The Man Who Sold Ghosts
Published 2017 by Greenwich Exchange
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‘The Man Who Sold Ghosts’ aptly describes Roger F Dunkley, the popular author of this newly published collection of black comic and sinister tales. Light of touch but dark of purpose, these twenty-four wide-ranging stories emerge blinking from the blackness of the crypt poised to alarm and charm our Christmas reading, all chillingly tainted with the author’s characteristic mix of stylish humour and inventive storytelling.
Perhaps living in a thatched cottage with malevolently low beams may reflect Dunkley’s fascination with the paranormal and things that go nocturnally bump which informs many of these elegant, blackly humorous tales which have made readers of ‘Twilight Zone’, Pan Horror, Fontana and Gollancz Ghost and many other haunting anthologies shiver and chuckle over the years.
Beneath the stylised sophistication of the surface, Dunkley explores thought-provoking questions which tease the imagination and enhance our sense of wonder in the mysteries of the unseen universe – ideas of survival and reincarnation, prophecy and fate, time-slips and telepathy, extra-terrestrial hopes and Armageddon fears, as well as the phenomena of ghosts and ESP in general. And, suggests the writer, you’d be wise to check your doors are safely locked and bolted and look once more under the bed (you can never be too sure) before you embark on the toe-curling tale of the Tibetan thought-ghost, ‘Mea Tulpa’, which crowns this anthology from Greenwich Exchange Press – a disturbing descent into the grim vaults of the gothic imagination to discover what monsters and nightmares are lurking there in the dark pit of the collective racial unconscious waiting to be born…
“ Mr Snipe’s fists tightened. ‘You kidnapped her,’ he said bitterly.
‘And you cooked her! Eating People is Wrong, Dennis.’ Mrs Snipe’s tone was sadly reproving.”
Roger F Dunkley has always aspired to retirement and indolence but a life fraught with education and bedevilled by passions for theatre, music and travel always got in the way.
After gaining a BA in Eng. Lit. at Leeds University, and serving time educating the unwary teaching English at King Henry VIII Grammar School, Coventry (where he was also a student) and subsequently at Pilgrim Upper School, Bedford, he finally jumped the wire into Retirement and Real Life!
Living in a thatched cottage with malevolently low beams may reflect his fascination with the paranormal and things that go nocturnally bump which informs many of the forty or so stories he has found time to write and publish in several countries, many of them in the Pan Horror and Fontana Ghost and Horror series.
"A confession. There is no point in pretending to myself any longer. Prise up your knitted night cap, or adjust your Cumfi-curlers, my Horlicks-heavy reader, and permit me to whisper through the grill, so to speak, of your ear. I am afraid. The horror story writer is afraid!"
Mike Ashley’s Who’s Who in Horror and Fantasy Fiction comments generously on ‘his gift for black humour’ and certainly Dunkley is pleased to find himself holding anthologised hands with his literary heroes – Dickens, Poe, M.R. James, Wells, Waugh, ‘Saki’ et al – as well as contributing spectral shudders to Twilight Zone in the States.
“ It was the day she tried to buy Stonehenge that they said Mrs Zazine Forsyth III had gone too far.”
Here are some selected highlights - so dive in and enjoy ...
‘Cheese, dear,’ muttered Bernard wearily on being abruptly awoken by a particularly painful dig in the ribs during the first disturbed night. ‘Too much Stilton for supper.’
Mr Hurse had preferred to ignore the implications of his wife’s obscure insistence that the new rockery should remain unexcavated; it was a minor neurotic foible that was to be expected, perhaps, in someone of her age and temperament. The phase would pass.
But it was more difficult to ignore her when she started having the dreams.
He rubbed his side, winced and turned cautiously over again. Isobel, however, remained stiffly upright beside him, her face drawn and pale.
‘Can you – smell anything?’ she asked. ‘Bernard?’
