Tag Archives: Ghost Stories

The Visitors Book and Other Ghost Stories – Sophie Hannah

There are three types of stories that I love in the autumn and winter months; gothic tales, Victorian sensations and ghost stories. It is the perfect time for all three in my opinion. I especially love a short sharp ghost story to unsettle me just before bed (I am not a believer that ghost stories are just for Halloween) which is possibly a bit weird. Sophie Hannah’s new collection The Visitors Book and Other Ghost Stories is the perfect fodder as I discovered when I read a story a night a few weeks ago.

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Sort Of Books, 2015, hardback, ghost stories, 96 pages, bought by myself for myself

In her (brilliant) crime novels Sophie Hannah usually sets out to find a seemingly impossible crime and, after covering up her tracks cleverly, making it all too plausible by the end of it. In this collection of four ghostly tales she uses that deft touch to make the everyday and the ordinary unsettling and rather chilling. This might mean that these tales won’t have you jumping out of your seat screaming in fear (but not many ghost stories do it is not their intention) instead each story disturbed me, and stayed with me, because it was in many ways conceivable and because of the atmosphere and twist in each tale. How to explain this without giving each of the endings or twists away is going to be bothersome in a whole different way.

 In the title story, and indeed the opener, The Visitors Book a woman goes to her boyfriends house for the first time where upon he becomes insistent that she sign the visitors book that he has in the hall, the more she refuses the more intense he gets. In The Last Boy To Leave a woman holds a party for her child only to discover that afterwards one of the children, who she hadn’t really noticed, hasn’t been picked up by his parents. All the Dead Mothers of My Daughter’s Friends sees motherly competition at the school gates take on a whole other meaning and in Justified True Belief someone has started seeing ghosts in the street, the question is why?

The second thing I notice about the woman waiting to cross the road is that the roots of her teeth are visible and blackened where they meet the gum. I see them clearly as she talks; dark flashes in her pink mouth. She hasn’t noticed that the green man is illuminated. Her friend has, but doesn’t want to interrupt. Both are smartly dressed, with laminated name badges on strings around their necks. I can’t read their names. The friend, the listener, is considerably more attractive. How could she not be, when the speaking woman is a ghost?
Which was the first thing I noticed about her.

What I loved about this collection, and what I think makes all great ghostly tales a perfect thrill, is that in none of the four did I even guess the way that it was going. Somehow in a condensed space of words Sophie Hannah manages to take you in one direction before pulling you down a dark alley you hadn’t even noticed ahead of you, it was just out the corner of your eye right in your blind spot. This is as deeply satisfying, entertaining and thrilling as it is in her crime fiction.

Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again…
Manderley, in the novel, is a vast country estate. Would Rebecca have become a classic if Maxim De Winter had lived in a two-bedroomed terrace in in Walthamstow? No, it would not. Mrs Danvers would have had to sleep in the second bedroom. A stone’s throw from the first; she’d have heard her boss and his new wife having sex through the partition wall.

I used the above quote for two reasons, well three as naturally if any book mentions Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca it needs to be acknowledged and gives me the chance to remind you that if you haven’t read it then you really should. Anyway, where was I? Yes, the quote… What I thought this highlights is twofold. Firstly, it shows both Hannah’s wonderful sense of humour which I like, sprinkled with a hint of sauce, and Hannah’s nod to the gothic greats. Secondly, I think Du Maurier could make a classic tale set in a two bedroomed semi detached in Walthamstow  if she had been given a chance, and Sophie Hannah certainly could as she makes the domestic and the ‘normal’ somehow very other, it is the strength of the whole collection.

If you are after a thrill and chill or two then I would highly recommend The Visitors Book and Other Stories, it is a slight and solid spooky selection that I think would be a wonderful addition to your autumn or winter reading – or even better as an extra gift in someone’s stocking for a festive fright or two.

