HEAVY WEATHER: Tempestuous Tales of Stranger Climes Edited by Kevan Manwaring #BookReview

HEAVY WEATHER: Tempestuous Tales of Stranger Climes Edited by Kevan Manwaring

British Library Press, p/b, £8.99

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan

The term ‘heavy weather’ tends to evoke extremes in climatic conditions such as excess wind, rain and snow. In these stories, the term has been extended to include overwhelming natural phenomena.

            Most people in Britain have noticed the chaos caused when it begins to snow. ‘The Great Snow’ by Richard Jeffries (approx. 1875) details a winter when the snow never stops and the hardships people face, including starvation and rioting. Although he didn’t finish the story, it gives a good idea of the effects of a long freeze at a time when modern heating and lighting were unavailable. The extract of M P Shiel’s novel The Purple Cloud (1901) is the journey across snow and ice in an expedition to reach the North Pole before the issues of the purple cloud become a known problem. In contrast, the weather phenomenon in ‘Summer Snow Storm’ by Adam Chase (1956), the meteorologist who predicts the weather accurately, also seems to be able to influence it, while in ‘The Horror Horn’ by E. F. Benson (1923) a man becomes lost in a snowstorm and encounters Switzerland’s version of the Yeti.

            The effects of bad weather at sea, particularly when ships were powered by sail, could be devastating. ‘Through The Vortex Of A Cyclone’ by William Hope Hodgson (1906) is a particularly fine description of the perils of facing hurricane-strength winds. ‘A Descent Into The Maelstrom’ by Edgar Allan Poe (1841), while not strictly a meteorological phenomenon, is a close encounter with death at sea when a fisherman is blown by hurricane-force winds into a local whirlpool. Another fisherman occurs in ‘The Wind-Gnome’ by Jonas Lie (1893). As a result of a daring feat, he is given a magic rudder that will give him safe passage through the storms that will wreck his rivals.

            Not all the storms occur at sea. Mary Shelley encountered bad weather in her journeys to Europe and related them in ‘History of a Six Weeks’ Tour’ (1817), from which the extract here is taken. Some of the conditions inspired some of the passages in her novel Frankenstein. A storm also features in Herman Melville’s ‘The Lightening-Rod Man’ (1854), where a salesman of lightning conductors turns up in the middle of the storm trying to sell the narrator the device.

            Only one story in this volume is actually Science Fiction. ‘Monsoons of Death’ by Gerald Vance (1942) is set on Mars. Ward Harrison is sent to find out why a remote science station is behind with its results. He finds that the Monsoon winds bring with them dangerous alien creatures.

            Heat is a less commonly used phenomenon and has only one inclusion in this volume. In ‘August Heat’ By W.F.Harvey, the temperature is almost incidental in this supernatural story as the narrator draws a sketch of a murderer in the dock and later meets him as he is carving a headstone that has the narrator’s name on it.

            While it could be argued that darkness is not weather, mist certainly is, and the narrator in Algernon Blackwood’s ‘May Day Eve’ (1907) becomes disorientated and lost in the dark as mist begins to form and during his walk experiences mystical events.  Similarly, while earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are devastating natural phenomena, they are not strictly weather. However, ‘The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes’ by Margaret St. Clair (1950) is an end of the world story.

            The two remaining stories involve natural – in ‘A Mild Attack of Locusts’ by Doris Lessing (1955) – and unnatural – in ‘The Birds’ by Daphne Du Maurier (1952) – infestations. While the emergence of vast swarms of locusts of the former is dependent on the weather, rainfall in areas that are largely desert, the congregation of the birds in the latter is unexplained.

            All the stories were written before climate change was a headline issue, but many of them herald the kind of conditions that are increasingly experienced. This volume includes notes at the end of each piece but rarely includes the date of the original publication, an omission that is easy to remedy as it puts the stories into a historical context. It would be interesting to compare these stories with those written today on similar themes. Another volume, or original anthology, perhaps.