This collection is not entirely horror or weird stories. Many of them deal with people in the arts, particularly music, and they are often written by a narrator claiming to be untutored in the art of writing an account of their experiences. The stories often seemingly digress and move back and forth in time, but Cross always ends his stories by satisfyingly tying everything together.
The collection has a quite deliberate order of stories, and there are links between some of them, so I’ll be looking at them in order. All of these stories first appeared in this volume.
J. F. Norris’ “Introduction” to the Valancourt Books edition is useful. This was not Cross’ first book, but his previous ones were children’s books under the name Stephen MacFarlane – the man “now dead” that Cross dedicated the collection to. Cross was an influential figure. Arthur C. Clarke said Cross was the first professional writer he knew. Ramsey Campbell credits Cross’ Best Horror Stories anthology as shaping his view of the genre. After this book was published, Cross was a scriptwriter for the BBC and adapted many other author’s stories to acclaim.
“Petronella Pan” is a creepy story about a vain woman that, to remain the center of attention, has chemically kept her daughter in the physical (though not mental) state of an infant for 30 years via chemical means. Like many Cross stories, it’s a twice-told story, and the narrator, who doesn’t like babies and goes on a riff about how innocent seeming babies grow up to become grotesque moral or physical monsters, gets the story from his sentimental German-Scottish friend Konrad who has been judging baby contests for thirty years. There is a nice bit with the baby seemingly reading Proust in her baby carriage. The mother’s former husband was a brilliant chemist, and she learned enough of his job to make the necessary formula. Cross wrings some horror out of Christ’s line “unless you become as children”.
Besides including some good stories, this is a nice primer on the Scottish tradition of supernatural stories. In 288 pages, in manages to pack in a fair survey on the subject from several centuries ao to 1971. (And it also has a glossary for the Scottish dialect.) It was first issued under the title Clans of Darkness. Haining includes not only stories set in Scotland but work from authors of a Scottish background. Angus Wilson’s “Foreword” notes that faerie stories are a prime element and that the borderlands between England and Scotland and the Orkney Islands contributed more tales than the more well-known Highlands.
“Thomas the Rhymer” is a legendary figure in Scottish history. Not only is he credited with the first poetry we have written in English but also with the gift of prophecy. This anonymous tale has him encountering a beautiful woman who may be the Virgin Mary but her accoutrements of expensive saddle, dress, bow and arrow, and three greyhounds suggests Diana. Thomas is smitten with her and proposes marriage. But she tells him he has to be her slave first. And she changes into a hideous woman. But Thomas is faithful and goes on a quest that will include a tree of forbidden fruit and a trip to Elfland. It’s an interesting mix of Christianity, faerie legends, and an historical figure.
Robert Kirk’s “The Secret Commonwealth” is an excerpt from his famed book of the same title. That 17th century work was a book of faerie lore, and this excerpt tells us about the nature and deeds of the Sith or Good People. Continue reading →
This week’s weird fiction to be discussed over at LibraryThing was nominated by me after coming across a John Keir Cross story in Scottish Stories of Fantasy and Horror which is in the large pile of books to be reviewed here.
I was impressed enough by it that I nominated this story which was published first in Cross’ seminal 1944 collection The Other Passenger which is quite good. This story, original and interesting as it is, is actually one of the lesser stories. But that I plan to discuss some other time.
As usual with these weekly postings about a piece of weird fiction, plenty of spoilers are ahead. That’s particularly relevant to Cross who seems to structure so many of his tales with a surprise ending.
This has been referred to as the greatest horror story ever about a ventriloquist dummy.
I don’t know about that. It certainly has a unique spin, a complete reversal, on the usual direction such stories take. It also depends on what you mean by horror.
Our narrator opens the tale with a couple of items and a statement:
There are things that are funny so that you laugh at them, and there are things that are funny but you don’t laugh at them at all—at least, if you do, you aren’t laughing because they amuse you: you are doing what Bergson says you do when you laugh—you are snarling. You are up against something you don’t understand—or something you understand too well, but don’t want to give in to.
Our first item is a description of the narrator’s friend Julia, an ungainly woman of ungainly statements, possessor of a unique talent for stating the wrong things. Julia is a “lost, mad girl”. Her sexual initiation occurred at 18 from a man she never saw again. There’s a broken engagement in her past. Her love is bestowed on an unresponsive, crippled nephew she sees once a year. Continue reading →