Chico Kidd will need no introduction to readers of "Ghosts & Scholars" since she has been with us from issue no 1. Indeed her story "An Incident in the City" (reprinted here) was -- for me -- the highlight of that first issue, and her subsequent tales -- mostly Jamesian in type -- have never failed to delight me. So I was particularly pleased to see this handsome and thick volume from AT-P, assembling together all her supernatural fiction, with the exception of her excellent novel "The Printer's Devil" (1995), and the joint collection with Rick Kennett "No 472 Cheyne Walk" (1992 -- a tribute to Carnacki).
"Summoning Knells" is divided into three sections. The first (20 stories) groups the ghost stories with a church-bell-ringing provenance and is cannily titled "Ghost Stories of a Campanologist"; the second comprises 12 "Other Jamesian Ghost Stories" and the third (15 tales) "Other Ghost Stories". There is an interesting Introduction from the author and a list of original publication details.
Whereas J Meade Faulkner might have been the first to incorporate bell-ringing into fiction (The Nebuly Coat, 1903) and Dorothy L Sayers the first to make a success of it (The Nine Tailors, 1934), it has been Chico who has provided a substantial and accurate corpus of "ringing" tales, as a consequence of her own involvement in "The Exercise". She knows as well as I do, that bellringers never refer to "campanology". However it gives a dignified, sonorous "title" to the art and practice, which is full of esoteric mystery and an incredible "Freemasonry" (she provides a useful glossaryto the gobbledegook!). Anyone can become a ringer but to progress to the higher mysteries you do indeed have to become an adept! [These] tales then, present typical facets of this mysterious pastime which can easily become a way of life. There are some original plots and mysteries here, but also a strong body of Jamesian pastiche, much in the manner of Frederic Cowles ("Water From the Well", "Memento Mori", for example).
As well as originals, such as "An Incident in the City" (still a most chilling tale!), the "Other Jamesian Ghost Stories" section includes pastiches laden with Jamesian phrases, allusions, mannerisms and affectionate quotes: tales such as "Poppy Nor Mandragora", "In the College Library", "Deck the Halls" and "Turned into Corruption" (with seemingly more than a nod to Vernon Lee for good measure). In addition to some atmospheric chills, you can test your knowledge and identify the Jamesian motifs as they appear.
Even with the foregoing tales spaced well out, the overwhelming sense of James can become a trifle cloying; so, the final section "Other Ghost Stories" provides a decisive change for the reader... and yet; and yet... "places have been more prolific in suggestion" -- the author here shows her descriptive powers in encapsulating genius loci: especially in her evocation of the Channel Islands. There is a neat twist to the werewolf theme with "Vulpes Sapiens" and an inspired variant of the vampire in "Saint Sebastian and the Mona Lisa". There is an equally fine sequel to the latter and an encounter with the Devil himself, in "The Last Great Masterpiece of Andrea Giaiotti". If one or two of them are straightforward and predictable, the quality of writing cariies you along to the end (e.g. "Night Piece".)
I have acquired most of these stories in their original collections over the years and in the final analysis, it has always been the quality of prose that has knocked me out. There isn't a dud story here... like Vernon Lee, Chico Kidd is a craftsman with words!
This is a typically fine Ash-Tree production with an excellent dust-jacket design by Paul Lowe, but I DO REGRET that there are none of Chico's own atmospheric illustrations. I speak with assurance here as some of my own tales have been considerably enhanced by her artistry and attention to accurate detail. I don't know the reason for this omission (size of volume maybe) but it is a disappointment.
© D G Rowlands 2000
SUMMONING KNELLS and Other Inventions
by A F Kidd (Ash-Tree Press, 2000, £28, $40
ISBN: 1-55310-009-3) 340pp
Reviewed by David Rowlands [for "Ghosts & Scholars"]