Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror, by Chris Priestley

chris-priestleyEdgar goes to visit his eccentric Uncle Montague, who tells him scary stories about children and the things that happened to them. It’s a collection of short stories tied together by a central narrative frame. I read this book mid-October and am delighted to review it jointly with Ana from Things Mean A Lot.

Ana: One of the things I enjoyed the most about Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror was its slightly old-fashioned feel. This is true of both the stories and the illustrations by David Roberts, which reminded me a little of Edward Gorey (as I suspect they’re meant to). If someone had told me these were Edwardian creepy tales, I’d have easily believed them. Did the book feel older than it is to you too? And if so, did you like the fact that it did?

Amanda: Yes, for the most part, they did feel old-fashioned to me. There were a couple tip-offs that they were newer tales – some of the deaths were a bit more descriptively gruesome than they would have been 200 years ago, for instance – but mostly I thought Priestley kept with the traditional fairytale vibe.

In all honesty, you picked up on the only thing that I felt detracted from the book, which was the few deviations from that old-fashioned feel. For example, while most of the tales seemed to have a traditional built-in moral lesson (don’t steal, don’t lie, etc), the ones that didn’t fell a bit flat for me. Were there tales that you liked better than others? Worse?

Ana: It’s funny that you brought up the traditional “moral”, because I was planning to mention that soon! I normally really dislike stories with a specific “moral” or “message”, but I think the reason why that didn’t bother me at all in this case were because they felt so…traditional. Like you said, they had a feel a little similar to that of fairy tales, or of old-fashioned ghost stories like M.R. James‘ (the atmosphere reminded me quite a bit of James, actually). There’s also the fact that there was a bit of dark humour, Gashlycrumb Tinies style. So while most of them were cautionary tales, they were more self-consciously than moralistically so.

I did have a few favourites, though – “The Un-Door” (the story of two women who pretend to be mediums until one day, at one of their seances, are forced to face what they have been using to exploit others) and “Winter Pruning” (about an old woman, said to be a witch, who lives in a cottage with some very interesting apple trees in the garden, and about a boy who attempts to steal from her) were perhaps the top two. My least favourite was actually “Uncle Montague”, the story that ties them all together – it just felt a bit forced to me. What about you?

Amanda: Actually, I didn’t mind “Uncle Montague” – I thought it tied everything up nicely, if predictably. I expect a certain amount of predictability from my fairy tales, though, so that didn’t bother me. “Winter Pruning” and “The Un-Door” were two of my favorites, too, as well as “The Gilt Frame” (girl gets possessed by a new portrait in her home, only to find out the portrait is not what it seems). Usually, books or stories with a heavy-handed moral or message, like you said, are sort of irksome to me as well, but I like a straightforward, fable-like feel in fairy tales (even if the morality or message isn’t traditional).

“Winter Pruning” was just about perfect in message and in tale, and the last line was so frightening it made me cringe. On the other hand, there were stories that seemed kind of pointless. For instance, I didn’t understand “The Path” (a boy sets out on a journey only be find himself chased by a very grisly creature) at all. I mean, it was creepy, sure, but I didn’t see the point. Am I reading too much into this? Or did I just miss something?

Ana: I don’t think you did! Or maybe we *both* did. “The Path” was one of my least favourites too. At first I was really enjoying it, as the landscape and atmosphere were VERY creepy, but then… well, I don’t want to give away the ending, but I was left feeling like I had missed something too. I’m a bit relieved I’m not alone, to be honest 😛

I agree that the ending of “Winter Pruning” was brilliant – that story reminded me a little of Daphne du Maurier’s short fiction, and that’s high praise indeed. Returning to the final story, “Uncle Montague”, did you like the fact that there was an overall plot to the book, rather than it just being a typical collection of short stories?

Amanda: Yes, I do think that’s what I liked. I have a hard time with short story collections. Each one is their own finished product, so reading a bunch all together feels like a mini-readathon, and afterwards I remember very little about each story. I’ve come to realize I generally like short stories separate, one at a time, but with Tales of Terror, because there was an overall plot to come back to, I didn’t mind so much. I still think I’d have remembered each story better had I read them once a week instead of all in a day, but seeing Edgar and Uncle Montague’s conversations between each one helped me. What did you think about that storyline (prior to the tying together at the end)? Did you like the conversations between the two?

Ana: I have to confess that I liked some of the conversations better than others. Uncle Montague kept going “Ah, you poor ignorant sceptic – I was once like you” at Edgar, which fits the contexts of the story just fine, I know. However, those kinds of conversations tend to set me on edge: they give me flashbacks of social situations in which people corner me and I either have to politely lie, which I dislike doing, or have someone rant at me and call me “ignorant” and “close-minded” because I personally don’t believe in the supernatural 😛 But this is, of course, a very personal reaction, and I don’t expect most readers to be occasionally put off by Uncle Montague’s statements the way I was.

But back to what you were saying about short story collections – I agree, and I tend to read them more slowly than I do novels for that very same reason. I also really like collections of interlinked story, so what was there not to love here? 😀 The only thing that was a wee bit of a let down was the fact that, like I said, I expected the final revelation about Uncle Montague to be a little more exciting.

Amanda: I do like the way Uncle Montague had grown, though. I thought his story fit the theme of strengthening personal morality that ran through so many of the tales. But I understand what you mean. Personal reactions can really change the way we see a book. I imagine my affinity for Edward Gorey really helped me enjoy this book, even though he had nothing to do with it. You mentioned above that it reminded you of Gorey – what felt most Gorey-ish to you? Illustrations? The stories themselves?

Ana: The illustrations were a big part of it, yes, but the stories really reminded me of Gorey too. I think it was mostly the subtle humour. I mean, the tone of the book is quite serious, almost solemn, but at the same time it feels a bit tongue in cheek, you know? This is the same feeling I get from Gorey’s work: I felt that the author was having fun; that he didn’t take himself too seriously. That’s what kept the stories from crossing the line between cautionary and preachy; what kept the over-the-top Gothic atmosphere from becoming too much. I hope this doesn’t sound like negative criticism, because it’s truly not meant to be. I loved the fact that it was so atmospheric and more-Gothic-than-a-2nd-century-Goth. It was part of the fun. Or rather, it was the fun!

Amanda: I completely agree with you. If I hadn’t gotten the impression that the author had a great time writing this, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much. And I just love fairy tales for grownups, if you know what I mean. So few authors write that way, so it’s fun to come across them when they do. I’m glad I had the chance to read this. And I’m glad you enjoyed it, too!

Ana: Thank you again for sending it to me 😀 Hm, time for parting words, I guess? As much fun as these creepy tales were, they don’t exactly lend themselves to an in-depth discussion. Which isn’t to say they’re devoid of meaning, of course! But anyway, I enjoyed our chat, and I’d like to end this by saying that anyone who likes Victorian or Edwardian ghost stories, classic Gothic tales, Edward Gorey, Charles Adams, or just plain old deliciously creepiness should give this a go. You?

Amanda: Definitely. I’d agree – the depth here is only as deep as one might find in other children’s fairy tales, except these have a much more adult/gothy feel. I doubt we need to talk about how it’s a BAD THING to steal, right? ;P But that doesn’t stop these from being good. It was so much fun to read, and perfect for the Halloween season, or whenever you have the wish for a fun book that goes bump in the night!

About Amanda

Writing. Family. Books. Crochet. Fitness. Fashion. Fun. Not necessarily in that order. Note: agender (she/her).
This entry was posted in 2009, Children's, Prose and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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