This review first appeared in Horrified magazine
As a frequent visitor to the county – my wife is Cornish – I came to this new addition to the British Library’s excellent Tales of the Weird series with great excitement. However, unlike the thousands of holidaymakers who flock to the Duchy every year, I left it slightly underwhelmed.
Cornwall is England’s exotic Other. Among English counties, only Yorkshire has a similar sense of self-identity; Cornwall, by virtue of having its own language, is classed by the English mindset as one of Britain’s Celtic ‘fringes’, alongside Scotland and Wales. This othering makes it an attractive, arms-length setting for genre fiction in a way that isn’t the case for (say) Leicestershire or West Sussex. As Elliott O’Donnell writes in The Haunted Spinney, set in the Penwith moors above St Ives, ‘peaceful meadow scenery holds no lurking horrors in its bosom’: instead, such terrors are found in ‘the lonesome moorlands’: a geographical feature shared, of course, with Yorkshire.
Robert Stephen Hawker – author of Trelawny, the Cornish anthem (sung at rugby matches, the county’s ‘national’ sport) – feeds this idea at the start of his smuggling story ‘Cruel Coppinger’ with adjectives such as ‘wildest’ and ‘remote’ – but such descriptors are only true if you presuppose a ‘centre’ for them to be remote from.
In her superb, highly astute introduction, editor Joan Passey examines the dislocation between the perception of the county as a romantic, wild place full of folklore, ancient history, and tales of smuggling, and ‘the lived reality of its people’. The Cornish are rightly ‘anxious about romanticising Cornwall’ because this merely feeds the outpricing of locals from housing stock in a county whose major industries – tin mining and fishing – have long since collapsed, leaving only tourism and a glut of second-home ownership in their wake.
So much for context: what about the stories? They are all very readable and enjoyable, so it’s perhaps unfair to criticise a book for what it isn’t, but my issue with this collection is that the word ‘Horrors’ in the title creates a certain expectation which the anthology (with a few exceptions) fails to deliver. A more accurate description of the vast majority of the fifteen brooding stories here is ‘Gothic Romance’. There’s little to send a shiver down modern spines.
The inclusion of Edgar Allen Poe instantly adds a touch of class to any horror collection, though ‘Ligeia’ is, despite Passey’s persuasive argument, at best only tenuously linked to Cornwall and exists in an entirely imagined Cornish landscape. But we don’t go to Poe for a realistic topography, and the narrator’s customary fever-pitch tale sets the tone quite nicely for much of what follows.
What follows includes hauntings in manor houses (‘Colonel Benyon’s Entanglement’ by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, herself the subject of another British Library collection); fatal love affairs (‘The Baronet’s Craze’); fatal love affairs with melodrama (‘In The Mist’); and fatal love affairs with treachery, in Bram Stoker’s excellent ‘The Coming of Abel Behenna’. With such high passions on display, many of the tales here read like forebears of Daphne du Maurier’s dark and particularly atmospheric Cornish Gothic (indeed, du Maurier’s short stories show her to be the doyenne of Cornish horror: ‘The Birds’ is more terrifying than Hitchcock’s film).
The twin highlights of the collection for me, though, are F Marion Crawford’s ‘The Screaming Skull’, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot’. In ‘The Screaming Skull’, our affable narrator recounts to us (as we enjoy a fine glass of wine by the fireside on a winter’s evening) the story of a curio in his possession: the skull of a woman, murdered by her doctor husband, which reputedly screams. The narrator’s warm and friendly asides – ‘that’s a good fire, isn’t it?’, ‘I’ll just light a fresh pipe’ – simultaneously defer the climax and heap on the atmosphere, which by the end has become unbearably claustrophobic.
‘The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot’ is, along with ‘Ligeia’, the most familiar story in the collection. In it, the Great Detective and Doctor Watson are holidaying – as much as Holmes could ever ‘holiday’ – in the authentically-Cornish sounding Tredannick Wollas. Members of a family are found dead around their kitchen table, in states suggesting they died of fright. In an atmospheric story which – as would be expected – keeps the reader utterly hooked, our heroic pair (spoiler alert!) solve the mystery.
As I said above, the stories in themselves are very enjoyable, evocative of Cornwall’s coasts and moors. Although I’d advise readers in search of actual horror to also hunt down a copy of Haunted Cornwall (ed. Denys Val Baker, 1973), Cornish Horrors stands up as a fine example of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Gothic, and the stories within can therefore be seen as setting the precedent for all subsequent evocations of Cornwall in book and film.