Transition: by Algernon Blackwood

A few short years ago a certain film took a hoary old twist ending and gave it a new lease of life by selling it to a generation of illiterates as something new. The writer/director, one M Night Shyamalan, was then given a blank cheque to inflict on us a series of twists so predictable as to reveal that his first film was more fluke than assimilated reading. The dead-all-the-while gambit was a staple of pulp shockers for many years, and so badly abused that it fell out of use for generations. My first encounter with it is even more unfortunate for Mr Shyamalan - it was in a short, short story by the masterful Algernon Blackwood, published about 1916.

In Transition a clerk is knocked down by a trolley-bus while carrying home Christmas presents for his wife and children. He completes the journey as a ghost, but of course no-one can see him, or his gifts. Except, that is, for his youngest child, whose much-anticipated desire for the shiny, wrapped parcels under his arms allows her to see him. So much so, in fact, that his parcels drop at her feet, while he is escorted elsewhere by Minturn, who had gone down with the Titanic.

The difference between Shyamalan and Blackwood is that the latter attempts no deception. He doesn't litter his narrative with misdirection and false clues to distract from the single idea by which his story may succeed or fail - he invites the reader to share a dead man's poignant desire to play Father Christmas from beyond the grave so that he might personally deliver the tempting fortitude of consolation to his children.

Blackwood is perhaps my favourite writer of supernatural and weird fiction, and I tend to revisit his work at Christmas, a habit most probably programmed into me by the BBC. Transition is not even one of his better stories, but it is a useful example of an almost lost art of ghosts who cannot be auto-written by the living.

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