A gentle snore rose as the bedclothes sank. Instinctively she extended an elbow towards her husband’s back – then resisted the temptation. What good would it serve? It wouldn’t alter the simple, irrational fact: a smell of loam hung in the room, close, stifling, infecting the air…
And what if Bernard couldn’t smell it? Angry with herself for such neurotic imaginings, she turned out the light and, with difficulty, finally went back to sleep.
Immediately the nightmare was upon her again.
The setting was indistinct but it felt familiar. A bird calling, song soaring up through shimmering blue skies, up into the sun. Flowers, plump with scents, humming with bees and colour, open to the sun, grass new-mown breathing the sun. She bathed in sensations of relief, of release after pain. Elation.
Then, true to a fatal inevitability, the darkness crept in like a black plague and contaminated: the dream turned sour. Always things followed the same depressing direction. Always things decayed.
The bird song sharpened into stridency, a shrill of fear. A gust of stinging wind and stillness; the sun expanding, white. Then the first of the moans, low, insisting through the bending corn; and a dull pounding along the arteries of the earth promising panic and pain. Pain and panic pounding closer. The air heavy now with sobbing wails, the approach of some unnameable grief. Howls breaking deafeningly about her. A glimpse of stunted trees reaching black arms into a sky heaving with horrors she feared but could not understand. A face – dear heaven, the travesty of a face – lurched into hers, twisted and bubbled into sores and shapelessness. A weight of blistered misery, rotting into meaninglessness. Earth falling. At her feet earth, on her face earth, and between her fingers, writhing, the first of the worms. And everywhere that smell, unbearably familiar, suffocating. Struggling, she opened her mouth to protest, to scream. Why couldn’t she scream? Her lungs. Her mouth. Something was clogging her tongue…
And abruptly the bedroom walls reassembled themselves around her. There was Bernard bending over her, looking anxious.
EYE TO EYE
The heart of the party was the lounge, which throbbed with noise, lights and people. Myers was thrust into it, introduced cursorily to several people who required him to repeat the pronunciation of his name, then to spell it, and then forgot both it and him, all with much merriment. A bottle of tonic and a glass were pressed into his hands and he was propelled towards a girl in blue feathers and tight, sequined pants who was hugging the last bottle of gin between her knees. She raised her head and stared into his eyes. ‘I’m looking,’ she said, ‘for love.’
‘I’m looking for gin,’ confessed Myers. He reached out a hand.
‘Don’t touch me,’ said the girl. ‘Men!’ Her feathers nodded savagely. ‘One thing: that’s all you’re after.’
‘Gin, actually,’ said Myers. He introduced the tonic bottle into her line of vision and waved it about. She screamed. Myers retreated to a corner and wondered where Ronnie and Angela hid their bottle opener.
He watched the party.
It was loud and in high spirits; so was Felicity Farr. He pressed himself flat against the wall. But she found him. ‘It’s Myers!’ she said.
‘So it is,’ said Myers. ‘Still.’
‘You’re hiding again.’
‘Yes,’ said Myers.
People looked up curiously.
‘Everyone’s having fun,’ giggled Felicity.
‘Or having someone else.’
‘Especially those two by the foliage. No-one likes to ask who they are – but what a floor show! It’s all happening. Ronnie and Angela and Geoff are battling it out as usual in the kitchen. Come out and play.’ Felicity tugged at his arm and saw his face in the light for the first time. ‘Are you all right?’ she exclaimed. ‘My dear, you look positively grey. It’s so unfashionable. Has something happened?’
‘No,’ he said. But he felt the warmth of human contact and saw concern in her look. He realized he was still trembling. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Well, yes and no. Actually, it’s the car.’
‘Big end or tiny tappets, darling?’ said Felicity. ‘Sit down. Move that hand; she’s not using it. Have a sip of this. That dreadful girl with the feathers – she looks like something predatory that just escaped from a zoo – is hoarding the gin. Now, tell Felicity all about it.’ She beamed comfortingly and wove curls of his hair around her forefinger.
Myers sat back and began to unwind. ‘It’s a new car,’ he said. ‘I picked it up only tonight.’
‘New-old or new-new?’
