The British Weird
ed. James Machin
words by Ally Wilkes
Handheld Press sell “remarkable and wonderful stories from the past and present”, and their anthologies of classic – and ‘lost’ – Weird fiction are both beautifully presented and accompanied by seriously interesting introductions. In this slim volume, James Machin introduces a range of pre-WW2 stories which encapsulate the British Weird and its three central preoccupations, usefully identified as folk memories of pre-human survivals; the temenos or sacred grove; and unstable geographies or the landscape as palimpsest.
“If we could find a place where people had never lost the cult, we might run into some queer things.” So says a university student in Randall’s Round (Eleanor Scott), and it’s this idea (terrible practices or interactions with otherworldly beings, knowledge passed down through generations) that underpins much of what we now know as folk horror. Machin rightly points out that the story sits directly within the Lovecraftian tradition: the protagonist (a rather self-satisfied student) goes to stay in a strangely insular village, where he consults ancient texts which only hint at the primitive folk-beliefs and survivals he has to confront in the story’s denouement.
It’s rightfully a classic, but I found myself more interested in the lesser-known No Man’s Land (John Buchan), which takes on similar themes (the survival of disturbing atavistic forces from the past) but blends them unexpectedly with the pacing and narrative style of a late-Victorian Boy’s Own adventure yarn. Despite the WW1-esque title, Buchan was writing in 1900, and the resulting text reads as if H Rider Haggard’s She was blended with Arthur Machen’s The Novel of the Black Seal. There’s a recognisable colonial panic in the author’s addressing of “the silent vanished people of the hills… dark primeval faces… a dark abyss of savagery”, and while the protagonist goes out on his voyage with a sense of superiority to the crofters living in the Scottish hills, he’s instantly confronted: “what do you ken about it… you that bides in a southern town?” Encounters with the hill-folk are initially incredibly eerily drawn, with billowing fogs and “soft, mumbling speech”, before the narrative tips over into the out-and-out horror of captivity in their brugh, blending traditional fairyland tropes (a drink of honey in a golden cup) with some disturbing glimpses of a darker and more sadistic horror (the male hill-folk abduct women, who “shut up in those dismal holes… soon die”). As with so much of Lovecraft’s work, the narrator survives – just – to recant his previous academic pursuits, and wrestle with his own shattered sanity. To experience the primitive is to encounter madness.
One of the defining traits of the British Weird, drawn out in Machin’s introduction, is its tendency to keep things off-screen and frighten (or induce awe) by allusion. This is certainly true of Algernon Blackwood’s seminal The Willows, in which the denizens of the Danube’s terrible ‘borderlands’ are largely sensed rather than seen: the protagonist encounters their reflections, perhaps, in the otter or the boatman. However, Machin’s inspired selection shows that there is more to the school or tendency than this: No Man’s Land, as already mentioned, includes a prolonged encounter with the “little, squat and dark” hill-folk. Elsewhere, we get more than a glance at the visible Weird, as in Man-Size in Marble (Edith Nesbitt) in which the terrible statuary is seen plainly – but only in repose. (I was particularly intrigued by the note identifying that “little magazine stories”, like the ones sold by the narrator’s wife, supported Nesbitt herself – and that the expansion of print media beyond the subscription-libraries was one of the key factors in allowing writers to develop the Weird, by freeing them from the obligation to provide reassuring and conventional endings).
Caterpillars (EF Benson) is even more explicit: the narrator sees the squirming mass of unnaturally large and glowing caterpillars, inhabiting the bedroom which is “haunted in a very terrible and practical manner”. This feels like a very modern tale, with its ideas of unearthly contagion and cancer, but has its roots in the decadence and perceived moral decay of the “Yellow Nineties”. The ending, in particular, impressed me: I have a very great fondness for stories which end on an absence of an explanation, or just break off –
This technique is also used to great effect in N, one of Arthur Machen’s lesser-known stories. While it has Machen’s usual group of interchangeable and rather tedious narrators, and lengthy reported narratives, the hidden psychogeography of London is very appealingly explored. Lost Canon’s Park is another country of ineffable beauty, but one which also occasions a “swift revulsion” in those who see it. The narrator concludes: “I believe that there is a perichoresis, an interpenetration…” in terms which are deeply reminiscent of the weird geography of Area X (also a location of geographical contagion or ‘overlay’) in Jeff VanderMeer’s seminal Annihilation trilogy.
