Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror is a collection of short gothic horror stories for young readers. It is an instructive read for anyone interested in writing their own horror stories, whether that be for their next assessment, for publication, or just to scare friends by the campfire. Chris Priestly employs the motifs and techniques of the gothic horror genre with some aplomb – one feels that he is enjoying himself immensely.
Apart from that, it’s just a great read. I know there will be those reading who don’t get too excited about contemporary children’s and young adults’ fiction. Teaching such books at secondary school, I sometimes felt the same. A lot of fiction chosen by schools seems written to teach the children the importance of some virtue or other – tolerance, forgiveness, teamwork or compromise, that sort of thing; often they will touch upon a tricky modern issue like homelessness, racism, divorce and so on. This is all very well for pupils’ moral education, of course, but it doesn’t always lead to the best of stories.
Uncle Montague’s tales has a refreshingly straightforward moral code that makes for satisfyingly crunchy stories: naughty children meet unfortunate ends. Priestley’s children are quite unlike the protagonists of much modern fiction, smart-talking, resourceful, reflective and considerate; they are shallow, conceited and wicked. The adults are not much better – at best clueless and at worst hypocritical and corrupt. The demons and devils that populate the stories, by contrast, are cruel and clever, at times terrifying and mocking.
The stories are set in late-Victorian or Edwardian England (with one excursion to Ottoman Turkey), and Priestly is quite fastidious about getting the details of his time and place right. Streets in Cambridge and villages in the Lake District are named, while middle-class Victorian fathers are suitably formal and pompous and their wives suitably deferential. The stories contain a lot of incidental detail that will give inquisitive children a lot to ask about – what’s a tinker? What is a ‘drove road’? Why are there abandoned villages? Adult readers on the other hand, won’t have to groan at the anachronisms and inconsistencies that can blight period fiction aimed at children. The vocabulary too is pitched at a level to stretch more able pupils.
The stories are framed by the conversation between Uncle Montague, the storyteller living in a house in the woods and his young nephew Edgar, who visits his uncle to while away the hours of his summer holiday. At the very start of the book, when Edgar has made it through the woods and has settled with his uncle in his study, the uncle ponders the secret power of trees…
‘The Norse people believed that the world was suspended between the branches of a great ash tree. Did you know that, Edgar?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘The people of the northern forests have always had a special relationship with the tree. After all, those ancient wild woods were their storehouse of building materials and fuel and food…But they were also mysterious, filled with bears and robbers and who knows what else…’
After further reflecting on Celtic and Roman practices involving trees, Uncle Montague goes on to the first story of the collection, ‘Climb Not’.
Think of a place that would make a suitable setting for a gothic horror story. Write a little introduction to that place that brings up some historical hints of ghostly goings on.