‘Daimler; nineteen-sixty,’ said Myers.
‘Nearly vintage,’ said Felicity, delight emerging in a squeal. ‘How gorgeous! Bags of atmosphere.’
Myers shuddered. ‘That’s the problem,’ he whispered. He felt himself back in the car, felt a dark shadow moving in the blackness behind him. He sensed those eyes. ‘Bags of atmosphere,’ he said. And relaxing in the attentive warmth of Felicity’s caresses, he confessed to her, blundering through words in his attempts to convey experiences at once so intangible and so distressing, what he had felt earlier in the car.
‘A tall dark stranger in your back seat. You should be so lucky,’ she interpolated. But by the end of the story she was hugging her knees, rapt with attention.
‘And when you stopped there was really no one there?’ Felicity was enthralled.
‘No one,’ said Myers. ‘Nothing.’
‘My dear Myers,’ said Felicity Farr, her voice tremulous with excitement, ‘how simply awful!’ Her dramatic whisper penetrated the farthest reaches of the room. ‘Your car’s haunted! Something Very Nasty’s happened in that back seat. What a pity Lucy isn’t here.’
‘Haunted,’ said Myers gloomily. He drained the glass with a gulp. ‘A ghost in my machine!’
‘Something very sinister.’ Felicity’s eyes gleamed. ‘We’ll put ads in the paper,’ she said. ‘Won’t it be fun finding out!’
He stooped his head, for the rough-hewn ceiling was low and treacherously irregular. With faltering steps he crept through the maze of branching tunnels. The ducking candle flame tugged shadows from sudden boulders in the walls. Water glistened and grew black beneath his feet. Something scuttered by his shoe, squealed and was gone. Three ways. Another choice. He stumbled on. No Theseus approached his Minotaur with half such certainty and dread. A dip in the roof; a bend to the left. Then he stopped, hunched, shielding the flame against a dying sigh of noisome air. The light danced dully upon a door of antique design, studded with rusting iron bolts. He set the candle on the ground. The key, drawn from his belt, required both hands to turn the lock. Haggard with painful expectation, he heaved his shoulder against the door. With a sonorous grating that jarred a thousand echoes, the door moved, and he was within the vault.
Wake up, sleeping reader, and welcome to the Gothic basement. Equipped with every ancient inconvenience, every ingenious instrument guaranteed to enhance man’s inhumanity to man. Here may you die a thousand lingering deaths, each more exquisite and picturesque than the last. Throw off your slumberdown and leer! Stiffen up your sinews on the creaking rack and hear them snap and crackle, one by one, simple as cereal. Thrill with the lusty Iron Virgin – unrepeatable offer – dishonour before death! Double, double, toil and trouble; see the witches burn and bubble… O, ghoulish reader, here’s something unsavoury for every trembling palate: monsters of every denomination, unliving and undead; vampires, werewolves, goblins, tulpas; monsters no sooner named than born, doomed to haunt the world, sweeping on spectral wings to fulfil the latest charnel fashion, from the drizzling crags of Transylvania to the forbidden peaks and mysteries of Tibet.
Tibet. Tulpa. The thought-ghost. The word made – flesh? No! Away! I dare not think of that. The ancient fear, I see, still nags at my imagination. Hence, horrible shadow! Let us not break up the party. The tale is still untold, is yet unmade. Snuggle closer, dear reader. Throw a careless arm around my shoulder, if you will; I wish you would – for we are now (why do I lower my voice?) Within The Vault…
The man moved forward: three tentative steps, three swift, sure echoes. His eyes strained at the shadows, dancing grotesque harmonies to the candle’s feverish flame. The giant vats and cylinders, the suppurating crucibles and hissing wires of the previous month’s disastrous experiment loomed about him, silent ghosts of a life’s misguided dream. He reached up an arm, trembling anew with fresh-remembered horrors, to ignite a flambeau set in the cavern walls and
For the chamber is conceived, you will appreciate, in the low, pseudo-scientific style, after the not-so-blithe spirit of Shelley, Mary… Bear with me, reader. I parry phantoms. Can we not laugh before we shudder? No: I merely procrastinate. Must I go on?