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Filed under Ghost Stories, Review, Sophie Hannah, Sort of Books

Poor Souls’ Light; Seven Curious Tales

Almost a year ago I told you about a collection of short stories entitled The Longest Night; Five Curious Tales. These were just the right sort of ghostly tales you need around Christmas and saw some authors I love such as Jenn Ashworth, Alison Moore and Emma Jane Unsworth who collectively self published it and went on spooky nights here there and everywhere telling these tales and discussing ghost stories. Well guess what? It has only come back for a second year. Last year it was five tales in homage, of sorts, to M.R. James; this year it is seven tales in homage (again of sorts) to Robert Aickman. Now as you know I have some issue with Aickman’s tales, so when I realised that I did a small wince before getting going…

Curious Tales, 2014, paperback, fiction, ghost stories, 140 pages, kindly sent by Emma Jane Unsworth

Having read Aickman I can see how the stories by Jenn Ashworth, Alison Moore, Johnny Mains, Tom Fletcher, Richard Hirst, Emma Jane Unsworth and M. John Harrison are all inspired by his works as they all have elements of the supernatural and the ‘weird’ about them. If, like me (as you may have seen recently), you find Aickman and the ‘weird’ a little too, erm, weird then fret not.

Even when the element of the strange rather than supernatural or ghostly is there, even in the most Aickman like tale Blossom by Mains which really plays homage to The Hospice the story of Aickmans I most loved, it never goes to the point where the plot is spoiled by the weirdness or the reader feels somewhat played unfairly by the author. I admit there was a scene in Blossom which had me thinking ‘WTF?’ yet Mains handles it really well and the plot gets even darker after with a real sting in the tales tail.

The rest of the tales veer more to the traditional edges of the ghost story. For example with both Alison Moore’s The Spite House and M. John Harrison’s Animals deal with haunted houses though in very different ways. One is very much about a house haunted by its past and something it lived through, the other is very much about how a house feels about someone who returns to it and the imprints of how those who lived in it felt about the returned person. I enjoyed both of these especially the element of the house as a character within the narrative, or almost with its own narrative itself.

The cottage could be quiet, especially in the early evening, when the lane, with its fringe of trees against the setting sun, filled up with shadows. She heard what she thought were movements, half drowned by the sound of the radio she kept in the kitchen, even in the day. ‘It must be the central heating,’ she thought, but soon it became clear that these sounds were actually voices. Whatever room Susan was in, she heard them somewhere else.

Emma Jane Unsworth’s Smoke takes on the tale of someone becoming haunted by something, indeed something that follows them afterwards wherever they go. I am not being funny but the idea of seeing something ghostly and then it following you to the ends of the earth/your bed, or in this case around Europe, is something I find truly creepy and Unsworth nicely plays with that primal fear. Tom Fletcher also plays with the primal fear of being followed yet in The Exotic Dancer it is the case of a stranger following you with their eyes and their intent. Fletcher’s tale too is incredibly creepy and the setting of an old canal tow path and the industrial edge of a town/city is spot on. It has reminded me how much I want to read his novels.

In a collection where there isn’t a dud note you shouldn’t really have a favourite, yet I had two. As you might have guessed I really enjoyed them all, Richard Hirst’s and Jenn Ashworth’s tales just edged it; I think Ashworth’s in particular should be put forward for every short story award going. Now both of them have a couple of twists so I don’t want to spoil them so I will tread carefully. Hirst’s And The Children Followed is set around evacuees in one of the World Wars, it is vague about which not that it matters, as a recently bereaved (and going off the rails) young woman grieves for a sibling. I will say no more than that on the plot but as the tale goes on and the dread and horror mount I was instantly reminded of Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery, you will gasp at the end. Ashworth’s story I actually want to say almost nothing about, other than it will turn a ghostly tale on its head for you and have you asking all sorts of questions. That is all, oh and it’s bloody marvellous with the games it plays and how she cleverly lets it unfold and toys with the reader in the best o f ways, marvellous.

I embrace her but she only shivers and pulls away to turn all the radiators on the house onto their highest setting. I wait for her in our bedroom, worrying about my cough and my breath, which is starting to smell like mushrooms, even to myself. She will not come up, but begins again to scrub the kitchen floor.

All in all a great collection again from the Curious Tales crew/collective, one that I would heartily recommend you get your mitts on and get reading over these dark winter nights. I have often said that I think modern ghost stories are very difficult to get right, this collection proves me completely wrong and I am thrilled.

