The late Robertson Davies is perhaps best known for his works of heady literature. Some of the most well-known works by him are "Fifth Business", "The Manticore", "What's Bred in the Bone" and "Murther and Walking Spirits." Most readers of Davies will know him first and foremost as an author and second as a scholar of Elizabethan theatre; "Shakespeare's Boy Actors" is but one of his more academic works on the subject.
However, most Americans do not know of the years that Davies was the Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto in Canada. While there, it became his habit to tell a ghost story every year for the college's Christmas staff party. Thirteen of these ghostly (yet often quite hysterical stories) are contained here. Beginning with the first, "Revelation from a Smoky Fire", in which Davies is visited by an apparition who seems to be from the college's FUTURE, and moving on through "The Ugly Spectre of Sexism" and "The Pit Whence Ye Are Digged", these ghost tales are far less horrific and spooky than they are highly amusing. For example, when dealing with the sudden appearance of what is most likely a ghost that has appeared in his own office and, furthermore, assumes that Davies has come down the chimney, he writes, "I grasped immediately the sort of man I was dealing with. This was a madman! It is one of my cardinal rules to always humor madmen. It comes second nature to me. I do it several times each day."
These stories, like much of Davies's work, is highly scholarly, with a turn of phrase and vocabulary that often verges on that seen in Victorian English novels. People who have read a great deal, or who have gone to graduate school in the fine arts or for literature, will catch the subtle barbs and digs that Davies directs at the ivory tower nature of academia and even himself as Master of the college. The stories were first intended to be read aloud for an academic audience of professors, so they are meant more to amuse and tickle the wit than to accompany the more traditional Halloween stories or his other novels or scholarly works.
Potential readers should note that there was at one time an audio version of this book published with an introduction by the author with the reading performed by Christopher Plummer. As I understand it, this audio version is currently out of print. This is a dreadful shame because Mr. Plummer gives an exceptional performance of Mr. Davies's work. Also, as mentioned, these stories were intended to be read aloud for a gathering of people on an evening, and what could be better than HEARING these ghostly tales?? If anyone finds themselves enjoying these stories, they would be well advised to track down the audio version!
Canada lost a fine writer, critic, playwright and journalist in 1996 when Mr. Davies passed away. His books are still enjoyed today as much as ever, and for those who are seeking out a less heavy, light and amusing work by him, one simply cannot go wrong with "High Spirits." Highly recommended- by this Davies fan!!