Thursday, 27 December 2012

Nights of the Round Table

The Christmas season is traditionally a time for tales of the supernatural, and this year I took advantage of some time away from the distractions of blogging and Facebookery to re-read one of the true classics of the genre. Margery Lawrence came to prominence in the decade after the Great War as an author of shorts stories, most of them weird or ghostly in nature. Her first collection, Nights of the Round Table, was reprinted in the Nineties by Ash-Tree Press in 1998. Richard Dalby edited and introduced the volume, heaping praise upon Lawrence for the diversity and originality of her work.

The dozen stories in the collection purport to be those told to the author by members of a select club that meets once a month. Thus January's tale is the first to be told, while December's is the last. Lawrence is in fact a bit erratic about the introductory matter, offering quite a build-up in some cases, while in others she plunges straight into the narrative. There's a slight touch of the John Silence about this, and indeed Lawrence was a convinced believer in the occult and attended many seances. However, unlike many spiritualists, she doesn't let her imagine limit itself to bland statements about the nature of the life to come.

Far from it. One of Lawrence's notable achievements in NotRT is to give a well-defined but still alarming picture of a supernatural world adjacent to ours, from which various disturbing entities may intrude from time to time. Thus in 'The Fifteenth Green', the construction of a new golf course necessitates the eviction of an eccentric old man living in an unlicensed shack. The old man, predictably enough, has had dealings with unholy beings. But the way in which Lawrence builds up from the initial dispute to the final scene of vengeance is a masterpiece of careful storytelling. She perfectly captures the way 'sensible chaps' wouldn't allow some odd occurrences put them off a round of golf - despite all the signs that they are heading for catastrophe at the eponymous hole.

Likewise 'The Woozle', a story in which a nursemaid invents a monster to keep a lonely child quiet, works as a clever evocation of the cruel mind-games adults often unwittingly play with the young. But it's also an original take on the idea of the dark entity that is summoned by human fear and credulity - if you believe in it, it will come. A similar idea, but one executed very differently, lies at the heart of 'Floris and the Soldan's Daughter', in which an unworldly law student becomes obsessed with a beautiful ivory figure. While 'The Woozle' resembles Wakefield's fiction in its focus on casual cruelty, 'Floris' has hints of Blackwood and Machen, particularly in the denouement, when it's not clear whether Floris has suffered a terrible or a wondrous fate. Perhaps he has earned both.

'Vlasto's Doll', by contrast, is somewhat Grand Guignol in its emphasis on abuse, revenge, and the evil shenanigans of a ruthless showman. The doll of the title is a larger-than-life thing apparently moved by some internal mechanism. But why is Vlasto's wife, whom he mistreats brutally, so essential to the working of an act she apparently takes no part in? Here the climax of the story is nightmarish, perhaps appropriately, given that the setting is Europe on the brink of the First World War. If so the doll, with its apparently scientific mechanism driven by fear and hate, might stand as a image of greater forces of destruction.

'The Haunted Saucepan' sounds absurd, but in fact it's a fine story and has rightly been anthologised more than once. The premise is simple enough - something bad happened in a London flat, and it is connected with a saucepan that seems to boil and bubble despite being empty on an unlit stove. The backstory is not especially original, but the execution is extremely good; Rosemary Pardoe has describe it as a story in best Jamesian tradition.

Slightly less effective, but still very good, are 'Death Valley' and 'The Curse of the Stillborn'. In both cases the theme is the collision of Western values with those of older, stranger cultures. In 'Death Valley' a group of white hunters insist on exploring an area shunned by natives, and encounter a nightmarish entity - perhaps a demon - in an abandoned farmstead. The others story is set in Egypt, and concerns a very believable instance of missionaries seeking to put down 'native superstition'. Instead the intruders encounter something more ancient than the pyramids - a thing bound in the wrappings of the tomb, and wearing a gilded mask...

Those are just some of the stories in a collection that offered me a satisfying bedtime read over the past few days. Nights of the Round Table is not easy to get hold of, but according to Ash-Tree's web site some copies are still available.

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