My rating: 5 of 5 stars
From time to time, I ask friends on social media for book reading recommendations. It’s occasional because my ‘To Read’ list is ridiculous and never seems to get any smaller. As a result, I always have plenty of traditionally published books to read. While someone is always telling me I should read this book or that, it’s rare one suggests a book written by a friend of theirs.
But such an occasion did indeed occur recently and the result was the unusual situation of finding myself reading a ‘self-published’ collection of ghost stories uploaded to the Smashwords website and available for free – all of which are about as far away from what I normally like to read and review as you can get! While I have nothing against self-published works (some of my books are self-published and have done tremendously well) I edit too many first drafts from clients to delight in reading them for pleasure. Inevitably, a self-published book hasn’t gone through even a few beta readers, let alone an editor who can help tighten the style and iron out the wrinkles. When they have had such a process, you cannot distinguish between self-published and published through a trad publisher and I truly don’t understand why budding authors don’t invest in their precious work this way to make it as good as it can be. After all, with the aforementioned publishing houses you are getting an editor to do exactly this kind of tidying and giving of the critical eye. Alas, I see too many first drafts out there, pushed into publication because the writer thinks that’s more than enough, and I simply can’t bear the typos, the errors or the rambling plots to think that this is fun. Pay me to do it, no problem; otherwise give me a well-edited book to read.
Nevertheless, in loyalty to my friend, who assured me these stories were absolutely cracking, I downloaded Nicholas Foster’s “Thirteen Ghost Stories” and began to read. I didn’t have high expectations, especially as I don’t really do ghost stories these days.
My friend wasn’t wrong.
Nicholas Foster is clearly a highly intelligent, thoughtful man with a resourceful imagination. Every single story in this collection was a delight to read. The stories are built on the premise of eight elderly friends, former students at the same college, meeting for their annual reunion dinner each year and telling ‘unusual’ tales from their lives, or from the lives of others they have interacted with over the decades. From their own career and spiritual perspectives, the characters take us on journeys far and wide and present us with much food for thought through the strange and unusual happenings which take place around them.
The stories are no Dennis Wheatley style of horror and gore. Stephen King couldn’t be further away. Instead they are gentle, thoughtful stories of love and loss, loneliness and grief, and from time to time, hope. In many ways, they are combinations of Asimov’s ‘Tales of the Black Widowers‘ and Roald Dahl’s short stories (collected together and serialised long ago as ‘Tales of the Unexpected’). I have no idea why Mr Foster has chosen not to put these into print, or sell online, but his loss is most certainly our gain. On his page on Smashwords you will find several stories but, with the exception of ‘Stavrakis’ (his latest tale), all the former stories and books are bound as one in this collection of thirteen stories.
Foster’s style is gentle and intimate. I have a feeling much of the basis for these tales comes from his own first-hand experience as we’re taken all over Britain and Europe, if not beyond, and introduced to history, politics, art, architecture, literature, the criminal justice system and even computer hacking. If Foster researched intensely for these stories, it doesn’t show. It all feels like he really knows this stuff, and so every story feels authentic.
And that’s so important for a ghost story. It’s the reason I read so few: most are ghastly, far-fetched flights of twisted nightmare that are silly and repulsive in equal measure. Foster avoids all this. There’s nothing obvious to the inevitable punchlines; in fact, for much of the time you are barely aware you’re reading a ghost story at all. It’s difficult to refer to any stories by name in any detail, because to do so would be to spoil the punches where they do come, but I will just say that ‘Joining the Dance’ was so subtle and cleverly done that it took me completely by surprise and the last story, ‘The Hand of Justice’, brought me close to tears – not for the ‘ghostly’ element of the tale, but for the judicial case detailed within. This is what makes Foster’s writing such a joy: you almost forget you’re reading something ‘spooky’ at all; you lose yourself in the tale of someone’s life instead.
The writing isn’t perfect in presentation but, as the author has offered this collection for free with no attempts to demand ransom for reading it, I have completely ignored this in giving five stars. He’s done nothing to make me doubt my assertions earlier about self-publishing, and I would love to tell the author to get himself an editor to sort out the occasional ramble and sort out interesting quirks like the predilection for capitalising far too many nouns. If he did, then he would have a collection worthy of traditional publishing (or producing as a self-published print book – either is good) and I feel certain there are editors and agents out there who would love to represent him. But as it is, even with my critical editor’s hat on, the writing is so exquisite, so beautifully phrased, that such moments are barely noticeable and don’t distract for a second. What we have here, Ladies and Gentlemen, is a fine, fine writer whose skill at penning a delightful story is completely on point.
So, if you like literary short stories (I have some of my own, by the way), and tales of the unusual and strange are also your thing, you truly can’t go wrong with Nicholas Foster’s “Thirteen Ghost Stories”. Go download the pdf or ebook right now and enjoy a few hours of unusual delight, free of charge, thanks to the charming Nicholas Foster.
Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.
His latest book is ‘Try not to Laugh’ and is a guide to memorising, revising and passing exams for students.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at email@example.com. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.
Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways, and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review.