Cornish Horrors: Takes from the Land’s End Edited by Joan Passey
British Library, pb, £8.99
Reviewed by Ian Hunter
“Cornish Horrors” is one of the British Library’s “Tales of the Weird” series, which also includes anthologies with themes involving insects, haunted forests, Christmas and many other subjects like “Mind-bending tales of the mathematical weird”. This anthology is edited by Joan Passey, a university lecturer specialising in transhistorical gothic, and this is very much a collection of gothic stories featuring tales by well-known authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, F. Marion Crawford and Arthur Conan Doyle, the latter story featuring a couple of characters you may be familiar with. There are several stories by authors that the reader will probably be unfamiliar with, and even a tale – “My Father’s Secret” by “Anonymous”, as well as a story by someone known simply as M. H.
For the hardened horror reader, the tales might not come across as very horrific, more chilling, unsettling and spooky, and very baroque and gothic in their themes and delivery. Apart from some familiar names, many of the stories will also be familiar, such as the collection opener “Ligeia” by Edgar Allan Poe, which although not explicitly Cornish, is included here, because, as Passey argues, due to the description of the landscape, the mood of the local area, and the names of some of the characters it just has to be set in Cornwall, although she does make a rare error in her introduction mentioning the film based on the story starring Peter Cushing when it starred Vincent Price instead. Other stories that would be familiar to readers are F. Marion Crawford’s “The Screaming Skull”, which does exactly as it says on the tin as a mariner inherits a skull which screams; and a Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes, story called “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot”.
As for the rest, they are a mixed bunch, and not all stories, but seemingly accounts of some real-life supernatural happenings. In keeping with the gothic theme, many of the stories involve love and marriage and love triangles and tales of revenge. One such story is “The Phantom Hare” by M. H, using a local legend about a white hare that haunts a man about to die for the crime of deserting a former lover who died while he went off to pursue a wealthier bride. It’s a well-told, enjoyable tale, even if a bit predictable. “In the Mist” by Mary E. Penn is a pure Gothic melodrama with love, engagements, broken engagements and a clifftop rendezvous. I’ll let the reader fill in the blanks. Bram Stoker adds to the Gothic tone with “The Coming of Abel Behenna”, which concerns the story of Abel and Eric, who both are in love with Sarah, but she cannot choose between them, so they toss a coin, and the winner will go off for a year to try and make enough money to marry her. Abel wins and departs, but what will Eric do in his absence, and can he be trusted? The Gothic theme continues in tales such as “The Mask” by F. Tennyson Jesse and “The Baronet’s Craze” by Mrs H L Cox.
The rest of the stories draw on familiar Cornish tropes – smugglers, shipwrecks, tin mining and shipwrecks to varying degrees of success, but what makes the book is Passey’s introduction to the collection and an account of a Cornwall that is a remote and mysterious place, occupied by strange people and even stranger beasts, an area which became accessible due to the rise of the railways, which created a tension to see this wild and mysterious region before it was spoiled by the tourists and the incomers. In her introduction to a story where a woman stays in a haunted hotel room, Passey tells us about the sightseeing rail trips down to Bodmin Jail to witness a good hanging from the safety of their carriage. Then, like now, the region was becoming reliant on the tourist trade as the traditional industries started to die out, and the locals were forced out because there were no jobs and no affordable housing.
While not all the stories hit the horrific mark, Passey’s introduction to the individual stories certainly made me want to seek out other works by some of the author’s such as “Lady Audley’s Secret” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and even novels mentioned by others not featured in this collection like Sabine Baring-Gould’s “In The Roar of the Sea”. If you want your horror on the dark side, this isn’t really the book for you, but if gothic melodramas are your passion, then this should do nicely.