If you are looking to get a copy you best hurry as there is a limited run of just 500 of them in print. I am not sure what the plan is on eBooks. For more info and to buy it head to the website here where you can also find out about some live events ahead this month and next – erm, massive hint guys bring it to Liverpool at some point or else, I know just the place! Now I am in the mood for more ghostly tales, so which ghost stories and collections would you recommend I go and hunt down?

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Filed under Alison Moore, Curious Tales, Emma Jane Unsworth, Ghost Stories, Johnny Mains, M. John Harrison, Review, Richard Hirst, Short Stories, Tom Fletcher

Spooky Stories…

As you will all know tomorrow is Halloween which is one of my favourite days of the year. I think it comes second to Boxing Day, seriously these are both above my birthday and Christmas in terms of times of cheer and joy for me. Anyway, it will be Halloween and I don’t know about you but I am in just the right mood for some spooky stories and tales of terror. Which ones to read though?

Well, funny you should ask that as I have made a little selection of potential books which I thought I would share with you in case you need inspiration, though I would love more recommendations from you below…

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Cold Hand in Mine
by Robert Aickman – Recently republished by Faber & Faber, this second collection of Aickman’s ‘ strange stories’ is supposed to be one of his creepiest, weirdest and most chilling. I am really looking forward to reading these, they also happen to be my latest choice for Hear Read This when we record in a couple of weeks so I hope they are in Gav’s suitcase while he travels around America.

Say Her Name by James Dawson – I have been meaning to read this for ages, James is now the ruling Queen of Teen and should really be the Queen of Scream as his wonderful novels are like better written Point Horrors for the current generation – and I love Point Horrors! I feel especially bad for not reading this sooner as I challenged James to write this one as I said modern ghost stories can’t be scary. This will definitely be my next creepy read.

The Mist in the Mirror by Susan Hill. I think Susan Hill is a legend at ghost stories, well I think she is a legend in all the forms she writes in. This is one of the few of her ghostly tales that I haven’t read and is guaranteed to give me the chills. Delightful. It has also reminded me that I have an anthology somewhere of ghostly tales chosen by Hill, that could be another addition. I am currently reading one of the Simon Serrailler series of crime novels by Susan and it is marvellous.

The Orphan Choir by Sophie Hannah. Sophie Hannah is most well known for her psychological thrillers (which I often find spookier than ghost stories as I mention on this episode of The Readers) and also for recently writing a new Poirot novel. Last year she wrote this spooky tale for the newly reinvigorated Hammer Horror imprint. It is another book I cannot believe I haven’t read yet, mind you like Susan Hill I am very behind with Sophie’s series. Shame on me.

The Mistletoe Bride and Other Stories by Kate Mosse. I have yet to read any of Kate Mosse’s novels. I tried reading Labyrinth when it came out in paperback and wasn’t in the right mood for it. I actually have this collection, subtitled ‘haunting tales’, and the equally creepy sounding The Taxidermists Daughter high up on my TBR. I sometimes like a short story collection as a way into a new author, and also ghost stories can be particularly spooky or chilling in the shorter form.

I know I have recommended it endless times but if you fancy a fast an chilling read do grab The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. Oh and I also must recommend Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter. I will also have a ghostly tale up for discussion on the blog tomorrow. So which books will you be curling up with on Halloween night? Have you read any of the books I have selected? Which books would you recommend?

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The Longest Night: Five Curious Tales

I have often said that to write a really good ghost story in a modern setting is almost impossible. However a recent collection of five wintery ghostly tales The Longest Night by a collective compiled of authors Jenn Ashworth, Tom Fletcher, Richard Hirst, Alison Moore and Emma Jane Unsworth seems to have proven me wrong. Whilst I read each of these tales, which are designed to emulate M.R James’ tradition on Christmas Eve (so very apt today) of meeting with friends to exchange tales of the supernatural, I found that I often was either chilled, shocked or felt the hairs on my neck slowly begin to rise as I read on.

