Horrified’s Ally Wilkes is entranced by Randall’s Round: Nine Nightmares by Eleanor Scott: ‘a powerful distillation of the British Weird.’
Little needs to be said to introduce the British Library’s excellent Tales of the Weird anthology series: they’ve become their own literary powerhouse, with 27 titles out (and counting – eight in the last year alone). What marks them out, apart from their striking and duochromatic cover art, is a determination to unearth overlooked or underappreciated authors of the Weird tale, from the late nineteenth century onwards, and their characteristically thoughtful introductions. This volume reprints Randall’s Round, an original nine-story collection by Eleanor Scott (1892-1965), along with two tales by N Dennett, speculated to be one of the author’s pseudonyms.
Most fans of folk horror or the British Weird will have heard of ‘Randall’s Round’, in which a curious but scornful university student takes a holiday in the country, does some research in an old library, then stumbles on a terrifying pagan ritual near an old barrow on Hallowe’en. It’s reminiscent of both Arthur Machen and M.R. James, but also H.P. Lovecraft: all three writers shared a fascination with ‘ancient rites’ or primitive elemental beings subsisting from earlier ages of the Earth. Aaron Worth’s introduction draws the line to Midsommar (US/Sweden, Ari Aster, 2019), and rightly so. But it’s the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Scott can do to unsettle her readers.
The stand-out story in terms of scares is ‘Celui-Là’. Maddox, who goes to take a rest cure in a small Breton presbytery, enjoys walks on the beach – until they are interrupted by a dimly-glimpsed figure which ‘move[s] at an incredible speed… waving its draped arms; then suddenly, to his horror, it [breaks] out in a hideous cry, like a howl of a dog.’ This is only the beginning: anyone detecting in the setting a hint of M.R. James’s ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad’ will find that this tale deftly blends James’s ominous ghostly presence with a sense of an almost unbearably physical – and cosmic – horror. This is something Scott also does to great effect in ‘The Twelve Apostles’: what’s often left ghostly and numinous is given disgusting, slimy, and abhorrent form, and the result is profoundly unsettling.
One of Scott’s strengths is her varied and vivid characterisation. Although I very much enjoy the British Weird as exemplified by Machen, I do tend to find that interchangeable wealthy young men dominate those stories: Scott gives us a much more fleshed-out cast. This is shown off in ‘The Room’, which I suspect would make a great film or theatre production: a disparate group of friends rent a country house with a haunted bedroom, and take it in turns to sleep there. The first tells us that: ‘it wasn’t what you expect, any of you’ and the room’s occupants become steadily more perturbed – and the encounters more frightening – as the week goes on. Elsewhere, in ‘The Old Lady’, our narrator is a female university student who’s an absolute breath of fresh air – ‘risky, futile, daring – rather caddish’, as she describes herself, and determined to play a mean prank on an unlikeable fellow student that results in her getting caught up in that student’s family conspiracies.
Worth writes that: ‘In their variety of mood and type, the stories in Randall’s Round constitute a kind of collective portrait, via creative engagement, of the British weird tale in the early decades of the twentieth century.’ Having enjoyed this collection, I’d certainly agree: Scott produces a powerful distillation of British Weird, with a remarkable flair for adding fresh characterisation and also… squishier elements. Personally, I felt that the two stories by N. Dennett were weak by comparison: both are concerned with folk horror, but stylistically they don’t have Scott’s verve, and I’m unconvinced that this is the same writer. Randall’s Round, however, is a very impressive collection, and a very welcome addition – a slim one, capable of being devoured in short order – to the Tales of the Weird.
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