Tuesday 31 January 2017

Tales of Witchcraft

Richard Dalby (editor)
Michael O'Mara Books

In the figure of the witch, our ancestors summed up their fears of nature, women, and social outsiders. Today, this archetype still possesses the power to disturb and unnerve us--especially in the hands of such masters of the horror genre as Saki, M. R. James, and Stephen King, all of whom are represented in this collection of seventeen tales.

Regular readers of Wyrd Britain will have noticed that I really like these anthologies of ghostly and macabre shenanigans.  This never used to be the case.  My prejudices against short stories were long held and ran deep but a few years ago I discovered the joy of the collection of spook stories and haven't looked back since.  Most of the ones I've read have been a worthwhile experience weighted to the better but a couple of them have shone through as being just a well put together collection - Mark Valentine's occult detective collection 'The Black Veil' and Susan Dickinson's 'Ghostly Experiences' spring immediately to mind - and today this one is added to the list as it turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Jessica Amanda Salmonson
Opening the book is Saki's 'The Peace of Mowsle Barton' a characteristically witty little jape of petty tit for tat spell casting by gnarly old country women which is followed by M.R. James' 'The Fenstanton Witch' in, what was, it's first publication within the pages of a book.  The collection of James stories I own predates this so the story of young clergymen attempting an avaricious exhumation of a suspected witch was a real treat to read even if it's not the most refined of the great man's works.

N. Dennett's 1933 story 'Unburied Bane' tells of a nasty and spiteful hag in a remote, ramshackle cottage but does so with an ever so subtle possibility of just plain old delusional madness.  This is contrasted nicely with the next story, 'The Toad Witch' by Jessica Amanda Salmonson which is a beautifully poignant exploration of childhood imagination and loss.

Next is a writer who I've had the privilege of reading a few times recently, Ron Weighell, who unleashes ancient horrors on a remote convent in the terrific, 'Carven of Onyx' which is followed by A.M. Burrage's fine tale of gypsy revenge in 'Furze Hollow'.
Marjorie Bowen

In 'Miss Cornelius', W.F. Harvey tells a twisted little tale of possible madness or potential witchery.  Neither is really certain and the story is all the better for it.  Marjorie Bowen's 'One Remained Behind' on the other hand suffers from a slightly telegraphed resolution that is redeemed by the panache of it's telling.

One of the more disappointing inclusions is Robert Bloch's 'Catnip' which just tried far too hard to make something out of a terrible pun ending and the low point continues with Shamus Frazer's haunted tree story, 'The Yew Tree' before Stephen King gets everything back on track with his repulsive 'Gramma' and a young boys attempt to deal with the responsibility of caring for her.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, himself a descendant of one of those involved in the Salem witch trials presents a short story of regret, betrayal, sin, death and family in the 'The Hollow of the Three Hills' whereas for the narrator of Roger Johnson's 'The Taking' the sin is not his but the impulse to make amends is laid on him by a restless spirit which is a theme echoed by David G Rowlands', 'The Executor'.

E.F. Benson
Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes presents an amusing little story called 'The Day of the Underdog' which goes some way to proving that not every dog has it's day before the book ends with two stories of love being tested at the hands of devious old crones.  E.F. Benson's 'Gavon's Eve' is by far the better of the two and features lost love and the machinations of a necromantic witch.  The last, 'The Witches Cat' by Manly Wade Wellman would have been more at home in an issue of one of EC's horror comics.  It's not a bad little tale but it's a little too whimsical for the company it's keeping here and makes for an odd ending to the book.

So, with a couple of stories that were perhaps less than they could be and maybe seemed more so in light of how enjoyable the rest of the stories were, this collection proved to be a real treat filled with well sourced stories that haven't appeared in hordes of other anthologies.

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