Curious Tales, 2013, paperback, fiction, ghost stories, 88 pages, kindly sent by Emma Jane Unsworth

The Longest Night isn’t a collection of stories designed to revolutionise or modernise the ghostly tale, as what each author does rather marvellously is give the tale a truly Victorian feeling yet very much in a modern setting. If you are wondering what on earth I mean by that, I mean that the stories feel very traditional with modern twist. We have old haunted houses, slightly scary children who might be possessed or at least can speak to the dead, ghostly ladies returning from the grave and of course the wonderful scares a telephone can provide. Why is it that the simple telephone can be so bloody unnerving? All these tales also have the feeling of you being told the tale firsthand, as Stephen Volk (who created the cult show Ghostwatch) says in the introduction of ‘No listen. This happened to me…’, a celebration of the oral tradition of the ghostly tale. In fact, frankly, I wanted to be sat by a roaring fire with a mulled wine being told these tales by the authors themselves – which if you pop to the site you will see they are doing, well in bookshops anyway. I feel slightly cheated I have missed out.

Now you may have noticed that I am being rather vague, or actually haven’t really mentioned, about what lies in wait within each of the tales. This is because as they are all rather short, again the traditional and best ghostly tales are short sharp shocks, and so I wouldn’t want to spoil them. I think I can get away with saying that Alison Moore (who wrote the brilliant The Lighthouse) and Tom Fletcher’s stories are probably the most traditional in terms of setting and sensibility, both set within empty houses; one the former estate of a famous author, the other a new house in the middle of nowhere where a house husband starts to feel something not quite right is going on and seems to be linking itself to his young daughter. I loved these as they felt like the sorts of tales that Arthur Conan Doyle and M.R. James would indeed write now.

I also greatly admired the three tales by Ashworth, Hirst and Unsworth as whilst each one of them had the traditional feel, they also had something of the urban legend about them mixed in and probably most importantly they had the evocation of modern human base fears mixed in with the supernatural. In each tale there is an underlying completely natural fear be it grief, loneliness or madness. With those feelings we all know so well plus the sense of unease and fearful trepidation they all had a horribly, yet brilliantly, heady mix of the fearful running right into every part of their structure and it was really deftly done.

All in all a marvellous, very well written and indeed incredibly unsettling collection of modern winter ghostly tales which I think would have gladly given the contemporary ghost writers of the past a real case of the shivers. I am hoping this becomes a yearly fixture as I could do with a decidedly chilling evening in the pre-Christmas madness once a year, or more often frankly.

For more information about the last few available copies and indeed where the authors will be reading in the New Year head to the Curious Tales website here.

Which are your favourite ghostly tales for the perfect darkened evening with the roaring fire (I don’t have a roaring fire here, which along with the lack of a bath has confirmed in my mind I need to have moved by next winter just for reading purposes alone) be they new or old? Do you think the Victorians did it best? Have you any other modern ghostly tales that will continue to prove my thoughts on the modern ghost story wrong?

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Filed under Alison Moore, Curious Tales, Emma Jane Unsworth, Jenn Ashworth, Review, Richard Hirst, Tom Fletcher

Printer’s Devil Court – Susan Hill

So I thought as it is Halloween and now here in the UK it is all dark and the witching hour approaches I would give you a second special rather apt post about ‘Printer’s Devil Court’, the latest ghost story from Susan Hill. I am sure many, many, many of you will have read ‘The Woman in Black’, which is one of my favourite ghost stories of all time, and then possibly gone on to ‘The Man In The Picture’, ‘The Mist in the Mirror’ (which I have yet to read), ‘The Small Hand’ or ‘Dolly’. Well unlike those other novellas, ‘Printer’s Devil Court’ is rather different as it is a Kindle Single, yes I have finally gone and bought an e-book… I know! More on that later, let us get to the ghostly tale.

Long Barn Books, 2013, Kindle Single, fiction, 44 pages, bought by my good self

Long Barn Books, 2013, Kindle Single, fiction, 44 pages, bought by my good self

As the short story opens we are greeted with a letter from a solicitors to the step son of the late Dr Hugh Meredith containing a manuscript he had written before he died, it is this that makes the tale of ‘Printer’s Devil Court’. It seems Hugh, who had become a country doctor had started his medical learning and career in London sharing  accommodation with James, Rafe and Walter in Mrs Ratchet’s lodgings of ‘Printer’s Devil Court’. Rafe and Walter are a rum pair, Hugh not knowing whether to trust them of not, one night however in trying to bond Rafe and Walter start to discuss doing some extracurricular experiments and research and in a bid to be more popular and liked Hugh foolishly decides to help, the consequences of which will change his life forever.

