I AM STONE: The Gothic Weird Tales of R. Murray Gilchrist, edited by Daniel Pietersen
British Library Press, p/b, £8.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
It is an unfortunate fact that many writers drop out of fashion after their deaths. This is particularly so for nineteenth-century writers whose short stories appeared in the magazines that were widely available, yet these were the writers who set the standards for many who came after. R. Murray Gilchrist was a very prolific writer, author of twenty-two novels and a hundred short stories, yet only those in this volume are still in print.
The stories here date from the 1890s, but many are set a hundred years or more before. Just as modern writers want a setting that doesn’t use the state of the art technology that, because of its immediacy, reduces the elements of suspense, Gilchrist may have felt that the telegraph and railway system made it too easy for mysteries to be solved. The editor here has divided the stories into four groups with essentially common themes.
‘Part 1: Dead Yet Living’ contains stories which would normally be considered vampire or ghost stories though the terms tend to be avoided. ‘The Crimson Weaver’ tells of two travellers who stumble across a ruined garden, but hidden in a valley, the mansion seems to be intact and the home of a beautiful woman. She is a seductress and a harpy, weaving the essence of her victims into her tapestry. A more obvious vampiric encounter is in ‘The Lover’s Ordeal’ in which Mary sets a task for the man who wishes to marry her – to spend the night in a ruined haunted hall. She is unwittingly sending him into the domain of a vampire, though Gilchrist doesn’t use the term.
‘A Night on the Moor’ is a ghost story. Lindsay Warmsworth becomes lost in the dark on his way home across the moor. He is found sheltering in a shepherd’s hut and taken to a manor house, where he is encouraged to participate in a bizarre charade. This, he discovers the next day, is a replay of events from a hundred years before.
‘Part 2: Useless Heroes’ contains stories of well-meaning men whose failures cause tragedy or is caused by the man’s inability to act. It is difficult to be sure whether Gilchrist is complaining that love makes men too indulgent towards their loved ones or if the women are too manipulative and careless about their husband’s feelings. (Gilchrist never married but lived with a male companion.) In ‘The Grotto at Ravensdale’, Mary, the new bride, persuades her husband, Peregrine, to open up a grotto on his estate for her. Unknown to them, this is the place that caused the death of the previous owner’s wife, and they are unaware that Peregrine’s indulgence is likely to cause history to repeat itself. In both ‘The Basilisk’ and ‘Witch In-Grain’, it is the woman who indulges in dark magic to get what she wants regardless of the outcome. Both men and women are painted as fickle. In ‘Excerpts From Witherton’s Journal’, it is the painter who spurns the woman he has promised to marry, while in ‘Bubble Magic’, the hopeful vision turns out to be untrue as it is the woman who is cheating on the narrator. In ‘The Stone Dragon’, it is the machinations of an old woman that ultimately causes the tragedy.
The stories in ‘Part 3: Of Passion and Death’ tell of the consequences of loving too much. In ‘The Lost Mistress’, the spurned lover’s letters are unopened, and eventually, he kills himself, though in ‘The Writings of Althea Swarthmoor’, the tragedy is switched around, and it is Althea who does. Not all these stories end in death. In both ‘Roxana Runs Lunatick’ and ‘The Madness of Betty Hooton’, the woman in question is driven into despair by the actions of others. In the former, it is Roxana’s husband lays a trap for her lover, and in the latter, it is the discovery of the lies her brother told her forty years before that provoked Betty’s breakdown. The last story in this section, ‘Sir Toby’s Wife’, almost ends in tragedy when an elderly sexton deliberately shuts a young woman in a tomb, but she is rescued in time.
‘Part 4: Peak Weird’ contains three stories that are more typical of Gilchrist’s writing in general in that they are stories about the people that the author would be familiar with since he lived much of his life in the Peak District.
The importance of Gilchrist’s writing is that many of his ideas have been used and elaborated on by writers that have come after him. He doesn’t try to explain the strange events that overcome his characters but leaves the reader to put their own interpretation on them. He was very familiar with the idea of portents and omens and sprinkled these within the stories with intentional foreshadowing.
To help the modern reader, the editor has added notes at the end of the volume, explaining some of the terms and references that have gone out of common usage.