The Villa and The Vortex
William Brown reviews The Villa and The Vortex, an ‘exquisite’ new collection of Elinor Mordaunt’s classic weird fiction from Handheld Press.
What a treat this book is: nine exquisitely written stories from a criminally unsung queen of early twentieth-century weird fiction, gorgeously packaged by Handheld Press, and with a typically sterling introduction by Melissa Edmundson. These are tales to live and lose yourself in – haunting, horrifying, and poignant by turns.
Elinor Mordaunt was the pen name of Evelyn May Clowes (1872-1942), a prolific author of novels and short stories in the first half of the twentieth century. Despite her contemporary popularity, she has all but disappeared from history since. As Edmundson writes: ‘In the decades following her death … Mordaunt was neglected and largely forgotten as an author, her work omitted from the subsequent anthologies that helped to ensure the reputations of her fellow writers.’ On the basis of the stories in The Villa and The Vortex, that neglect beggars belief – but it also imbues the collection with an intimacy and preciousness that, dare I say it, has long-since faded from the works of her (male) contemporaries.
‘Luz’ is perhaps the most horrifying tale here. In thick smog a woman becomes hopelessly lost in the seedier areas lurking just beneath London’s attractive façade, and depends upon a sinister blind man to escort her to safety. She has spotted this man a few times, and ‘had a fancy that he reached the scene of his day’s labours – pleasure, solicitation, whatever it might be – by some altogether uncanny means; that his every action, his whole life, indeed, was nefarious.’ In our (slightly) less disability-phobic times, such a character might transpire to be a saintly hero, and the narrator’s prejudices stripped away – but not here. The story plays out like a nightmare, a disorientating catabasis into the capital’s grotesque underbelly, building to a climax as horrific as any in modern horror.
‘Hodge’ (previously published in Handheld Press’s Women’s Weird) is a very odd tale, more magical realism than supernatural in substance. Part Enid Blyton, part ‘The White People’ (Arthur Machen, 1904), it follows Rhoda and her younger brother, Hector, who live in a small Somerset village just off the coast. ‘The brother and sister were sufficient to each other, for they shared a never-failing, or even diminishing, interest … A passionate absorption in, a minute knowledge of, the wild life of the marshland; its legends and folklore; its habits and calls’; the siblings share a fantasy of a Forest that once lay in the area, which they have ‘fixed at the Miocene Period’ – though, to Rhoda’s distaste, Hector insists that there was an anachronistic sabre-toothed tiger there, too.
Somehow, they find their Forest: at the sea’s edge, ‘buried like a fly in amber: twisted trunks and boughs, matted creepers, all ash-grey and black’, it is ‘nothing more than a fold out of the old world, squeezed up to the surface’. After this initial discovery – as readers we wonder whether it was really there or merely a product of Rhoda and Hector’s shared imagination – the Forest disappears again. The siblings grow up; they drift apart; the Forest – whether or not it truly exists – becomes a point of silent contention between them. But then Hector claims to have found it again, and sure enough, there it is – along with a curious figure, the eponymous ‘Hodge’, who might well be the ‘missing link’: ‘An ape – a sort of ape – nearish to a man, but – well, look at its hair’, as Rhoda observes. Now, if you’re expecting fish-out-of-water shenanigans a la California Man (US, Les Mayfield, 1992), you’re in for a bit of a shock: Mordaunt takes the tale in a surprisingly dark direction. Above all, ‘Hodge’ is fascinating from a gender studies perspective; there is a sense that Hodge manifests Hector’s own developing masculinity, a primal sexuality which he is repulsed by in himself, and which he must vanquish if he is to become a socially acceptable man.
‘The Weakening Point’, too, focuses on a man subject to a peculiar haunting. From birth, Bond Challice – the last of a prestigious but doomed lineage – has been plagued by a recurring nightmare. Every year on his birth-night, he ‘has a dream – almost like a sort of seizure – which obsesses him with terror’. Throughout The Villa and The Vortex, Mordaunt comes across as a dissector of horror as well as, as R. Brimley Johnson dubbed her, a ‘dissector of souls’, and this tale doubles as a philosophy of the uncanny. ‘Anything which persists, which appears at regular intervals, which approaches nearer and is still incomprehensible, is likely to affect even the strongest nerves. And perhaps it was the steady sequence of the dreams which frightened Bond more than anything else’, the narrator theorises:
The meat of this story’s horror is the existential impact of this intangible threat upon Challice. In the tradition of Henry James, the horror here is pre-eminently psychological rather than supernatural; it is a monster, a haunting, of the mind, which Mordaunt ultimately leaves open to interpretation. ‘I’ve never read anything adequate about fear’, Challice tells the narrator at one point. ‘I’ve never heard anyone say anything that’s any use about it – that gives one any idea of what it really is’. He goes on to explain:
In stories such as ‘The Weakening Point’ and ‘The Country-side’, Mordaunt’s ‘soul dissection’ is particularly striking. Writing in uncluttered, unstilted prose, she nonetheless touches upon the psychological and emotional acuity of the likes of Woolf and Plath, portraying the traumas and predicaments of her characters with breath-taking concision and compassion. There is an aching intimacy in every line, a real sense of the author’s soul being laid bare – it is not surprising that, as Edmundson writes in the introduction, an ‘integral part of the creative process’ for Mordaunt was that ‘good writing must come from within the author’s own experiences’.
Edmundson quotes Mordaunt as having said that: ‘though I had friends all over the world, I had no great or intimate friends; too many people had died, and I had nothing and nobody to tie me anywhere … From the very first the fates planned for me to walk alone and to possess nothing that I have not earned; and once in possession they snatch what I have away from me as quickly as possible.’ It is the horror of loss and isolation, of usurpation and entropy, that most deeply haunts these pages. Consider Margaret Wister’s plight in ‘The Country-side’, in which elements of folk horror – primitive rurality (‘Your true rustic is suckled on spells, incantations, and superstitions’), a local witch with second sight – are merely catalysts for a horror which is much more mundane and domestic in nature: a marriage coming undone, and one half of it (the wife) being usurped in grimly Darwinian fashion: ‘If Robert was guilty there remained only one thing to be done, to put herself, her barren, useless self, out of the way so that he might legalize the child which Trixie Hargreaves would bear to him’, Margaret harrowingly reflects. As a counterpoint, check out ‘The Fountain’, later in the collection, where a woman avenges her patriarchal erasure – albeit from beyond the grave.
‘Although women are estimated to have produced at least half of all ghost stories published during the Victorian period’, notes Victoria Margree, ‘critics and anthologisers for a long time concentrated on … the male “masters of the uncanny” approach’ (Margree, 2019) – ie they prioritised the works of the likes of James, Blackwood, and Machen. Handheld Press, with Melissa Edmundson at the helm, is doing much to rectify this historic neglect: The Villa and The Vortex is the latest in several collections of women’s fiction from the label, including anthologies of short stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner, Helen Simpson, and D. K. Broster, and two volumes of Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women. These are far from vanilla collections: Melissa Edmundson’s introductions are illuminating and scholarly, paving the way for critical attention long-past due. The stories collected in Vortex constitute an embarrassment of riches for literary and cultural analysis, but they call, too, simply to be read. Whilst a multitude of ghosts stalk these pages, Mordaunt feels very alive indeed.
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Margree, V., 2019. British women’s short supernatural fiction, 1860-1930. London: Palgrave Macmillan.