Ginger Nuts of Horror
Review by Stewart Horn
Many authors to have a distinctive voice and explore recurrent themes in their fiction, or have a prose style recognisable and reassuring for the reader. William Meikle is not one of those authors. I have read and enjoyed much of his fiction before, but his scope seems as wide as the horror genre can be, from subtle ghost stories to apocalyptic science fiction, vampire stories to trashy big bug novels in the style of a 1970s Guy N. Smith. He effortlessly adjusts his prose to suit the style and period of whatever he's working on.
The original Carnacki appeared in a series of short stories by Edwardian writer William Hope Hodgson. Carnacki is presented as a well-to-do gentleman living in lodgings in London, very much an heir to Sherlock Holmes but with the supernatural edge that Conan Doyle avoided. The original collection was a childhood favourite of mine and is still on a bookcase somewhere in my house.
Meikle's collection fits in nicely and complements the original tales, using the same framing technique and convincingly mimicking Hodgson's style and characters. The result is a very mixed bunch of tales, but all great fun to read.
The opening story is The Photographer's Friend, in which a photographer's work is ruined by a strange creature appearing in every photograph he takes, looking more corporeal each time. It sets the tone nicely and establishes the unsettling fact that Carnacki's success rate is less than 100% and his clients do not always survive.
Fins in the Fog is a creepy and atmospheric piece in which a sailor is haunted by the ghosts of a family of sharks he killed. They are not even confined to water but can swim through the London fog.
The Cheyne Walk Infestation is one to avoid if you don't like creepy-crawlies as one of Carnacki's supper parties is interrupted by ghostly many-legged beasties.
In An Unexpected Delivery an ancient amulet contains a curse that spells death for whoever opens it, a fact that Carnacki discovers soon after opening it himself.
A little more light hearted is A Sticky Wicket, featuring a cricket pitch which seems always to favour the opposing team. It's less intense and creepy than some of the others and pokes fun at cricket enthusiasts and gentlemen of a certain age. As if to overcompensate, he follows it with The King's Treasure, a rip-roaring adventure set in the North Sea and probably the scariest in the collection. It's followed by another creepy nautical tale Mr. Churchill's Surprise¸ set on a haunted German U-boat and featuring a little musing on how we shift our morality during wartime.
The title story, The Edinburgh Townhouse, is by contrast rather sweet, and stars a dashing young hero who succeeds in his romantic quest. Love, it seems, is as effective a defence against the outer dark as any of Carnacki's tools.
A Night in the Storeroom begins with a gruesome death and is set in the basement of The British Museum, and is as creepy as you would expect. And in the cracking final story Into the Light, Carnacki has to protect Winston Churchill from a demon in a pub basement.
Every story contains numerous references to food, alcohol and tobacco, usually along the lines of "a wholesome mutton stew" or "a fine Scotch", and you can sense Carnacki's disappointment when he has to suffer "a quick supper of cold ham, meat and cheese" before collecting his electric pentacle and battling with creatures from the outer darkness. All the characters are male, and if anyone has a wife it's not considered interesting enough to talk about, yet it doesn't come across as misogynistic so much as a comment on the superficiality of male friendships.
All in all, bally good fun, one to enjoy with sitting round the fireplace with the chaps, a glass good aged port in hand.
CARNACKI operates in shadowy occult realms, on the fringes of science, in places out of sight and out of mind of normal everyday people. But sometimes the darkness touches the lives of others in ways they cannot understand, and they find they need help - the kind of help that only Carnacki can provide.
In MR. CHURCHILL'S SURPRISE and INTO THE LIGHT Carnacki is called on to help a young Winston Churchill investigate a strangely empty German U-Boat captured in the North Sea, and in dispelling something that is lingering in a London inn that was home to a club of gentlemen seeking illicit pleasures and a path to power.