Unstable geography is also explored in The Badlands (John Metcalfe), which I found absolutely stunning and deeply unsettling. The narrator finds, on the outskirts of his sleepy convalescent town, an area of yellow sand dunes with a pale domed tower, which seems to draw him into the landscape beyond it. Once he passes the tower, the ‘real’ town becomes indistinct and shadowy, and “the ordinary, insignificant things about him [become] charged with sinister suggestion and… the scenery on all sides [rapidly develops] an unpleasant tendency to the macabre.” It’s a malign fairyland, harder to exit than it is to enter (this time-bending effect again put me in mind of the ‘border’ of Area X) centred on ‘Hayes-in-the-Up’, a valley containing a building with a deserted room, thick with dust, where a malevolent spinning-wheel sits. Metcalfe blends fairytale tropes with a modern sensibility, and even if I found the ending deeply unsatisfactory, I’ll be thinking about his ‘terre-mauvaise’ for quite some time.
Mark Fisher wrote that Lovecraft needed humans in his stories “to provide a sense of scale”; Lost Keep (LA Lewis) deals with cyclopean geographies but also provides a much-needed sense of scale in its human protagonist. Too many narrators of the British Weird are Machen’s interchangeable ‘young men who lunch’, and Machin includes in his introduction a contemporary review which complained: “Why is it almost always considered necessary in ghost stories to make the characters irredeemably middle-class and uninteresting?” Not so Lost Keep, which includes a narrator with more humble concerns: whether it’s too early to use the gas (“the meter was always ravenous for his pennies”) and whether a strange bequest will be enough for him to pay for technical classes at night college. The bequest turns out to include a portal to another world, in which an immense and inhumanly-proportioned castle serves both as escape (for him) and prison (for his victims). This castle reminded me of the vast alien arena of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland (1908), and there’s something very cosmic-horror about the “grey perpetual twilight” of the “dead grey sky that cast no shadows”. The story culminates in a truly vile tableau, as the initially sympathetic narrator becomes corrupted by his exposure to the castle’s otherworldly power, until it is strewn with human remains from those (appallingly, sex slaves and blackmail victims) he callously abandons there.
However horrific or weird, I also found a lightness of touch and a humour in these stories. I enjoyed Nesbitt’s timeless complaint about the difficulties of house-hunting (looking for a cottage “at once sanitary and picturesque… so rarely do these two qualities meet in one cottage that our search was for some time quite fruitless… our minds so befogged by the eloquence of house-agents and the rival disadvantages of the fever-traps and outrages to beauty which we had seen and scorned”), and wanted very much to introduce her to Joel Golby’s “London Rental Opportunity of the Week” series. Similarly, Machen is excoriating on modern architecture: “a technical college… a school of economics. Both buildings curdled the blood: in their purpose and in their architecture. They looked as if Mr H G Wells’s bad dreams had come true”.
Machin provides us with both illuminating introduction and Mary Butts’ ‘Ghosties and Ghoulies, Uses of the Supernatural in English Fiction’ (1933) as a sort of afterword to the book. Butts is also represented in her story Mappa Mundi, which was a truly Mievillian walk around an “unsafe” Paris, answering the question: “Have you ever thought what lies behind this city… what you walk into when you’re awake and when you’re asleep?” Her prose is absolutely gorgeous. The essay is her attempt to grapple with the Weird as a movement, critiquing and cataloguing from a contemporary perspective. It’s both illuminating but also deeply frustrating to read, as even she finds it “hard to draw conclusions from”.
This book is an absolute must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in the pre-WW2 era of the British Weird, and the stories have been chosen with obvious care. Machin has avoided the temptation towards an over-emphasis on the folk-horror weird of the cultish countryside by including more modern-feeling and urban pieces, and there’s a refreshing variety of voices. For every rather tedious recitation of “why I must, now, tell this story…” there’s an unexpected ending or a deft sideways step of expectations. The British Weird was a very great pleasure, and I look forward to more collections from Handheld Press in the future.
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