“You aren’t seriously going to read those before turning off the light and going to sleep are you?”
“Why not?” I asked (perhaps somewhat dismissively).
“Because you’ll have nightmares ... you are daft!”
I smiled and may have gone as far as a scoffing sound.
A few hours later: my wife was shaking me awake after I was found whimpering; whilst I, simultaneously, gripped firmly in the arms of Morpheus, was being confronted by a coarse-haired creature (no, not the wife! considerably more diabolical!), that was all too rapidly materialising before my eyes.
Once awake, I was duly told off for foolishly entertaining ghost stories last thing at night. And, as if this wasn’t quite humbling enough, the next day my son was informed about the incident by the aforementioned wife; yes, gentle reader, they could actually be heard sniggering! In fact, I couldn’t, it seems, have provided them with finer amusement, and for the next few days mockery and derision became my lot; I, who have (I admit to it!) sometimes (often?) boasted about how untroubled I am by all things ghostly or which go bump in the night. So, understandably chastened by my experience, you’ll appreciate that I didn’t dare run the risk of embarrassing myself again; M R James was confined to the hours of daylight whilst the Steinbeck became my book at bedtime. It’s proved a comfortable arrangement, and I’m pleased to announce there have been no more whinnies in the dark.
So, the Steinbeck ...
The Long Valley was published in 1938. The majority of its stories had previously appeared in various American magazines. The stories themselves, Saint Katy the Virgin being the exception - a strangely whimsical tale set in mediaeval France - are set in Steinbeck’s birthplace, the background for so much of his writing, the Salinas Valley in California. Apparently, Steinbeck demanded that Saint Katy the Virgin be included in the collection, and although I enjoyed it, I have to admit that it does seem a bit of a puzzle alongside the rest. In all the other stories, Steinbeck does what Steinbeck can do like no other: informs us about the human condition. He uses symbolism to good effect, and his descriptive imagery is admirably lean; sometimes a tale’s starkness certainly left this reader with a haunted, almost desperate feeling. However, I never feel that Steinbeck is ever being wantonly bleak. Above all, Steinbeck is telling us stories about human beings and of their relationships to others. He lets us make our own inferences. The scholars, critics and academics have it seems from the very start often been divided on their appraisal of these stories. I’m perfectly happy to let them go on arguing! This collection is eminently readable and worthwhile.
I’m still reading my collected ghost stories - more to come on these ... if I survive the nights!