This review first appeared in Horrified in 2021
The British Library’s Tales of the Weird series continues its commendable mission to unearth long-obscured writers of the strange from the past hundred and fifty years or so. This latest offering introduced me to a writer whose name I vaguely knew but whose work I had never come across. R Murray Gilchrist, according to Daniel Pietersen’s excellent introduction, was a writer from Derbyshire’s Peak District, and something of a recluse. This reclusive nature makes itself felt in the solipsistic atmosphere of many of the pieces in I Am Stone.
Pietersen handily divides the collection into four themes: ‘Dead Yet Living’, ‘Useless Heroes’, ‘Of Passion And Of Death’ and ‘Peak Weird’. ‘Dead Yet Living’ probably contains those stories most obviously categorised as ‘weird’, featuring as they do ghosts aplenty. Some, such as ‘The Pageant of Ghosts’ present a tableau with no plot or development, which to modern readers could seem like mere self-indulgence, were it not for the hallucinatory uniqueness of the vision.
The stories in ‘Useless Heroes’ are Gothic romances, doomed love affairs, all with some weird twist, and some – such as ‘The Stone Dragon’, the collection’s longest piece at 27 pages – are more engaging than others. More Gothic romances (a genre of which I can have too much, if I’m honest) are to be found in ‘Of Passion And Of Death’, although this section does include one of my favourites: ‘The Madness of Betty Hooton’. Here, ‘old Basil Constable’ returns to his ancestral home after forty years, haunted by the memory of the only woman he ever loved, and discovers the awful secret behind the end of their relationship. He goes to visit her and finds that every night for years she has performed a puppet show that replays her own sorry tale. The ending – like many in the collection – is abrupt, and cuts like a knife. By contrast, the final section, ‘Peak Weird’ contains gently humorous folk tales from the Derbyshire countryside.
Many of the works collected here are brief, ornately-textured vignettes with little story but plenty of atmosphere. The effect, taken one after the other, is a bit like eating too many sweets at Christmas; while I’d recommend the book, I’d also advise taking it in small doses, because Gilchrist’s style is florid and sometimes over-rich. That said, like Mervyn Peake, Clark Ashton Smith, or early (pre-Cthulhu) Lovecraft, it’s the dreamlike imagery and sustained tone that make many of these stories what they are.
There is a unity – an uncharitable reader might say monotony – of place to these stories, set as they generally are in grand country estates whose best days are behind them. Consequently, the environments are damp, overgrown and deeply atmospheric, full of ‘lichened masonry’, ‘half-ruined fountains’, ‘moss-grown arches’, and ‘moss-covered’ stairways. Although ‘place’, while critical to many of these pieces, also implies a passage of ‘time’, there’s no sense that the landscape is a palimpsest, because the past isn’t buried – but often in plain sight.
So archaic is his language, and so removed from the trappings of his time, I had to keep reminding myself that Gilchrist was writing these tales at the end of the nineteenth century and not the beginning. Interestingly, living from 1867-1917 means he was almost an exact contemporary of another writer also associated with a florid style and a concern with time (or rather, Time): Marcel Proust (1871-1922). Whereas Proust is undoubtedly a modernist, Murray Gilchrist hearkens constantly backwards, but both are fascinated by time: for Proust the way to recapture ‘lost time’ is through involuntary memory (triggers which rekindle things we had forgotten, rather than conscious acts of memory which only distort our perception of the past); while in Gilchrist, that ‘lost time’ is still there, just waiting for someone to press ‘play’: like the ‘stone tape’ theory best demonstrated in Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (UK, Peter Sasdy, 1972).
Some of the stories, though, contain hints of a more modern structure underneath all the moss. In ‘Sir Toby’s Wife’ a tourist is taken for a tour of the local landowner’s crypt, whereupon it turns out she is a dead ringer for the wife of one of his heirs. There’s the potential for a nicely circular narrative as the story ends, an ending which is unusual in being both uncanny and happy. Similarly, ‘A Night on the Moor’ has a timeslip in which the protagonist seeks shelter in a shepherd’s hut but is brought into the local manor house by the Lady. Upon waking next morning it seems his visit was not without consequence, as the story’s ending suggests that his actions from the previous night have, paradoxically, echoed down the centuries.
I quite enjoyed I Am Stone, but as I said above, it’s a collection best taken at intervals, or dipped into at random in order to add some variety of tone and plot.