Christopher Priestley's Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror is the kind of book that begs to be read aloud, with a British accent, and in the dark of night sitting next to a roaring fire while an unnatural storm brews outside. This book is an anthology of ghost stories and cautionary tales, all told by the mysterious Uncle Montague to a rather dimwitted nephew, Edgar. Most leave you with a crooked smile after finishing.
Uncle Montague's home is filled with odd collectibles. An old brass telescope. A gilt frame. A small Indian ink drawing that may or may not move. These and more all have a story to tell, and not a one of them is happy. In fact, the words "ghastly" and "terrible" came to mind more than once.
Uncle Montague tells Edward ten tales over the course of the evening. All take place within the frame of Edward and Montague reclining near a fire place in Montague's moody home. Noises break into the frame, setting the stage for something else that may exist outside of the stories. Most of the tales feature young children as their protagonists, and because of this, the horrifying aspects of Montague's tales is multiplied.
Enhancing the book and each story is illustrations in the style of Edward Gorey's Gashlycrumb Tinies. In fact, the stories read as if they were directly inspired and lifted from one of Gorey's panels. David Roberts, however, is the illustrator for the book, and his work is so memorable that I can scarcely think about Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror without thinking of the delightful illustrations.
It's hard to pick a favorite story here, as all were great for one reason or another. I particularly enjoyed the ones below.
"The Demon Bench End" is truly horrible. Young Thomas Haynes is not really a very good boy. For all appearances he is, but truthfully, he's just as bad as anyone else. After a fateful street side encounter with a tinker, Thomas's life forever changes. Largely neglected by his father, Thomas stands idly by while his father and the tinker haggle. Eventually the family parts from the riffraff, but Thomas does not forget what he saw. For the tinker had something Thomas wants terribly bad, and he'll stop at nothing to get it.
"Winter Pruning" is one of the more twisted tales of Uncle Montague's. It's a very traditional child's story. There is an old blind witch that lives miserly at the top of a hill. All day long Old Mother Tallow stands out in her yard pruning her trees, mending the apples. Simon Hawkins, another young rapscallion if ever there was one, decides to sneak into Old Mother Tallow's house one day while she's outside. The witch is supposed to be rich, after all, and he was sick of stealing pennies from his mother's purse. One big score would be all he'd need.
"A Ghost Story" was probably the most lighthearted of the tales, and that could be partially why I liked it so much. Little Victoria Harcourt begrudgingly attends a family wedding, a horrible affair where rain and wind ruins the day. Victoria is mostly scorned by the other girls, and when her most loathsome of cousins Emily begins telling a ghost story, Victoria is almost ready to abandon all pretense of wanting to fit in. I don't want to say much about this story, but I did enjoy it immensely. I smiled like a baboon at the end.
In the end, every story in Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror was exactly what I was looking for. While some are better than others, all are perversely wicked. One can't help but feel a trifle ashamed at the outcomes of these tales, for smiling at the often demise of children. Priestley's stories fit into the vein of the Brothers Grimm, though not as fantastical or folky. There are lessons to be learned beneath these stories, making it a perfect book for adolescents and teens. Even so, Priestley offered a memorable book that's quick to read and perfect for when the Halloween mood strikes. I'll be adding the other installments, Tales of Terror from the Black Ship and Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth, to my TBR now.