The Faber Stories collection is a fascinating project – a single short story or two packaged as little, compact books, which as I wrote before, are akin to wine tasting where you want to sample a sip before deciding to go in for a bottle. It’s how I discovered the joy of Claire Keegan’s writing through her poignant story The Forester’s Daughter, as well as another terrific tale called Paradise written by Edna O’ Brien, whose work I had never read before. Mr Salary by Sally Rooney was also excellent and now to these stellar books I add Celia Fremlin’s Ghostly Stories.
My first brush with Celia Fremlin’s work was through her marvellous, unsettling novel – The Hours Before Dawn – which portrayed the travails of early motherhood with that extra dash of suspense.
There is something similar at play here, in this collection called Ghostly Stories that in keeping with the Faber Stories format focuses on two tales, each centred on a house.
A hint of discreet violence is palpable in the first story, “The Hated House”, as our protagonist Lorna, a young woman of sixteen, enters her home. Lorna’s hatred and contempt for her home is loud and striking and immediately hooks the reader from the first page…
Now that she had it to herself, Lorna felt that she could almost enjoy hating her home so much. She flung her school coat and beret on to the sofa, dumped her satchel down in the middle of the floor, and watched with satisfaction as the books and papers spilled out over her mother’s spotless, well vacuumed carpet. It was nice to be able to mess it up like that, without risk of reprimand. She gazed round the neat, firelit room with contempt.
Lorna can’t stand the hypocrisy latent within her family. Her mother’s insistence on a neat and clean home bordering on fanaticism is in sharp contrast to her relationship with her husband; the couple constantly bickers and argues. The house may be the epitome of order, but their marriage is rife with chaos and unhappiness.
When Lorna enters her house she is immediately relieved and a tad bit excited. It is one of those evenings when her parents are away and she relishes the prospect of spending not the just the evening but also the night alone.
Ah, but this was the life! Lorna slid yet deeper and more luxuriously into the cushioned depths of the chair. Tea when she liked; supper when she liked; homework when she liked; music when she liked. Lorna’s eyes turned with lazy anticipation towards the pile of pop records stacked under the record player.
We are given brief details of Lorna’s parents early on – the father is a tyrant always yelling at the mother, and the latter unable to stand for herself seeks refuge in meticulous cleaning and tidying. Lorna loves annoying her Dad who later vents his frustration at the mother, and Lorna detests her mother’s meek attitude and for putting up with his bullying.
It’s misery-polish that Mummy puts on everything, it’s dishonesty polish, trying to make this look like a happy home when it isn’t! It’s because she’s too cowardly, too much of a doormat, to stand up to Daddy’s tempers, so she tidies the house instead… I bet she’s tidied the kitchen even better than usual today, just because she’s nervous about leaving me alone! She thinks tidiness is a substitute for everything!
As Lorna settles into a blissful evening of solitude immersed in her music records, the lamps lit and blazing fire imparting warmth and an aura of coziness, she experiences a state of utter contentment and joy. But then this idyll is shattered by the persistent ringing of the telephone followed by the visit of a strange girl. This is a brilliant tale, a wonderful blend of the eerie with the mundane, its core theme being the burden of a toxic marriage on women and its impact on the entire family unit.
The second story, “The New House”, is from the first person point of view and is narrated by a middle-aged woman called Madge.
Madge begins her unnerving tale with an account of her niece Linda, who is her late sister Angela’s daughter. We learn that Linda came to stay with Madge when she was barely a girl of twelve. Madge has always been anxious about Linda; she was never particularly a robust girl, her frail constitution always a cause for worry.
And yet, Madge admits that the unexplainable dread assailing her over the past few weeks has nothing to do with Linda’s health. Linda is now a grown woman about to be married to a nice enough young man and the couple is now engrossed in building their new home.
But one gusty September evening, the autumn season in full force, Madge who is otherwise a strong, stoic woman feels an all pervading tiredness descend upon her even after a normal hard day of work, and along with that an indefinable foreboding.
The dampness and the autumn dusk seemed to have crept into my very soul, bringing their darkness with them.
A hot cup of tea and a warm glowing stove fail to assuage her fears. And to make matters worse, when she goes to sleep she is haunted by nightmares that vaguely hint at some sort of danger confronting Linda.
It was late afternoon in my dream, and the pale rainy light gleamed on her (Linda’s) flaxen-pale hair making it look almost metallic-a sort of shining grey.
And as I watched her, I began to feel afraid. She looked so tiny, and thin, and unprotected; her fair, childlike head seemed poised somehow so precariously on her white neck-even her absorption in the painting seemed in my dream to add somehow to her peril. I opened my mouth to warn her- of I know not what – but I could make no sound, as is the way of dreams.
With a subsequent brief glimpse into a family secret that could have terrible consequences, “The New House” is a disconcerting, chilling tale of jealousy, doomed love and repressed feelings where the skills of Fremlin’s storytelling shines through.
In both these concise works, Fremlin is in supreme command of her craft. These are short, sharp tales of great psychological depth, tales of domestic horror where the fears and perceived sense of threat comes not from otherworldly beings but from real people who are close to the protagonists.
Thwarted love, toxic relationships, how the ghosts of the past come back to haunt us in the present, and a succinct look into women’s lives are themes that vividly come alive on these pages. Both the stories are a perfect amalgam of mood and atmosphere – the dusky autumn evenings, the chill of the rains form a stark background to the well-lit cozy rooms that lulls you into a false sense of well-being, but where the menace is lurking on the periphery. At barely 40 pages in the Faber edition, this compact gem can be read in the course of an afternoon and thus very apt for the last day of October that is Halloween.