- Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, I Can Row a Boat, Canoe?
- Ghost Dinosaurs
- Fonz Pond
- Life on Mars
- Snow (Hey-Oh)
Sam and Andy are on a class trip to a railway station. They’re forced to work together on their project even though they hate each other, you know the drill. Sam, whose membership of the Self-Preservation Society expired last week, breaks into a boarded-up tunnel despite a sign warning the public to keep out. We get a bit of backstory: the tunnel caved in while some railway workers were conducting repairs there, and most of the workers were killed. The supervisor on duty was Andy’s uncle, who was blamed for the deaths of his workers and also died from injuries sustained in the collapse.
Andy goes into the tunnel to look for Sam, who has got his foot pinned under a slimy green rock (which, it is hinted, might actually be part of some eldritch abomination haunting the tunnel but that is never explored any further.) Andy tries to free Sam but this causes a rockslide that injures him even further. Anyway, the ghost of Andy’s uncle appears and gets Sam out. Andy tries to thank him but realises that the ghost has been re-enacting the events that happened when he and his workers were killed. Andy’s comforted by the knowledge that his uncle died a hero and didn’t abandon his friends.
You’re a Really Useful Engine, ghost uncle guy.
Now, this story is not that bad. It’s quite touching even if not scary. The problem is that it uses a format Anthony Masters has revisited several times, sometimes multiple times in one book. You could pretty much fill in a template and write your own:
Protagonist name? Louise
Protagonist age? (Auto-fill: 10-12, same as the book’s target audience)
Exotic location for the protagonist to stay in? Stately home in Scotland
Ghost the protagonist meets? Servant girl from the Victorian era
Tragedy the protagonist sees re-enacted and tries to avert? The girl killing herself and her newborn son because the baby’s father refused to marry her.
Bittersweet ending: Louise doesn’t stop the ghost, but when she learns that her parents are getting divorced, the ghost saves Louise from killing herself and her brother. This really throws off the story: it’s implied that there’s some kind of force haunting the room, which compelled the girl to commit a murder-suicide and possesses Louise to do the same, but this is never made clear nor explained and is just thrown in at the end. Isn’t that, you know, a fairly important detail of the plot?
The Black Hunt
Megan’s dad is a raving Welsh nationalist, who accuses their English neighbours of poisoning his sheep. Even though it’s pretty obvious that the culprit is Megan’s uncle, her dad still blames them just because he hates the English. The family’s ancestor is some kind of wizard who also hated the English, so her dad summons a parade of ghost “riders” on horses who, led by the wizard, go over to the English people’s house and kill them. It’s not specified how – Megan just goes over there and finds them dead, but with no marks on them. That bit is creepy, and the description of the ghostly horsemen is effective and atmospheric; but the story lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. Maybe because Megan’s dad is so petty? This kind of story is best suited to a backdrop of centuries-old Romeo and Juliet-style family feuds or something, not a pissed-off xenophobe grumbling about foreigners and sheep.
Narrated by Jamie, who claims his dad heard this story at a psychiatric hospital in Manhattan. Pull the other one etc. The canyon of the title is not the Grand Canyon, but a narrow side-street between the skyscrapers in New York. Are those actually called canyons? I know nothing about the USA or New York.
Vincent’s family runs a deli in one of the “canyons.” It is constantly subject to extreme weather and the deli begins losing business; all the buildings are very damaged and no one will come down the street. One day, Vincent meets a homeless guy who warns him to “leave” or die. Vincent realises he saw this guy around begging just a few weeks ago, but the man somehow looks a lot more decrepit now … I wonder why? Anyway, Vincent doesn’t take the warning seriously, but over the next few weeks, the man continues to warn him: that there’ll be “a big bang” because “it’s anniversary time” and Vincent will “fly through the air like a bat out of hell.”
Possible casting for the Anthony Masters movie.
Vincent discovers that 25 years previously, the whole street was destroyed in a bombing. Most of the buildings were owned by an asshole who charged sky-high rents and let the place get infested with rats. The residents tried to kill him but somehow managed to blow up their own houses, while the landlord survived. Vincent realises it took place on today’s exact date … and the time was … ten minutes later than now!
