Hill stations are all about the soothing weather, susurrating woods, singing birds, lonely houses standing near the cliffs and ghosts residing in it. No wonders paranormal finds a mention in India’s most celebrated writer of the hills Ruskin Bond. The Laughing Skull claims to contain stories of ghosts and spirits, prets and jinns. But let me warn you these are no ghost stories the way we are conditioned to perceive. These are typical Ruskin Bond stories in which the ghost is just an another character.
The opening story the Laughing Skull is about the author’s love and hate relationship with a skull which his medical student nephew brings along with him. Susanna’s Seven Husbands made famous by Vishal Bharadwaj in Saat Khoon Maaf also is a part of this collection. The only ghost here is Susanna, who is seen driving into her buggy many years after her death. This ghost of course is just a passing reference and is not an integral part of her story.
The Overcoat and On Fairy Hill are about the seductive encounters of the author with beautiful young nymphs. Bhoot Aunty which is an extract from Mr. Oliver’s diary comes here too. This story reminds me of O Henry’s writings. A Face in the Dark which has been published in earlier collections of Mr. Bond is a part of this collection too. The Chakrata Cat is about a cat with a human head. From the Primaeval Past is the story of a man-eater lake. Some Hill Stations Ghosts is a random collection of ghosts of various hills.
Pret in the House which is the author’s favourite story is my favourite too. This story is about a ghost which decides to move to a new house along with the family. A Traveller’s Tale is again about a colonial ghost, who is an obedient servant. A Dreadful Gurgle is set amidst the dormitory of brats. He Who Rides Tiger is about a Muslim fakir named Mobrah Gazi.
The Wind on the Haunted Hill is about three children who mistake each other to be the infamous ghosts. He said it with Arsenic is about the author’s uncle Jones, a male nurse who uses his access to medicines to kill his and his paramour’s spouse, and in the old age decides to use the dose on the author. A job well done, with no ghosts, no spirits, is about how the author’s step father was buried alive into a well. In a Face Under the Pillow the author tells us why he carries his own pillow wherever he goes. A Demon For Work is the story which is part of the folklore. It is about the demon who cannot sit idle. The Happy Herdsman and the Tiger King’s Gift are fairy tales and not a ghost stories for sure. The Wicked Guru too has no any trace of any paranormal element. The Ghost and the Idiot is about a ghost which is terrified of the idiot's belligerent wife.
Eyes of the Cat is a story about a poor girl who is insulted by her teacher. Ruskin Bond builds the intrigue very well in this story and we are left with enough material to surmise that it is the girl who turns into leopard in the night. The White Pigeon is a story about promises kept after the death.
Ruskin Bond is ever green. He entertains through his stories which are of course not scary. But the book is ridden with punctuation errors. I wish these were avoided.