His apparent nature during his life to be reclusive and his work predominantly set around the early 1700s, a hundred and fifty years before his birth, despite having published twenty-two novels and around a hundred short stories it is perhaps for these reasons that the reputation of Robert Murray Gilchrist has not endured so well as that of some of his contemporaries. A writer of “decadent and Gothic fiction” who was born in Sheffield and whose work haunted the Peak District, his memory has been revived in I Am Stone, a collection of twenty-seven stories gathered by editor Daniel Pietersen for the British Library’s Tales of the Weird.
Divided into four sections, the first entitled Dead Yet Living, the collection opens with a surreal fantasia of mythology where the travellers, two men of an undefined but undeniable bond, are warned off by a hag but persist and encounter The Crimson Weaver, an apparently immortal creature which feeds on life. The Return sees a man come back after twenty years seeking his fortune to claim his bride only to find the house a decayed ruin, while The Lover’s Ordeal portrays a challenge to a suitor which discloses a family secret before A Night on the Moor brings a somewhat conventional ghost story.
The early stories simple and direct, presenting a single ghastly or shocking event rather than a developed plot, Gilchrist seems more focused on brooding atmosphere than narrative, and frequently bound by past circumstances his characters are not complex, presented as victims of circumstance unable to help themselves. Pietersen commenting in his introduction that Gilchrist’s women are prone to lapses of insanity, in truth all his characters are susceptible to fantasy, falling into hallucinations and phantasmagoria at the slightest provocation, as in both The Pageant of Ghosts and The Priest’s Pavane.
“My writings, if they corrupted, corrupted out of reader’s wickedness,” one of Gilchrist’s proxies writes in Midsummer Madness before his bride submits to her fate, as does the female lead of Dame Inowslad, leading into Pietersen’s second grouping of Useless Heroes: an encounter with a disciple of the occult, and astrologer and alchemist who married the narrator’s sweetheart, The Manuscript of Francis Shackerley marks a new direction with a more developed tale.
Described as having “the loveliness of a marble image,” apt as Marina claims to have gazed upon The Basilisk which she must now defeat if she is to love, it is she who holds the power in that story, the narrator only serving as witness, similar to the accused of Witch In-Grain who confesses little but points the finger elsewhere, a story rich in Gilchrist’s beloved descriptive detail but again slight on event.
A newlywed couple travelling through the mist to the home inherited from an estranged relative find that he and his own tragic bride still haunt The Grotto at Ravensdale, a conventional tale followed by an oddity, the chronicle of a painter cruel and inconstant in his affections, devoted only to his work and seeking of patronage, the first Excerpts from Witherton’s Journal dated 1700 and continuing Gilchrist’s fascination with the affectations of that era.
Gilchrist confessing his belief in “vast knowledge acquired by placid contemplation of the strange,” Bubble Magic is a vision of love more concerned with the nocturnal journey of the narrator to his betrothed than the betrayal he finds upon arrival, followed by another tale of mistaken belief, Dryas and Lady Greenleaf a whimsy of a woman more able to believe in the passion of a piece of sculpture than genuine human affection, blind to what is before her.
A man entrapped to marry one or other of his cousins in order to hold their estate in the family and keep them from the poorhouse, Rafe Eyre is as inconstant and surly as the sisters are flighty and needy, The Stone Dragon an overwrought piece which has aged poorly, returning to Gilchrist’s obsession with women apparently dying of sadness, victims of monstrous passions beyond their control, as does The Lost Mistress which opens the third section, appropriately titled Of Passion and of Death.
The Writings of Althea Swarthmoor depicting another woman exhausted and consumed, at least The Noble Courtesan is more proactive, presumed to have killed a series of prominent men who engaged her services, as is the Princess Bice, a foreign woman of olive skin and raven hair so determined to bear a child for her husband it is implied she made compact with devil before giving herself to the flames of The Holocaust.
Two tales of thwarted love, one which leads to death and the other a more gentle denial of the outer world as the victim plays with her puppet theatre, Roxana Runs Lunatick and The Madness of Betty Hooton might be more acceptable had they been published in the era when they are set rather than in the marginally more enlightened year of 1894, but throughout the collection Pietersen has provided helpful commentary on Gilchrist’s preference for terminology already archaic when he was born in 1867.
Gilchrist often feeling as though he is writing more for himself than any reader, perhaps another reason for his obscurity, My Friend feels his most personal story, a travelogue as vehicle for an unspoken love, the two companions arriving at a mistaken waypoint but recovering and pressing on together to their destination, sharing their most secret thoughts which by now are no surprise to one who has shared the journey so far: “I turned the discussion – if you may call a monologue discussion – to my favourite theme, which is death.”
The collection filled with frozen emotions and figures discovered cold in their beds come the morning, the third section of I Am Stone returns to statuary with a family history, a tomb and the carving of an ancestor waiting for the arrival of its counterpart, Sir Toby’s Wife perhaps the story which might have inspired the title of the collection had it not lapsed into an incongruously happy ending with the herald of wedding bells rather than the promised petrified tragedy.
Pietersen’s final section drifting from the supernatural flavour which fills the greater part of the collection, Peak Weird presents three more conventional stories from Gilchrist’s broader body of non-genre work, The Pinnacle, A Witch in the Peak and A Strolling Player told with dialogue in local dialect and concluding what is one of the less compelling Tales of the Weird anthologies but which upholds the premise of making difficult to obtain texts more widely available to those who may be interested.
I Am Stone is available now from the British Library