ARTICLE – LATE REVIEW (April 2018)

A Treasure Chest of Tales from the Celtic Dark Side

The Magic Valley Travellers: Welsh Stories of Fantasy and Horror edited by Peter Haining

Horla contributor Jon Gower recalls a distinctive tome of terror from his teens.

Despite admonishments to never judge a book by its cover there were volumes that drew me in as a teenager.  In their bright chrome livery works published by Gollancz certainly attracted the eye and one of those was Peter Haining’s hugely entertaining selection of tales from the Celtic dark side.

The Magic Valley Travellers includes one of the earliest British werewolf stories. ‘Arthur and Gorlagon’ is believed to date from the fourteenth century. At the heart of the tale stands a magical sapling, which started growing on the day the King was born.  It has the property of turning anyone who cuts it down into a wolf.  By an act of treachery the Queen does precisely this to her husband. Adventures unfold as the wolf-man stalks the forests and finds a mate while Arthur seeks to better understand the story.  Finally he encounters a woman, holding before her in a dish a human head, that of her lover, the story’s grisly end.

There are also early vampire stories such as Walter Map’s ‘The Living Dead Man, a terse tale of exhumations, demons and Welsh zombies and works by English writers such as H.G.Wells and John Wyndham set in Wales.  Wells’s is a fascinating slice of literary history as ‘The Chronic Argonauts’ anticipates the author’s later masterpiece The Time Machine.

One of the stand-our stories comes from the pen of Ann of Swansea, a.k.a Mrs Julia Ann Curtis, who was a woman devoted ‘to scandal, outrage and beauty.’  The mistress of actor Edmund Kean she once famously tried to poison herself in Westminster Abbey.  Ann’s ‘The Fatal Prediction’ is a classic Gothic confection, with dark caves on a windblown coast, and a prophesy of doom that blows through the life of a woman called Ruth.  Warned that she will be a murderer, the birth of a baby sets up the tale’s terrifying conclusion.

Caradoc Evans, once dubbed ‘the most hated man in Wales’ – on account of his splenetic stories and their take on the Welsh peasantry and the hypocrisies of their chapel religion – supplies the typically twisted ‘The Coffin.’  The workshop of the coffin maker is pure Dickensian grotesque:

Inside the workshop…he saw…the crutched figure of the carpenter,       whose mouth, from the corners of which dribbled tiny streams of tobacco juice, was like the ungainly cut in a turnip lantern: the hairy face of the cobbler, much of whose wooden leg was thrust into the earth through the shavings and the sawdust with which the ground was  strewn; the bright countenance of the broken-out preacher, whose skin    was of the freshness of that of a sucking pig; the head of Little Ben, whose nose had been twisted at birth, bending over a bird-cage.

One of the delights of the collection are the totally unexpected contributions from the like of Robert Bloch, author of Psycho whose ‘The Dark Isle’ pits the phalanxes of the Roman legions against the black magic of the druids in their headquarters on the isle of Anglesey.

Melding the lyric fluency of writers such as Dylan Thomas and Glyn Jones with folkloric treasures gathered by collectors such as Sir John Rhys and the American Wirt Sikes, Peter Haining has satisfyingly trawled his big net through fiction, lore and legend.  Some of the book’s components are uniquely Welsh, such as the corpse candles that foretold death, a small light for a child, a brighter lantern for an adult while other stories are simply universal. 

Yellow the covers might be, but the colour schemes of the unsettling stories therein are very different – the waxen pallor of death, the pitch black of bottomless caves and the greying darkness that lies as a shadow in the world of men, demons and, this being Wales, the occasional dragon, flapping aloft, trailing fire. 

The Magic Valley Travellers: Welsh Stories of Fantasy and Horror.

Edited by Peter Haining

Victor Gollancz, 1974

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

As well as contributing to Horla, Jon Gower is an award-winning Wales-based writer and broadcaster.  (Photo: Emyr Jenkins)