SEASON'S LISTENING : 'High Spirits: A Collection of Ghost Stories'

Espey writes the "Classics on Cassette" column for Book Review.

What could be more appropriate for the holiday season than a collection of ghost stories? Especially when the ghosts involved are amusing rather than frightening, far distant cousins, if related at all, to the ogres that terrified us in our youth. In one sense they are descendants of the ghost of Marley; for they are all Christmas ghosts, but ghosts of a far more engaging Christmas Present than anything seen by Scrooge. And Robertson Davies, modern master of magic and creator of this baker's dozen of stories, acknowledges this debt in an engrossing tale, "Dickens Digested."

Davies himself reads the introduction to this collection with stylish zest, explaining how, when he had been appointed to the first Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, it became established that at the annual Christmas party he should tell a ghost story. Few institutions of higher learning can enjoy a happier tradition. But one does not, fortunately, need to have been exposed to graduate study to enjoy what Davies calls these "party-ghosts, emanating from high spirits." On the other hand, if one has experienced that dubious privilege, some of these ghosts may seem at times far more real than supernatural, and the hearer may go beyond empathizing with the central figure of the first story, "The Ghost Who Vanished by Degrees," and experience complete identification.

The stories themselves are read with obvious enjoyment by Christopher Plummer, who gives just the right tone to each of the characters, whether in the flesh or ectoplasm. This is high praise, for the range of Davies' interests is enormous, and he makes full use of them here. Among his favorite targets are provincialism, manners, dress, and self-pride. He can be both benign and biting, sometimes in the same breath. Who else could dream up an encounter between the ghosts of Albert Einstein and Little Lord Fauntleroy?

That meeting occurs in "Einstein and the Little Lord," and I give the title simply to indicate one of the difficulties of reviewing a collection of ghost stories. A recounting of the story itself is out of the question. It could be nothing but a condensed, pale imitation of the original, spoiling the real thing for the listener. A listing of some of the titles to be heard here may be the best solution, especially those titles that give an indication--even if a misleading one--of the delights to follow. So, in addition to those already named, the listener can look forward to "The Great Queen is Amused," "The Night of the Three Kings," "When Satan Goes Home for Christmas," and "The Ugly Spectre of Sexism." Finally, there is "Offer of Immortality." What more could one ask for?

With his interests in Jungian theory and magic, Davies, not surprisingly, has himself become a figure of legend and myth. This is a mark of his peculiar genius, something that anyone who has heard him speak or even simply looked at his current portraits can understand. One of the most enchanting details concerning him has been told to me solemnly by more than one admirer, and that is that his splendidly full beard is the result of his face having never been touched by a razor.

If Davies himself had invented this fiction I would keep my silence. But knowing that he has not, I feel free to explode that particular myth. Davies and I were contemporaries at Oxford in pre-war days. More than that, we were both members of an exclusive club, its membership limited for life to four persons. We were all clean shaven when this club was founded, though two of the members began to sport mustaches before we went down. Davies was not one of these. I have heard Davies' appearance compared to that of Michelangelo's Moses and to Freud's. But surely his model in this current role is a seasonal figure. Clearly he is the latter-day manifestation of Saint Nicholas.

The name of our club, by the way: The Long Christmas Dinner Society.

WHERE TO ORDER TAPES:

The six-cassette set is produced by Listening Library, distributed by G. K. Hall, 70 Lincoln St., Boston, MA 02111. An abridged set of two cassettes (offering six stories) is available from The American Audio Prose Library, P.O. Box 842, Columbia, MO 65205.

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