The enduring reputation of an author not necessarily the best measure of the quality of their writing, especially for an author who was not particularly prolific during their career, Eleanor Scott produced a handful of novels and biographies in the years between the First and Second World Wars and a 1929 anthology of short stories of what would now be termed “folk horror,” Randalls Round, “nine nightmares” now reprinted by the British Library in their Tales of the Weird series under the guidance of editor Aaron Worth.
Scott a pseudonym for Oxford based schoolteacher Helen Magdalen Leys, the titular story opens the collection and immediately establishes her observance of the friction between the learned wisdom of modernity and the old ways of the country, a visitor to the village of Randalls seeking peace for recuperation and mocking the local folk dance as merely “a way to stay trim,” not realising it is only a rehearsal for an ancient ritual, the persistence of which to the present day is not rooted in primitive superstition.
Convinced he knows best in all matters, an excitable American gentleman relocating to England requests a residence which is haunted, eventually finding a suitable property spread across several wings, one of the rooms decorated with carvings presumed to be The Twelve Apostles, but with the servants reluctant to follow his instructions that the door to a room normally locked be kept open both night and day, he comes to regret his insistence.
Another tale of recuperation, this time by the seaside, in Celui-Là (“That one”) a man is warned not to investigate a strange sighting by the shore but already ensnared by the mystery he persists, with elements of M R James and H P Lovecraft surfacing in a story tied to the sea and things which slither and respond to invocation by the unwary.
Religion touched upon in the earlier tales, a battle line is drawn between faiths old and new behind the closed door of The Room as six friends take turns to spend the night in the bedroom they were aware had a reputation of being haunted but have now come to think of as cursed; unable to articulate their encounters, their individual experiences only alluded to, Scott shows the men as vulnerable, caring and empathetic yet capable of undisclosed evil, the knowledge of which torments them.
A down-to-Earth farmer, not uneducated but uncomplicated, takes in a troubled friend in hopes that the simple country life will ease his mind; focused on his work in the harvest fields he dismisses rumours in the village of the seven-year cycle which accompanies the Lammas Night festival, the bonfire this year due to coincide with a full moon, The Cure treading a path across the fields towards such iconic spectres as The Wicker Man.
The Tree dominating the courtyard outside the studio of a young artist, casting a shadow on his mind and his work and coming to dominate both, his wife who once begged for him not to cut it down comes to hate it as it poisons their relationship, driving her to retaliate in the shortest story in the collection.
An awareness of nature, of the sensations, smells and changing seasons of the countryside are to be found At Simmel Acres Farm, tainted by what lies within the walled garden adjoining the house, overgrown and in perpetual partial shadow, where an injured college rugby player spends his days gazing on the worn statue and drinking from the spring of fresh water, the cold moonlight bring the past flooding into the present.
More Christie than Bronte, akin to her relative contemporaries Poe or Doyle Scott is interested in mysteries and puzzles rather than flowers and feelings, writing from a male point of view until “Will Ye No’ Come Back Again?” and then writing her female protagonist less astutely, likely to conform to expectation of the time rather than for lack of ability or insight; unfortunately neither is it one of the best stories presented, half-formed and too reminiscent of earlier stories in the collection despite the inention.
That dip is swiftly corrected, the final story of Randalls Round one the most sinister as Honor Yorke is pressed by the wager of a college associate into an unlikely friendship with orphan Adela Young, pathetic and unpromising, visiting her at the home of her guardian, The Old Lady powerful and dominating despite her blindness and infirmity, determined that her ward should be married and overly solicitous in welcoming a new intimate into the lonely country house which they share.
Appended to this are two further stories credited to N Dennett, presumed to be another pseudonym for Leys, and certainly the writing style and themes match, as does the typical twenty-page span of her work; the first is Unburied Bane of 1933 where a playwright takes residence in a remote farmhouse once supposedly inhabited by a witch to draw inspiration for his new play; returning to the city to present his work, his wife is left behind as the snows of winter arrive, her transgression against the rules of the house summoning a storm of demonic power.
Finally, from 1934, a new curate explores his village and is frustrated and increasingly disturbed by the presence of The Menhir, an ancient carved standing stone at the gates of the graveyard to which the villagers give offerings of flowers and fruit, primitive heathenry he combats with scorn and the comfort of a cup of really hot tea which prove insufficient as deaths begin to occur, violent and fearful, as though crushed by a great weight; the curate himself haunted on his nightly walks by a sound of some object dragging behind him, aspects of the atmospheric story echo forward into Doctor Who in both the “Stones of Blood,” the Ogri, and the infamous Weeping Angels.
Randalls Round is available now from the British Library