Publisher: The Sundial Press 2012
ISBN 978-1-908274-09-0 (Hardcover)
First published in 1952 , “A Pad in the Straw” collects twenty ghost and supernatural tales originally told by Christopher Woodforde (1907-1962) as bedtimes stories to a group of boys at New College Choir School in Oxford. Thus, strictly speaking, this should be a YA collection , where, indeed, young boys are the main characters in most of the stories. Actually, this volume by Woodworde (a cleric and antiquarian mainly known for his non-fiction books about ecclesiastical stained glass) has been compared , in terms of plots and atmospheres, to the work of the great MR James. The distinct antiquarian flavor and the frequent use of East Anglia as the setting for his eerie tales certainly may suggest such a comparison, although, of course, the quality of Woodforde’s fiction is inferior. On the other hand, to label his stories as an anemic version of James’ work would be simply unfair.
On average, Woodforde’s tales are elegant, enjoyable examples of supernatural fiction, albeit sometimes a bit weak. “Malcom” revolves around a cursed tree exerting its evil power long after it has been destroyed; “The Old Tithe Barn” and “Michael” are delightful traditional ghost stories; “The Mirror of Man’s Damnation” is a moral fable in the tradition of the deal with the Devil; “Cushi” a classical yarn where a sexton takes his revenge from beyond the grave; “Lost and Found” a real tale of antiquarian horror.
Some tales, however, do stand up as fine, skillfully crafted pieces of dark fiction.
The title story, “A Pad in the Straw” is a gentle, Jamesian story where the events surrounding the unpleasant encounter of two boys with the supernatural are painstakingly retraced by a group of scholars.
In the creepy “The Chalk Pit” inhuman, evil creatures haunt a country road, while in the sinister “Colin, Peter and Philip” the uncanny reason for a young boy’s disappearance becomes clear only twenty years later.
“The Doom Window at Brechkam” is an excellent specimen of “antiquarian” story revolving around a glass window of an English church.
The enticing “Ex libris” describes the finding of an old book ,the unusual binding of which belongs to a rather vindictive subject.
Reprinted in a limited edition by Sundial Press for the joy of any lover of classy, gracefully told supernatural fiction, the volume will provide many, pleasantly frightful hours of good reading.
- review by Mario Guslandi