‘Bats,’ I hear you murmur, gentle, companionable reader, setting down your empty mug beside the digital radio-alarm. ‘Vaults have bats. Bats are compulsory,’ you add, in kindly admonishment, as you attempt to hug your knees and prop open your book in one deftly synchronous movement. Which usually fails. In my experience.
He brushed a cobweb from his ear,
There! Bat thou never wert!
and lit the torch. What scenes of devastation and trampled hope lay before him in all that shattered glass, those dripping tubes. He who had thought to bring salvation to the world. He who had sought to make life pulse in veins where none had pulsed before. He who had presumed to fuse the strengths of beast and man in one unholy union. Passions contended in his heavy heart: remorse with rage, grief with disenchantment,
Delete whichever you deem inapplicable.
but fear supplanted all. Trembling, head bowed, he followed the trail of blood and foetid slime to the centre of this subterranean womb. He fell to his knees, staring at the ring of the rocky slab as if attempting to perceive what still lay there in the darkness below, to determine whether the aborted Thing had survived the horrendous struggle to chain and fling it into the pit,
The pit again. Reader, are you here? Stay close. I’ve brought us to the edge.
ZAZINE FORSYTH’S RESURRECTION AFFAIR
It was then that she conceived the idea of purchasing Stonehenge. Of course she had gone too far this time, they said. But Zazine was determined to regain her former glories: she had neolithic intimations. This party would dim the legendary lights of Las Vegas. The originality of its centrepiece, if it worked, would seize the imagination of the globe.
But the English authorities proved as primitive and inscrutable as their monuments. Stonehenge could not be bought. Nor could it even, in that revitalized land of technocratic wealth, be hired for the evening – though, as Mrs Forsyth confided to her closest and only friend, the Ministry official had blenched at the cheque she had proffered him.
‘But my dear,’ purred the friend, whose devoted amity was in fact focussed more on Mr Forsyth than his wife, ‘who needs Stonehenge for a party? What about those quaint old stone rings and temple things they’re just digging up in the wilds of wherever it is? It was on the holonews the other day. All jungles and mountains. South America? Mexico, maybe? Somewhere quite unpronounceable and deliciously barbaric. My dear, how exotic: it would be the party to end all parties. And one in the eye for that Wyndsor woman.’
Zazine’s eyes glittered behind the calm elegance she habitually wore. She nodded with casual complacence, smiled a dismissal, and went off to consult and instruct her husband in his capacity as Chairman of Laser Technocrafts, World Division. The screen located him on a consultation visit in Zanzibar and called him across the room with a discreetly triumphant bleep.
‘Darling,’ she said, her voice low, thrilling, and suspect. ‘I want to help you.’
His features rearranged themselves several times as he contrived to remain simultaneously aloof and wary. He was more accustomed these days to receiving statements of fate accomplished than offers of assistance.
‘I’ve had an idea,’ she said.
Despite himself, he inched closer to the beamscreen, and cleared his throat.
‘It’s a promotion idea,’ she said.
‘Another party?’ he asked.
‘Another party,’ he said.
She was piqued at his predictability and prescience. ‘It’s that new laserscan thing,’ she said, overplaying the role of the big tycoon’s little wife which so ill became her and always put her husbands back on their guard. ‘What did your advertising people call it? The History Machine? You brought the prototype home, remember, and we put a pebble in it.’
‘The Resurrection Machine,’ he said glumly. ‘We cancelled the project. A no-go market situation, they said.’
Her eyebrows arched. ‘But we were there! Back in those prehistoric swamps. All in our own holoview chamber. With those ghosts and memories alive all round us.’ Passion and persuasion raised her voice a seductive semitone. ‘We even heard
those strange beasts howling.’
‘You were frightened,’ he said.
She smiled faintly, repressing a reminiscent shudder. ‘It was so’ – words eluded her – ‘so appallingly primitive, darling.’
