Musings on Mary Danby…

Yesterday, I pontificated on the processes involved in the editing I’ve been doing over the last fortnight – today, I’ll ruminate on the other job I’ve been involved with over the same time period. Regular visitors to this blog will know that I have been scanning in the short stories of Mary Danby, in preparation for the release of a retrospective collection of her work to be published by Noose and Gibbet Publishing early next year. I have to admit that, before this year, I’d only vaguely heard of this prolific author, as I’d never read any of the books that she was involved in editing or writing for. Strange though it may appear, when I was a child I very rarely read children’s books, preferring to read my Dad’s small collection of sci-fi books by many of the greats, as well as authors like Michael Moorcock and Tolkien (the only concession to children’s literature I remember was reading the Alfred Hitchcock presents The Three Investigators series of books and a select few others).

Volunteering to scan in so many of her stories has been a delight, and an undiscovered gem that I’m sorry I missed when I was younger. Of course, I am reading them now through the eyes of an adult, and a slightly cynical and jaded one at that. When you develop and hone your critical faculties as you become older, it’s far too easy to dismiss such stories as bland efforts to scare children and younger teenagers. However, those same critical faculties allow you to discern that, while presumably having to write to a certain formula for the market that many of the books Danby edited and wrote for were aimed at, there’s also a firm sense that she knew how to speak to youngsters without talking down to them AND also talking to them in terms they could relate to. It’s readily apparent that she remembered what it was like to be a teenager, with all its attendant troubles, like school and trying to negotiate the complexities of friendships, first loves and the intimidating (and often very confusing) world of the adult.

In addtion, Danby never once underestimates the intelligence or sophistication of the young reader – by the time that he or she has reached the age-group that Danby was writing for, they’d probably have already discovered that life is nowhere near as rosy, cosy or simple as stories from their childhood years had painted, and that in fact life could be very unfair. Heroes don’t always win, and the people you least expect bad things to happen to often find themselves going through horrendous circumstances. A good case in point is Arbor Day, the first story I scanned. The automatic assumption, in a perfect world, is that the spoilt rich-kid Stephanie, with her lofty and slightly condescencing character, would be the one who would be brought down a peg or two – instead, it’s the other girl, Lisa, who finds herself on the receiving end of cosmic justice (for want of a better description). Or The Natterjack, where the genteel occupant of a country cottage comes up against a malign force of nature and the results are definitely not what one would normally expect (or want, for that matter).

Reading the stories through, it’s also immediately evident that they would instantly appeal on so many different levels to teens, with a broad stock of stories containing tales of revenge, sprinkled with elements of surprise, odd, macabre twists and just general nastiness. Many of them I would have loved as a child, appreciating the twists and turns and, in one or two cases, the squirm-inducing nature of the plots (Slugs being a prime example of that). I can honestly imagine reading some of these at bedtime, under the blankets with the lights out and nothing but a torch to read by. These stories are the sort of precarious thrill that every child of the type that I was would have have delighted in.

Her stories for older people, young adults maybe, I felt were less successful, although Keeping in Touch put me in mind of Robert W. Chambers (author of the deeply shiver-inducing The King in Yellow) in terms of atmospherics. Stories of haunted individuals, ghosts themselves despite being clothed in living flesh and blood, are, in many respects, scarier and more moving than tales of actual ghosts. In this tale in particular, it isn’t even the supernatural elements that frighten – it’s the narrator himself, despite his outwardly calm demeanour, that causes the most shivers. I would go on to say that, out of all the stories I’ve scanned so far, this has been by far and away the best.

I still have a couple of tales to scan as of this writing, plus I am expecting a second batch to arrive any day now. No doubt I’ll pass comment on those after I’ve finished with those as well. In the meantime, I can say that I am glad to have had an oversight corrected – albeit bearing with it a smidgin of regret that I didn’t read the Armada and Fontana books when I was younger, a time when I would have felt their impact even more. Having said that, it’s marvellous that I’ve been given the opportunity to discover and get to know Mary Danby’s body of work over the preceding weeks. I’m looking forward to seeing the finished product – and I can hazard a guess at this stage that it’ll be worth your while investing in a copy yourselves.

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