High spirits

by Robertson Davies

Book, 1982



Call number


Call number



Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England ; New York, N.Y. : Penguin Books, 1982.

Original publication date


Physical description

iv, 198 p.; 20 cm

Local notes

Presents an entertaining and witty collection of eighteen stories about ghosts, including such notable literary apparitions as Ibsen and Charles Dickens

User reviews

LibraryThing member xicanti
Robertson Davies spent eighteen years as the Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, and every year he wrote a ghost story for the College Christmas party. HIGH SPIRITS collects every one of these tales and presents them just as they were originally written.

Davies's prose is, as always, addictive. The man's got a real feel for language, and I dearly wish I could have heard him read any one of these stories aloud. As Davies says in his introduction, the tales were meant to be heard, not read, and the writing reflects this.

Many of the pieces are heavily informed by classic ghost stories. Davies makes good use of his source material; the reader can see where he's coming from, yet the author's own voice is always present. I loved how he wrote himself into each story, too; it made it a lot more personal, and left plenty of room for his characteristic humor to shine on through. There's a lot of parody here, with self-parody at the heart of it. Despite the source material, Davies isn't really trying for horror here. It's humor all the way.

The trouble is, a lot of it is insider humor. Davies keeps it to a minimum in the earlier stories, delivering a good tale that just so happens to contain several jokes aimed at friends and colleagues. But as the years pass, he leans more and more heavily on characters and situations that I don't doubt were hilarious to his target audience but which leave most other readers, (meaning me), out in the cold. I recognized the jokes. I just didn't get them.

He also includes more than a little political commentary as the years pass. Again, I'm sure this was very topical and absolutely hilarious in 1974, and I'd love to hear what modern political historians think of Davies's efforts, but it didn't do a whole lot for me.

The collection is certainly worth reading, though. Davies's writing is a delight, and some of the stories are great. My favourites were "Revelation From A Smoky Fire," in which Davies encounters his first Massey ghost, and "The Xerox in the Lost Room," about a Poor Relation who becomes the Family Ghost. But nothing really leaped out at me; nothing demanded that I keep the collection around just so I could read it again someday. I've passed it along to someone else, who I hope will enjoy it as much as I did.
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LibraryThing member lilithcat
Every story in this book is a joy. Davies spoofs himself, as, in his persona as Master of Massey College of the University of Toronto, he narrates them. It seems that there is something about Massey College that is attractive to ghosts, famous, infamous and not famous at all. "Every part of our great University strives for distinction of one kind or another, but it is everywhere admitted that in the regularity and variety of our ghostly visitations Massey College stands alone." Even Little Lord Fauntleroy puts in an appearance! Splendid stuff.… (more)
LibraryThing member ElizaJane
A collection of stories Davies wrote each year as Master of Massey College. These stories are funny, witty and satirical. Some stand out much more than others. These are best read slowly, one here, one there as they do have a sameness to them that tires. Recommended for fans of Davies.

Follows is a brief synapses (without spoilers) and my opinion on each story.

How The High Spirits Came About - In the introduction, Davies explains how every Christmas for the 18 years he was the Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto he would tell a ghost story. This is a collection of these 18 tales. The stories are parodies of the classic ghost story.

#1) Revelation From a Smoky Fire - in this story the current and first Master of Massey College finds in his rooms a man who professes to be the ninth Master of Massey College one hundred years hence, and we soon find our narrator is not who he seems to be.

#2) The Ghost Who Vanished By Degrees - this was a fun story of a ghost, who killed himself because he failed his PhD thesis, who takes our narrator hostage one night and makes him listen to the many thesis he has prepared since his death as he shall never be at peace until he has it.

#3) The Great Queen is Amused - This was a really fun story! A woman doing research in the university library (which is known for its Canadian Lit. collection) comes across an occult book which tells how to call a spirit. Thinking she'd like to ask Sara Jeanette Duncan a few questions she follows the instructions but ends up with a room full of the spirit of every Canadian author whose book is in the library. Very funny!

#4) The Night of the Three Kings - Our narrator investigates noises and winds up in a filing room where he finds the spirit of King George V searching for a rare stamp he accidentally once put on an envelope. The story ends with a definite Canadian twist.

#5) The Charlottetown Banquet - The narrator spends the night having a Victorian dinner with Sir John A. MacDonald.

#6) When Satan Goes Home For Christmas - This time our narrator meets Satan who is upset because he is never invited home for Christmas.

#7 Refuge of Insulted Saints - Hearing a knock at the door one evening our narrator opens the door to find Babs (otherwise known as Saint Barbara, Patron Saint of Artillery) standing at his door with a cannon pointing at him. She and many other saints who have just been deposed to legend status by Pope Paul VI (1969)are seeking asylum at the college. This was a lot of fun and very witty!

