Missing the ghoul

9th December 1994 at 00:00
Scared to death and other ghostly stories, By Josephine Poole, Hutchinson Pounds 9.99, 0 09 176155 7. Sealskin trousers and other stories, By Jon Wynne-Tyson, Oakroyd Press Pounds 13.95, 0 9512210 2 7. A gruesome body, By Barbara Griffiths, Andersen Press Pounds 9.99, 0 86264 538 7.

Nicholas Tucker finds himself unscared by this year's crop of ghostly short stories for children.

Modern ghost stories are often unsatisfying shadows of their former shadows. Habitual settings for creepy events have changed from the pleasant surroundings of castle or mansion to the more sordid venues of seedy boarding-house or rotting council estate. What were once agreeable frissons of fear are increasingly replaced by sadder moments of supernatural insight into human folly or weakness.

Josephine Poole's latest offering, Scared to Death, is a case in point. Lacking the wicked zest of Roald Dahl or the insistent energy of Robert Westall, she offers instead a glum collection describing failed lives punctuated by sudden passages of terror. Only her last tale, about a benign, elderly clergyman faced by an exceedingly strange ghostly visitation, raises itself to the level of honest enjoyment. Otherwise these stories are hard work, tending to concentrate on the middle-aged and disappointed living in a world of yesterday.

Many other ghost stories have been set in the past, but usually a more remote and interesting one than this. Despite the promise of "spine-chilling" stories on the back cover, the end result is more numbing than fearful. Yet having to urge any readers to get on with their ghost stories would once have seemed like a contradiction.

Jon Wynne-Tyson's Sealskin Trousers is unenjoyable for different reasons. All 14 horror stories are written from the viewpoint of a passionate animal-lover, appalled at the cruelty we visit upon other creatures. But the author's anger against his fellow human beings leads at times to a certain tetchiness, and there is a tendency to present familiar arguments using a dated vocabulary.

Characters are often shorn of any humanity, and humour is in short supply.Scorning the bad behaviour of others is a legitimate aim for all moralists,but some charitable feelings are also called for if we are to understand why people are as they are. Characters here are sometimes condemned for reasons that seem more snobbish than ecological.

All this is a pity, since the author - now aged 70 - is clearly a remarkable person. For 40 years his one-man publishing house, Centaur Press, has brought out a stream of quality books in the area of humane education. The points he makes in this present collection are cogent and justified. But a little extra humility and some friendly editing could have helped these bitter stories become rather more palatable.

Barbara Griffiths's A Gruesome Body is a welcome breath of fresh air in the normally foetid atmosphere of the macabre. She writes engagingly about children watching horror films, bullying in the playground, playing games of the Dungeons and Dragons variety or attending summer camps with those who are much younger. Characters involved are highly contemporary, and the problems they face are immediately familiar.

Additional entertainment is provided by the author's swirling, atmospheric line drawings. These convey the same feelings of panic and disorder found in some late 19th-century illustrations of ghost stories. Full-page pictures plus smaller chapter headings are unfashionable now when catering for older readers. But today's horror stories can always gain from illustrations, competing as they do with films and video. The pictures here have the extra appeal of mystery as well as fear, since the symbols they use can only be deciphered after a careful reading of their accompanying stories. By welding graphics and text so successfully, Barbara Griffiths announces herself as an author-illustrator worth watching out for.

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