Cornish Horrors – Joan Passey, Editor

Cornwall, mysterious in culture and history, the farthest point of mainland England and gateway to foreign realms, the last glimpse of home for travellers to the new world, is it so hard to conceive that among the mist and rocks, the storms, sailing ships and smugglers that there might also be visitors not from another land but from another realm?

A travel guide to the “imagined ghosts on unfrequented roads,” editor Joan Passey has tracked fifteen stories to represent those Cornish Horrors, subtitled Tales from the Land’s End and the latest volume in the seemingly inexhaustible well of the British Library’s Tales of the Weird, here arranged chronologically in order of first publications from 1838 to 1912.

Opening the anthology with the qualifying location implied rather than specified and notable principally for the inclusion of the poem The Conqueror Worm which gave Witchfinder General its American release title, the fate of Ligeia is emblematic of the work of Edgar Allan Poe with pages of superlatives describing the subject of the narrator’s obsessive love who, for reasons unexplained dies yet continues to haunt the thoughts of the husband, grieving and driven mad by interior decor.

A tenuous inclusion at best which takes nothing from the land nor adds to the lore of it, Cornish Horrors finds itself on firmer footing and more geographically settled as a middle-aged man recalls his youthful concern that he was in some way different, abnormal, his fears prompted by the distance his ever watchful father maintained from him, the tragedy of the family behind the locked doors of the disused wing of the house which hides My Father’s Secret, published anonymously in 1861.

A beast of a man who arrived on a storm and passed into legend, Robert Stephen Hawker immortalised Cruel Coppinger in 1866, a brute and a smuggler who took a wife and terrorised her and gave her a child who, so it was said, was born without a soul, before vanishing one night into the wind from whence he came.

A leave of absence from the army and the offer of a house in Trewardell in which to recuperate, the owner abroad in shame after the sham of his marriage, the details of the case are vivid in the memories of Colonel Benyon’s Entanglement, an act of foolishness and contrition expressed by Mary Elizabeth Braddon with deep feeling.

Credited simply to “M H” and drawing on Cornish folklore, it was while visiting her cousin in Penryn that Susan was witness to an event at which she happened to recognise one of the participants as a former suitor of a schoolfriend now missing, said gentleman presently engaged to a local lady of some standing, the meeting also attended by The Phantom Hare whose presence foretells doom.

More relaxing is Clara Ven’s vision of Christmas Eve at a Cornish Manor House as twin sisters Fanny and Alice are invited by a schoolfriend to spend “a Merry Christmas among Bohemians,” learning of local customs and told the ghost story of a family friend, the narrative slight but vividly conveyed.

“Drifting inland like a ghostly veil,” it was in the mind of Mary E Penn that the Vicar of Penravon witnessed a quarrel between Winnifred Carlyon and Noel Tremaine on the cliffs above the rocky shore; she is swallowed In the Mist and he is accused of her murder, though he claims it was by accident that she fell, her fading cry still heard when the waves subside.

The death of his wife and eldest daughter having taken a heavy toll upon him, Sir James Sinclair left Edinburgh for a castle in remote Cornwall where his servants indulged The Baronet’s Craze, a Gothic tragedy of thwarted love, madness and misinterpreted nocturnal deeds described by Mrs H L Cox in 1889.

Published four years before Dracula and set among the black rock cliffs above the sapphire and emerald seas of Pencastle rather than the “the land beyond the forest,” Bram Stoker explored ideas he would later revisit with The Coming of Abel Behenna, two best friends the suitors of the same woman, a voyage abroad prior to the wedding, the ship arriving at harbour in a terrible storm; her hand to be won on the toss of a coin, the prize carries a bitter cost.

Staying on the shoreline with a story of camaraderie which lasts to the grave and possibly beyond, The Roll-Call of the Reef was taken by Arthur Quiller-Couch in 1895, carrying with it a weary acceptance of the toll of the seas, of dead soldiers and horses washed ashore on the beaches along with the broken timbers and torn sails of the ships wrecked even as they return intact from war.

The dawn of the twentieth century brings a moonlit murder on the moors of St Ives, the drunken labourer caught bloody red-handed over the body of his wife, Elliott O’Donnell reporting on the screams heard at midnight from The Haunted Spinney which drew an agent of the Psychical Research Society aiming to pull back the veil to reveal either a haunting or a path to madness.

Claiming to be “a true incident,” Passey offers no background on author E M Bray or insight into their report of A Ghostly Visitation, the repeated impression of an unseen presence in a hotel room, the author’s decision neither to elaborate the account into a story nor offer explanation, presenting just the specifics of the manifestations, implying it may have been a genuinely witnessed incident, or inspired by one.

A tragedy accidentally wrought, a tale recounted over dinner which might have given a doctor the idea how to murder his wife, if indeed he did, upon that man’s own unexplained death his cousin inherited their house and with it The Screaming Skull; the narrator an old man prone to repeating himself, author F Marion Crawford’s affectations rapidly become as tiresome as the persistent shrieking.

The events having taken place in 1897, it was not until 1910 that Sherlock Holmes gave leave to his chronicler John Watson to appraise his readers of “the Cornish horror – (the) strangest case I have handled,” transcribed by Arthur Conan Doyle as The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot, a tale of death and madness successively pursuing the siblings of a tin mining family; some of the clues apparent, vital facts are withheld until the conclusion by Holmes who investigates in solitude even as he holidays with Doctor Watson in Poldhu Bay.

Published just over a century ago yet seeming to hail from more distant in time and location, the Cornish Horrors conclude behind The Mask of F Tennyson Jesse, the tale of a beautiful woman forced to choose between two cousins who swiftly regrets her decision, the situation made worse by the explosion which disfigures her already cruel husband, a suitably remote and horrific termination to the anthology.

Cornish Horrors is available now from the British Library



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