Welcome to 'The Dusty Bookshelf', where forgotten books of yesteryear get the reappraisal. This month, it's the turn of:
'The Dark Land' by Mary Williams
Published in hardback by William Kimber, 1975. Jacket design by Ionicus.
Certain authors (not all) have an ability to carry you to a different place. Mary Williams was just such a writer. Her collections of ghost stories, published by the trailblazing independent publisher William Kimber during the 1970's and 1980's, set mainly along the Cornish coast and it's inland environs, were the next best thing to being there.
Remote country lanes, quaint fishing villages, isolated cottages and sinister manor houses, usually provided the backdrop against which her stories of lonely people, melancholic, malevolent spirits and vegetation with a life of its own took place, and were wonderfully evoked by the cover art of Ionicus. His unsettling paintings mainly of the said buildings often with a single lit window, as in the case of The Dark Land, drew you in, giving you a taste of what was to come within the pages of the book. And what a wonderfully ghoulish menu Ms Williams concocted.
The Dark Land is a perfect example of what Williams did best - tales of unease. The very titles of the fifteen ghost stories in this volume would be enough to send a chill down the spine of even the most stolid reader. 'Obsession', 'Laughter' and 'Guppa', capture in a single, simple word a sense of foreboding, and lend the stories which they introduce an unconscious air of tension.
William's strange tales are not the kind to provide sudden shocks, so those who like their horror hard boiled will doubtless be disappointed. If however you prefer the terror to simmer slowly beneath the surface, the odd nastiness bubbling up, before the whole shebang erupts at the end, then you may be better pleased. Take for instance the opening story, 'Possessed'. At twenty four pages it is one of the longer in the book, though in actual fact very little happens. Even when it does reach it's grisly climax, the description of the victim's demise is sparse, leaving it to the reader to put the flesh on the corpse so to speak - it's probably what Williams doesn't say that makes it more frightening. However if and when she does colour between the lines her wonderfully evocative word paintings of the Cornish coast and surrounding countryside makes the place come alive, 'blowing in gusts against the windscreen, from the high moors where the cromlech stood, outlined gaunt against the rim of earth and greenish sky. Beneath it the skeleton shapes of ruined tin-mines were already being drawn into the general deepening greyness of furze and rock.' Brrrrrrr - chilling!
The individuals who people her stories are, on the whole, loners. Take for instance the little boy at the centre of 'Hickory Dickory Dock' who is sent to convalesce with his grandmother and spinster aunt, after an illness. Unable to relate to his elders whom he sees as out to spoil his fun, he sneaks out of their house unobserved to investigate the deserted 'dwelling opposite, an immense Victorian erection most people would have thought a monstrosity', that he has been expressly forbidden to go near. That this rebellious disobedience is his downfall goes without saying. However the reasons that lead him, and the victims of the other stories into the macabre situations in which they find themselves arise as much from lack of human companionship and understanding, as from any real malice on their part.
Then you have the other main characters (in fact they are probably the central ones, as the main action takes place in them, and they seem to draw the humans into their orbit), the houses. These sinister buildings, from seemingly everyday houses to mansions and homes for the insane, take on lives of their own under William's pen, as in the case of holiday home for mentally handicapped children in 'Initiation', which remained half built due to an injunction taken out against it years before, and the presence of which haunts a young couple who have moved into a cottage opposite, with tragic results.
Like many of her characters, both human and otherwise, Williams was somewhat of an enigma. Married three times, she started writing sinister tales as a child. However it was not until later in life at the age of 72, after a career incorporating acting, book illustration, writing romantic fiction and as a contributor to newspapers and BBC Wales, that she started to seriously focus on the macabre and supernatural. By the time of her death in December 2000, she had written over 200 ghost stories in 17 collections.
Often today, writers are too clever for their own good, believing that they are sharp and witty, whilst in actual fact using too many words to say very little. William's on the other hand never wasted one.