Acquainted With the Night
edited by Barbara Roden and Christopher
Ash-Tree Press (British Columbia, Canada), 384 pp.,
$48.50 cloth; $26.00 paper, 2004.
Press specializes in classic supernatural fiction. From the
village of Ashcroft in British Columbia, the husband-and-wife
team of Barbara and Christopher Roden keep the tales of E.
F. Benson, M. R. James, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, and H. R.
Wakefield, among others, in print. Readers of this journal
may be aware that Ash-Tree returned to print, in two handsome
volumes, the collected eerie stories of Russell Kirk. The
Wizard of Mecosta would have gotten along well with the book
publishers of Ashcroft, swapping strange yarns well into
the night and, later, filling his own converted factory of
a library with tomes from their catalog. The couple’s
main stock-in-trade is tending the lamp burning before the
monuments of the genre. Like Dr. Kirk, however, the Rodens
understand mere antiquarianism leads to a dead end; the lamp’s
light must also illuminate the path ahead. And so the couple
has committed themselves to bringing new talent, talent in
the spirit of James and Benson and Kirk, to the public’s
attention. In Acquainted with the Night, 27 writers
from across the English-speaking world demonstrate, with
imagination, intelligence, and wit, they can scare like the
The title is taken from Robert Frost’s poem. These
lines serve as the collection’s epigraph and organizing
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street
But not to call me back or say good-by;
And further still
at an unearthly height
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
been one acquainted with the night.
No one waits at home. Come nightfall, the lonely speaker
walks and walks, only to repeat his journey the next night.
A lost soul, he is “one acquainted with the night.” The
poem itself, in meter, calls to mind The Divine Comedy and,
in subject, The Inferno. The title for this collection
of ghostly stories is aptly chosen. Mind you, these are
no didactic enterprises. They are not even especially theological,
though the ghost story, with its glimpses of things spectral,
can’t help but tread in rooms trendy theologians have
long thought shut up. In one way or another, the characters
become “acquainted with the night”—and
much to their regret, for they stray into realms where
they are neither welcome nor, as flesh and blood, suited.
While undoubtedly eerie, these stories refrain from riding
the waves of blood that have all but sunk horror fiction.
The tales in Acquainted With the Night remind me
why such stories draw readers in the first place. In the
ghostly story, something intrudes upon the day-to-day and
this matter-in-motion world, or beckons the too curious.
Stephen King says the weird tale remains, no matter the thrills
and chills, optimistic in its underlying message: The grave
isn’t the end. Yet there has to be more to the genre’s
survival than feeding hopes that, at the end of our lives,
everything won’t cut to black. The stories confirm
and flesh out the odd incidents that many know first-hand,
but that a good deal of literature has turned askance at
for more than a century. How many of us haven’t spotted
something out of the corner of the eye? Seen or heard something
in the shadows that defies explanation? Or felt that a house
or stretch of country feels uncanny, or, more troubling,
oddly vile? That’s where this collection of stories
picks up and connects the dots.
From those dots, the reader makes out a clergyman whose
curiosity leads him to not a room, but a hell with a view;
a loquacious sailor who can see the dead; stranded travelers
who happen upon a welcoming country home, with a silent servant
and no owner in sight; a scholar convinced that death is
indeed a person (and, fittingly enough, an academic); and
a tailor for the deceased. “The Cross Talk” is
particularly compelling. A father has been short with his
19-year-old son; the boy isn’t shaping up, won’t
amount to anything. One day the father receives a call that
will haunt him for the rest of his life. The story demonstrates
there’s no need to turn the clock back to the dusty
corners of Victorian Britain; the uncanny can visit the here
and now just as easily—and, in some cases, more easily.
Author Rick Kennett makes good use of what, in ghost-hunting
circles, is called “electronic voice phenomena,” the
notion that the spirits of the dead occasionally find ways
to communicate, if only briefly, through electronic devices.
I cannot vouch for the notion, as only the inexplicable calls
I receive seem to originate from call centers in India. The
story, however, ably explores not only communication from
beyond but the communication between father and son.
If I had to pick one and only tale as a must-read, it would
have to be “Weird Furka,” set in the dying, blink-and-you-miss-it
town of Furka, Montana. On the local radio station, KADE,
Craig Watson hosts “an ambient / electronic / experimental
music show” from 1-4 a.m. Naturally, the show draws
no advertisers and probably few, if any, listeners. At that
ungodly hour, and alone in the station housed in an old hotel,
Watson explores to pass the time while “twenty-minute
compositions of water dripping, of string instruments recorded
inside vast underground caverns, of people’s voices
phased into a fold of noise, and phased back into conversation” fill
the airwaves. One night, he stumbles upon a treasure trove
in the sub-basement, the recordings of “Weird Furka,” a
locally produced show from the late 1940s. As the name implies,
the show’s host had sought and broadcasted true accounts
of the strange from locals. So taken by the program, Watson
begins to broadcast the old recordings on his own radio program
and finds himself drawn into a deep darkness. It becomes
apparent author Adam Golaski has drunk deep from the well
of supernatural fiction, particularly M. R. James, but this
work is no simple scenery change, no switching out of English
villages for Montana small towns. He works in the tradition,
but inventively so.
Humor and the supernatural coexist uneasily. In many cases,
the guffaws are aimed at the ghosts and those who believe
in them. Admittedly, there can be humor in this, but the
whole point of the ghost story—the weird, the mysterious—is
laughed off stage. That’s why I was so taken by Cathy
Sahu’s “You Should Have to Live with Yourself.” An
untidy hack writer of the occult rents a room in an immaculately
kept house. The fussy landlady gives him a hard time for
his sloppy ways (“He had told her not to make the bed,
but she was doing it anyway. ‘You should have to live
with yourself! And then you’d see what it’s like!”’)
As she harps on the tenant, he proclaims a spell, even though
he admits he’s worse than minor league in spell casting,
and storms out to find a new place. This time, somehow, the
spell works, and, in a way, judgment is visited upon her
when her fussiness turns upon herself. Let’s just say
this judgment has a sense of humor.
Often collections prove uneven in quality, but Acquainted
With the Night has few low points. I’m confident
readers will close the volume knowing weird fiction hasn’t
succumbed. Frights a-plenty wait within these pages, and
frights intelligently rendered at that.
R. Andrew Newman teaches English and journalism
at Western Nebraska Community College. He has written for National
Review, The Weekly Standard, and National Review
Online. He is currently at work on a book-length study of
Russell Kirk’s ghostly fiction.