Tempestuous Tales of Stranger Climes
Horrified’s Ally Wilkes reviews Heavy Weather, the latest collection of tempestuous tales from the British Library’s Tales of the Weird.
It’ll come as no surprise that I’m a fan of the British Library’s gorgeous Tales of the Weird series: each volume contains carefully chosen and introduced stories on a particular theme, with beautiful cover artwork and contents spanning several hundred years of weird writing. Heavy Weather is the latest offering, and one which feels timely: with the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020’s record-breaking hurricane season, wildfires and flooding, it’s more evident than ever that humankind is threatening our planet – and being threatened in turn. All of this is drawn out in Kevan Manwaring’s thoughtful introduction, and a series of pointed reminders throughout the collection, which isn’t limited to ‘weather’ as traditionally conceived: this fresh take allows the inclusion of Daphne du Maurier’s ‘The Birds’, for example, or the pulp sci-fi of Gerald Vane’s ‘Monsoons of Death’, which might otherwise be thought of as creature features.
There are more traditional tales here, too. I was doubtful about the inclusion of an extract from Mary Shelley’s ‘History of a Six Weeks’ Tour’, which – while beautiful – was rather dwarfed by the more interesting notes providing its backdrop, including that tantalising explanation of the climate effects caused by the explosion of Mount Tambora in 1815. And fans of sea-faring horror (who’ll also enjoy From the Depths, another collection in this series) are well served by Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’ and William Hope Hodgson’s ‘Through the Vortex of a Cyclone’ – surely the most detailed and comprehensive eye-witness view of terrible weather at sea I’ve ever read.
The two stand-out pieces for me linked snow and ice with the end of the world – as in Norse mythology, where the Fimbulwinter (three successive winters with no summer) precedes Ragnarok. Fittingly for the themes explored in this volume, the Fimbulwinter is sometimes linked with the idea of a man-made nuclear winter. ‘The Great Snow’ by Richard Jefferies was written at some point prior to 1875, but retains its capacity to shock: a harsh storm brings London to a stand-still, then just keeps worsening, until the residents have eaten all their food, burnt all their furniture, and regressed to a feral state of hunter and hunted. I couldn’t help being reminded of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, with which Jeffries shares a stark, matter-of-fact writing style: ‘Children especially died in unrecorded numbers’.
Jeffries’s work went on to inspire The Purple Cloud (1901) by MP Shiel, which is also extracted later in this volume. It tells the story of a grimly sociopathic Arctic explorer who – leaving behind his frozen ship and a trail of bodies – reaches the North Pole alone to find a horrendous eldritch landscape:
‘… the fluid of the lake seemed to me to be wheeling with a shivering ecstasy, splashing and fluttering… and it was borne in upon me – I can’t at all say how – that this fluid was the substance of a living creature; and I had the instinct fancy, as my senses failed, that it was a creature with many dull and anguished eyes…’
This sense of the living landscape is both eerie and repugnant; although Manwaring sensibly references HP Lovecraft and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it reminded me powerfully of the dream-like depiction of the Crawler in Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. Shiel’s protagonist leaves the North Pole to encounter the eponymous purple cloud which, with its sinister odour of peach-blossom, has killed everything it touches. He is the last man left alive. It’s a devastatingly gloomy and impressive piece, and one which left me scrambling to order the entire novel to find out what happens next.
Turning to the opposite end of the spectrum, I was delighted to see Algernon Blackwood’s ‘May Day Eve’: while this story may not have very much to do with ‘heavy weather’, Blackwood can’t be beaten in his depictions of a sacred and supernatural communion with the forces surrounding humankind. As Manwaring rightly points out, the author’s understanding of nature is animistic; Blackwood was deeply interested in the occult, and – along with Arthur Machen, another prominent writer of the British folk or chthonic Weird – was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. May Day Eve takes us into a fairy brugh at twilight, where the narrator has a disturbing encounter with a deformed and loathsome human in a cage, a projection of the ‘dull animal part’ of his own humanity.
Warmer climes also appear in WF Harvey’s enigmatic ‘August Heat’, which defies explanation and reads like a fever dream. And, finally, the heat ‘rising in wet soft waves off miles of green foliage’ alongside the Zambesi River gives way to an utterly oppressive, terrifying depiction of a swarm – insects as weather – in Doris Lessing’s ‘A Mild Attack of Locusts’.
I can’t end this review without mentioning ‘Monsoons of Death’ by Gerald Vance; as I remarked above, it makes a change of pace for an anthology otherwise concerned with the terrestrial weird. The story opens with a Planetary Colonel assigning the zealous new Lieutenant Harrison to some weird goings-on at the meteorology station on Mars: the planet turns out to have not only howling dust-laden winds, but also the half-seen ‘Raspers’ who hide in the storm to hunt. It’s the stuff of vintage science fiction, and – with its isolated setting and half-mad scientist – will be the perfect read for lovers of The Thing (US, John Carpenter, 1982).
Once again, The British Library has collated a collection of intriguing tales – including some entirely non-obvious choices – and the notes from Manwaring throughout are pointed and relevant. As he notes, ‘Writers of the Weird are perhaps better placed than any to conceptualise the inconceivable – the black swan events that will increasingly become the norm’. With research during the pandemic illustrating that horror fans show better resilience in the face of catastrophic and apocalyptic events, reading this volume might just help you weather the coming storm.
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