Monday, 18 December 2017

The White Road - Review

Sarob Press has answered the prayers of a host of bibliophiles by publishing a lavish collection of Ron Weighell's stories. The original Ghost Story Press edition of The White Road has long been a collector's item, and it's easy to see why. This is a book that deserves to be dubbed a classic of supernatural fiction. It contains two dozen stories ranging in quality from good to excellent, and is very much in the British weird tradition.

The Sarob volume is illustrated by Nick Maloret. As well as a superb dustjacket, there are remarkable end-paper and cover art. I am a terrible photographer, but I thought I would try to capture them regardless.

See? Told you I was rubbish at taking pictures, but at least you get some idea of the quality of Maloret's work. The overall feel of the book is luxurious, of course, and proclaims it a genuine collector's item. But what of the stories themselves?

Re-reading these tales I was struck by how well they stand up, how little it matters that they were (with one exception, a new story) written in the days before Google, Facebook, and all that stuff. There is a Jamesian 'haze of distance' in many stories, which suits the often mystical denouements. But there is also horror, enough to satisfy anyone. Weighell was a master of folk horror before we had a term for it, in fact.

A goodly number of these tales first appeared in the Eighties under Ro Pardoe's Haunted Library imprint, and the (Monty) Jamesian influence is strong but not suffocating. ''Bishop' Asgarth's Chantry', 'Againbite', and 'The First Turning of the Second Stair' all offer spooky pleasures. Archaeological research at a cathedral, a spectre in an old, ramshackle house, and a Gnostic talisman - this is the stuff ghost stories for Christmas are made of. In style as well as structure there are some splendid Jamesian tales here. You know what you're getting (more or less) when a story begins like this from 'An Empty House':
'Professor Gerald Mills Ramsay - a name not unknown in academic publishing circles - was engaged in writing the definitive life of the seventeenth century antiquary, Elias Ashmole'. 

And so an innocent scholarly zeal leads our hero towards something dark and disturbing. I'm sure I'm not alone in enjoying concise tales of characters who take a step too far and live (or do not live) to regret it, a very Jamesian concept. 'The Ram's Head Ring', for instance, proves impossible to remove for the protagonist, struggle though he might. And those footsteps are getting closer... The influence of James is also pronounced in 'The Box Parterre', one of many stories here that I think of as topographical. You get a strong sense of place, the immediacy both of a rural idyll and a lurking threat.

The term folk horror also (for me at least) implies that Machen and Blackwood are in the mix. Machen, I think, is the stronger influence here. Thus 'Byerly Mount' begins with a child watching heath fires, then examining mysterious stone carvings in the eponymous hillock. Soon the girl has vanished - taken like many before her. 'The White Road' itself reads like a tribute to Machen, set in 'a landscape of dream' on the Welsh borders. 'The Fire of the Wise' sees a man almost - but not quite - risk venturing into the realm of Faerie itself.

Machen's sense of ancient evil, hidden just under the surface of everyday reality, also informs one of my cautionary tales, 'Laid Down and Guarded'. Here a treasure hunter finds what he seeks, but fails to take seriously warnings concerning a genuine being from English folklore. 'The Tunnel of Saksaksalim' is another story that stuck in my mind down the years, partly because of the superb title. Here a journalist sets out to interview cleaners on the London Underground, the most mundane of tasks. But curiosity leads her to interview a 'fluffer', one of the men who cleans the rails. This means venturing into the tunnels, leading her away from the well-lit world of London commuters and into monstrous darkness. Vintage stuff.

Ancient Egypt is one preoccupation of Weighell's that does not feature much in the Jamesian (or Machenesque) tradition, and is generally not too fashionable in horror fiction nowadays. I wonder why? Because in the right hands Egyptian magic and mysticism work very well. They feature in 'The Boat Called Millions Of Years', in which a modern follower of the old gods is not taken seriously enough by greedy relatives. In 'The Secret Place' an expedition discovers a lost Egyptian tomb containing grotesquely deformed mummies in a story that has a whiff of Boys' Own adventure, but is informed with the kind of numinous mysticism one finds in Blackwood's work (i.e. 'Sand').

I've managed to get all this way down to the page without mentioning Lovecraft, despite the recurring themes of ancient gods and/or buried evil surging up to snag the unwary bookworm. A few stories here are arguably Lovecraftian but arguably owe more to his contemporary Clark Ashton Smith. 'Carven of Onyx', with its medieval setting, and the pure fantasy worlds of 'Necropolis' and 'Second Death' are arguably 'Smithian' in their exuberant inventiveness.

I mentioned above that this edition of The White Road contains a new story. 'Out of the Hidden Land' features two characters from earlier tales - Calder-Stuart the Egyptologist and the female reporter Electra Vallance. The disappearance of Vallance's sister brings the ill-assorted pair together and leads them to a country estate and a folly in the form of a mock Egyptian temple. There ritual magic probes the boundaries between life and death. It's hard to avoid seeing the story's finale as Weighell's heartfelt rejection of much of the modern world, one that - to many - is bereft of true beauty and mystery.

I have done my best to convey a flavour of The White Road, but really a book this good needs no recommendation from me. Sarob have done a fine job of 'reincarnating' the collection, thus bringing to more readers the work of one of the most gifted modern practitioners of the supernatural tale. If you can get your hands on this book, do not hesitate.

1 comment:

Mario Guslandi said...

David, your reputation and your positive opinion of the book are prompting me to secure a copy ( although I understand that the standard printout is sold out)
It'always a pleasure to read your blog and your fine reviews.
Alll the best
Mario Guslandi