With this, I think I’ve reviewed all of David Hambling’s fiction.
Review: “The Mystery of the Cursed Cottage”, David Hambling, 2017.
In the introduction to Black Wings of Cthulhu 6, editor S. T. Joshi notes this is a rarity: a locked-room mystery in the Cthulhu Mythos. That’s not quite true, this story draws more from traditional folklore and notions of witchcraft than the Mythos. However, it is part of Hambling’s Norwood Cycle, Mythos stories set in that South London suburb.
Our narrator and protagonist is William Blake, the narrator of other tales in the cycle, “The Dulwich Horror of 1927” and “The Monsters in the Park” and a character in “Shadows Of the Witch House” and mentioned in War of the God Queen.
It’s 1928, and, after helping officials with the strange case of the Dulwich Horror, Blake is asked to help the police in another strange case. One Mr. Potter, a real estate developer, has disappeared.
Also dragged along for any contributions is Miss Belhaven of the Norwood Theosophist Circle.
The cottage Potter disappeared from in a wooded Norwood area is old and of wattle-and-daub construction. There’s only one door, locked from the inside when it was opened. There is no sign of forced entry.
The police theory is a staged disappearance, perhaps Potter vanished to take up with a woman not his wife though they do concede that, if that’s the case, it would have just been easier to go to Waterloo Station and not leave your library and spectacles behind. And Potter was chronically near-sighted.
The newspapers have another theory – a curse.
The previous inhabitant of the cottage was a shabbily dressed old woman referred to as Mother Attwater. She was rumored to be a witch. She lived in the house for free, and the locals, perhaps fearful, used to bring her gifts.
Potter showed up at the cottage after buying the property and evicted her.
She took him to court and confronted him on the steps of the courthouse. She pointed a finger at him and spoke strange words. He responded with something in an unknown language, and Attwater dropped dead, a rat coming out of her clothes.
Blake notices Potter brought several books with him for his stay in the cottage, books which show an interest in the occult and witchcraft. They include the ubiquitous Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult of Western Europe and an untitled work by Von Junzt.
He also notes several holes in the wall near the floor, and, nearby, Belhaven finds human teeth.
It seems the police have asked Belhaven along for a presumed knowledge of fakery. But Belhaven is no fake, and, opening herself up to any impressions, she senses a disturbing “faint murmur”.
And just then the constable outside yells at them to get out of the cottage now.
A tree comes crashing down on the cottage. Blake and the supervising inspector see a strange creature in the branches of a tree.
A rustling is heard in the trees. And it’s not the wind in the leaves.
A horde of rats swarm out of the woods, overwhelm one of the policemen, and kill him. The rats are eventually driven off.
As with the Dulwich affair, Blake helps the police put their paperwork in order and put a bow on the affair.
Blake gives the inspector a solution. Attwater fed rats frequently. When Potter moved to the cottage and didn’t feed the rats, they swarmed him and killed him. He left the cottage in the stomach of thousands of rats. As for the strange rat in the trees they found in the trees, rats can’t vomit so are susceptible to poisons and toxins which sometimes alter their appearance.
The inspector is rattled by his brush with the weird, and Blake feels it would be cruel to give him the real story.
Attwater really was a witch, probably hundreds of years old and the cottage’s original dweller. There’s probably an altar to Cerunnos aka the Horned — sometimes also known as Pan and Herne in the woods. There Attwater would have sacrificed children at least once a year and fed her familiars. And that strange creature in the trees with its human face (Hambling’s hat tip to Brown Jenkins of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House”) was Attwater’s familiar.
And Potter was a witch too. Following the tradition of witches, he expelled Attwater and hoped to take her place. That was the reason for his books and the seeming curse he killed Attwater with.
Blake hopes police with shotguns and terriers will descend on the woods and kill the rats, especially the “cruel old woman”.
With the erudition Blake shows in his presentation to the inspector and the numerous possibilities the police have already discarded, Hambling again strikes flinty details and rationality against the steel of the Mythos and folklore for literary combustion.