This week’s weird story the Deep Ones is discussing over at LibraryThing.
Review: “Roaring Tower”, Stella Gibbons, 1937.
Many British readers will recognize the name of Stella Gibbons, author of the beloved Cold Comfort Farm (a novel I only know from its movie adaptation). She’s also the aunt of famed weird fiction author Reggie Oliver.
The story opens with our narrator, Clara, veiled, and being packed off with a bouquet of white roses, a “copy of a ladies’ journal”, and something to eat. She is being sent from Islington to her Aunt Julia in Cornwall, and she is sulking, “her heart like stone”. She only says “yes” to her mother and father before departing.
Given the veil and black gloves, we wonder if she is a widow. But we soon learn she is a 19-year-old and that she is narrating her story 50 years later. As she says of herself at that time,
“no heart could have been fiercer, and yet colder, than mine. One voice, which I should never hear again, sounded in my ears, and one face, which I had promised to forget, filled my eyes.
‘All else’ (as that German philosopher wrote) ‘was folly.’
Then we learn she’s not a widow, but her ‘heart is broken”.
Traveling between the train station in Cornwall and to her aunt’s house, she sees ruins, a stone circle in a cliff above the sea. The driver of the carriage reluctantly tells her it’s the Roaring Tower. Immediately, it interests her. Indeed, it’s about he only thing that has interested her in the last few months.
The next day, after helping her aunt’s servant Bessie feed the chickens and other chores, she walks around the coast. Yet, even its beauty does not take her out of herself.
I clambered from rock to rock, waited through pools in a bitter dream, and saw with unseeing, unhappy eyes the conservatories and hothouses of the sea, green fronds and purple and red, swaying below me in innocent beauty.
But I only grieved the more to see them. Was I not alone in the midst of beauty, and would be so forever? And my heart grew harder, my tongue less apt to exclaim or praise, and my thoughts turned every day more and more inward upon myself.
The Roaring Tower is the first place she visits. Around it is what she first takes to be the droning of bees. Her thoughts are empty; not even sorrow is there. From a 50 year distance, she looks back at her teen-age drama queen self:
I was not thinking of anything in particular, not even of my sorrow, my mind lay like a black marsh under the sun – flowerless, stagnant. If there was a thought hovering at the back of my head (I can write it now with a smile) it was a hopeful surmise that there might be fresh fish for dinner. But had I been taxed with this I should have denied it with anger. I hugged my grief; it was all I had. Nothing could heal it; it was a deathless wound.
Alas! the bitterest lesson I have since learned is how gently and remorselessly Time steals even our dearest wounds from us.
Around the stone circle of the Roaring Tower’s foundation, she pays closer attention to the noise:
It was a soft, hollow, furious roaring, such a sound as a giant distant waterfall might make . . . . The sound rose and fell in waves, exactly as the roaring of an animal rises and falls.
With uneasiness, she asks one of the women in the crowd what the sound is. It’s the Roaring Tower, she’s told. A man offers the explanation that there’s a cave under the Tower, and, when the tide goes out, it roars.
But the narrator doesn’t really believe the explanation and, bothered by the locals’ “inquisitive eyes”, leaves.
About a week later, she sees Bessie’s daughter, Jennie. She notices that, on the cover of Jennie’s box of colored pencils, is the Roaring Tower with a “gross, long-snouted monster with four brown paws” squatting nearby.
Jennie, when questioned, tells her that “Daft Davy”, a friend, painted the picture. Davy actually saw the beast once. Clara primly and rather self-righteously quizzes Jennie and scolds her for lying.
He don’t hurt people, that bear-thing don’t. Everyone’s afeard of him round here, and no one’s sorry for him a bit, but he don’t hurt people. He only wants to get away home, Davy says.
Around noon, Clara goes back to the Roaring Tower. She enters the stone circle and sits on the grass and amid the roses-bushes to be found there. Her thoughts are “vague”, but she is not afraid. It is something else she feels: “a return of the inexplicable pity I had experienced when I heard the Tower at its roaring.”
In a drowsy, dream-like sleep, she hears the sound of the Roaring Tower. She becomes uneasy and prepares to flee, but she stays because that overwhelming sense of pity comes back.
She grips the wall and peers into the “silent pit of green”. She does what she admits is a “strange thing”. She speaks.
‘Can you hear me? Poor soul! Poor tormented creature! Can I help you? I would if I could. . . . Listen! I am here. I would pray for you, if prayers would help you. You poor, lost thing, you! You have a friend left on earth, if you care to have her. I will do what I can …’
She sheds “the first unselfish tears I had shed for months”. She feels a shock and the world around her shrinks to just what’s in the stone circle. The sound diminishes. Clara assumes the tide is going out.
Clara says she could say she fell asleep then. But she is certain she did not, as certain “as I know that my body must soon die, that I did not sleep”.
A form begins to appear before her. It is the beast portrayed by Davy. It seems to plead with her. She asks if she should get a clergyman — a nod to what may happen in a conventional ghost story.
Then something occurs beyond her ability to fully describe, an angelic figure appears:
huge wings, feathered with copper plumes from tip to tip, of a face crowned with hair like springing rays of gold, a wild face, smiling down on me in ecstasy, of a sexless body, veined again with gold as a leaf is veined. A blinding shock passed through my frame, which may have been (may the creature’s God forgive me if I blaspheme) an embrace of gratitude.
The Roaring Tower holds no further fascination for her and she returns to her aunt’s house. But she is no longer unhappy. The world seems beautiful, and she will be alive many years to enjoy it. Her pity released a “terrible spirit” and, in exchange, the sorrow of her heart is now gone.
In the brief conclusion, Clara says she asked about the Roaring Tower. Davy is terrified of the question and won’t answer. Her aunt looks at Clara as if she’s mad. But “the gift of the Roaring Tower” permanently gives Clara a sense of wonder and of the beauty in the natural world which has gotten her through 50 years of sometime sorrow. Indeed, it seems to have given her a religious sense of peace when facing death:
Is it to be wondered at, now I am too old a woman to make concessions to those who believe that this world is the only world we shall ever inhabit, that I am not afraid to die?
It’s an interesting story. No attempt is made to explain what was in the Roaring Tower. The weird is initially and lightly tinged with menace here, but it turns out to be a numinous presence which gives Clara a permanent sense of tranquility and solace.