In his introduction to this anthology editor James Machin suggests that works of British weird fiction can be distinguished from their perhaps more well-known American variants due to their “refusal to fully reveal their horrors, relying on ominous hints, telling detail and atmosphere, instead of the full reveal”. It’s an interesting position to offer and one, I admit, I can easily agree with.
After all, Lovecraft is justifiably derided for too-often calling his terrors “indescribable” while simultaneously almost always following it up with quite a lot of lurid, adjective-heavy description. M.R. James, on the other hand, uses his Some Remarks on Ghost Stories essay to remind us that while weird fiction shouldn’t be “mild and drab” some level of what he calls “reticence” should be maintained: “Reticence may be an elderly doctrine to preach, yet from the artistic point of view I am sure it is a sound one. Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it”. Is this due to the British tendency to be more reserved but, equally, more spiteful than our cousins across the water? Perhaps. It wouldn’t be very British of me to admit it, now would it?
What I can say is that the very best of the tales in this anthology, of which there are many, demonstrate this sense of reticence beautifully. First among these, largely due to being one of the best pieces of weird fiction ever written, is Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows. Blackwood tells us of two travellers, canoeing down the Danube from Vienna to Budapest, and how they discover a “kingdom that was reserved for the use of others who had a right to it, with everywhere unwritten warnings to trespassers for those who had the imagination to discover them” among the river’s sand-bars and eponymous willows. Blackwood’s story charts how human control over nature is revealed as little more than a facade – the pair’s canoes appear to give them control over the river but they are, in fact, as much at its mercy as any piece of driftwood – when compared to the “inhuman sound” that howls behind reality. I find The Willows to be a genuinely terrifying triumph of weird fiction almost entirely because, rather than Lovecraft’s tentacles and slimes, Blackwood gives the mundane – rivers, trees, sand – an awful sense of agency. In one section, Blackwood shows us “an immense army of dancing, shouting willow bushes, closing from all sides, shining with spray and clapping their thousand little hands”. This could almost be a scene from a child’s story-book, but, through Blackwood’s shimmering lens, it becomes a glimpse of something nearly unbearable.
Eleanor Scott’s Randalls Round, which Machin very accurately identifies as a piece of proto-folk horror, also uses this reticence to powerful effect. Heyling, the tale’s protagonist and an Oxford undergraduate with a voice of “half contemptuous indifference”, heads to Randalls (a “little place in the Cotswolds somewhere”) for a few days’ rest and relaxation. There, no doubt with a superior smirk on his face, he finds the locals fully immersed in the “queer performance” of local folk dances. Investigating the history and meaning of these dances, Heyling uncovers mention of them originating in older rituals that took place around a local barrow. “What a lark it would be to get into that barrow,” Heyling thinks with the arrogance of someone who’s never read a ghost story in his life. Yet Heyling doesn’t uncover mouldering bones or ancient curses but something far worse, something which in its delicate suggestiveness terrifies even the perpetrators.
The concern with landscape that pervades both The Willows and Randalls Round continues in The Bad Lands, by John Metcalfe. Here we find Brent Ormerod in the Norfolk coastal village of Todd, recovering from a nervous disorder. Todd immediately takes on an uncanny air – we are told, ominously, that the neighbouring village of Salterton “has been found quite safe and normal” – and Ormerod quickly finds himself “struck again with the peculiar character of the winding road that stretched before him into a hazy distance where everything seemed to melt and swim in shadowy vagueness”. Without realising it, he slips quietly into the “bad lands” that linger in the gaps between reason and madness, known and unknowable. There are hints of future works by the likes of Thomas Ligotti or Camilla Grudova in this taut, bleak story.
The book does offer some challenges for a modern reader, although these stem largely from the anthology’s time period more than any issue with editorship or even the stories themselves. Most obvious is the homogeneity of protagonists, with educated and middle-class figures dominating the few other voices. Interestingly, Machin points out that this was sometimes infuriating for readers of the time; one anonymous review in the Athenaeum asks “Why is it almost always considered necessary in ghost stories to make the characters irredeemably middle-class and uninteresting?” Perhaps less jarring to a reader at the start of the 1900s is the tendency to a writing style that can, nowadays, feel almost archaic. Caterpillars, an otherwise slight yet sinister tale from E.F. Benson, begins with the tortured admission that “There is therefore no longer any reason for refraining from writing of those things which I myself saw (or imagined I saw) in a certain room and on a certain landing of the villa in question, nor from mentioning the circumstances which followed, which may or may not (according to the opinion of the reader) throw some light on or be somehow connected with this experience”. This is almost as tiring to type as it is to read!
Yet Machin cleverly accepts these challenges by book-ending his own introductory essay with Mary Butts’ contemporaneous Ghosts and Ghoulies: Uses of the Supernatural in English Fiction. Butts, also represented here as an author with her oneiric Mappa Mundi, explores many of the writers that feature in British Weird in a way that veers wildly from caustic to adoring and which even she admits was hard to write and is “even harder to draw conclusions from” but yet which also provides a jumping-off point for the modern reader only just encountering these stories.
As with Handheld Press’ Women’s Weird series, this anthology is a beautiful selection of chilling tales which steps out of the cosy drawing rooms of more mainstream offerings and onto the uncanny moorlands that lie beyond.
British Weird: Selected Short Fiction 1893-1937 edited by James Machin is published by Handheld Press.
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