Waiting For Mr Right by Andrew Taylor

The full title of this collection of three short stories is Waiting For Mr Right & Other Sinister Stories and it is an ideal book to read for Carl’s R.I.P Challenge – reading books of a macabre and fantastical nature .

Andrew Taylor writes in his introduction to this collection that ‘short stories permit concentration, the ability to focus on a single idea,’ I like the good ones for just that reason, but more often than not when I read some short stories I’m left feeling ‘oh, so what’ – they can be trivial and unsatisfying. Not so with this collection, because these are very good stories. Taylor also writes:

Unfortunately, good short stories are also incredibly difficult to write. Each word counts for more than a word in a full-length novel; each word costs more to write. Short stories may be short but they make a author sweat blood.

He has succeeded in my opinion. These cleverly written stories work on two levels – they are works of fantasy that made me both amused and chilled; they present a different form of ‘reality’.

The first story, Waiting For Mr Right,  is set in the cemetery of Kensal Vale where a remarkably well-educated creature lives and is the narrator, telling the tale of Jack and Tracy. Jack is in hiding in the vault of the Makepiece family, which has a Bateson’s Belfry – a Victorian invention that enabled you to summon help if you’d been buried alive. The ending is both horrific and well, amusingly satisfying.

The second slightly less sinister story is perhaps not quite as good as the first one. It is Nibble-Nibble, but it is still an entertaining story about a little boy and his imaginary friend, John – or is he really a ghost? The little boy lives with his Aunt and Uncle. Then his Granny comes to stay and she doesn’t believe in ghosts, but ghosts are like people, or so John says – there are some you like and some you don’t. The little boy realises:

Normally grannies were meant to be nice and ghosts were meant to be scary. Why did it have to be the other way round for me? Why couldn’t I be like everyone else?

I think the final story is the best. It’s called Keeping My Head. It was written for an anthology celebrating the eightieth birthday of the late H R F Keating, a former president of the Detection Club.

The narrator is an old lady looking back over the events of her life – and her death. I can’t write much about it or I’ll be giving away too much. I’ll just say that her husband was having an affair and she decided to kill him, but it all went wrong. When she was fifteen a tinker told her fortune and warned her that although she was going to have a long life and would be known around the world she must always ‘beware of keeping her head‘. She was a heedless girl and soon forgot the tinker.

Broken Voices by Andrew Taylor

I like Andrew Taylor’s books, so when I saw this novella on Kindle I downloaded it anticipating a good read. Broken Voices is a ghost story set in an East Anglian cathedral city just before the First World War when two schoolboys are left at the cathedral school during the Christmas holidays. They lodge with Mr Ratcliffe, a semi-retired schoolmaster, a bachelor now in his seventies who lived with Mordred, his malevolent cat, in a grace-and-favour house granted to him by the Dean and chapter of the cathedral.

Andrew Taylor has drawn both the setting in the Fens and the atmosphere of the times well. The two boys, both upset at being left at school have little to occupy themselves with and are entertained by the ghost stories that Mr Ratcliffe tells them. There was an ancient tragedy connected with the cathedral bells, the tower and a Canon who had been commissioned to write an anthem to mark the occasion when the bells were recast. The cathedral is full of shifting shadows, and the bell tower is haunted by fragments of melody, which one of the boys can hear.

I didn’t find it that chilling, but the story does have a creepy atmosphere and a tension as the boys investigate the tower in the dead of night. It’s suitably ambiguous. It’s not spelled out and you can make your own decision – as one of the boys says at the beginning of the story, looking back forty years to the events he is relating:

Was there a ghost? Was there, in a manner of speaking, a murder?

Ask me these questions and I cannot answer a simple yes or no. I did not know at the time and now, more than forty years later, I am even less able to answer them.

I read this quickly. It may be just a bit predictable, but none the less I enjoyed it for what it is – a ghost story told with eloquence and sufficient pace to build up the suspense and keep me entertained to the end.