Sunday, October 25, 2020

British Weird, Selected Short Fiction, 1893-1937 Edited by James Machin

If ever a year was designed to turn a person to the 'Weird' it's 2020. All the uncertainties, paranoia, superstition, and outright fear in these stories have taken on a new resonance against everything that's happening in the wider world. It's not so much that they're easier to believe in, but that they so well express the general disquiet that I guess a lot of us (surely not just me) are feeling.

Handheld Press have two new offerings - British Weird, and a second volume of Women's Weird. Both are officially launched on Tuesday the 27th and both are excellent. Weird as a category is a relatively new concept for me, in the past I've thought in terms of Horror or Science Fiction (which apart from anything else are the relevant sections in bookshops). Weird allows for some cross over between the two, and for the easily frightened (me again) leans more towards the unsettling rather than the terrifying.

'British Weird' gives Edith Nesbit's 'Man Sized in Marble' another outing - at some point I will make a list of all the anthologies I have that this story appears in and make a note of all the different lenses it asks to be viewed through. Even if just for my own satisfaction I think it'll be a useful exercise. I also think it makes more sense in this collection than in some I've read. There's something about alabaster effigies coming to life for evil purposes at Halloween that feels right at home in an English Churchyard. It is the perfect story to terrify small children into good behaviour with, and which adults can just as effectively terrify themselves with on a dark night - possibly why so many of these figures have witch marks carved onto them? 

There are two novella length stories - John Buchan's 'No-Man's Land' which deals with some murderous Pictish survivals deep in the Scottish mountains. Ancient survivals are a common trope - and there's another example in this collection in Eleanor Scott's 'Randalls Round'. It post dates Buchan's story by 27 years and speaks of slightly different fears. The idea of ancient folk traditions surviving into the 20th century are common in Golden age detective fiction too which is an overlap I find interesting. I suspect Buchan's story of having a political edge with ideas about degeneracy and race that he certainly revisits in the much later 'The Three Hostages'. He also does a splendid job of taking a landscape that is initially described as clean and pure, and everything good, before turning it into a nightmare place almost impossible to escape from.

Algernon Blackwood's 'The Willows' is another story that takes a geography that begins as something exhilarating before having the elements turn on the protagonists who are helpless in the face of the twin threats of nature, and something outside of the nature we know. There are a handful more stories, all well chosen, varied, and in the case of L A Lewis's 'The Lost Keep' a particular gem, and then there is Mary Butts.

I struggled a bit with Mary Butts. She's undoubtedly significant both as a modernist writer, someone who worked with Aleister Crowley, and a genuine believer in the things she was writing about, but I found reading her hard work. I've read enough to be reasonably well acquainted with the writers she discusses in the lengthy essay 'Ghosties and Ghoulies'. Uses of the Supernatural in English Fiction' which is included in this book. It seems likely that there will come a time that I'm grateful to have it to hand when I want to check something, but getting through it was a slog. 

Her short story 'Mappa Mundi' was even more of a slog, possibly because it's the only one in the book where it seems probable that the writer believed all of what she was writing. It's not an aspect of the weird I've particularly explored before and whilst I can cheerfully allow my own anxieties about present unknowns to be diffused through a rip roaring tale of strange things going on in the hills, Butts's earnestness is unsettling in an entirely different way. 

This is a thought provoking as well as enjoyable collection. Machin's introduction is excellent, as are Kate Macdonald's notes, it works brilliantly as a collection of stories to while away dark nights with - especially as there's plenty to make you be grateful to be safe at home, but there's a lot more to think about here if you want to. Highly recommended!
This alabaster figure, complete with witch mark, is from the church of All Saints in the grounds of Harewood House, Yorkshire.

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