We have all seen it – the deep coma resembling death. People have been pronounced dead and taken to the mortuary or even to the undertaker and consigned to their coffin, only to have woken again.

I won’t give away any more than that small hint of what may or may not happen as I think it is well worth you going and discovering (especially on a dark night at a mere 99p) yourselves. Obviously it is a ghost story and all I will add is that it uses a rather well documented type of apparition and why such a spectre might appear.

I mentioned in a post earlier today that I love a ghost story that is short, sharp and builds on tension and chills rather than on blood and guts and gore. This is one of those kind of ghost stories, one that slowly chills you as you read and is also both slightly shocking and also quite sad too. I always think ghosts either haunt (yes I do believe in them) because they really loved somewhere or because they simply can’t rest which to me is rather sad. For me it also had elements of ‘The Woman in Black’, the initial solicitors letter, tales told of a night, the unascertainable time period which feels Victorian but could be anytime and the uneasy feeling that builds as you read on. Lovely spooky stuff.

So if you are looking for a quick frightening fix for Halloween or indeed just for the darker nights of you fancy a chilling thrill, then I would advise you to get your hands on ‘Printer’s Devil Court’. I am really hoping that Susan Hill will now release a few of these over the forthcoming months/year and then, and here I might have to cross my fingers for a very long time, we might just get a collection of Susan Hill’s ghostly tales in the years to come. Wouldn’t that be lovely?

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Filed under Kindle Single, Long Barn Books, Review, Susan Hill

What Makes a Great Ghost Story?

I do love a good ghost story, though I have to admit I don’t read enough of them. What better time of the year, well here in the UK, is there to read them? No, not just because of the obvious fact it is Halloween today (Happy Halloween). It is autumn, my favourite season of the year as the nights are drawing in and there is a certain chill in the air. Delightful.

Of course today is Halloween and whether you celebrate it or not you simply cannot miss the ghosts, witches, monsters and gargoyles in your local shops (and no I don’t mean the other punters). Naturally for a bookish sort this will lead to thinking about supernatural reads. Or even to Ghost Huntersthe not so bookish as I mentioned the other day that it seemed the supernatural spirit (see what I did there) took over The Beard and two new spooky tales came home from the super(natural)market. I am on fire with puns today, like a witch on a stake. I am currently devouring ‘The Ghost Hunters’ by Neil Spring, all about the infamous Borley Rectory, and its very good. I am most impressed at how in such a long book he keeps the spooky suspense going as I normally like a shorter sharper shock for a ghostly tale. Which of course leads us to today’s (first, there will be another later when it goes darker) post as I was wondering what makes a truly great ghost story?

You see for me ghost stories are a tricky bunch. I am much more of a ‘chills and suspense’ kind of reader than I am a ‘blood and guts and gore’ kind of reader. As I mentioned above I tend to like a sharper ghostly tale, short stories in the main or novella’s maximum, as I find that prolonged tension doesn’t really work as well. For me. I also find ghostly tales set in modern times just don’t work. You can all too easily whip out your mobile phone or some gizmo and the fear vanishes, a good Victorian ghostly tale tends to tick all my boxes. (I actually threw a gauntlet down once that modern settings for a ghost story don’t work and guess what James Dawson was inspired to prove me wrong, this was confirmed from his own mouth!)

