Harris’s fast-paced novel of life, and mass death, in Pompeii during the final days of its existence in AD 79, manages to create an evocative picture of first-century Roman society, in all of its opulence, corruption and squalor. His protagonist – Marcus Attilius Primus – has been sent to the nearby city of Misenum to act as the replacement for his missing predecessor, Exomnius, who was responsible for maintaining the Aqua Augusta, the mighty aqueduct which supplies the region with its water. The solving of the mystery of Exomnius’s disappearance is played out against the lead-up to, and climax of, the Vesuvian eruption, with the latter being described in vivid, and convincing, detail.
It is within the interplay between Attilius and his nemesis, Ampliatus, a sadistic, nouveau-riche, former slave turned regional plutocrat, that the primary drama of the book inheres, and it is in the portrayal of the pursuit, and abuse, of power and wealth that Harris exceeds. Ampliatus proves to be a compellingly repulsive character, an embodiment of the worst in Roman society, whereas Attilius serves as his principled foil. The reality of city politics is portrayed in a manner that is at once, depressingly, recognisable. Harris also provides us with a glimpse of the character of Pliny the Elder, who perished in the tragedy, courtesy of the notes regarding the eruption compiled by his nephew, Pliny the Younger. It is to the latter, of course, to whom we owe our knowledge of what unfolded in Pompeii during that fateful August, with his gift to posterity being honoured by the use of the adjective ‘Plinian’ in categorising the type of eruption observed at Vesuvius.
Harris’s research shows in the convincing detail that he deploys, which is woven into the warp and weft of the tale without being ostentatiously, and incongruously, displayed for the sake of ‘showing off’. The alien world of ancient Rome is thereby rendered almost familiar, despite the attitudinal, and philosophical, differences that framed the worldview of Roman citizens in this distant age. An enjoyable read which I finished surprisingly quickly.
Although the named novella takes up almost half the length of this volume, a further eight tales can be found between its covers, a number of which I found more satisfying than The Haunted Hotel itself. This is not to say that I did not enjoy the latter, for I did, but it struck me as being less polished than some of the shorter works.
Whereas Collins is best known for his mystery novels The Woman in White and The Moonstone, with the second title being widely hailed as the first detective novel written in English, he was also rated highly as a writer of ghost stories, and The Haunted Hotel is, unsurprisingly, just such a story. However, the reader has to wait a long time before any form of ghostly manifestation materialises, with much of the novella reading more as a conventional mystery. Although I may be mistaken in taking this view, it struck me that Collins had, perhaps, originally intended his novella to be a full-length novel, but had grown tired of it, and thus decided to abridge it. Thus, the author appears to have employed the device of allowing one of his leading characters to divulge the hidden course of events by passing off his own unrealised notes in the form of notes for an as yet unwritten play. It left me feeling that it could have become something greater than it was.
It was, therefore, the short stories that I found most to my taste in this collection, particularly The Dream Woman, A Terribly Strange Bed, Nine O’ Clock!, and The Devil’s Spectacles. Only the first of these four can be described as a true ghost story, although Nine O’Clock! does feature a doppelganger and deathly prophecy.
The Dream Woman centres upon a premonitory haunting, in which the tale of an unfortunate ostler is recounted by his current employer – the landlord of an inn – to the narrator. It is an atmospheric classic, in which Collins builds an eerie tension that is sure to hook the attention of any lover of a good ghostly yarn. The concluding story in this collection – The Devil’s Spectacles – is a supernatural oddity, and all the better for it. In this, the protagonist is gifted a pair of spectacles by the most unsavoury of characters, and the powers that they bestow upon the wearer prove to be of a suitably Mephistophelian nature; they are not what could be termed ‘rose tinted’. Still, this engaging morality tale possesses a somewhat mythic quality, as well as a devilish dose of humour, and is my joint favourite in this collection.
Overall, although I found some of the tales a little overly melodramatic for my taste, I’d recommend this volume to the thrifty reader who is interested in classic mysteries with a dash of the supernatural.
Anthology: Wry Out West, is now available in paperback from Amazon. To preview and purchase a copy, simply click on the image below. For those of you who prefer ebooks, it is also available in Kindle format. If you live in the US rather than the UK, you can order by clicking here.
Previously published as standalone pieces in my West Country Tales series, this anthology gathers together five twisted tales of the uncanny that venture beyond the mere ‘funny peculiar’, into the realms of black comedy and satire. From the acid-fried occult oddity of Gwydion’s Dawn, to the bizarre rites of a seventeenth-century cunning man in The Cleft Owl; the psychological horror of 3:05 am, to the vengeful fury of a woman of more than 300 years of age in Old Crotchet, nothing will unsettle the reader more than the playful malignancy of the guide in Agnes of Grimstone Peverell. It would seem that in this much-loved and familiar region of rural England, it is not difficult to unwittingly unleash unseen forces which render it both hostile, and dangerous (and in writing this I am not referring to the effects of imbibing excessive quantities of scrumpy, although that can, of course, have the self-same effect).
