At the beginning of the twentieth century, F. Marion Crawford was one of the most prolific, widely-read novelists of the English-speaking world--a sort of Sidney Sheldon of the Edwardian era. Now, his novels are banished to the musty shelves of old-fashioned romance and historical fiction, but his supernatural tales live on, most especially "The Upper Berth" and "The Screaming Skull."
Lee Weinstein has collected all eight of Crawford's supernatural stories, some of them gothic in the extreme, others oozing pathos. But this author was at his best when writing of the sea and its unforgiving dead. Many of his stories retain a place of honor in ghostly anthologies for their atmosphere of slowly-building horror. I am in agreement with Lee Weinstein when he says, "One can only regret that he did not write more of them."
"The Dead Smile"--A gothic tale of forbidden love and vengeance from beyond the tomb. We 21st century readers are a bit more used to dealing with the theme of incest, but when Crawford published this tale, it must have shocked many Victorian sensibilities. Incestuous hints abound. The evil, dying Sir Hugh Ockram, his son, and his son's fiancée all have the same hellish smile: "...She smiled--and the smile was like the shadow of death and the seal of damnation upon her pure, young face." The best scenes are in the vault below the castle, where the Lords of Ockram lie in burial shrouds, but not entombed.
"The Screaming Skull"--A doctor murders his wife by pouring molten lead in her ear. He dies mysteriously with his throat torn out. The old seaman who inherits the doctor's cottage also inherits a skull in a hat box. Something inside the skull rattles when he shakes it. When he tries to get rid of the skull, the screams begin.
"Man Overboard!"--This story was worth the price of the book for me, because I'd never seen it before, and it's a great ghost story. Just let the obscure nautical language flow past you, e.g. "I coiled down the mizzen-topsail downhaul myself, and was going aft to see how she headed up..." This is a story of identical twin brothers who both love the same woman. When they go to sea on the 'Boston Belle,' one brother is swept overboard during a storm and drowns--but somehow remains part of the crew. As is true in most supernatural stories featuring a wedding, the innocent bride meets a horrible fate.
"For the Blood is the Life"--I don't much care for vampire stories, but this one is wonderfully eerie. Two men are dining on the roof of an old tower-fortress on the Southern Italian coast. After moonrise, the guest sees a figure lying on a mound of earth near the tower and goes to investigate. When he returns, his host tells him the story of the grave-mound.
"The Upper Berth"--A business traveler who makes many Atlantic crossings secures a berth on the 'Kamchatka,' bound for Liverpool. He requests a room with a double bunk and is disappointed to learn that he will have a roommate in the upper berth. The first night of the voyage, his roommate runs screaming out of the small room and throws himself overboard. The business traveler learns that three other men who booked into room 105 have killed themselves in the same fashion, and he is determined to investigate.
"By the Waters of Paradise"--A gothic tale that has a happy ending for a change. A melancholy young man is raised by his superstitious Welsh nurse in an ancestral castle, surrounded by gardens and fountains. One night the old nurse sees "One--two leaden coffins, fallen from the ceiling!" Sure enough, his parents die, and the nurse tells her charge the story of the Woman of the Water. Will the new lord of Cairngorm be able to escape the curse?
"The Doll's Ghost"--An old man repairs a rich girl's doll and becomes so fond of it he can hardly bear to part with it. Finally, he instructs his young daughter to return the doll to its owner. The daughter doesn't return, but the doll does.
"The King's Messenger"--A man is seated between a lovely young girl and her beloved at a dinner party, and learns that his right-hand neighbor is the King's Messenger. After the girl disappears, he discovers what the man really does.