British Weird, Selected Shorter Fiction 1893-1937 edited by James Machin

Reviewed by Hayley Anderton

I spent some time looking up the definition of Weird as opposed to Horror in preparation for writing this, and now have the perfect opportunity to use the word ‘numinous’ in everyday conversation should I want to. There are worse rabbit holes to fall down, the nuances between weird and horror as genres are interesting, but ideas of spirituality aside, I think weird is essentially a more encompassing concept than horror. It spills into other genres, and a good anthology holds up a mirror to the society that produced and consumes it. 

If ever a year was designed to turn a person to the uncanny it’s 2020. All the uncertainties, paranoia, superstition, and outright fear in these stories have taken on a new resonance against everything that’s happening in the wider world. It’s not so much that they’re easier to believe in, but that they so well express the general disquiet of the age. The world beyond our thresholds is being stalked by an invisible menace, and collections like this do their bit to diffuse some of the fears around that, allowing for both acknowledgement and mockery of anxiety.

British Weird starts with Edith Nesbit’s ‘Man Sized in Marble’. It’s a story well represented in anthologies, but makes particular sense in this collection. There’s something about alabaster effigies coming to life for evil purposes at Halloween that feels right at home in an English Churchyard. It is the perfect story to terrify small children into good behaviour with, and which adults can just as effectively terrify themselves with on a dark night – possibly why so many of these figures have witch marks carved onto them? 

It’s followed by two novella length stories: John Buchan’s ‘No-Man’s Land’ is the first, and deals with murderous Picts deep in the Scottish mountains. Ancient survivals are a common trope – there’s another example in this collection in Eleanor Scott’s ‘Randalls Round’ which post dates Buchan’s story by 27 years and speaks of slightly different fears but is an interesting comparison. The idea of ancient folk traditions surviving into the 20th century are common in Golden Age detective fiction too which is an overlap I find interesting. 

Buchan’s story seems to have a political edge with ideas about degeneracy and race that he certainly revisits in the much later ‘The Three Hostages’, and which are missing from ‘Randalls Round’, but this is a broad sub-genre used to explore a range of different fears. More immediately Buchan does a splendid job of taking a landscape that is initially described as clean and pure, and everything good, then turning it into a nightmare place almost impossible to escape from and full of hidden menaces.

Algernon Blackwood’s ‘The Willows’ is the second long short story, and builds on the theme of a geography that begins as something exhilarating before having the elements turn on the protagonists who are helpless in the face of the twin threats of nature, and something outside of the nature we know. In this case it’s the Danube, which two young men are canoeing down. Rising wind and water strands them on an island where they both come to feel increasingly uncomfortable and unsure of what their senses tell them. 

John Metcalfe’s ‘The Bad Lands’ takes an ordinary landscape and transmutes it in a slightly different way, although in the end it still comes back to not being able to trust our senses when it comes to knowing what is, and is not, real. There are a handful more stories, all well-chosen, varied, and in the case of L A Lewis’s ‘The Lost Keep’ a particular gem. I don’t want to spoil this by giving any details, but it’s the story that’s really haunting me, and I find more perfect the more I think about it. And then there is Mary Butts.

I struggled a bit with Mary Butts. She’s undoubtedly significant both as a modernist writer, someone who worked with Aleister Crowley, and a genuine believer in the things she was writing about, but I found reading her hard work. I’ve read enough to be reasonably well acquainted with the writers she discusses in the lengthy essay ‘Ghosties and Ghoulies: Uses of the Supernatural in English Fiction’, which is included in this book. It seems likely that there will come a time that I’m grateful to have it to hand when I want to check something but getting through it was a slog. 

Her short story ‘Mappa Mundi’ was even more of a slog, possibly because it’s the only one in the book where it seems probable that the writer believed all of what she was writing. It’s not an aspect of the weird I’ve particularly explored before and whilst I can cheerfully allow my own anxieties about present unknowns to be diffused through a rip-roaring tale of strange things going on in the hills, Butts’s earnestness is unsettling in an entirely different way. She is a writer who demands more research, and despite my lack of enthusiasm for her she is arguably the key to this collection where the majority of the horrors are hinted at rather than explicitly. 

This is a thought provoking as well as an enjoyable anthology. Machin’s introduction is excellent, as are Kate Macdonald’s notes. It works brilliantly as a collection of stories to while away dark nights with – especially as there’s plenty to make you be grateful to be safe at home – but there’s a lot more to think about here if you want to, and if you do want to, it’s a book that gives you the tools to do that with. 

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader

James Machin, British Weird: Selected Shorter Fiction 1893-1937 (Handheld Press, 2020). 978-1912766215, 296pp., paperback original.

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