The ‘horror’ that you will encounter within is of the understated English variety; it is often implied and psychological, rather than being of the type favoured by the exponents of the ‘slasher’ genre. There is also – with the exception of The Cleft Owl – as much humour as there is terror.
Whereas these tales are unconstrained by the bounds of any single genre, amongst their number you will find plenty to engage your attention should you possess a taste for mysteries, the paranormal, ghost stories, the occult, psychological horror and historical fiction, as well as, of course, satire.
To view a sample, or to purchase, please click on the image above. Free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.
I never was that satisfied with the crude original artwork that I cobbled together for ‘The Rude Woman of Cerne’, but as it is a humorous tale of the supernatural, the original’s daft imagery served well enough as an interim measure. Now, however, having snapped a suitably unusual and fitting image, I have redesigned the cover – as shown here – and have submitted it to Amazon in the perhaps vain hope that they will update my publication in a timely fashion. After all, it is now about ten days since I attempted to update the cover for ‘Agnes of Grimstone Peverell’, but something has gone awry. Touch wood, this cover will not suffer the same fate, and will instead be live and online before the week is out.
All being well, an anthology of my tales entitled ‘Wry Out West’ should be published and available for purchase by the end of next week – Friday 28th April. All that remains to be done is for me to tweak the cover artwork a little, and to finish formatting the text. Unlike the novelettes and novellas that I have thus far published in Kindle ebook format, this collection will also be available as a paperback.
‘The Rude Woman of Cerne’ is omitted from this collection merely on grounds of length, and will eventually become available in hard copy as part of a future anthology, but that may be a year to eighteen months away, owing to my next priority being the completion of a novel that I have been working on this past two years. It will likely be bundled with the forthcoming tales: ‘Upon Barden Moor’ (currently scheduled for publication in October) and ‘With These Hands’, with the latter being intended for a pre-Christmas release this year. Whereas the last of these tales will unfold on Dartmoor, ‘Upon Barden Moor’ is set in the Yorkshire Dales, marking a geographical departure from the West Country.
I will post a cover preview for the anthology here early next week. The Kindle version will be priced at £2.99, but the price of the paperback has yet to be set. Once I am fully apprised of the printing costs, I will update readers here.
Having lately been given a wonderful present in the form of a new and much better camera, and not being altogether happy with the original image for the cover art of Agnes of Grimstone Peverell, I decided to revisit this luminous stained-glass window with a view to acquiring a better picture, and what you see above is the result. Unlike on the preceding occasion, this time there were no obstructions blocking my view, which meant that I did not have to take the picture at an angle. The lighting too proved to be much more favourable. All that therefore remained was a little image manipulation to remove perspectival distortion from its uppermost portions. The result is much crisper, and richer in colour. As there is always a lag between uploading imagery and it going live on Amazon, I should imagine that the new cover will not be displaying on the site until Tuesday, or thereabouts.
For readers unfamiliar with the tale, most of the action unfolds on a single bitterly cold day in December 2009, during which a theatre critic and his wife – Lionel and Frances Smallwood – find themselves enjoying the Victorian Christmas market in the little-known Dorset town of Grimstone Peverell. Chilled to the marrow, they retire to the town’s minster where they are accosted by an enthusiastic guide, who knows a great deal about some things, yet next to nothing about that which would, to most people, seem obvious; she seems keen not to let them go, but return to London they must – Lionel has a play to review. That, at least, is his intention.
The story is heavily larded with black humour, and like others in the series, possesses a wry twist.
Agnes of Grimstone Peverell is available via Amazon worldwide, free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers, otherwise 99p or 99c. To preview and/or purchase, please click on the image above.
Superstition, credulity and deception in a seventeenth-century Devon village: the perfect ingredients for a tale of the occult, fleshed out from the bare bones of the facts of a certain case that have survived to this day. Involving, as it did, personages with names as evocative as the Worshipful Sir William Bastard, and the Reverend Tickle, the desire to work this up into a piece of fiction became irresistible, although the honour of fulfilling the role of protagonist was to fall to neither of these gentlemen, but rather to Robert Tooley, the local cunning man. In such a way, was a novella born: The Cleft Owl.
I stumbled upon this case and the person of Robert Tooley whilst re-reading Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic as background for my forthcoming novel Pendrummel: Gwen Gwinnel’s Return. The sheer oddity of the events outlined, and of the singular nature of the charms and rites employed by Tooley, was striking, as was the ease with which a number of the villagers willingly acquiesced with his instructions, at least for a time. This, moreover, all took place in an area of Devon – Dartmoor – which is steeped in folklore and legends of a sinister hue, with packs of demonic Wisht Hounds baying in frantic pursuit of their mortal quarry across the bog-strewn moors. The temptation to supplement this lore with another tale proved too great for me to resist.
