'The Hidden Chamber'
This is a nice little piece that evokes the Bluebeard story effectively, while at the same time lifting it out of the expected gothic realm. We anticipate all the trappings and are instead offered washing machines and other mundane objects (which might nevertheless be rather useful for disposing of unwanted traces). Hidden chambers have developed resonances since Gaiman wrote the story, and we've become more aware that even the most prosaic suburban settings might house hidden horrors. Gaiman's known that all the time, of course, always having seen the skull beneath the skin.
'Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire'
My favourite of this week's stories is a real gem - I love the fantastically overwritten sections with their "little" jokes, several of which I'm still chuckling over. This narrative-within-narrative is like a series of Monty Python sketches, always spilling over into farce no matter how hard the young writer tries to avoid it. Meanwhile, the "outer" story, tackling its subject with a subtler humour, reminds me of Thurber's fairytales, and I can think of no higher recommendation:
Strange, scuttling things gibbered and cheetled in the black drapes at the end of the room, and high in the gloomy oak beams, and behind the wainscoting, but they made no answer. He had expected none.I get a frisson of delight from "cheetled"...
The two threads really flow into each other with the interjection of the raven (and don't you just love the raven?) but the story's construction remains most unusual, with two streams of "reality" which raise all sorts of questions, such as why the families were cursed in the first place, or what the "unusual circumstances" which brought Ethel the maid to the house were. I could happily have read more of this inspired lunacy, but it's a wise author who knows when enough is enough. Apparently, he shortened the title to the one given here...
'The Flints of Memory Lane'
I do like the way Gaiman resolutely keeps to something that's not story-shaped. He could have made it much more so but, as it is, it reminds us that we do from time to time see things we can't readily explain - and afterwards we may not even be sure how much of what we've seen is real. Memory is a tricksy thing at best, and if we start to question the detail of what we saw, we may end up questioning the whole experience. In such circumstances it's best not to try to make too much sense out of it, to force it into a story mould.
I've always liked the stories of M.R. James, even though they do rather fall into the category of "bad things happening for no reason" that I complained about in my last post. It's partly because they also follow the rather successful formula of everyone sitting around (in a club, or after dinner) and one speaker relating a tale, a device also used successfully by Agatha Christie and Robertson Davies - there's something about the gathering of people which draws you into the circle, yet releases you at the end to go out into the crisp, cold night and home to comfort with the other listeners - the stories are made doubly safe by that extra distancing. So this rather nasty little story reaches us at a remove, while following the proper Jamesian conventions of the club setting, the mysterious stranger and the lingering doubt about what exactly has taken place.