Roger Johnson is a native of Chelmsford in Essex, and his love for that corner of England (and the wider region of East Anglia) shines through in these stories. It is indeed a lovely part of the world, and one that provided much inspiration to Dr Montague Rhodes James. Roger Johnson is a writer in the Jamesian tradition, certainly in terms of setting - here are village inns, little churches, country houses and the like. But the author is his own man, and in terms of ideas he gives MRJ a run for his money.
The first section of the book, 'Things that Go Bump in the Night' comprises stories from the Sarob volume. They are tales from the The Endeavour, an old-fashioned English pub where various characters pop in to tell their stories to the regulars. This is a framing narrative reminiscent of Margery Lawrence's Nights of the Round Table, and the stories are of a similarly high quality - by turns funny, moving and chilling, and always inventive.
The opening story is a modern classic. 'The Scarecrow' has all the right ingredients for a winter evening - an remote English village, a megalithic monument of questionable purpose, a curse issued by a Very Bad Aristocrat in Days of Yore, and a man who decides to spend a night in a field to see what all the fuss is about. There's a polite nod to M.R. James in the way a supporting character sees the story's climax in a waking dream.
The figure came ever closer, its stride implacable and unhindered. It moved so stiffly, as though it had no knee-joints. Its arms were spread wide, seeming fixed in a mockery of benediction. Its head - ah! - its head was small and round, wrinkled and very, very old.The language, while not deliberately 'archaic', is just precise and erudite enough to give a timeless quality to the horror. The narrator is recounting a dream but that 'ah!' - just a touch of the colloquial - suggests that he is re-living it.
Another high point is 'The Wall-Painting', a fascinating and surprising variant on the theme of 'ancient evil uncovered'. The uncovering is literal in this case, as a Victorian expert finds what seems to be a depiction of an Anglo-Saxon saint. But what is the mysterious shadowy form that lurks behind the figure's robes? And how can it be moving? the idea of a moving picture is, again, reminiscent of James' 'The Mezzotint', but here something rather different happens. 'The Melodrama' is based on the genuine and much sensationalised Red Barn murder case, and here the author pulls off a much-tried but often bungled device, which I won't spoil for you. Suffice to say that the ending does justice to the title. The same goes for 'The Searchlight', in which a bizarre horror is accidentally produced by a wartime incident.
It should be emphasised that not all of these stories are Jamesian. 'The Pool', for instance, is a nightmarish account of a man who - wandering drunk at night - encounters what seems to be an old friend. Based on a true 'suburban legend', the story is sombre, eschewing all playfulness. There are also four Christmas stories, all produced for anthologies edited by the legendary Richard Dalby. Of these the strangest is 'The Soldier', which adopts Machen's device (used in 'The White People') of the simple narrator i.e. someone so child-like that they describe weird occurences in a straightforward manner. And, like many of Machen's stories, 'The soldier' is a tale of hidden London, featuring a mysterious church and the hidden significance of a familiar date. Altogether different is 'The Night Before Christmas', which the author rightly likens to E.F. Benson's 'The Face', but which is very powerful in its own right.
All in all, this volume is worth buying for the first section alone - The Tales from the Endeavour are quite superb, and make great winter reading. But there's more, you lucky people. The second section, 'Things from Beyond', offers horrors that are Lovecraftian, by and large. Johnson created the fictional Essex coastal town of Wrabsey as an Innsmouth-like setting. In 'Aliah Warden' we get a fairly standard (if well-crafted) Mythos revelation that its inhabitants are Not What They Seem. Much more interesting is 'Custodes Sanctorum', which looks at the Esoteric Order of Dagon from the inside.
Other stories venture far from Wrabsey, with Johnson drawing ideas from Lovecraft's notebooks to create 'The Dreaming City', 'Ishtaol' and 'The Fool's Tale'. Robert Chambers' invented volume The King in Yellow is revealed to be the key to higher(?) dimensions in 'The Man Who Inherited the World'. 'In Memoriam', a collaboration with Robert M. Price, reveals that the brain-blasting book had more than a little influence on Dorian Gray.
The third section, 'More Things in Heaven and Earth...' collects some interesting odds and ends. There's humour in the adventures of John R. Hero, a supposed psychic detective who is totally incompetent, but whose pretty assistant always sorts out the problem. In marked contrast, 'Love, Death and the Maiden' explores the bloody legend of Countess Elisabeth Bathory, the nearest thing to a 'real' vampire history has to offer. There is also what Johnson refers to as a 'butcher's dozen' of tales told in verse. Poetry, even if couched in traditional rhyme and metre as it is here, doesn't appeal to everyone. I like poetry myself, and found these rather good.
In brief, there's something for everyone here. I defy anyone who likes supernatural fiction not to be satisfied with this volume, which is published by MX, whose website is here.
In the Night - In the Dark
by Roger Johnson
30th November 2011