When I’ve agreed to take on a new book to review, I often remark how the novel or collection in question must have been written by a kindred spirit, and those sentiments have rarely been more apt that they are in the case of Welsh author Marc Harris’ haunting homage to classic, British horror, Wild and Uncanny Tales. I’ve trimmed back on my reviews lately simply because of my current workload, but when Mr. Harris described his book as following in the traditions of Le Fanu, Stoker, and the Victorian ghost story, I knew that I owed him a serious consideration.
In the past, many review requests have been sliiiightly in line with my preferences: the books have been somewhat-literary members of the horror genre, but often lacking the gentleness, uneasiness, mysticism, and sense of history to which my website is devoted. Rather, they have often tended to be lewd, cynical, and violent, with more in common with Robert Rodriguez or Frank Miller than M. R. James or Algernon Blackwood.
Such is decidedly not the case with Mr. Harris’ slim, 60-page Gothic chap book – a breezy, misty reading experience which can easily be undertaken in the quiet hour before bedtime. His anthology is a pleasant mix of atmospheric supernatural vignettes as well as delicious snippets (fifteen lines on average) of haunting poetry heavily influenced by British folklore, Victorian literature, and a deep appreciation and awe of the natural world.
The publisher aptly describes its contents in the following terms:
“A young girl waits on a storm-tossed beach for a mother lost at sea. A ferryman guides strange passengers to a village in ruins. Spirits lurk in a sunken warship to protect the creatures below. And high in a clock tower, two peregrines roost.
“This is a world both familiar and strange, a landscape beautiful and wild, where history hangs heavy and tragedy has left its mark. Where spectral guardians walk and ancient spirits rule the woods, and where the rivers keep their secrets.
“Combining a love of the natural world and the gothic, Marc Harris has crafted a collection of short stories and poetry that brings a haunted Britain to life.”
Harris' focus is on rural and coastal Britain – Wales and the West Country – and can best be described as brooding, wild, and romantic. If it came with a set of essential oils or incense sticks, they would be Salty Sea Breeze, Moss-Padded Stone Ruins, Rain-Soaked Marshland, and Midnight Fog Bank. This book, short as it is, is a truly visceral experience. In the introduction Harris references the strong influences of Victorian horror, but also shows an inclination to Dark Romanticism: “I have always had a deep fascination with both the natural and the supernatural worlds, and, in particular, Gothic ghost stories.”
Indeed, his universe is one of the sublime and the arabesque, just as fascinated with the alluring spirituality of nature as Poe, Hawthorne, the Shelleys, or the Brontës. If you enjoy reading any of these writers – or, for that matter, Daphne du Maurier, Susan Hill, or Shirley Jackson – you will love this ethereal homage to the Gothic tradition.
Of particular note, however, and especially remarkable for devotees of classic weird fiction, I would like to highlight Harris’ interest in maritime horror – that often overlooked subset of our favorite genre. Harris’ misty episodes are often set at sea or the shore, rivers or marshes, where fishermen, ferrymen, miners, swimmers, and hikers are hopelessly entangled in strange, otherworldly affairs. Ghostly forces call out to mortals, luring them into their clammy embrace, and – more often than not – the watery element represents the impenetrable barrier between life and death, serving as the dwelling place of supernatural forces and the sinister doom of hapless humans.
Although Harris doesn’t specifically reference William Hope Hodgson, F. Marion Crawford, or W. W. Jacobs, he is clearly operating within the tradition – knowingly or unknowingly – of their maritime horrors. All three men told tales of sailors being menaced by nautical monstrosities and spectres, and all three shared Harris’ delight in the sublime. I am especially reminded of tales like Crawford’s “The Upper Berth” and “Man Overboard!,” Jacobs’ “Over the Side” and “In Mid-Atlantic,” and Hodgson’s “Greys Seas are Dreaming of My Death,” “The Thing in the Weeds,” and “A Tropical Horror” when I read Harris’ salty poems and prose.
He also clearly favors a lushly poetic writing style which conjures to mind the elegant prose and picture-painting of Oliver Onions (“The Beckoning Fair One”), Robert W. Chambers (“The Key to Grief”), Algernon Blackwood (“The Willows”), and – Harris’ fellow Welshman – Arthur Machen (“The Novel of the Black Seal”). Indeed, I would classify his stories as prose poems – short, musical, and atmospheric – rather than short fiction. The lyrical nature of his writing brings to mind the very best Edwardian writers of the supernatural with their propensity for merging the mystical and the musical and focusing more on mood than plot.
If you want to relive the experience of sitting down with your favorite classic horror fiction – and especially if you are most interested in reliving the visceral experiences – the sights, smells, and lovely dread – of this benighted genre, then I couldn’t recommend a better anthology for your pleasure. Short, sweet, and haunting, it succeeds perhaps more than its author even realizes at capturing the spiritual essence of the Victorian Gothic, while beautifully enlivening it with the mystical music of Welsh culture and the severe beauty of its haunting landscape.