Ghost stories are supposed to be scary, right? Indian burial grounds and demons of old returning to suck the life out of your first born? Well, that isn’t always the case in this collection, the sixth volume from The Fiction Desk. And that’s no bad thing. In fact, of the twelve stories on offer here, maybe only three make a genuine attempt at being properly scary, and maybe only one succeeds. But the best stories, the ones that will keep you up at night, are the ones that use the ghosts in a different way, the ones that use death and the supernatural as a way to tug on the emotions and leave you pondering long past their final word.
Probably the best example of this is ‘Old Ghosts’ by Ann Wahlman. Quietly told, this is a tender tale of a woman whose dead husband visits her in bed every night, staying with her until a time when it seems she may no longer need him. It’s a subtle and adroit consideration of grief and moving on that is pitched perfectly. Other greats include Jason Atkinson’s ‘Half Mom’, a story about a daughter’s attempts to look after half of her mum’s cremated remains which manages to be sympathetic and hilarious in equal measures. Slovenian writer Miha Mazzini provides the other highlight with ‘In the Walls’, presenting a unique perspective on a grieving mother and the lengths she’ll go to to hear her child once more. All three of these stories will quicken the pulse, but not in the way of traditional ghost stories.
All of the works in this collection were submissions for The Fiction Desk’s inaugural ghost story competition. Their original plan was to only offer prizes and publication to the top two entries, but they stretched to a whole collection because of the strength of the submissions. The two prizewinners bookmark the collection, and they both deserve a mention. The opener, Julia Patt’s second placed ‘At Glenn Dale’, is probably the only traditional haunted house story on offer. It’s also probably the only genuinely scary story in the bunch. The prizewinner, Joanne Rush’s ‘Guests’, is the most original piece. As the protagonist’s husband goes off to work in Bosnia, their home slowly becomes a place where the ghosts of the Bosnian war congregate. This is a clever story that incorporates humour, history, and heartbreak. A deserved winner even if not my personal favourite.
Any Cop?: As with many collections of this type, there were a couple of stories that weren’t to my personal tastes. The ones mentioned above are crackers, though, and honourable mentions should also go to ‘Journeyman’, ‘Tom’, ‘No Good Deed’, and ‘Chalklands’. Which is almost all the stories. So yeah, probably worth a read. Scary? Not really. Entertaining and thought-provoking? Definitely.