Thursday, May 14, 2009

Montague Summers' THE SUPERNATURAL OMNIBUS, Part 2

Well, I finally, finally finished Summers' monumental anthology. And a problem I noted in the first part, how Rosa Mulholland's "Not to be Taken at Bed-Time" was out of place in the ghost stories section, has now been explained. It seems there's been some sort of editorial error, although I'm not sure if it's Summers' fault or some later hack's work. Because in the second part, "Diabolism, Witchcraft, and Evil Lore," there's a story that's supposed to demonstrate "Witchcraft," but the story is Amelia Edwards' "My Brother's Ghost Story," a nice enough tale, but it has nothing to do with witchcraft. It looks like, somehow, the two stories were switched. It's actually a rather glaring error, and I'd like to know at whose feet I should be laying the blame.

Anyway, like the first part, I skipped a few stories. Here's the list of the ones I skipped:

"Singular Passage in the Life of the Late Henry Harris, Doctor in Divinity," by Richard Barham, is being saved for later, when I review some sections from THE INGOLDSBY LEGENDS.
"Carmilla," by J. Sheridan le Fanu, is also being saved for later; I want to review this landmark work on its own, and take my time with it.
"The Story of Konnor Old House" by Kate and Hesketh Prichard is being saved for when I review all their Flaxman Low stories at once.

So, for the ones I did read...

"The Spirit of Stonehenge" by Jasper John. I expected something lurid and horrific, and was a little let down. It's basically a tale of an archaeologist who falls under the spell of the "elementals" of Stonehenge, and eventually dies there. There's more hinted at than actually happening, which is fairly frustrating.

The next story is also by Jasper John, "The Seeker of Souls." This is an oddly abbreviated tale that feels as if it could have been much longer, had J.J. put some effort into it. As it is, it's a not-bad tale of a castle in Ireland under a curse, and of a couple of bloody deaths. The most interesting thing is that it starts off almost mid-story, with the narrator awaiting the hour when some evil thing will walk the halls of the castle. Sounds a lot more shuddersome than it is; it could have been better.

Next up was a tale by Roger Pater, who had a story in the first half. "The Astrologer's Legacy" is told all in flashback, with little actually happening in the "present" of the story, but it's still interesting. Part of Pater's cycle of tales in which a Catholic priest encounters supernatural doings, it has the hero at a lavish dinner party and inspecting an odd piece of silver. It turns out to have an unhealthy fascination for one of the party, and turns out to have a past associated with a secret cult of Satanists. Despite the rather distant nature of the tale, it's still halfway interesting.

Next was J. Sheridan le Fanu's "Sir Dominick's Bargain," a sardonic tale of an impoverished Irish noble who strikes a deal with the devil for limitless riches. This is a popular tale that's been anthologized often, and dramatized a few times for radio, but it's jolly good fun, with a satisfying final twist and enough gruesomeness to keep it from seeming too proper and twee. Of course, it's le Fanu, how can you go wrong?

Another story of an evil bargain, "The Bargain of Rupert Orange" by Vincent O'Sullivan, is adequate, I'd have to say. (Nothing I've read of O'Sullivan measures up to "When I was Dead," which makes me wonder.) This is another tale of an impoverished young man who makes a deal...but is it the devil? Is it really a deal? It's all so can see the thematic treatment of the deal-with-the-devil, but there's precious little brimstone to be sniffed here. In fact, from my reading of it, what goes on could be explained by mere chance, the fleeting nature of fame, and self-destructive personalities. All well and good in their place, but this ain't the place.

"The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains" by Frederick Marryat (an excerpt from his novel THE PHANTOM SHIP) does duty as the collection's example of lycanthropy. It's actually quite enjoyable. A nobleman, on the run with three children, ends up falling in love with a mysterious woman and marrying her. Of course, she frightens the children so, and finally they figure out that she's a werewolf. But there's blood to be shed before it's all over, and (surprisingly) a curse that needs to be played out before it's all over. Actually, not a bad story at all, and dripping with gothic atmosphere.

And next up is more Roger Pater! "A Porta Inferi" is a tale of possession. It pretty much drops the ball when dealing with how the possession occurred or why, BUT...its depiction of a man possessed is compelling. I don't believe in such things, but if they did happen, Pater's story would be a great diagnostic tool. (Makes me wonder if that wasn't the intent.) There's a collection of Pater's Catholic-themed stories out there; I may have to find one, because he's turning out to be an interesting voice in the field of supernatural fiction.

Richard Barham's "Jerry Jarvis' Wig" tells how a cloddish working-class man commits a horrible crime under the influence of a castoff wig. Yes, a wig. Ghost stories are inherently absurd, but this pushes the envelope, and it may have been intended that way. Still, it's overloaded with antiquated language, and is hard going. Not recommended.

Another problem was John Guinan's "The Watcher O' the Dead," which is full of Irish dialect and vague plotting. It has something to do with someone taking the place of a soul doomed to wander a cemetery until doomsday...but the story, published in the 20s, hasn't aged well.

Finally, "Toussel's Pale Bride" by W. B. Seabrook ends the collection. Taken from a book called THE MAGIC ISLAND, it's a straightforward tale of a mixed-race girl who marries an Afro-Carib planter, and who is driven mad on the night of her first anniversary by a quite gruesome experience. Meant to represent "Voodoo," there actual zilch in the way of voodoo practices, but the final gruesome scene seems more like something from a serial-killer story than horror. The story has a journalistic flair to it, and I wonder if it's not meant to depict real events, or masquerade as true events. Hard to say. I may have to hunt down that book.

So, that's it for Summers. He had odd tastes, that's for sure, but some of the stories were loads of fun, and at least it brought Roger Pater to my notice.

I've got a few books to read next, but soon, if not right up next, I'll be doing another anthology, GASLIGHT GRIMOIRE, subtitled "Fantastic Tales of Sherlock Holmes," and co-edited by Dust & Corruption fan Charles Prepolec. Yeah, I owe him that much, at least.

Till next time, my darlings....enjoy your springtime.


Anonymous said...

Hi, and thanks for an interesting overview of this collection.

You asked at whose feet you should lay the blame for the presumed transposition of those two stories. The answer is, the original publishers, Victor Gollancz Ltd -- or possibly Summers for misplacing the stories.

I've got the fifth impression, dated April 1952, and it has those stories located as in your copy too. And as it's fifth *impression* rather than edition, I guess they've always been like it.

Cheers, Simon

Vagrarian said...

Thanks for the information, Simon; that does clear some things up a bit. That is strange and a bit sloppy. Then again, so was Montague S., based on some things I've read...