Thursday, 23 May 2013

Review: Herald of the Hidden, by Mark Valentine

This collection of tales spans the years 1983 to 2009, and offers an interesting selection of Mark Valentine's work. Most of them concern the investigations of Ralph Tyler, an 'occult sleuth' of a slightly unusual sort. Unlike Hodgson's Carnacki, Blackwood's John Silence, or Le Fanu's Dr Hesselius, Tyler is a regular bloke with no powerful connections or unusual resources. He resides at 14 Bellchamber Tower, but this is not so elegant a residence at the name suggests. His methods are simply those of the researcher, coupled with a bit of initiative and a tendency to try and do the right thing - sometimes in defiance of his client's wishes.

There is an obvious problem with the psychic sleuth format. Each story contains the germ of its own failure by telling the reader that the hero will not die, or be otherwise rendered hors de combat. While this is fine in a TV series of the X-Files variety (and there are a lot of them around), on the printed page it does somewhat undermine one of the key appeals of the weird tale - that the highest stakes being played for.

Setting aside my own personal prejudices, though, the Ralph Tyler stories are excellent of their kind. As the author explains in his introduction, Tyler is from Northampton, and his cases concern incidents taking place in a landlocked county that is often overlooked. And, while these are early stories, the author's trademark erudition is always in evidence as he leads us down unusual byways of history, folklore, and general scholarship.

Of the Tyler stories, my personal favourites are those that ring the changes on fairly familiar themes. Thus in 'The Folly' Tyler and his Watson-like companion are summoned to a country estate to deal with strange visions afflicting chinless wonders. The central idea is clever, and the conclusion offers a moral as well as intellectual satisfaction, as Tyler deliberately fails to help out the huntin', shootin', fishin' set.

A different form of morality is key to strange events in 'The Ash Track'. It's a story of contrasts, evoking the pleasures of walking in obscure rural byways while also reminding us of how brutal and unjust were the lives of ordinary country folk in times past. Again, Tyler's compassion as much as his erudition make the final revelation more than a matter of mere explication.

The nastiness that often underlies life in small communities is also pivotal in 'William Sorrell Requests', which uses the ingenious idea of a village notice board as means of apparently supernatural vengeance. This is an especially ingenious story that kept me guessing. And indeed, Tyler himself can't quite resolve the mystery, so much as confront people with the truth of their own questionable behaviour.

More traditional, and great fun, is 'The Grave of Anir'. Arthurian legend is invoked to explain the disappearance of an academic. The perils of investigating things best left undisturbed is a theme that recalls M.R. James; like James, Valentine leaves the door ajar for a purely rational explanation of the scholar's unpleasant fate. The explanation is of course not entirely satisfying.

'The Almanac' is very different, and shows how Valentine has developed as a writer. Instead of a fairly conventional haunting, this story offers a somewhat Borgesian concept - an eccentric who sets out to produce the ultimate almanac, recording everything noteworthy on every day. After his death a strange haunting, of sorts, occurs at his home. Tyler comes to realise that the ghost, if that's the right term, is in search of something both familiar and strange - a figure of speech that we all use.

In total there are ten Tyler stories, and all make for a satisfying read. There are also half a dozen stand-alone tales, which range from mid-Eighties stories to one published very recently in The Silent Companion, journal of A Ghostly Company. That story, 'Their Special Glee' is a little masterpiece of ambiguity, and again it's about the strange events in a small village, as if the much earlier 'Tree Worship'. Most of these stories are rather gentle, offering haunted cricket clubs and mystical candles. But there is also 'Go to the West', in which a modern alchemist decides to tackle the ultimate mystery, only to confronted with a horrifying fate.

All these stories were collected at the suggestion of the legendary editor Richard Dalby, who selected many of them for his famous collections. It was a good idea.

Tartarus 2013

ISBN 978-1-905784-54-7 

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