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.
Click on the image below to buy a copy of Randall’s Round…
More To Explore
Author Richard Daniels (‘Occultaria of Albion’) presents ‘an entertaining and occasionally terrifying journey into an alternate realm filled with strange conspiracies, ghosts, UFOs and more’ at Louth Town Hall on 23 September…
Pre-orders are now open for Death Lines: Walking London’s Horror History by Lauren Jane Barnett