure of the story itself.

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