Widecombe-in-the-Moor – the parish in which the story unfolds – possesses its own infernal folklore, being associated with a visitation of Old Nick himself during the ‘Great Storm’ of October 1638. On this particular Sunday, the parishioners were gathered in the church, which proved to afford them but ill shelter, for a bolt of lightning sent a pinnacle toppling through its roof, and was shortly followed by a sphere of dancing light – ball lightning – which bounced and scorched its path about the interior, leaving four dead and more than sixty injured. The public appetite for reports of such events meant that two pamphlets were published in London shortly afterwards, both invoking supernatural causes by way of explanation. Although not integral to this tale, for the case is said to have unfolded at some point during the latter part of the seventeenth century, it is something that I have allowed to influence the character of the protagonist.
There is also a distinct whiff of brimstone about the figure of Tooley. Little is known of him, other than that he was a cunning man and self-styled doctor, to whom the locals would turn for supernatural assistance in combating illness and other problems in their small community. He is believed to have lived on the periphery of the parish – in a building named Tooley’s Cott – although this identification cannot be ascertained with any certainty. However, what we can say is that the sequence of events that unfolded subsequent to him being called in to assist a family following the self-murder of a neighbour, led to him becoming an unpopular and reviled figure. His involvement, it seems, proved to generate more problems than it solved. More than that, I cannot divulge for fear of spoiling the story, but if your curiosity has been piqued, dear reader, I bid you peruse the pages ofThe Cleft Owl. It is free to read for Kindle Unlimited subscribers, but otherwise costs 99p, or the equivalent in your own currency should you reside outside of the UK. To preview or download, please click on the image below.
The Cerne Giant, often known as the Rude Man of Cerne, is the most priapically preeminent figure in the country. Singularly commanding, and seemingly holding his club in ireful threat over the tranquil Dorset village of Cerne Abbas, he has stood upon the hillside since time immemorial. His origins are obscure, with a handful of theories relating to his genesis having vied for the public’s attention down the years. The most colourful and, indeed, popular of these, now an integral part of local lore, relate to his supposed status as a fertility figure, with his manly appendage having hitherto become the focus of much attention from childless couples. As, however, his manhood is now protected from public trespass, few are likely to repeat the visit that the Marquis of Bath and his wife Virginia made to lie with him one night in 1958, in the hope that their five barren years would be brought to an end. A daughter – Silvy – was duly born to them within ten months.
Who, or what, is he? An Iron Age fertility figure? A Roman depiction of Hercules dating from the reign of Commodus? A memorialisation of a real giant who was beheaded upon the hill for his violent predations upon the village? Or, is it that he is a lewd seventeenth-century satire of Oliver Cromwell?
His form is certainly crude, and those who favour an Iron Age provenance point to a certain stylistic congruence between it and the artwork found on some of the coinage of that era from this part of England. Those, on the other hand, who favour a Roman dating of the figure, point to the discovery within the last twenty years or so of evidence for the Giant once having held a cloak over its left arm, which they interpret as representing the skin of the Nemean lion, as was the convention in Roman depictions of the hero. Both explanations seem plausible, until, that is, one takes into account some highly salient factors relating to the parish, one of which should be obvious from its name, for it was once home to a Benedictine Monastery – Cerne Abbey – which was integral to the life of the local community from its foundation in 987, until its dissolution in 1539. It seems peculiar both that its records make no mention of the Giant, and that the monks should have permitted the regular scouring of the hill figure’s lines necessary for its survival. Secondly, the first reference to the Giant dates only from 1694 – a repair bill amounting to three shillings in the churchwarden’s accounts – and an earlier survey of the parish from 1617 makes no mention of any chalk figure. These facts would seem to militate against the figure’s survival from antiquity.
Thus we are left with the alternative theory that the carving of the Giant dates from the seventeenth century, and represents a fanciful joke at the expense of our then Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. What better way to rile the Protector and his godly supporters, than to create a massive and libidinous depiction of this ‘English Hercules’ (as Cromwell was often termed, as depicted in this satirical Dutch cartoon dated 1653) waving his club and his manhood at onlookers and passers-by?
Whereas it would seem that the Cerne Giant is modern in origin, the feature lying above his head atop the hill – the Trendle, or the ‘frying pan’ – would seem to date from genuine antiquity or prehistory.
The Giant is, of course, without a consort: he has neither wife nor lover. However, if we take him to be a representation of the humourless, self-righteous spirit of seventeenth-century puritan religiosity, he now has a spiritual heir in the form of Beatrice Clemens – the Rude Woman of Cerne. Although a Christian, of sorts, her fundamental beliefs are held within the cage of a rigid, highly dogmatic interpretation of a certain type of politically correct socialism, that result in her being without doubt as to the righteousness of her cause, and conduct. Her heart may be in the right place, but her head is a zone of confusion, stuffed with contradictory beliefs thanks to her ideological blinkers, that transform her into an egregious canting hypocrite. Despite her steadfast profession of belief in the principle of equality, she thus ends up treating her guests and others around her, in a very unequal fashion; her inclusive zeal is expressed through an active discrimination.
Beatrice Clemens, like Cromwell, proves to be very much out of step with the spirit of the place, and it is to this spirit that she must ultimately answer. And so, I bid you: come! It is time for you to keep your appointment with the Rude Woman of Cerne.