I’ve chosen to officially kickoff my Halloween related posts with Northwest Passages by Barbara Roden. Barbara is one half of the team behind Ash-Tree Press, the other half being her husband Christopher. (You could say I unofficially started with Maplecroft or possibly Bleeding Shadows.)
I chose this particular volume because it’s been a while since I read any ghost or spook stories in the classical vein. If you’re familiar with Ash-Tree Press, you know they’re the foremost publisher of ghost stories in the world. So you would expect an author like Roden to know her stuff. You’d be right, too.Northwest Passages contains nine stories in ebook form and ten in the hardcover edition. (I think the hardcover is out of print. Amazon lists it as temporarily out of stock, while Prime Books only lists the ebook.) I bought my (signed) copy of the hardcover a few years ago from the author, but there are copies available at ABE if you want the hardcover and the additional story.
While not all of the stories have ghosts, all of them are firmly grounded in the supernatural and the spooky. They’re the type of story where you realize that those little details dropped along the way aren’t simply there for window dressing. Most of the stories are full of atmosphere.
The settings vary, from contemporary to historical, from the English country-side to urban to the prairies of Canada to the polar regions, both north and south. The ones I liked the best had to do with exploration. Both Michael Dirda in his introduction and Roden herself in the story notes talk about her interest in the early Arctic and Antarctic explorers. The author puts this interest to good use.
“Endless Night” concerns the diary of an expedition to Antarctica, one in which there is one more member of the expedition than can be counted. “The Brink of Eternity” deals with a man searching for the entrance to the Hollow Earth in the northern polar regions, a riff on the Hollow Earth theory of John Cleves Symmes. Roden uses quotes from fictitious books and journals to add a sense of verisimilitude to her work, which only pulls the reader deeper into the tale.
But the strongest story dealing with exploration is the World Fantasy Award nominated title story “Northwest Passage.” Opening with a quote from Stan Rogers’ song of the same title (Rogers is always a good person to refer to), this story concerns two young men who move into an abandoned mining cabin up in the mountains of British Columbia and the elderly resident who befriends them. Read this one for yourself and see why it got the World Fantasy Award nomination.
I liked all the stories, but two others that really stood out for me. One was “The Wide, Wide Sea”, in which a new bride joins her husband in Canada. He’s gone ahead of her to establish their homestead out on the prairie. It’s nothing like what she expects. The isolation and empty landscape are almost more she can bear. Too bad her desire for companionship while her husband is in the fields is only met by a former neighbor’s wife, a woman who died in a blizzard before her arrival.
“After” appears to be exclusive to the hardcover edition. It’s a chilling tale of possession and murder based an actual events. Roden says she was inspired by the book The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale. I’ve had a copy of this book on the shelf for a couple of years now. I really need to pull it down and read it.
If you like your ghost stories, or spook stories if you prefer, then Barbara Roden is someone you should check out. Especially as the days are growing shorter and that chill in the air might be more than just the weather. Since the publication of Northwest Passages in 2011, she’s continued to publish stories. I’m hoping there will be another collection along soon.