Robert is returning to boarding school and he's quite pleased about that because, even though he's not popular there, it's better than being at home with his stepmother. His father is away fighting in the Boer War and Robert actually feels he would prefer to be there rather than spend his holidays with his father's 'dreary amd irritating' wife. As they are sitting on the platform waiting for the train his stepmother falls asleep. She wakes suddenly and it seems she has a premonition dream in which something terrible happens to Robert. Robert pooh-poohs her fears and sets off on the train, glad to be rid of her.
Sitting in a carriage with various dinified gentlemen, Robert himself drops off. When he wakes he discovers that the train has stopped in front of a tunnel and a rather strange woman is now sitting opposite him. They get into conversation but try as he might Robert cannot discover why the train has stopped or what the hold-up is. Instead the woman regales him with various macabre tales. He hears about, amongst others, Oscar, whose father is obsessed with growing some very odd tropical plants; about Penelope who hates her stepsister and discovers that she has some magical friends who are not quite what they seem; about Davy whose father takes him off to the Western Isles of Scotland to live and is warned to keep away from the ancient Crotach Stone on the beach, and about Sister Veronica, the devout nun who doesn't see her come-uppance coming...
Robert tries to hide the fact that he's becoming more and more frightened at the tone of the stories. He dubs the storyteller 'The Woman in White'. But who is she and why are the other travellers in his carriage so deeply asleep that they can't be roused. And why does The Woman in White want him to also fall asleep?
As a lover of M.R. James's rather academic and atmospheric creepy stories I find these 'Tales of Terror' books by Chris Priestley to be irresistible. They're written after the style of the Edwardian writer and done so brilliantly that they're impossible to put down once you start reading. As with the first two books, The Tunnel's Mouth is illustrated by David Roberts and the drawings couldn't be more perfect; they complement these weird tales beautifully.
Apart from this book there are two others: Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror and Tales of Terror from the Black Ship (I defy anyone to read 'Nature' from that collection and not be wonderfully revolted and terrified) and all three books stand alone. As with the previous two books, Tunnels is a short story collection linked by a background story. This I find to be a very effective method of story-telling and one I'd not come across before. It adds suspense and cohesion to a form that can be a bit tedious as you work your way through numerous stories... in this format, wanting to know how the background mystery resolves itself keeps you turning the pages. Not that you need a lot of encouragement to do that anyway, but still. Highly recommended but anyone thinking of giving these to very young children should possibly consider how sensitive they are first - there is even a warning to that effect on the back covers. 'Grandmas' like me probably need not worry themselves. Much.