Saturday, 6 January 2018

Between the Minute and the Hour

A.M. Burrage
Herbert Jenkins

I've been stumbling across various Burrage shorts for the last few years - mostly 'Playmates' and 'Smee' but others too - and invested in a copy of his occult detective stories 'The Occult Files of Francis Chard' and I've pretty much loved them all.  This 1960s collection of some of his ghostly tales has been sitting around on eBay for a while now beckoning and flaunting it's unearthly wiles and I was finally pushed beyond temptation when they dropped the price a few quid.

The big pull for me here was the presence of 'Playmates' a story I never get tired of re-reading and which makes me smile everytime but it turned out that the goodies contained within were many.

The book opens strongly with a fun little oddity from which the book draws it's name that sees a shop keeper receive some disproportionate retribution from a fairly uppity gypsy beggar woman before everything gets very dark indeed for a recuperating chartered accountant in the shadow of 'The Hawthorne Tree'.

'Playmates' is next with it's story of a bookish old man and his neglected ward finding their own lives amongst those who lost theirs.  'The Affair at Paddock Cross' is a rather silly follow up tale of circular history or possibly just a fever dream and then 'The Waxwork' which always struck me as a competently written but ultimately daft story of an overactive imagination.

'The Ivory Gods', 'The Green Scarf' and 'The Captain's Watch' all tell stories of items well hidden and the ghosts attached to them.  Of the three it's the second that is the more powerful with it's air of invading, relentless terror.  The first is an amusing dalliance and the last a fairly light tale that borrows a key aspect of it's plot from the Robert Hichens classic 'How Love Came to Professor Guildea'.

The much anthologised 'Smee' and it's ghostly party always reminds me of the 'Christmas Party' segment of 'Dead of Night' a film I've loved since childhood and so can't really read it that other one echoing in my head. 

Trees with unorthodox root nourishment make a second appearance in 'The Oak Saplings' a vividly written but essentially obvious tale of ghostly retribution which gives way to a far more powerfully realised tale of the same in 'One Who Saw'. 

Burrage once again goes for the heart with 'The Garden in Glenister Square'.  It's a story of a life ending and a love realised that tells of a good man refusing to give way to hate even in the face of betrayal and loss and it's quite lovely.

'The Gambler's Room' is an odd take on the idea of possession - by a habit rather than a spirit - that for me never quite took off perhaps because the injured party who we meet at it's beginning seems, well, happy with his circumstances.  The book ends with a fairly traditional haunted house story in 'Browdean Farm' which does give a little twist to the form at it's end.

As I said earlier, even tempted as I was I took sometime in deciding to grab this book.  From what I'd read before I kind of knew it was going to be readable at the very least with the potential of being very good indeed and in the end it proved to be somewhere in the middle.  Burrage was a writer with a strong, personable and enjoyable style and his ideas could be poignant and disturbing.  His tales are straight forwardly told but often manage to raise a chill or two. 

I am, at the final reckoning, very glad I invested in this.  I bought the book specifically to have a nice old hardback copy of 'Playmates' but in the end got so much more.

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