I may be wrong—I hope I am wrong—but I strongly suspect that most of those who read this column will not have heard of Veronica Williams. That is perhaps understandable: she was only published in the UK, and that only for a relatively short period (roughly the first half of the 1980s), and, moreover, her books were marketed not as fantasy or even horror, but as historical fiction. But, for all that, it’s a shame, as she is a writer who deserves to be much more widely known, and a writer whose work represents a strand of fantasy which is often forgotten or derided, when written by women—the gothic. But what distinguishes Williams from many other gothic writers, and in particular from her contemporaries in the 1970s and 1980s, is her sense of place. Location is important in many gothic novels, with their familiar scenery of creepy old houses, and dramatic landscapes, but these are frequently either generic (as in the work of early gothic writer Ann Radcliff or even in some of the work of Barbara Michaels), or deliberately exoticised (as in the novels of Mary Stewart). The landscapes are dictated by the plot and its needs.
This is not the case with Williams. What distinguishes her work is the degree to which it is tied not simply to place-as-backdrop, but to place-as-reality. Her landscapes are realistic, complex, often surprisingly mundane, and although her place-names are sometimes invented, her characters operate within a believable and everyday world. And they are realistic characters: there are no heiresses, no society beauties, no foreign nobility (indeed, almost no nobility at all). Although her books are mainly set in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, her female protagonists work—as secretaries and teachers, in shops, as companions. They take on the duties of cleaning and cooking and nursing without fainting or making a fuss. They talk back—not just when the plot demands it, but consistently and to everyone else in the story, not just their love interests. And they interact with the landscapes in which they find themselves, pushing back against the forces, human or supernatural, that seek to make them submit or break and requiring that the world recognise them and make space for them to exist as complete people. This lends to her novels a curious rootedness, which is rare in gothic fiction, and a believability which defuses and subverts the possibilities of cliché.
Williams published ten novels in her short publishing career. Most of them contain supernatural elements (the exceptions are the related A Bride for Tristan Raven and A Secret for Brandon Raven)—hauntings, reincarnation, the compulsion of blood and inheritance, old forces and mysteries, and lost or forgotten deities and powers. In all cases, the location matters powerfully to the development of the plot. This is especially important in the three books I want to examine in particular—Wildashe (1981), Merlinston (1982), and Wolfwind (1983). Wildashe is set on the border between Herefordshire and Wales, where Grace Peregrine and her brother Tom are invited to excavate a tump—in this case an ancient burial mound—in the remote village of Moreton Ashe (based perhaps on Kilpeck or Saint Weonards). The local landscape—a closed valley with few links to the outside world, bounded by hills and patches of rough ground—shapes the story, which turns on an ancient rivalry, both personal and religious, between two families, while unknown ties to the land—unknown at least to Grace—draw her into mysteries both arcane and modern and compel and shape her actions.
As with most of Williams’ work, the romance element of the plot is low-key in comparison to the mystery and to Grace’s personal arc. A romantic lead is part of the trappings of the gothic, and Williams’s are well-drawn, but the protagonist’s actions are not dictated by love, but by the everyday necessities of making a living and negotiating the local social mores. Wildashe draws in part on some of the same material used by Evangeline Walton in her Mabinogion trilogy, but in very different ways. There is little heroism or beauty in Williams’ imagining of pre-Roman Britain, but rather a stark evocation of power, hunger for control, and the desire to own. And Grace cannot rely on others to save her: the male hero is as trapped as she is and they must work to save each other. There is a striking modernity to the novel, in terms of female agency, gender relations, and economic realism: in this sense, Williams more resembles Barbara Michaels, who set her gothic novels in the same time period in which she wrote, or feminist writers such as Margaret Atwood and Zoe Fairbairns, than the bulk of gothic novels from the second half of the twentieth century. And the actions of the characters are dictated by the shape of the world in which they move: the rhythm of hill and stream, the shape and position of the tump, the wider formation of the local area seen from a distance. All are essential to the tale as it unfolds and appear naturally within it, without a sense of authorial intervention or invention. I am perhaps particularly sensitive to this book in particular, because the Herefordshire border is an area I know well, but this is a landscape that works and that is, I suspect, drawn more from reality than imagination.
The same is true of both Wolfwind, which is set in North Devon, in the hinterland around Barnstaple, and Merlinston, set in Pembrokeshire, close to Haverfordwest. In both cases authentic landscape—moors and an old hill fort in Wolfwind, mountain heaths and narrow flood-prone valleys in Merlinston—shape the action. Like WIldashe, both deal with ancient powers—the Wild Hunt and the legend of Gwyn ap Nudd in Wolfwind and Celtic stone heads and the fragments we know about the hunter-figure Maponus in Merlinston (the Merlin in the title is a neat red herring). In Wildashe, blood ties form the last aspect pulling Grace into the action. In Merlinston, landscape instead becomes a possessing force, trying to take the protagonist, Allegra, and her family for its own, and obsessing as well as possessing one of the other central characters. Here, the antiquity of landscape is a danger: it is noticeable that the romantic interest in the book owns a water mill which during the course of the book he converts to steam power, reducing his reliance on the treacherous surroundings and increasing his agency both over it and within the plot. By contrast, in Wolfwind, landscape transforms from threat to refuge for the protagonist, Thyrza, and compels the actions of the romantic lead completely: in a very real sense he and the land are one, and cannot act or exist without each other. In both novels—and, indeed, most of Williams’ other work—landscape is not just setting, it is a character in itself and acts on the plot as much as the human figures.
This centrality of landscape is something that occurs in a number of British writers of science fiction and fantasy, and has done at least since John Wyndham. It is, indeed, such a marked element that I sometimes define it as the British pastoral: it encompasses not only Wyndham, but Richard Cowper, early Christopher Priest, Robert Holdstock, Graham Joyce, Steve Cockayne, and Mike Shevdon, as well as supernatural thriller writers like Phil Rickman. It is less marked in female writers. I have to ask if this is in part due to the social and cultural conditioning that encourages women to think of outside space and public space as more the domain of men. Women fantasy writers (and SF writers) tend to imagine their landscapes. The only other British woman writer I can think of who uses realistic and recognisable landscapes in a fantastical context is Elizabeth Goudge. (I’m hoping a commenter will be able to remind me of some others.) But the degree to which Williams laid claim to landscape as character and uses it to inspire female protagonists who are more active than acted-on, self-possessed, and recognised by the male leads as equals is striking and valuable. In a very real sense, her books are precursors to the more recent trend for self-empowered female leads in urban fantasy and even space opera. And she is a very accomplished writer. She is, sadly, out of print, but at least some of her books can be found second-hand, and I understand she is considering reissuing them as e-books. I hope she does. She deserves more readers.