So to investigate what I think makes the perfect ghostly tale, whilst also using Neil Spring as a good example of a longer tale, I picked four titles from my newly restructured shelves that I thought I would dip into over this Halloween and autumn too…

Ghostly Tales

Alfred Hitchcock loved a good spooky/horror story and this collection is of some of his favourite ‘Stories Not For The Nervous’. This appeals to me immensely as I love being made to feel nervous in fiction (not in real life, in real life nerves destroy me) and I think these twenty tales and three novelettes which are included will work wonders. Next up is a selection of ‘Ghost Stories’ chosen by Susan Hill (who to me is Queen of the Ghostly Tale) which features my favourite Mr Wilkie Collins and more surprisingly, to me at least, Elizabeth Bowen and Edith Wharton. ‘The Conan Doyle Stories’ are one of my most prized possessions in the world. My Great Uncle Derrick would memorise these and tell them to me when I was very young on walking holidays, ten miles a day roughly, and Gran always said she would desperately try to keep up with us so she didn’t miss the endings. I haven’t read these for ages and should. Finally a renowned author of all things horror (and quite weird), yet new to me, H. P. Lovecraft. I have no idea if I will love these or not but it will be fun finding out.

So before I head off and start reading these dark delights, and hopefully scaring myself silly, I wondered what it was that makes the perfect ghostly tale for you all and what ghost stories you would most recommend?

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Ghostly Tales, Can They Still Scare Us?

Happy Halloween one and all! I hope you have something suitably spooky planned for your evening? I don’t know if I have mentioned this on the blog before or not, but Halloween is one of my very favourite days of the year. I think the mixture of the legends and folklore and my secret belief that maybe there are witches, ghouls, vampires and werewolves out there somewhere and the fact its just a really dark time of the year for us in the UK makes it very atmospheric. So naturally my plan is to curl up with a good ghostly tale, ‘Dolly’ by Susan Hill since you asked, but I do wonder if ghost stories still scare us like they did in times of old and if they do scare is it easier to do it set in the past than in modern times?

This is something I have been discussing on and off for weeks but actually a lot more due to The Readers and recording the Halloween Special and talking to both Gavin, as always a joy, and Jeremy Dyson who has scared hundred and thousands of people with the stage show ‘Ghost Stories’ (which I saw and really scared me) and is hoping to do so again with ‘The Haunted Book’ which I will be telling you all about tomorrow. He is a firm believer that modern ghost stories can still scare you, however myself and Gavin both remained a little more sceptical oddly. I think me personally though much more than Gavin to be honest.

Why is this? Well I think first of all I simply don’t find werewolves and vampires scary anymore. With series like ‘Twilight’ and ‘True Blood’ vampires have become much more sexualised, not to mention glittering like diamonds, and sadly this has taken the fear factor out of them. This doesn’t stop me from wanting to watch the movie or TV shows but I am not covering my eyes in fear when I watch or when I have read some of them. The same applies, only I think it is a million times better written, with Glen Duncan’s novel ‘The Last Werewolf’ (which I really recommend as a Halloween read) it’s a gripping and fast paced thriller and full of sex, violence and gore but I was much more thrilled rather than scared. This leads to another issue, I don’t really ‘get’ gore in books.

I discovered this when I was reading Adam Nevill’s ‘Apartment 16’, the atmosphere and everything was brilliant and there were some really creepy going on until it all suddenly went too far. There were blood soaked people screaming out of walls and half centipede half humans running around hallways, the spell broke for me it was too visual. This is fine in films, though I am the sort of person that laughs their way through a Saw film, but for me to be really scared things need to be much simpler. It is all about unease, too much gore and freakish sights and it falls into ‘camp’ for me or gorey for the sake of it, if I just get that slight sense of unease tingling down my spine giving me a quick shudder and chill then I am sold.

This is why I think that older ghost stories, like the amazing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Tales of Mystery’ etc, or modern novels set in the past, like Susan Hill’s ‘The Woman in Black’, work the best for me. Part of it is that in the olden days, pre the 1950’s really, I think it’s easier for the atmosphere to be created better. You don’t have the internet and mobile phones, in fact in some of the best ones a lack of electricity helps, and so the world seems more other worldy from what we know now and yet we recognise it. It is that unknown and uneasy element in what we know that tends to scare me a little bit more. It is also harkens back to our base instincts, we see things out of the corners of our eyes and in the depths of the shadows. For me really, what is better than a big old mist encompassed spooky manor house?

So what about you? Which books really have had you spooked be they at Halloween or any other time of the year? What ghostly or supernatural tales would you recommend? Are you planning on a night with a ghostly tale or two tonight and if so which ones?

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