#8 Dickens Digested - A young man working on his thesis about Charles Dickens becomes more and more like Dickens himself. Lots of fun Dickensian-speak but not as good as other stories here.

#9 The Kiss of Khrushchev - A Russian exchange student, a member of the choir, disappeared some years ago but now our narrator has found a singing frog in the basement. This story was just plain weird.

#10 - The Cat That Went to Trinity - There are two new students in class this year. One named Elizabeth Lavenza the other named Enstein, given name Victor Frank. This gives our narrator cause for concern especially since he is teaching the Gothic novel this year. This was a really fun story, melodramatic and witty.

#11 - The Ugly Spectre of Sexism - I didn't really get this one very much. Written in 1972 it pokes fun at both feminism and chauvinism.

#12 - The Pit Whence Ye Are Digged - Another one that went over my head. This one dealt with poetry and time travel.

#13 - The Perils of the Double Sign - The narrator has a conversation with a small devil who has been trapped by a student whose hobby is astrology.

#14 - Conversations with the Little Table - Our narrator brings home an antique table which commences to tap around as if dancing. He and his wife sit down and find that the table once belonged to William Lyon Mackenzie King and he has a conversation with them. Another fun one.

#15 - The King Enjoys His Own Again - The spirits of King George IV and Bishop John Strachan debate with each other. I don't know anything about these people so I didn't enjoy this one much.

#16 - The Xerox in the Lost Room - Another fun one this time. The spirit of a poor relation immigrates to Canada when his manor is brought here and re-assembled. The manor is then opened up to the public and the ghost has had enough so he goes to the college and asks our narrator for asylum.

#17 - Einstein and the Little Lord - This was hilarious! As Einstein is visiting with our narrator, Little Lord Fauntleroy appears begging for Einstein's help in Paradise.

#18 - Offer of Immortality - A strange little man who is very cold and drinks a lot of vinegar, claims he is over 450 years old and offers Davies the opportunity to live forever.
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LibraryThing member leslie.98
Wonderful ghost stories that are not scary in the least.
LibraryThing member letranger
I love Davies' interplay of character, but I read these ghost stories (annual Christmas gifts to his students) to my children on a two-day train ride West. I think it did much to make them good readers.
LibraryThing member mrgan
This collection of ghost stories (sort of) written for and set in the academia of the University of Toronto is well-written but ultimately rather dull stuff. These tales were meant to be read out loud by Davies to his peers at the college, and I'm sure all the inside-baseball killed there and then. But here and now, I can't really recommend this unless you happen to be a professor at the University of Toronto. Do you?… (more)
LibraryThing member gypsysmom
It would have been worth doing a Ph. D. at the University of Toronto in the 1960s and 70s to have been invited to the Christmas Party at Massey College. Massey College was newly built with a generous donation from the Massey Foundation when Robertson Davies was brought in as the first Master in 1963. It is one of only three residential graduate colleges in Canada. It seems like a very convivial place to study having special dinners a couple of times a month, a Christmas dance, the aforesaid Christmas party and other opportunities to eat, drink and discuss. Yes, it is haunted, as Davies was to discover, but the ghosts are the very best kind of spirit. Several royal personages, a couple of Canadian Prime Ministers, notable scientists and dramatists--that's the calibre of haunting in Massey College. Fortunately Robertson Davies was there to chronicle every manifestation and he would entertain the gathering at the annual Christmas party with the news. Since Davies is the amanuensis there are witticisms and puns in every story. I probably didn't catch everything because I suspect some remarks were meant to be understood only by those in attendance. One I certainly did understand is contained in the story "The Pit Whence Ye Are Digged". In it all the attendees at a special dinner are thrust back in time to the year 1774 where they become their own ancestor. One person was wearing a black band on his left arm and he told his neighbour that it was in morning for the Scots poet Robert Fergusson who had died recently. He declared "The name of Fergusson will never die." which was met by a murmured comment "No, never so long as it is linked with the name of Massey." As a farm girl I was very familiar with the line of farm equipment made by the firm Massey-Fergusson!… (more)
LibraryThing member Bagpuss
Canadian author, Robertson Davies was the founding Master of Massey College, and this book is made up of short stories which he wrote to be read out at the College’s annual Christmas celebration. The book was chosen as one for my Book Club. Whilst I really didn’t think much of the book, it did actually make for some good discussion over dinner, so that was good! Some of the stories were clever but some where just downright bizarre. I’m sure that if I were present at each dinner I would eagerly look forward to each telling, but as a book I found them rather dull and a bit of a struggle to get through as I didn’t’ feel like picking the book up!… (more)
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