Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Cornish Horrors: Tales from the Land's End (ed.) Joan Passey


British Library, 2021
365 pp


"Why not tell them of the Cornish horror ..."

Cornwall, editor Joan Passey reminds her readers in her introduction to this volume, is "not a fantasy land," but rather "real, and close, alternately viewed as the end of the land and its beginning," and her hope is that in reading this anthology, "thinking of Cornwall's rich lore, stories, and creative legacy" will  "serve to illuminate its realities than obscure them."  The history of Cornwall looms large throughout this book,  spectral and real, so that one cannot help but to encounter the past even in the present, as so many Victorian tourists evidently discovered.   As the back-cover blurb notes, the stories in this volume explore "the rich folklore and traditions of the regions in a journey through local mythology, mines, shipwrecks, the emergence of the railway and the rise of tourism."  The editor also takes a moment to introduce each story, explaining how these factors play out in the context of what the reader is about to encounter.  It is a unique way to look at what otherwise might be to some just some entertaining Gothic or ghostly tales, revealing that there is more to the story than what lies on the surface.  

My previous encounters with the stories in this book are limited to four out of the fifteen:  "Ligeia," by Edgar Allan Poe, "The Roll-Call of the Reef," by Arthur Quiller-Couch, "The Screaming Skull," by F. Marion Crawford (and by the way, don't bother to watch the 1958 film supposedly based on this story -- Crawford's version is great, but the movie absolutely stinks), and "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot," by Arthur Conan Doyle.  Moving on to those unread,   "My Father's Secret" written anonymously and published in All the Year Round in 1861, represents a "cultural exchange" between Brittany and Cornwall in the form of the story of the bisclavet, "the tale of the knight who, owing to some fearful but unexplained fatality, was compelled at certain times to assume the shape and nature of a wolf."  No knights here, but this story seems to have its roots in the idea of Cornwall as a "land of barbarous people and uncivilized behavior," as the author notes in the introduction, as well as its perceived isolation.  It's also beyond suspenseful.  Next up is "Cruel Coppinger," by Robert Stephen Hawker from 1866;   Hawker also wrote  "The Botathen Ghost," a popular and atmospheric ghost story set in the Cornish moors.  The action here focuses on a particular "legend of renown," Cruel Coppinger, who arrived during "a terrific hurricane," surviving an ensuing shipwreck after which he  took up a life as captain of "an organised band of desperadoes, smugglers, wreckers, and poachers."  Larger than life he is, indeed.  Of the next story, Mary E. Braddon's "Colonel Benyon's Entanglement", the author notes that it is "less on the villainous side" than another one of Braddon's stories set in Cornwall;  I found it to be the most tame of all the stories in this volume.  Here past and present collide in a not so pleasant way, as the Colonel finds himself staying in the home of an absent old friend whose wife has behaved so very badly.  The "false wife" is also gone, but the Colonel can't help feeling that she'd left an "evil influence upon the scene of her iniquity."  "The Phantom Hare" penned by an author known only as M.H. (1873) thankfully is not tame at all, offering the story of a white hare which bodes "no good when seen."  Any man who finds one passing over his feet should absolutely beware.  "Christmas Eve at a Cornish Manor House" by Clara Venn (1878) is a ghostly story within a story as "heard from an eye-witness," or perhaps rather an "ear-witness. "  

from Kernow Coasteering

When thinking of Cornwall, one of the most popular images that comes to mind is that of the caves hidden along the coastline, often used for smuggling.  This feature plays a role in Mary L. Penn's  "In the Mist" (1881), as a lovers' quarrel at the top of a cliff takes a terrible turn.  "The Baronet's Craze," by Mrs. H.L. Cox (1889) centers on a young man who rushes to Cornwall to find the woman he loves, only to come upon a scene that shakes him to his core.  The port of Pencastle is the scene of Bram Stoker's "The Coming of Abel Behenna" (1893) in which two friends fall in love with the same woman.  The rivalry intensifies until (it seems) the only way of settling the issue is a coin toss. There is a twist: whoever wins also gets the money of both men and use it for trade, thus returning richer after the period of one year.  It sounds like a good idea, but oh, so much can go so very wrong in this scenario. And it does.  

the Cornish Coast, from The Book Trail

My favorite story, which also wins my award for most disturbing, is Elliott O'Donnell's "The Haunted Spinney" from 1903.   It is one of those stories where I read it once, did a WTF? double take and immediately read it again.   On a country road  in the Cornish moors, a man takes a walk in the rain and encounters a "woman in a dark cloak" and decides to follow her.  In so doing, he comes across a "poor, common man" who he writes off as just a "stupid, sturdy son of toil" who believed in "Cornish bogies," but there's more to come, including a murder.  Anyone deciding to read Cornish Horrors should leave off reading the editor's introduction to this story until after finishing this eerie tale so as to be completely taken by surprise.  The next story, "A Ghostly Visitation," by E.M. Bray (1907) finds a woman traveling alone stopping at a private hotel.  Of the two rooms available, one is "a miserable little room" and one is "very spacious and better furnished," and it's the latter the landlady wants her to take.  That night we discover why the landlady is so antsy about the woman's choice of the smaller.  Passey notes that this is a story that "builds upon an existing tradition of Gothic tourist fiction set in Cornwall;" it seems that travellers even then enjoyed "seeking out frightening places."   The last of the previously unread is by F. Tennyson Jesse, whose A Pin to See the Peepshow helped to inspire Sarah Waters' novel The Paying Guests.  On offer here is Jesse's "The Mask" from 1912, also quite disturbing and once read, unforgettable.  The woman at the center of things is Vashti Glasson, who is unhappily married but finds solace in another man who has become completely "enslaved" by her.  At the last of their secret meetings things go horribly wrong and all hell breaks loose, but this is not the end of the story, by far.  

For people who think of Cornwall in literature and immediately conjure up Daphne du Maurier, this book reveals that long before she made her way into the literary scene, the Victorians were already capturing readers' attention with their tales of the land's end.  The majority of the stories included in Cornish Horrors stem from that era, and it seems that Victorian Cornwall was indeed fruitful ground for the Gothic imagination for several reasons that the editor covers in her overall introduction to this collection.   Very nicely done; it is a fantastic book, and I have to say that while I've never considered Cornwall as a "fantasy land," it has for some time now been in my reading mind a place rich in history, folklore and adventure, and my shelves are filled with novels and story collections with Cornwall as their home base.  

Very highly recommended, especially to others who have been enjoying the entire series over the last few years. 

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