High Spirits

Today, a venture into a sort of side-line of Robertson Davies’s narrative genius, the ghost stories told by him each Christmas while Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto. Naomi of Consumed by Ink tells us what makes these seemingly transient trifles still worth a look today — even though regrettably we cannot hear them read in the author’s inimitable voice.

Guest post by Naomi of Consumed by Ink

High Spirits

From “Stories About Storytellers” by Douglas Gibson:

“Then there was the voice. Elderly ladies who as girls in Kingston took part in theatricals in 1932 that were directed by young Rob Davies still talked more than seventy years later about his marvellous voice, and how impressively he could use it.” (p.121)

Knowing Robertson Davies’s background in theatre, it’s unsurprising that these ghost stories were originally told out loud. In addition, they were told solely as a source of entertainment to party attendees at Massey College every year at Christmas. A new story each year for eighteen years. From what I’ve read about Robertson Davies so far (which is admittedly not much), I imagine he was in his glory telling these stories. I also imagine the stories would have been even more delightful to listen to than they are to read. I’m sorry I will never get to hear one.

The ghost stories in “High Spirits” are not scary – they are intended to “amuse”, not to “frighten”. And in this he succeeds. They are delightfully funny and creative. Even the introductions to each story are amusing, building on the last as the years go by. As well, they all take place at Massey College or are connected to it in some way.

“… this College is well advanced in its eleventh year, and we have had a ghost story every Christmas. Ten ghosts, surely, is enough for any college? In a modern building, such a superfluity of ghosts is almost a reflection on the contractors. Or could it, on the other hand, be some metaphysical emanation from the spirit of the Founders who were, to a man, connoisseurs of ‘bizarrerie’? Or – and this, I assure you, is where the canker gnaws – is there something about me that attracts such manifestations? There are men who attract dogs. There are men of a very different kind who attract women. Can it be that I attract ghosts?”

As the main character in his stories, Davies runs into a host of ghosts or spirits, ranging from a future master of Massey College to Satan himself. Canadian authors such as Ernest Thomas Seton and Mrs. Susanna Moodie hang around, “clamouring to be reborn” (“’Perhaps they hope that this time they might be born American authors,’ said I”). King George the Fifth comes to Massey College to search for a valuable stamp that his “ass of a secretary” used on a letter to Mr. Massey in 1934. Davies partakes in The Charlottetown Banquet with Sir John A. Macdonald, where he couldn’t help but ask if Sir John A. had seen Expo ’67. “’I certainly did,’ said he, laughing heartily, ‘and I took special trouble to be there at the end when they were adding up the bill. The deficit was roughly eight times the total budget of this Dominion for the year 1867.’”

Mackenzie King, tenth prime minister of Canada

One year, Davies runs across a student named Tubfast Weatherwax III who believes he is Little Nell from Charles Dickens’s novel. Another year, he finds a frog named Igor that has been cursed and believes the only way to lift the curse is to be kissed by Khrushchev. The spirit of William Lyon MacKenzie King inhabits a small table that was bought as a gift for the Davies’ daughter. Albert Einstein comes to play “Bach’s Six Sonatas for Clavier and Violin”, with Einstein on the violin and Davies on the piano. (“I was a musical marvel.”)

My favourite story in the collection was inspired by the first “uncanny tale” Davies read when he was ten – “Frankenstein” – which terrified him “unforgettably and gloriously”. After hearing their professor lament about the loss of all the Massey cats to Trinity College, two of his students (Victor Frank Einstein and his girlfriend Elizabeth Lavenza) decide to create the Ideal College Cat. They build a Frankenstein-like cat, twelve times the size of a regular cat, put together using pieces from twelve regular cats and two goat eyes. It can talk like a Victorian novel, has a shovel on the end of its tail to clean up after itself, and has such a mighty tongue that it tears the skin off Davies’s hand when it licks him. I’ll leave it to you to discover what happens in the end.

The final story in the collection is, in my opinion, the creepiest (although, Franken-cat comes in at a close second). A four-hundred-and-fifty-year-old visitor comes to Massey College from his Cryonics Institute in South America, scouting for “candidates”. He seems to run on vinegar, rather than food and water, and has other odd requirements. Which result in a shocker of an ending.

Some good lines…

“Canada needs ghosts, as a dietary supplement, a vitamin taken to stave off that most dreadful of modern ailments, the Rational Rickets.”

“I wish I could either forget both faces and names, or remember both.”

“It pleased me to hear the Ghost quote Scripture; if we must have apparitions, by all means let them be literate.”

“Nakedness is unfriendly to a clumsy curtsy.”

“It used to be said that cobbler’s children were always barefoot; by some kindred freak of Fate author’s houses are always barren of pencils and paper.”

15 thoughts on “High Spirits

  1. These stories sound delightful! Thank you for the lovely review.

    Lory, I have not yet read all the Robertson Davies posts here but am looking forward to settling down with cup of tea and working my way through them. I am particularly curious about the essays. Thank you for hosting this! I feel its revived my love of RD.

    I have posted a review of What’s Bred in the Bone on my blog (https://gallimaufry.typepad.com/blog/2019/08/whats-bred-in-the-bone-by-robertson-davies.html)


  2. Thanks for this introduction to RD’s ghost stories, Naomi, not sure what I expected but it wasn’t mischievous humour! And those choice quotes which are cheeky enough on the page (or, in this case, screen) but would have extra ‘resonance’ (literally as well as metaphorically?) when told by RD. I wonder if recordings of his voice are available? I should browse a bit…


    1. I was hoping to find a recording of him telling one of these stories, but couldn’t find one. There are quite a few other recordings of him, though, that are definitely worth exploring!


  3. These stories sound delightful, Naomi, and I can picture Davies’ delight in the responses from his audiences. Ghost stories that aren’t terrifying are perfect for me, so I’m eager to read this collection.


  4. Oh, I’d forgotten that Davies had a volume of Christmas ghost stories. We explored the ghost story at Christmas tradition recently at my house; I wrote a post on quotations about ghosts (Dec. 25, 2018).
    When I was in Geneva, a tour guide pointed to one of the mountains rising sheer behind the lake and told us it was the mountain that inspired Mary Shelley to write the scene in which the monster climbs up the side of a mountain after murdering his maker’s younger brother.


  5. It sounds like there is a perfect number of these to read one a week until the end of the year. And I think I might do just that! I can hear his delivering these, with just the right tone. And I love the way he described his experience with Frankenstein!


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