Trade Paper, 175 pages, £8.95
Review by Sheila M. Merritt
“And then quite silently the curtain at the window waved in some mysterious breath of night air – lifted for a second, and fell as silently.” Welcome to the words and cadences of Eleanor Scott: An author whose horror writings temporally overlapped with those of the revered M.R. James. There is an ebb and flow in the ghost stories of the early 20th century. As Eleanor lucidly expressed: There is suspenseful suspending of fear; a literary lingering that occurs just prior to a release of built up tension. Randalls Round is a compilation of nine tales derived from Scott’s dreams/nightmares. Her extrapolation of the nocturnal narratives is both of its time, and timeless. Oleander Press has reprinted the collection, which hasn’t been published in Britain for over eighty years. The stories are aimed at a certain class; educated and erudite. What is ultimately fascinating though, is the pervasive chill factor. Scott crosses social boundaries in her ability to send a frisson of terror up the spine.
Consider the description of a tormented and frightened young woman in “The Old Lady:” “Her face was ashen, her lips colourless, her eyes vacant as with sheer naked panic. Her tongue passed incessantly over her white lips. She reminded me of a hypnotised rabbit.” Distilled in just a few lines is a vivid depiction of fright and despair. The character is perfectly delineated, and achingly accessible.
The author is also shrewd in pointing out discrepancies in appearances and ensuing expectations. In “At Simmel Acres Farm,” there is a disunion of a farm and a parcel of land on its grounds: “The farm was so well-ordered and the fields so clean that it seemed odd that a piece of ground so near the dwelling-house should be neglected.”
Possession and spirits abound, and connections between environs and individuals are entwined. Most often, a place with a history will absorb an unsuspecting inhabitant into its malice. Yet, something as seemingly innocuous as a tree can be the vehicle which draws an individual into deep disturbance. Like the one employed to great effect in the titular tale “The Ash-Tree,” by M.R. James, an arbor horribilis is depicted in Scott’s “The Tree.” An evil becomes rooted in an artist’s psyche, and grimly grows. The creative gets superseded by an overpowering image; dominating and dictating the emphasis of paintings. Atmospheric and intense, the narrative establishes an environment that is at once expansive and claustrophobic: “But the thunder hung in the air, or only growled suddenly far off; and the air lay on your lungs like a poultice, hot and clammy.”
Randalls Round was published first in 1929, and then again in 1996 with an edition from Canadian Ash-Tree Press, which was limited to 500 copies. Now, Oleander Press presents the spooky visions for modern masses. Emblematic of her time, and with an implicit intellectual exclusiveness, Eleanor Scott’s haunting tales are worth the wait.