Thursday, 25 August 2016

Welsh Tales of Terror

R. Chetwynd-Hayes
Fontana Books

Inside what is probably the single most stereotypical portrayal of Welsh cliches ever to adorn a book cover this anthology of stories set in Wales, written by Welsh writers or regarding Welsh folklore turned out to be utterly fantastic.

Let's start by getting the various folktales out of the way.  These, here, take the form of teeny little half page stories relating things like 'The Brown Hobgoblin of Bedd Gelert', 'Dead Man's Candles', 'The Devil's Tree', 'Corpse Candles' and more.  They're fun little hints at the depth of Welsh folklore but little more than that.  For those wishing for a more in depth examination that's catered for with a chapter taken from Marie Trevelyan's early 20th century study 'Folk-Lore and Folk-Stories of Wales' that explores the phenomena of the 'Ceffyl-dwr' in 'Water Horses and the Spirits of the Mist'.

Arthur Machen
So, onto the stories.  There are a number of very enjoyable stories here but the book is helped no end by an exemplary opening trio of tales.  First up is Glyn Jones' 'Jordan', a story of an attempted swindle and the grim and unpleasant fate that befalls the perpetrators.  The second story is by one of my favourite authors, John Christopher, and is the first thing of his I've read that was neither science-fiction nor post-apocalyptic.  'A Cry of Children' is a subtle and deeply moving story with a brutal and breathtaking finale.  The golden trio culminates with Arthur Machen's 'The Shining Pyramid' with its folk horror and proto-Lovecraftian rural horrors from beyond.

There's a bit of a dip next with Angus Wilson's 'Animals or Human Beings' which despite being written in a very agreeable and jaunty style has a story that really does nothing interesting which is also the case with the ghost story 'The Man on a Bike' by Hazel F. Looker that follows it.

Regular readers of my write-us will know that I'm a bit of a sucker for a happy story and so in many ways 'The Morgan Trust' by Richard Bridgeman (a pseudonym of sci-fi writer L.P. Davies) ticked lots of my boxes with its story of a man on an obsessive quest finding what he's looking for in two remote Welsh towns.

Caradoc Evans
Obsession is also at the heart of two more tales of Caradoc Evans' 'Be This Her Memorial' takes religious fervour in a small town to its extreme and 'The Lost Gold Mine' by Hazel F. Looker has a more obvious object of fascination.

Dorothy K. Haynes' contribution 'Mrs Jones' is a repurposed folktale of a woman kidnapped and forced to cook for the little folk of Gower.  It's lifted from the doldrums by the matching belligerence of both its victim and her erstwhile rescuer whose dislike of the woman and her domineering ways could be her downfall.

Ronald Seth's 'The Reverend John James and the Ghostly Horseman' is another story that feels like a repurposed folktale but unlike its predecessor has little charm or wit in its telling.

The books second story by Glyn Jones, 'Cadi Hughes', is a bit of a disappointment after the opener.  It has a great opening and a couple of fun moments but is ultimately a bit cruel and vindictive.

Richard Hughes
The final three tales pretty much capture the Wales I grew up in the 1970s dealing as they do with coal mining, religion and folk horror.  Jack Griffith deals with the first of these as he traps a group of men underground in 'Black Goddess' and we're left to decide for ourselves whether the supernatural aspect is more real than the insanity.  'The Stranger' by Richard Hughes drops a small demon into the household of a preacher and his peg-legged wife.  It tries for laughs amidst the temptations and the piety but I thought it all got more than a little jumbled at the end.

R. Chetwynd-Hayes
The book closes with editor R. Chetwynd-Hayes' own contribution, 'Lord Dunwilliam and the Cwn Annwn'.  It's the most 1970s thing here by far as it's Regency period setting and wild snowy moorland setting filled with obnoxious aristocrats, cackling peasants, beautiful maidens and ancient powers put me in mind of so many of my favourite Hammer movies.

I know there are lots of other books in this series covering different areas of the country (and indeed parts of the world) compiled by different editors all of which are now on my wants list but truthfully they are all going to have to be something special to live up to this one.

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