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The Villa and the Vortex coverReading authors of the early twentieth century is becoming a niche activity, an attempt to understand the stories in the context of the time of their publication or to understand the subsequent works to which they gave rise. This collection of “supernatural stories” from the first quarter of the twentieth century is interesting. However, it is unlikely to be so interesting as to come to the attention of people who are not already looking for historical reading.

The life of the stories’ author, Elinor Mordaunt (1872-1942) makes for a considerable story in itself. This volume’s introduction, by Melissa Edmundson, tells us of Mordaunt’s various name changes; of her early courtship of a South African, her unhappy marriage in Mauritius, and her years in Australia; of her success at supporting herself primarily through her writing and of her further travels and a short, possibly bigamous, late marriage which “ended in tragedy.” Mordaunt’s novels, short stories, and collections were regularly and positively reviewed in the contemporary press alongside authors of the era whose names were once readily recalled.

Many of these other names are now also following  Mordaunt’s in fading out of recognition, even as their work becomes more easily available online. A significant part of this falling from favour is that the impact of the supernatural in these stories seems faded, much like the characters in “Four Wallpapers.” The story itself is beautifully structured, with each of four scenes playing out by candlelight on consecutive nights as a room’s wallpaper is stripped away alongside the years. The most recent vignette shows an unhappy relationship some decades in the past; then the earlier layers show two further generations of unhappiness, strife, and death. These stories are long lost and yet, pervading the house, the earlier melancholy atmosphere affects the later residents. There is something very mild about this: the end has come for these people a long time ago, alongside whatever they wanted, feared, or hoped. Observing all this through a shadow-play might be a reminder that their problems and joys meant as much to them as ours do to us. Within the story, however, the house’s own haunting begins to mount again, to affect our narrator—but is wiped away by the clearing of the walls.

Perhaps, reading “Four Wallpapers” another century on, we should take the same lesson about the realness of past lives, even as the effect of their stories is slight; perhaps we should recognise that the cosmic horror is that we, too, will die and fade. But in stories such as “The Country-side” the reader is instead presented with a great deal of trivial incident. “The Country-side” is sixty pages long. It tells the story of a city couple—a priest and his wife—and what happens to them (mostly her) when he is given a country parish. In the tradition of such tales, events have an ambivalence which could demonstrate her psychological disintegration or her growing awareness of the supernatural. Margaret Wister finds herself separated from the country life while her husband settles fully into his role as a country parson—joining the shoot, drinking more, and leaving his wife alone and lonely. She sees him as descending to a rustic state which she cannot attain.

When she learns that one of the old ladies of the village is claimed to be a witch, Margaret visits. Disconcerted by the woman’s ownership of that status, Margaret decides she will have nothing more to do with her. And yet, the hook is laid—which it had to be, eventually, given the early line which promises that the story will tell of the wife of “the rector of a prosperous, squire-ridden English country parish” practising witchcraft (p. 45). The old lady puts it into Margaret’s head that her husband is being unfaithful to her. She supplies a spell to prove the truth of this, and Margaret finds herself convinced. Certain that her husband would be happier with a fecund daughter of the soil, she decides to put herself out of the picture.

In all the length of the story, the preparation and execution of the spell takes a few pages, mostly concerned with Margaret’s trepidation of being caught and of what she might learn. This works because of the space given to establishing the unrefined, brute reality of rural life in which old-fashioned country ways have a hold over the people. That Margaret decides to kill herself, and her husband’s incomprehension, is the true horror of this story.

Nevertheless, the domestic setting lends the story a quotidian air. Several more stories focus on houses. “The Villa” has a narration contemporary with the year of its publication, 1924. The narrator is the granddaughter of a couple, young and happy in the 1870s, who “wish” for a house and, in so doing, wish its occupant’s death. This dark event, not deeply intended, leads to a malevolence of the villa itself, leading to the early deaths of the couple and, a generation later, of their daughter and her husband. When our narrator discovers this, she demolishes the place to save herself. “The Landlady,” meanwhile, posits a more friendly ghost, one who becomes a companion to a young couple, pleased that they enjoy their house, which is also hers. The opening paragraphs tell us that the strangeness will be that this ghost is of a woman still living, and so it turns out. The ingenious twist is that the ghost disappears when the older woman dies, while her friendly nature gives the story a warm tone.

