The Ghost Club: Newly Found Tales of Victorian Terror
Crystal Lake Publishing
I can only imagine how difficult a challenge it must be for an author to write a story in the voice and style of another author, especially one that has the fame, popularity and fanbase to remain popular across decades, if not centuries; writers such as Conan Doyle, Twain, Tolstoy, Stoker or Kipling. Hew too closely to their style and mannerisms and you will undoubtedly be labelled as a writer of ‘pastiches’ in a vaguely sneering manner by a certain type of fan or purist; go too far the other way, in an attempt to interpret that writer in another context or another manner, and you will be just as surely criticised as ‘not respecting the writer’ or ‘failing to understand’ them. It is therefore a precarious tightrope act to undertake, constantly needing to balance an innate understanding of that author’s writing style, voice, attitudes and cultural context, while simultaneously attempting to inject sufficient originality and vigour into the tale being written to ensure it doesn’t come across as merely a pale copy of the original author’s canon. I cannot imagine doing it even once, and yet in The Ghost Club: Newly Found Tales of Victorian Terror, author William Meikle not only attempts this feat once, he does so a total of fourteen times, taking on some of the finest and most famous writers of the Victorian era – and succeeds in an incredibly impressive feat of writing.
The fictional context behind the tales found in this fantastic anthology is the idea that a trio of British and American authors – Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry James, and Bram Stoker – decided to found a ‘literary dining club’ where only the greatest of their contemporaries would be invited. A tremendous feast, with the finest food and liquors, would be produced each time the dining club met – and the price of the invitation was for each attendee, in turn, to write and perform a fictional tale that would, in some context, be both supernatural and terrifying. A manuscript would also be provided by each author, and these were collected up by Conan Doyle and transcribed into a bound collection, which for reasons unknown remained hidden in a dusty cupboard in London’s Criterion Club, until it fell into receivership and its assets were inventoried.
This is a brilliant idea which I’m surprised hasn’t actually been done before, and the resulting title is a credit to both Mr Meikle and his publishers – not only are there fourteen unique, engaging and incredibly well-written tales within the collection, but Crystal Lake Publishing commissioned a fantastic piece of cover art by Ben Baldwin (www.benbaldwin.co.uk) that immediately draws attention to the title; members of the dining club lounge in comfortable-looking armchairs, while ethereal spirits and skeletons arc above them. I cannot overstate how important the cover art is to me, as a reader, for noticing a title as I scroll through the endless lists of titles on marketplaces such as Amazon, and this immediately drew me in; combined with a sensible layout and a high quality of copy-editing and proofing that failed to show up the usual errors and typos that usually plague titles from small presses (and often far larger ones), I was enjoying The Ghost Club before I had even started actually reading the tales themselves.
I called this anthology an impressive feat of writing by the author, and I truly mean that – I have read almost all of Mr Meikle’s published fiction over the years, and I believe that this may actually be the (current) pinnacle of his skills as an author. Each of the fourteen tales contained within this collection provide a unique voice and story, and while I cannot claim to have read tales from all of the authors represented, I think that I have read enough to say that they all seem to manage that difficult combination of sounding both authentic and original. They are also, as the title of the collection suggests, genuinely terrifying at times. Wee Davie Makes a Friend, written in the style of Robert Louis Stevenson, is the story of a sickly child and his prized wooden toy soldier, and features an ending that was genuinely unsettling to me as a parent. In The House of the Dead, supposedly by Bram Stoker, is not only a subtly insidious tale of heart-break, and the lengths a grieving spouse might take to reunite with their loved ones, but also an excellent introduction to Mr Meikle’s own Sigil and Totems Mythos, which provides an underpinning to a great many of his titles. Once a Jackass is a short but darkly amusing tale by Mark Twain about the occult consequences of cheating in the gambling deck of a paddle steamer, and The Angry Ghost is an Oscar Wilde tale that genuinely had me laughing by the end of it. Mr Meikle also writes an excellent Henry Rider Haggard tale (The Black Ziggurat) that reminded me of his own novella, The Ravine, which also features a small band of adventurers finding their way into a lost civilization; and The Scrimshaw Set, in the style of Henry James, is a chilling tale of obsession and aquatic revenge.
However, the tale that I enjoyed the most by far was the closing story, The Curious Affair on the Embankment, written as Conan Doyle. Mr Meikle has written a number of excellent stories based on Conan Doyle’s characters, including Sherlock Holmes and Challenger, and they are some of his finest works. Yet although this tale is set in the Holmes canon, it does not actually feature that great detective and, paradoxically, that is why I enjoyed it the most. I have always had a thing for the underdog characters in the Conan Doyle tales, the often two-dimensional characters who supported Holmes and Challenger, and felt that their tales would often have been just as interesting, if only they had been told. Inspector Lestrade is one of those supporting characters, and in The Curious Affair on the Embankment, Meikle gives Lestrade the freedom to star front and centre in his own occult mystery tale, one which involves a series of mysterious disappearances and whatever links to the looming bulk of Cleopatra’s Needle in London. By the time I had finished the story I wanted more, and would love to see a collection where Lestrade, Greggson and even Watson are given time to tell their stories.
In conclusion, The Ghost Club: Newly Found Tales of Victorian Terror is a triumph for Mr Meikle and Crystal Lake Publishing, and should find its way onto the shelves of any self-respecting fan of ghost stories, terrifying tales, and Mr Meikle’s own writing.