OR: Randalls Round

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #21:-

The collection RANDALLS ROUND (Oleander Press paperback, 175pp, £8.95) by Eleanor Scott was first published in 1929 and, with the exception of an Ash-Tree Press edition from 1996, has been out of print ever since, so kudos to Oleander for bringing it back into the light of day for new generations of weird fiction aficionados.

Scott’s work has been characterised as Jamesian, and certainly the influence of MRJ can be seen in several of the stories, most obviously the three tales that open the collection. Title story ‘Randalls Round’ has an academic spending some down time in the village of Randalls and, at the behest of a colleague, investigating a quaint local custom, only when he follows the revellers out to a barrow at night the curious mind learns rather more than it wished. It’s a familiar storyline, but Scott does enough to make it convincing, hints of the outre creeping into the everyday world, and the ending is powerful and disturbing, with the suggestion of bloody rites from an earlier time surviving into the present day and the truth that may lie behind them. ‘The Twelve Apostles’ has a mildly comic opening, with a wealthy American insisting that he will only purchase a particular desres if it’s haunted, but then finding out that he may have bitten off more than he can chew. Beautifully paced, the story expertly blends antiquarian investigation and treasure hunting with subtle effects and the unsettling revelation of a slug like monster at its climax. In ‘Celui-la’ an Englishman ‘resting’ in coastal France finds himself falling foul of a local legend, with a strange creature and its familiar pursuing him along a lonely stretch of beach. The story builds well, the tiny details accumulating until events seem to gather a momentum of their own, with only the ‘here come the cavalry’ style of the story’s end game undercutting the excellence of the whole.

Six young men each agree to spend a night in ‘The Room’, but what they encounter profoundly unnerves each of them, with one exception. The characters represent different moral approaches, though Scott is skilful enough to make them more than the sum of their mores, with the interplay of dialogue put over well, while the satisfyingly unexplained nature of the ‘entity’ in the room and the way in which it exploits their individual weaknesses are a great strength of the story. Another victim to local rites and superstition features in ‘The Cure’, which goes horribly wrong for the ‘haunted’ Erik when a farmer friend invites him to stay at his manse to recover from a nervous condition. The suggestion here is of hidden knowledge implicit in all cultures and rearing its ugly head on occasion to manifest in the modern world, with those who uncover such secrets unable to go back and recover their lost innocence. An artist’s well-being is directly related to ‘The Tree’, the miasmic atmosphere of the story reaching a climax when his wife takes drastic steps to end the dependency, with a neat twist to a story that is infected with a gathering sense of gloom and malaise.

Two university students go away together and spend time ‘At Simmel Acres Farm’, with one of them experiencing some form of genetic memory and becoming obsessed with a stone head. Fated to end tragically, the story’s mood changes subtly, going from one of promise and curiosity, to a feeling of inevitable doom, as the narrator realises what has happened to his companion, the terrible spell under which he seems to have fallen in defiance of all rationality. ‘“Will Ye No’ Come Back Again?”’ is a tale of possession as a woman staying in a supposedly haunted house is taken over by the spirit of a dead girl, one kept earthbound by her love, the story having great fun with the proto-feminist protagonist and showing how she is beset by forces both natural and supernatural, but eventually undone by her own insistence on the strictly rational and refusal to follow the better part of valour.

‘The Old Lady’ was probably my favourite, as a student befriends an outsider for a wager, and is asked back to the young woman’s family home where she meets her rather creepy guardian, and must take extraordinary steps to avoid becoming a victim of the old lady’s vampiric need. Everything about this story works so well, from the depiction of students at work and play, through to the suggestion of a parasitic evil, one which is never clearly pinned down and remains all the stronger for that. It’s a fine end to an excellent collection and one which is very welcome back into print.

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