Friday, October 17, 2008

Davies' High Spirits

High Spirits / Robertson Davies
Toronto : Penguin, c1982.

Now, here's a short story collection which does challenge ghost story tradition a bit. It's an 18 story collection, each written by Robertson Davies to be read yearly at his college's Gaudy Nights**. He began this habit in 1963 as Master of Massey College (Toronto) and maintained it for the 18 years he was there. The progression shows that each story was written according to yearly occurrences and social conditions.

In his intro he states:

Ghost stories tend to be very serious affairs. Who has ever heard of a ghost cracking a joke? I wanted my ghosts to be light-hearted, if not in themselves, at least as they appeared to my hearers. No new style would suit a ghost story, so it would be necessary to parody the usual style. And the parody would have to be affectionate, for cruel parody is distasteful in itself, and utterly outside the spirit of a party.

And the stories are mostly light and amusing, I would imagine especially so for those in the audiences for which they were written. If in that audience I am sure we would share in the references to mutual acquaintances, the habits of university life and the local settings within Massey College and Toronto. However, many of the stories still hold up for those of us reading them now, separate from all that. The collection is a bit uneven, however; a few are no longer successful, particularly to my mind the offering entitled The Ugly Spectre of Sexism. It was amazingly old-fashioned, sounding more 1920's than 70's. I guess we really do take for granted the attitude shift since the 70's; at least this is a reminder about that kind of thing.

I found that the first three stories were my favourites, lightly ironic about college life and featuring students, researchers and libraries. In the third story, The Great Queen is Amused, the narrator comes across a female researcher (clearly based on someone known to the audience) who has used an old book of Alistair Crowley's to call up the shade of an early Canadian writer in the dusty basement stacks of the college library, in order to clarify some research points with her. It has all gone horribly wrong:

"I suppose you called up a single spirit, and have received a wholesale delivery; Crowley is a most untrustworthy guide."
"But who are they?" said she.
"It is only too clear that they are the ghosts of the Canadian writers whose books are here," said I.
"Then why are they so noisy?" she asked. Every time I think of it, I realize what a wealth of national feeling was compressed into that one enquiry.
"They are clamouring to be reborn,"I explained... "Look, you see those who are floating in that strange, curled-up posture; they have placed themselves in the foetal position, so that, when a child is conceived, they are ready at once to take possession of it in the womb, and come to earth again."
"Whatever for?" said she.
"Perhaps they hope that this time they might be born American authors," said I.

This is an example of the light style he uses, and for the most part it is quite funny. Canadians will find certain jokes still relevant, but you don't have to be Canadian to enjoy this. Some of the stories are still quite entertaining, some are just ok. Still, overall it's a good set of academic-themed, humorous ghost stories, and if you already like Davies you will want to read it.

** An example of Davies existing in another time than we live in now, "Gaudy" derives from the Latin gaudium and Old French gaudie, meaning "merry-making" or "enjoyment". A college gaudy is a dinner; primarily this was an Oxford tradition. Also, when Davies began as first Master of Massey College, it was a male-only college, not admitting women until 1974.

(also reviewed by Nicola and by Raidergirl)


  1. I enjoyed these stories some years ago, and your review makes me want to revisit them. Commiserations on the election result.

  2. Lovely review! I like the lighter style you quote and the chnage sover the years sound really interesting. It also seems a bit like the 'Canterville Ghost' which was one of my favourite stories when I was a teenager.

  3. This one looks like a fun choice! Great review.


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