RANDALLS ROUND; Nine Nightmares by Eleanor Scott, edited by Aaron Worth
British Library Press, 235-page p/b, £8.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
Every country and every region has its folk tales. Some are going to be based on events that have happened in the past and been passed down and exaggerated through the generations. Some have some truth in their origins, but that has changed and what often remains is something surrounded by superstition and rituals. These make great starting points for horror stories.
Helen Leys often wrote as Eleanor Scott, and her volume of stories Randalls Round was originally published in 1929. This edition also contains two stories by N. Dennett, another pseudonym Leys is believed to have used.
The focus of the title story, ‘Randalls Round,’ is an ancient barrow near a Cotswold town. A visitor to Randalls, Heyling watches a Halloween performance that appears to re-enact the local superstition but makes the mistake of following the villages out to the barrow to observe a more sinister ritual. He is not the only sceptic that finds truth in local superstition. In ‘The Cure’, there is a similar situation, though this time on Lamas night and the annual bale-fire is lit on one of the local barrows. Another that uses local traditions is ‘The Old Lady’, which has a witch at its heart. The witch uses her ward to lure the narrator to her home for a Midsummer ritual.
Old houses have mysterious rooms that are kept locked, or it is advised not to sleep in because nasty things happen there and naturally draw the curious sceptic. The American that buys the house in ‘The Twelve Apostles’ does so because he’s guaranteed a ghost. He insists on opening up the locked room, which has figures of twelve apostles carved into the wall panels, and so lets the horror out. In ‘The Room’, it is a group of men who dare each other to spend a night alone in the haunted room and encounter nightmares. Buying an old house that has stood empty for years, as Annis does in ‘“Will Ye No’ Come Back Again”,’ with the intention of turning it into a hostel for young women. As with old houses in this kind of story, it has accompanying ghosts.
‘At Simmel Acres Farm’ also has its roots in traditional, local superstition. This time it is a small courtyard garden which has a very weathered figure at the far end and which visitors are warned to stay out of.
The presence of evil can lurk for a long time. ‘Celui-Là’ is set in France. Maddox goes to the isolated village for a rest from his studies and not only encounters a strange figure on the beach but finds an image of the same figure under the plaster in the remnants of an old church.
‘The Tree’ is a very different kind of story. When her husband becomes obsessed with the ash tree outside his studio, Nan is determined to get rid of it. As she cannot cut it down, she decides to poison it, not realising that the life of the tree is connected to her husband’s.
The remaining two stories, credited to N. Dennett, revolve around characters who do not give any credence surrounding a local superstition. In ‘Unburied Bane’, a couple rent a dilapidated farmhouse for the inspiration Oliver Windthrop needs to write his next novel. Rumour suggests that the long-dead witch will take her revenge if her skull is moved from its place on the window ledge. In ‘The Menhir’, it is the sceptical new curate who decides to ignore the rumours of bad luck that surround the standing stone in the churchyard. In both cases, the characters find that such rumours have a basis in truth.
All of these are accomplished stories of a timeless quality while reflecting the society at the time when they were written.