Ghost tale anthologies are always a mixed bag: a few tasty, grisly chillers to spike an otherwise tepid punch bowl of lackluster stories included to plump up the book and appease the publisher. "Meddling with Ghosts" provides no exception to the rule, but British horror grandmaster Ramsey Campbell keeps an exceptionally tight focus to his collection and consequently serves up the a few rare, ghoulish treasures amidst the fodder.
Campbell ("Alone with the Horrors", "The Hungry Moon") is a horror-fiction giant in a landscape ridden with dwarves, and the best of his own writing has always drawn on the stylistic and thematic qualities of fellow English ghost-writer Montague Rhodes James, provost of Cambridge and Eton and a genius at crafting the true tale of the unsettling and bizarre.
James has no equal in English letters when it comes to brewing up a terrifying tale, and : a common theme is the scholarly bachelor loner who, drawn to some remote locale, or forgotten tome, or garden folly found in his newly inheireted country home, stumbles on some ancient, reticent, mouldering secret thing and unleashes something unpleasant. Unpleasant for the bachelor-scholar-hero, that is---but gloriously fun for you, tucked under the bedclothes with the cat in the wee hours of the morning. With that in mind, "Meddling with Ghosts" assumes the reader has ample affection for James; if you haven't gotten a taste of M.R. James yet, then at the very least go read "Count Magnus", "Oh Whistle and I'll come to you, My Lad" and "Casting the Runes" to get a taste for the Old Master before you fork over lucre for this worshipful collection.
Campbell sets up a few ground rules, all of them Jamesian: the stories in "Meddling" must involve malignant spirits, true horror, and an attention to historical detail. And James, more than any other horror writer, was a master when it came to conjuring up the truly unsettling, the brain-rattlingly wrong, with a minimum of prose. Stephen King has written "whenever possibly, I try to terrify---but when I can't terrify, I go for the gross-out." James never had to settle for the gross-out, for his writing never fails to terrify.
Campbell opens up with a puzzlingly brief introduction, which is terse but tastily creepy and appropriately sets the mood. "The Familiar", the first tale in the collection, is a rare piece by J. Sheridan LeFanu, but a few spooky bits aside was too dry to get my blood flowing. F. Marion Crawford's "The Upper Berth" is a rousing tale of spectral nastiness, but it really isn't very Jamesian, has been anthologized a million times, and you've probably read it by now. "Let Loose", "Death Mask", "The Red House", and "The Moon Gazer" are grindingly dull, and "Thurnley Abbey", while fleetingly spooky, is the ghost-tale equivalent of going out for Japanese food: 15 minutes later and you'll be hungry again.
But there are supple, scary treasures here. "Petey", by the inimitable T.E.D. Klein, is intensely Jamesian and frankly terrifying, and will have you making sure the curtains are pulled tight. Sabine Baring-Gould's "Glamr" is only scantly Jamesian, and yet is, in my opinion, not Jamesian at all, but I confess a weakness for terror tales from the Scandinavian mountains, and besides---once you read it you'll understand---as bad a troll as the awful Glamr is, how much more nasty is the unnamed dead thing that killed him out in the frozen wastes beneath the mountain?
The two best tales in "Meddling" are worth the price of admission alone: Campbell apprentice Terry Lamsley's "Two Returns" accomplished the twofold task of freezing my blood cold (his story is a masterwork of icy grue) and introducing me to his work, and Campbell's own "The Guide", omitted from his larger collection "Alone with the Horrors", is archetypically Jamesian, and centers on the all-too-curious author himself and---well, an *admirer*.
Campbell finishes off the collection with Rose Pardoe's scrupulously detailed bibliography of ghost-tale writers who have incorporated Jamesian elements, all tasty stuff to be sure and thoroughly researched.
So if you're still wrestling with yourself as to whether you should buy it, wrestle no further and give in. Settle in beneath the covers, turn down the lamp, listen to the wind howl and the tree branches fumble and claw at your bedroom window, and settle in to "Petey" or "The Guide". What's a few pence compared to a night of pleasant terror, anyway? You'll be glad you meddled.