He rushes home to warn his family but a whirlwind has started up, and glass is raining down from the broken windows of the skyscrapers. Vincent uses a metal dustbin lid as a shield and gets his family to shelter under a concrete awning, but the homeless guy tells Vincent it’s not safe there. Despite the fact that the homeless guy isn’t getting hurt, and that he is invisible to Vincent’s parents, Vincent still doesn’t get it. Vincent pulls his parents out of the way just as the awning collapses. They all shelter under the dustbin lid (that’s a mighty impressive lid) and make it safely back to the main street just as the wind is dying down. The homeless guy waves at Vincent, then disappears.
The next day, Vincent tries to tell the police what happened. They claim they found the homeless guy’s body just this morning and he’d been dead for weeks – so he couldn’t possibly have been around last night. Vincent later learns from a news article that the man was the landlord who was the target of the bombing. Vincent marvels at how the guy fell on hard times and became homeless and knew how poor people felt and was finally able to be at peace after saving a family who lived just where his tenants used to. Yeah, this ending would work better had the author not felt the need to spell that out for us.
Jill and Tracy are staying with their grandmother, who’s terminally ill and has been sent to die at home. Her house is on the site of what used to be an airfield in WWII, when her husband Steve was killed after he crashed his plane onto the airfield. Now she seems to be reliving the past, and keeps saying “Steve’s coming in.” She thinks Steve will be all right, because he keeps his lucky cricket ball in the cockpit with him. But obviously she is forgetting that he got killed.
Jill’s woken in the night by the sound of aircraft. Then Tracy runs screaming that a plane is about to crash into the house. Jill can’t see any plane but Tracy takes her outside where, surprise, the area is now an airfield again. And there is a plane about to crash! The girls realise they’ve gone back in time. The house isn’t there now, so they have no way to get back. They witness their grandfather’s plane go down in flames, then the scene before them fades and they find themselves back in the present day. They spot a charred cricket ball on the street and realise it must be Steve’s. The girls go back indoors and plan to give the ball to their grandmother, but when they wake up the next morning she has already died. Their mother passes on Granny’s last words: that Steve did come in with his cricket ball after all. Well, he always did come in, he just didn’t do it alive?
The book ends with someone’s dad coming in, finding that all the kids are still awake, and suggesting they tell ghost stories to get to sleep. Why yes, this book would make an effective sleep aid. Not to mention that because the book didn’t begin with the usual opener, we still do not know where these children are or why they are staying there?
I’ve made my view on this one quite clear: It’s pretty bad. The stories are dull, repetitive and formulaic; while they’re pretty standard for Masters, there is a distinct feeling that by this stage the author just couldn’t be bothered. Maybe that’s just me projecting my dissatisfaction onto the book but, no, I think there is a definite divide in quality between this, versus earlier books like Horror Stories to Tell in the Dark which did manage a few actual scares. It seems like the author had a limited perception of the ghost story genre in itself? Most of these stories are just variations on the theme of ghosts being echoes of the past that are forced to constantly replay the events of their lives. Only “The Haunted Weir” and “The Black Hunt” really entertain the idea of ghosts as a threat to the living, and some of the stories feature only the briefest of appearances from a ghost.
Body Count: Ed – Eaten by ghost dinosaur. I can’t believe I had to type that.
Tim and Rhona Watson – Murdered by ghosts apparently
That’s it, no one else dies who wasn’t already dead
Questionable Parenting: Daniel’s parents know something’s up at the weir, so they warn their son to stay away from it, yet don’t tell him there’s a murderous ghost after him. They don’t move house until after the ghost has already made repeated attempts to kill him.
Best Use of Imagery: Sam’s foot was caught under a moss-covered rock that felt unpleasantly animal-like to the touch – as if a large green cat were crouching menacingly over its victim.
VC Andrews Alert: Ed is a blatant love interest for Helen (of the sulky asshole type that appeals to Twilight fans.) This wouldn’t be a problem, except they’re cousins. Maybe it’s just as well he was eaten by a dinosaur …
Freedom of the Presses: In “Canyon”, the death of the former landlord is reported with mocking glee, with lines like “Looks like time finally caught up with this old skinflint property owner.” Are you allowed to write about someone that way in the NYC news? I mean, I guess he didn’t have a family left to sue them, but still?
Foot in Mouth Disease: Jane’s reluctant to skate on a frozen pond because it’s how her sister died, so she doesn’t stay on the ice for long. Her friend says at least Jane “broke the ice” and then has to stand there cringing and apologising while Jane cries. At least she didn’t make that godawful penguin joke I suppose.
Next up: If anyone’s reading this, you decide! Shall I finish the series with Werewolf Stories to Tell in the Dark? Or shall I move on to a little palate-cleanser?