I’ve had this book ever since I was a small child and some of these stories really stuck in my head. Here’s a review of all the short stories herein.
The Shadow Cage And Other Tales of the Supernatural by Phillipa Pearce (1977)
The Shadow Cage ****
A young boy acquires a strange old bottle which apparently once belonged to a witch. Strange things ensue.
A story as shadowy as the events it describes. The plot itself is thin and the characters are pretty flat, but the atmosphere is excellent throughout as is the main character’s encounter with the supernatural in the playground. A triumph of style over content.
Miss Mountain ***
An old woman describes her unhappy childhood at the hands of a cruel aunt.
It’s got solid characters (no pun intended) and a serviceable plot, even if the supernatural element is really pretty thin. The dialogue is horribly middle-class – a problem shared by many of the other tales.
A girl gets followed home by a strange girl who won’t answer any questions with a straight answer.
An intriguing story which leaves much to the reader’s imagination. Once again, there’s a cosy English pastoral feel to it and you can imagine reading the tale over tea and crumpets. The revelation that the girl is some kind of ghost is not at all surprising, although you do wonder what her back-story is.
At the River Gates ****
A soldier who killed in the First World War (presumably) returns to help his family as a ghost.
Another story with good characters and a believable recreation of an historic period. Once again, it’s marred by cosiness, although Pearce at one point attempts to convey some of the horrors of war with the withdrawn behaviour of her protagonist.
Her Father’s Attic **
A girl gets into shenanigans in a haunted attic.
A fairly dull story with lots of patronising dialogue about how the titular girl takes after her mother. Yawn.
The Running Companion *****
A bitter middle-aged man is stalked by a phantom runner following his disabled brother’s death.
The best story in the book by far and a powerful tale of guilt and (presumably) murder. The author’s style works well here with a sparsity of details making for a haunting read (the fact Adamson was ‘smiling’ as he left the house, for example). The ending is genuinely scary and both prose and pace are excellent. A classic which haunted my mental landscape as a kid – and still does.
A boy sees a figure at a house window – and helps reconcile a strained family
A charming story where again, the supernatural is pushed to the background in favour of middle-class family drama and past unhappiness.
The Dear Little Man with His Hands in His Pockets *****
A young girl’s rather creepy neighbour owns a scary African fetish doll – which supposedly comes to life when he is threatened.
Another top tale which lets the reader’s imagination do all the work. The dream sequences are particularly effective.
The Dog Got Them **
An old drunk is terrorised by two ghostly rats – which are then killed by the family dog.
As silly as it sounds.
The Strange Illness of Mr Arthur Cook ****
A man is haunted by the ghost of a gardener.
A quirky little story which again has a very English-eccentric feel to it. The idea of a ghost forcing a man to take up gardening as a hobby is really rather charming.