Spectral Sounds: Unquiet Tales of Acoustic Weird – Review
By Sarah Morgan
Ghosts, ghouls, phantoms, spectres… there are lots of names for those (usually) nighttime visitors from beyond the grave.
Perhaps the British Library’s publishing arm had another moniker for them – ‘things that go bump in the night’ – in mind when it commissioned editor Manon Burz-Labrande to find a variety of terrifying tales in which the scares are produced by sound rather than sight.
Subtitled ‘Unquiet Tales of the Acoustic Weird’, the result is one of the best entries in the BL’s Tales of the Weird collection to date.
Part of that is due to the fact that it ignores perhaps the most famous (or infamous) short stories in the genre, preferring instead to unearth treasures with which readers may be unfamiliar. So if you’re expecting to find Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, M.R. James’s ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad’ or ‘The Whisperers’ by Algernon Blackwood within its pages, you’re going to get a shock.
Instead, Burz-Labrande, who hails from south-west France but has a connection to Yorkshire, having spent a year as a language assistant in York, has concentrated on lesser-known works, although some are by famous names.
For instance, Blackwood is represented, but by 1906’s ‘A Case of Eavesdropping’, which originally appeared in his first short story collection, The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories. It focuses on hapless Jim Shorthouse, who appears to finally be getting his life in order when he makes the mistake of taking a room in a boarding house where his neighbours are an arguing pair of father-and-son spirits.
Poe also pops up via 1837’s ‘Siope – A Fable’, a lesser work told from the point of view of a demon in which the sound of silence takes centre stage.
Watch out too for entries by Edith Wharton, the fittingly named Barry Pain and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, as well as an intriguing but anonymously written work.
Perhaps the most compelling of them all, however, is ‘A Speakin’ Voice’ by Annie Trumbull Slossom. A renowned entomologist as well as a writer, American-born Slossom’s 1890 tale is written in the vernacular of its narrator, Mary Ann, who finds solace from her tragic life via the presence of a young boy.
As with all such collections, there are a few bum notes here and there, but the overall quality is very high indeed – if you’re brave enough to read it before bedtime, you may need to try sleeping while wearing earplugs…
‘Spectral Sounds: Unquiet Tales of Acoustic Weird’ is published by the British Library, £9.99 paperback