George Forsyth glanced at the time, sent a secretary scurrying. ‘Marketing were quite definite,’ he said. ‘They had the figures.’ He recalled the director’s smiling incredulity. ‘A device for decoding the oscillations imprinted in natural materials and recreating them in holovisual playback! Try creating a demand for that, sir!’
‘The project was shelved, dear,’ he told the screen. ‘Definitely. Indefinitely.’
Zazine Forsyth was undeterred. She always got her way. She knew it. All her husbands knew it – eventually. ‘We’ll make plans over supper, dear,’ she said. ‘And this time we won’t use pebbles for playback.’
Her husband sighed. He knew his stars. ‘At least you’ve given up this Stonehenge party nonsense,’ he said.
‘Of course, darling.’ Her smile was saccharine. ‘Mexico is always so much more – evocative. Especially with next month’s solar eclipse.’
The Forsyth face froze abruptly. ‘Mexico?’
‘Quantahatapotec,’ said his wife, ‘actually.’
“ So forget fiction. Leave your Gothic ghouls to grope and gibber in the technicolor slime of their comfortable Hollywood graves. Let Gremlins tease and terrify in the reassuring gloom of the cinema’s safe night. This is for real – whatever that may mean. I smell darker realities below, and I fear them: my senses are acute… ”
“ Mr Snipe’s fists tightened. ‘You kidnapped her,’ he said bitterly.
‘And you cooked her! Eating People is Wrong, Dennis.’ Mrs Snipe’s tone was sadly reproving. ”
A Question of Taste
“ Fire split the sky open, burned her eyes. The earth buckled and heaved. Roots, loosened roots, screaming, were ripped out of the burning earth. She looked up. The ancient tree, roaring with fire, was moving against the sky…”
“ It was the day she tried to buy Stonehenge that they said Mrs Zazine Forsyth III had gone too far. ”
Zazine Forsyth’s Resurrection Affair
“’Two for the price of one! How’s that for a special offer?.. Ghosts don’t come cheap, of course. Not weighed and packaged like your supermarket commodities, naturally.’
‘Naturally,’ said Godfrey Snood. ‘How much?’ “
The Man Who Sold Ghosts
“ ‘I’ll kill him!’ The words were decisive and Gerald’s voice was loud. But his wife was not deceived.
She laughed curtly. ‘You couldn’t kill a geriatric hedgehog with a ten-ton truck.’ “
“ This terror is real. Smirking reader, understand. I am trying to confront this simple and unimaginable fact:
In the empty study of my empty house, in the dead hours of the night, within these fifteen minutes past, letters – letters! – have appeared on the blank page left in my type-writer. ”
“ ‘It’s quite an event. You must admit that. Man sets his colonizing foot in a new star system! The media have gone into hyperdrive, global frenzy. ’ ”
“ ‘There will be rushing winds,’ said Henry, ‘on the last day… And dire earthquakes. Fire in the heavens. And they say stars will fall from the sky.’
‘It will be a day of Dreadful Reckoning, dear,’ agreed his wife. ‘We mustn’t forget to cancel the papers.’ ”
“ A clear night, the stars rising raw and sharp. In the prowling, howling wilderness of the dark, nature was roused and tense.
Pain sudden and shrill. A tearing of tendons… “
A Problem Called Albert
Artwork for The Man Who Sold Ghosts by Marc Peltzer
Index of The man Who Sold Ghosts plus a special offer for readers
A Problem Called Albert
Miss Brood’s Speciality
The Immortal Longings Of Geoffrey Wortle
The Man Who Sold Ghosts
The Method And Madness Of George Strode
A Question Of Taste
The Ghost Machine
Zazine Forsyth’s Resurrection Affair
Hot-Pot For Hubert
Eye To Eye
The Man Called James
The Reluctant Murderer
Ashes To Dust
Special offer for readers who'd like to enjoy more Roger F. Dunkley stories, additional ones will be published in future on this website.These will include:
To Have And To Hold