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Black Spirits & White: A Book of Ghost Stories

Ralph Adams Cram

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    Ralph Adams Cram was an American architect who lived from 1863 to 1942. His specialty was collegiate and ecclesiastical buildings, particularly in the Gothic Revival style. And somehow along the way, he also managed to write some ghost stories—pretty darn good ones, in fact. This is his best known collection.
    As I've said numerous times, most ghost stories make me giggle. They have to have a certain element about them to make them scary to me. These really are scary, and none are in the giggling category. There are six in all. Two of them have appeared in other collections I've reviewed. In addition, they are adventure/travel stories, set in different parts of Europe. Cram went to Rome to study architecture at age 18. Perhaps he visited these other countries then. It seems he had a familiarity with them.
    Here is a brief synopsis of the stories.

No. 252 Rue M. Le Prince
    This one takes place in Paris, where the narrator goes to visit a friend , Eugene, who had inherited a house after the death of his aunt. The problem is, his aunt was a practitioner of black magic, and did some nasty things in the house. She really didn't even like her nephew, so there was some confusion as to why he got the property. I had to laugh at this passage:

Why she should leave all her property to d'Ardeche, no one could tell, unless it was that she felt his rather hobbledehoy tendencies toward Buddhism and occultism might some day lead him to her own unhallowed height of questionable illumination.

    What in the world does Buddhism have to do with the occult? Or Black Magic?!! Oh, my! Anyways, she was known to have only one person enter her home regularly, a certain Sar Torrevieja, "King of Sorcerers." To his displeasure, he did not receive the wealth he expected upon the death of Mlle. Blaye de Tartas. All he received was the contents of the house, which he stripped, then disappeared.
    When the narrator locates his friend, he is not living in the house, nor can he rent it. Something very unsettling is happening there, to the point of putting tenants in the hospital. Therefore, Eugene, his friend, and a couple others are determined to find out what it is. They make arrangements to stay the night in the house—in the creepy part where the evil abides.
    This one is quite scary, because it involves sleep paralysis.

In Kropfsberg Keep
    At the end of the book was a statement that Cram "claims no originality" for these legends, which have "well-defined roots existing in all countries." Perhaps there really was a legend of this particular castle, because it is real, and the ruins match the story.
    Here, the narrator is traveling in Austria with his friend and fellow architect Tom Rendel, who also joins him in the next two stories. They are staying in Matzen, where the niece of their host relates the legend of Kropfsberg Keep. She was a little girl when two young men, artists, were visiting. They were more out for adventure than to paint, so they determined, much to the horror of the locals, to spend a night in the dreaded castle, Kropfsberg. At the inn where they stayed, the old innkeeper, Peter Rosskopf tried to dissuade them from carrying out their plans. But they were determined, so he packed them the supplies they requested, but no one would set foot inside the place.
    The story was that Count Albert, an evil man, once invited all his evil friends to a great ball. While they were dancing, he locked them in, then started the castle on fire, while he remained on the third floor, where, donned in a suit of armor, he hung himself. No one would even enter to remove the body from the hook, and there it hung for years, until it disappeared. But does the Count reappear to entertain the young men?
    This one is the scariest in the book. It also appears in Classic Ghost Stories, and I think it was the scariest one in that book, too. Below is a picture of Burg Kropfsberg.

Burg Kropfsberg, Austria

The White Villa
    In this one, the two friends are now exploring Italy and its architecture. They venture off for a four hour train trip from Naples to the ruins of Pæstum, promising to return for a dinner invitation. They decide to stay on and catch the later train, which is the last. But the time table has changed without them realizing it, and they arrive at the station just as the train has left. So they are stuck in this poor little bit of a village with only one place to stay.
    This is another where the narrator experiences a sort of sleep paralysis, as he witnesses a terrible event in history being replayed by ghosts.

Sister Maddelena
    The narrator and his friend Tom Rendel have moved on to Sicily, and are enjoying an evening in the company of the Cavaliere Valguanera at the convent of Santa Catarina in Palermo. Of course, they find out that it, too, is haunted, but the lady is harmless. She appears and says "I cannot sleep," then disappears, and only appears that once. No one has seen her twice.
    It was a sad story connected with this Carmelite nun, who was originally Rosalia, daughter of the ambitious Duca di Castiglione, attached to the court of Charles III. He betrothed his daughter to Prince Antonio, but she refused him because she loved another. After cruel means to change her mind, her father sends her off to the convent. She believes her lover is dead, so she is relieved to be there. But he isn't dead, and they meet secretly. When they are discovered, severe punishment is in order.

Convent of Santa Catarina, Sicily

    Cram certainly had a gift for beautiful descriptions of the places his characters visited, making me believe he surely must have traveled to them himself and seen them in person. Here is a paragraph about the convent of Santa Catarina:

Fancy a convent of creamy stone and rose-red brick perched on a ledge of rock midway between earth and heaven, the cliff falling almost sheer to the valley two hundred feet and more, the mountain rising behind straight towards the sky; all the rocks covered with cactus and dwarf fig-trees, the convent draped in smothering roses, and in front a terrace with a fountain in the midst; and then—nothing—between you and the sapphire sea, six miles away. Below stretches the Eden valley, the Concha d'Oro, gold-green fig orchards alternating with smoke-blue olives, the mountains rising on either hand and sinking undulously away toward the bay where, like a magic city of ivory and nacre, Palermo lies guarded by the twin mountains, Monte Pellegrino and Capo Zafferano, arid rocks like dull amethysts, rose in sunlight, violet in shadow: lions couchant, guarding the sleeping town.

Notre Dame des Eaux
    This one takes place in Saint Pol de Léon, in the northwest of France. It is about an old deserted church, Our Lady of the Waters rediscovered by Julien, Count de Bergerac. A party of painters arrive the following year for a summer retreat. The year after, the Bergeracs, Julien, his wife and daughter Héloïse buy the old farm and turn it into a summer house for themselves and the other artists. All is pleasant until Jean d'Yriex falls in love with Héloïse, and begins to suffer symptoms of mental disease, almost killing Julien. Dr. Charpentier is called from Paris, and he takes Jean away, but he escapes. Though not a ghost, he does return, totally insane.
    I was not able to find anything about this church, so perhaps this one is truly a fictional legend.

The Dead Valley
    This one, too perhaps is purely made up, or based on a legend with another name because I cannot find a place called The Dead Valley in Sweden. It is a tale told by an American Swede, Olof Ehrensvärd of an experience he had as a boy in the old country.
    He and his best friend Nils went to a market and fell in love with a little dog. They had no money, but begged the vendor not to sell him, that they would have the money next week. When they got home, they begged their mothers, not only for the money, but to travel to the man's house and buy the dog before the next market. They were given permission, but were to spend the night at Nils's aunt's house, and return the next day. However they got distracted the next day with other activities, and by the time they left, it was already late. They found themselves heading into a valley that was the epitome of death, "perfect silence," no sounds of birds or insects, and a ghastly thick white mist. This description of the silence is powerful:

"And the air was stagnant—dead. The atmosphere seemed to lie upon the body like the weight of sea upon a diver who has ventured too far into its awful depths. What we usually call silence seems so only in relation to the din of ordinary experience. This was silence in the absolute, and it crushed the mind while intensified the senses, bringing down the awful weight of inextinguishable fear."

    This one did not deal with a ghost, or one recognized as such, but it was indeed scary. The most horrifying part is that the story teller has no idea how he got back home. This one also appears in Great Weird Tales.

    These six stories make up a really quite worthy collection of ghost or paranormal stories. Highly recommended; a FREE eBook from Project Gutenberg.

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