It's a fearsome task for authors to make readers feel afraid these days. They all seem to have been there, screamed at all that. Haunted houses are passe. Even murderous cellphones, toothy vaginas, mail order cannibals and happiness sucking insects have to pull out all stops to scare the readers. But what if the author doesn't try so hard to scare us at all? What if instead he tries to make us acquainted with individuals, not creatures, from the other side of the clearing, on a first name basis? These individuals are a little different, little darker and little more pensive than us, but deep down, not so different at all. These are the individuals who Ruskin Bond brings to the table, for a midnight snack, in Face In The Dark And Other Hauntings: Collected Stories of the Supernatural. This collection brings together all of Ruskin Bond's tales of the paranormal written over five decades. As he says in the introduction, "you don't have to believe in ghosts in order to enjoy a ghost story. And while a good ghost story may not turn you into a believer in the supernatural, it can make you ponder upon the mysteries of human existence, and raise the possibility of another layer of life outside..."
Not that he believes in them either. But he can't help but see them all the time - in the woods, in a bar, even in a crowd outside a cinema. They don't scare him though. "For ghosts," he says, "are not intent on frightening us. Most visitors from the other side are melancholy spirits looking for a lost love or a lost home. They are unquiet, unhappy souls, haunting the places they once knew." And he should know. He has met more than his fair share of them. And from the way he writes about them with such empathy, even affection, you would think he is one of them too. His apparition is reported to have asked the bartender at the Writer's Bar, Savoy Hotel Mussoorie, whether he serves spirits. And apparently, the bartender complied.
In short, this collection is as familiar as you would get with the paranormal world. The twenty eight stories are more often heartwarming than heart-stoppingly scary and sometimes even hilarious, because, according to Mr. Bond, the supernatural has its funny side too. It opens with perhaps his best-known story, ' A Face in the Dark'. In a pine forest in the outskirts of Simla, Mr. Oliver, a lonely teacher, realises that absence of the natural can be more frightening than the presence of the unnatural. In 'The Monkeys', retribution doesn't stop in death. In 'The Haunted Bicycle', perhaps the scariest of the collection, children shed their sweet selves and become something else altogether. 'The Vision' leaves dews in our eyes and a lump in our throats, hardly something you'd expect from a ghost story. 'Topaz' is a bitter-sweet tale of love and loss. 'The Black Cat', 'The Trouble with Jinns', 'Ganpat's Story', 'The Haunted Bungalow' and 'The Family Ghost' are the paranormal stories with all the whimsy and laughter you were promised by the author in the introduction. 'Whispering in the Dark' and 'On Fairy Hill' put a rare drop of physical longing in the usual mix of melancholy and darkness and make them wholesome treats. 'Would Astley Return' again makes us think how alike ghosts and human are. After all, they have been humans not very long ago. A book of merely hundred and ninety seven pages, it's perfect for a muggy evening which turns into midnight before you even know it. And while you finally go to sleep, you will surely have no nightmares. We can't think of any other collection of paranormal which can claim that.
In a collection with so many stories, it's downright uncivil to expect every story to be a masterpiece. But we see a common strain among the stories that leave us cold (pun intended), i.e., 'Night of the Millennium' or 'The Prize' . These are the stories where he has strayed beyond his ambit - the hills, the common people, and the simple joys of life. His characters in those stories seem like caricatures and plots contrived. We would rather not have him experimenting. We adore him just the way he is.