Readers of modern prose, looking for thrills and horror—and finding instead a rather slight uncanniness—are likely to think all this insubstantial. The flavour seems to have faded away like old dried herbs, leaving us to wonder what they were like when fresh. This is not a specific criticism of Mordaunt. A brief survey of Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951), M. R. James (1862-1936) and other, less well remembered, authors of “ghost stories” suggests that most work from this era now seems antique, constrained within the limits of the sensibilities of the time. Still, the two stories in this collection which have more corporeal threats—“Hodge” and “‘Luz’”—retain a greater sense of discomfort.

The plot of “Hodge” concerns a brother and sister who unearth a prehistoric man. At the beginning, the two are children. They could almost be Enid Blyton characters when they first discover a primeval forest at an exceptional low tide. Like most of Mordaunt’s stories, “Hodge” has a powerful sense of place—coastline and marshes, described as “sly, smooth waters … a dreary ooze of black mud” (p. 129). But the siblings lose their forest and something of their trust in each other when they can’t quite admit it was ever real. It seems, as teenage years consume them, they will never recover it. Yet when they do, they dig a prehistoric being from the mud. At first, this creature is almost a pet ape but he soon becomes a (sexual?) threat to the sister and so must be dispatched once again. Killing a thinking being is a very different action from dispelling a curse.

The threat in “‘Luz’” is more directly carnal and more precisely predatory. The antagonist is blind. The narrator immediately establishes this man as sinister—but when the London fog comes down, she finds herself forced to trust his ability to direct her home. Although that “pea souper” seems mythical now, the writing describes effectively the sense of the familiar world being lost, of everyone and everything estranged. Our narrator, unnamed, accepts the only help she can find, despite her fears. Mordaunt builds the fear neatly, accentuating sounds, as she shows the advantage this blind man has when the sighted are plunged into his world. The descent from unhappy dependency to danger is marked by crossing the river and being directed into the slums on the other side. Not only is the narrator stumbling in the dark; she is caught up in the man’s plan to sacrifice her for his eternal life. Her description of the way he touches her, skilfully choosing where to place his cuts, is quite horrid. No suspension of disbelief is required to find this chilling.

If there is little other-worldly horror in this supernatural, what else might encourage a reader to pick up this volume? Mordaunt writes well. Her work does not suffer the faults of “the pulps,” of purple prose or hasty, poorly edited prose. She is interested in creating rounded characters; she describes situations—people, places, human relationships—beautifully.    Mordaunt is distinct from her peers. The characters of “The Vortex,” by their nature and class, could have inhabited an early Agatha Christie (1890—1976) mystery but Mordaunt progresses through description rather than dialogue and, when a malignant play infects its cast, the denoument is very different. The plot of “The Villa” might equally have come from M. R. James, the most famous author of ghost stories of the period, but the details and the narrator are quite different. James would, most likely, have set the story at a greater remove from the narrator and, almost certainly, would have focused far more on the men in the story than the women. Instead, more of the story focuses on what the wives are doing to pass the time whilst their husbands are away from the home. Mordaunt also provides more detail of where, why, and how events come to pass. She has, perhaps, more sympathy for her characters.

The inherent comfort of most of the people in these works—great estates, comfortable houses, servants, travel to European cities—is intended to provide a solidity which the supernatural disrupts. As that world disappeared and our perspectives changed, those protagonists seemed all the more difficult to recognise or identify with. It is, though, those very details of home life that now hold the attention of the reader. Some have become obscure enough that the book has notes. The terminology explained includes kinds of hats, clothes, and a word for hair colour that we are unlikely to recognise, alongside more prosaic items such as locations in the Adriatic (where “The Villa” is set), when the university year begins in Cambridge (England), and an attempt to explain “high tea” and its class and regional signifiers. Edmundson ascribes Mordaunt’s forgotten-ness to being female. I suggest this may have as much to do with the fact that her protagonists are often women.  As new genre identities came into existence, the daily activities and interior lives of women did not fit with the “male” adventures and horror stories which came to be canonised as supernatural; yet at the same time, it is likely the supernatural aspects of Mordaunt’s stories which did not fit with mid-twentieth-century understandings of what “women’s writing” should be about.

For epicures of early twentieth-century fiction, then, there may be much to delight here. Those desiring a recovery, or expansion, of the role women played as authors and as protagonists are also likely to be happy to know of this book’s existence. Those who have read little of the period are unlikely, however, to find this volume enticing at first blush.

Duncan Lawie has been reviewing SF for half as long as he has been reading it, although there was a quiet period during two years as an Arthur C. Clarke Award judge. His reviews also appear in the British Science Fiction Association's Vector magazine.
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