Friday, 23 August 2013

Tales of Mystery and Horror

An interesting charity shop find in the traditional Gollancz yellow, grown a little less bright with the years. The utilitarian cover is fascinating in its insistence on ‘Amazing Value’, with story and page counts bracketing the price (7/6, that is a bargain!) as if inviting a bit of instant mental accounting. This pragmatic, no-nonsense design, appealing to parsimonious rather than aesthetic impulses, reflects the time of the book’s publication. In 1951, Britain was still in the depths of post-war austerity. Even the pages of this reasonably prestigious hardback are rough and pulpy, a little grey. 1951 was also the year of the Festival of Britain, however, which injected a little colour into the monochrome world of ration books and bombsites and pointed the way to a brighter future.

The cover also gives significant prominence to editor Dorothy L Sayers’ surname. She was firmly established as one of the queens of crime fiction, her Lord Peter Wimsey novels having first appeared in the 20s. She would perhaps have been less well known when the anthology was first published in 1928. Her selection includes names which remain familiar (M.R.James, Arthur Machen, J.S.Le Fanu, Bram Stoker) and others which are now all but forgotten (Morley Roberts, N.Royde-Smith, Violet Hunt and Barry Pain – a marvellous name for a hack horror writer). At the time that this edition was being published, Sayers was working on her translations and extensive annotations of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which would reach a wide readership when they appeared as Penguin Classic paperbacks: Inferno – or Hell, as she titled it - in 1949, Purgatorio in 1955 and Paradiso in 1962 - posthumously, appropriately enough. Her scholarly bent is apparent in the organisation of the contents of this volume, too. Divided into two major sections, with further subdivisions within, it offers what amounts to a taxonomy of horror literature which still bears deliberation today, even if the language in which it is couched is a little of its time (and all the better for it).

The two principal classifications divide the contents between the Macrocosmos, defined as stories of the supernatural, and the Microcosmos, which encompasses ‘stories of the human and inhuman’. Immediately, Sayers introduces a dualistic religious element as an underlying backbone to the whole panoply of generic variants. The Macrocosmos includes Tales of Ghosts and Haunting, with examples of the classic British ghost story. The Tales of Magic selection is further subdivided to delineate familiar themes: Witchcraft, Vampires, The Frankenstein Theme, Possession and the Dead Alive, and Tales of Doom and Destiny. This is where the Universal and Hammer family of gothic monsters shamble in. Our final Macrocosmic subsection is Tales of Nightmare and the Borderland of the Mind, a more subjective horror which is often more amenable to the literary writer chary of swimming too far into generic waters.

The Microcosmic portion of the anthology takes us into wholly human territory, where horrors aplenty can still be found. Sayers sorts these tales into two categories which effectively reflect the theological divide between the idea of free will and predestination, and again suggest that she feels the genre is rooted, consciously or unconsciously, in religious concerns. These stories present rationalised monsters, human devils who make literal the metaphorical fears embodied in the old supernatural ghosts and monsters. These are the monsters for the modern age. We have Tales of Disease and Madness (the progenitor of the ‘psycho’ genre); and Tales of Blood and Cruelty (a category notably fuller than the former, and comparable to the French contes cruels). It’s here that we find the eminently well-named Mr Pain with his story The End of a Show, a short, strange and subtly disturbing little story of moral ambiguity centred around the arrival of a fair in a Yorkshire village. Probably the greatest cruelty here is that which Pain inflicts upon the local dialect, as spoken by a ‘sad native’. Now that really is excruciating.

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