William Croft Dickinson (1897 ~ 1963) was an English historian and writer. He was one of the foremost experts in the history of early modern Scotland (his first scholarly work appeared in The Scottish Historical Review in 1922) and the author of both fiction for children and ghost stories for adults. Dickinson loved a good story; one of his many accomplishments whilst at the University of St. Andrews, which he attended from 1915, 'is said to have been spinning impossible yarns to unwary visitors'.*
Dickinson's first volume of supernatural stories, The Sweet Singers, and Three Other Remarkable Occurrents, was published by Oliver and Boyd in 1953. The four stories that book contained ('The Sweet Singers', 'Can These Stones Speak?', 'The Eve of St. Botulph', and 'Return at Dusk') were later republished, along with nine other tales, in Dark Encounters, by Harvill Press in 1963. A second edition of Dark Encounters, with identical contents aside from the addition of an introduction by Susan Dickinson, the author's daughter, was published by John Goodchild in 1984 (see the image below). Written in the tradition of M. R. James, his stories have been referred to as 'Ghost Stories of a Scottish Antiquary'.
If you like tales about bookish scholars going poking around in ruined places that are best left unpoked, or uncovering dusty old manuscripts that are best left undiscovered and unread, then you're bound to like Dark Encounters. Of all the tales in the collection, to my mind the first five are the best. They will leave you in no doubt that scholarly curiosity is a dangerous thing!
In ‘The Keepers of the Wall’, Robson, a new Professor of Mediaeval Archaeology, tells of an experience he had just before he travelled to Edinburgh to take up his new post. The events in the professor’s tale take place on the west coast of Scotland, in the twelfth-century castle of Dunross. Robson, wanting to examine a section of the ruins one more time and make alterations to his drawings of them, tells the crofter he is staying with that he intends to return to the castle at night. ‘You cannot go there after the dark,’ the crofter replies. ‘It would be madness. You would not come back. The wall would shut you in.’ According to the crofter, the bodies of six MacLeods were buried at the foot of one of the castle walls by their enemies, the MacDonalds, so that their ghosts would hold the structure secure. You wouldn’t think a simple stone wall could be menacing, but you’d be wrong.
In the second story, ‘Return at Dusk’, a Professor of Anthropology by the name of Drummond tells his students a tale about events in Cairntoul Castle in Mar, in the winter of 1939-40. Sent there by the War Office at the beginning of the Second World War, to take charge of a special section devoted to counter-espionage, he finds that he is not alone in his turret room at twilight.
‘Now what made me look up into that mirror, I cannot say. But look up I did, and, as I looked into the mirror, I saw that the door to the turret was slowly opening. I watched that door opening like one fascinated, and, somehow, I could neither move nor cry out. Slowly the opening grew wider and wider. Then a face appeared, peering round the side of the door. In the mirror, the face seemed to look straight into mine, but in the twilight I could recognize no features - just the blur of a face, that, and no more.’
The narrator of ‘The Eve of St Botulph’ is reading a copy of the Scottish Historical Review when the university librarian, Mair, puts a folded packet of old papers in front of him. On the outside of the packet, written in a neat hand, are the words: ‘To be opened in the event of my failure to return. Alexander Hutton.’ According to Mair, Hutton was a minor antiquary of the early nineteenth century, and, as he must be long dead, the two men decide it is safe to open the package. Inside is an account of Hutton’s visit to Kirkcudbright, where he went to examine the newly discovered chronicle of the Abbey of Dundrennan, and where he deciphered the strange sections of text within it which had been expunged... much to his own detriment.
‘For two whole days I was fully and happily occupied with my manuscript. But now all that has changed, and I am disturbed and distracted. For today, for the first time, I have examined those three strange passages. Today I have paid a visit to the north grange of the Abbey, and there “imagined” things. Tonight I shall visit the north grange again, “on the eve of St Botulph”.’
The thing about these antiquarians (and I can't point the finger, because I am just as bad) is that they will insist on reading old manuscripts, exploring ancient ruins, and doing all the things they're warned not to. The moment a bundle of old papers turns up, they should run for the hills, but they cannot resist the urge to investigate, and I'm so glad that they can't. ‘The Eve of St Botulph’ is one of my favourite tales of the collection.
In ‘Can These Stones Speak?’, Henderson, a mediaeval historian, tells of his visit to the home of his friend Alexander Lindsay, the University Librarian, who lives in a house called The Monal - one of the historic old houses purchased, renovated and rented out by the university. Lindsay, having discovered an old manuscript containing information that relates to his house and its ghost, invites Henderson to stay in his ‘pillared room’, which was built in 1574 using stones taken from the wall of an old nunnery where a nun had been immured. Woken during the night by strange sounds in his room, Henderson is forced, as echoes of the past invade the present, to listen to the scrape, tap-tap, scrape of a bricklayer’s trowel.
The narrator of ‘The Work of Evil’ is invited by Maitland Allan, Keeper of Printed Books, to view a special collection of volumes on the subject of black magic and necromancy that once belonged to John, third Earl of Gowrie, who, while a law student at Padua, dabbled in magic and witchcraft. One of the volumes, ‘only one small book, yet it is evil itself’, is kept separate from the others, in a locked safe. The book, Allan insists, strangles to death anyone who reads it.
Sadly, Dickinson seems to have been all but forgotten by modern readers. The situation isn't helped by the rarity of his book of ghost stories. It's seems nigh on impossible to find a fine copy of the first edition of Dark Encounters. A very good copy costs in the region of eighty pounds ($135), if you can find one. The second edition in fine condition, or any condition at all for that matter, seems to be even harder to find; the only copy I've ever seen is my own. As I can't find a copy listed for sale at the moment, I haven't a clue what the price of one would be. But all is not lost, for the Kindle edition is available for $6.99 from the Ash-Tree Press website.
* Imrie, John: 'William Croft Dickinson: A Memoir 1897-1963', The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 45, No. 139, April 1966.