Horla Feature (February / March 2021)

 

WALES AND THE WEIRD TALE

by MARK HOWARD JONES

Are the nation’s writers of strange and dark fiction receiving the recognition they deserve?

Photograph: Matthew G. Rees

WEIRD, macabre, fantastic – whatever you care to call it, you know it when you’ve read it.

There are more writers in Wales today putting pen to paper (or cursor to screen) to create tales of the fantastic than ever before. Yet it is so often viewed as an imported form of literature – something Wales has no real stake in.

Fantastic

This kind of fantastic literature is in fact an integral part of Wales’s literary tradition – no matter how many attempts there are to ignore it or tuck it away shamefacedly in dark corners, behind some unread volumes of ‘worthy’ poetry.

The fantastic has, in fact, a natural home in Wales. And it’s worth underlining the link between what is being written now and tales of the supernatural and fantastic from Wales’s past.

With its images of otherworldly hounds, phantom realms and trees that are half-aflame and half in bloom, the mediaeval tales of ‘The Mabinogion’ (left) re the rich soil in which fantastic literature in Wales has taken root. These tales were translated into English by Lady Charlotte Guest in the 1830s and 1840s and have remained popular ever since.

And the first ever alien contact story, ‘The Man In The Moone’, was written by the Bishop of Llandaff, Francis Godwin, and published posthumously in 1638. A specially trained species of bird was the locomotive power that conveyed the hero, Domingo Gonsales, to his lunar destination.

Forgotten

Almost forgotten now, Ann Julia Hatton (left) writing under the name Ann of Swansea, produced several leading Gothic novels in the early 19th century, when that literary fashion was at its height. Between 1810 and 1831, she produced no less than 14 Gothic tomes with enticing titles like ‘Secrets In Every Mansion’ and ‘Deeds Of An Olden Time’.

(An interesting aside from the Gothic period is that Fanny Imlay, half-sister of ‘Frankenstein’ creator Mary Shelley, committed suicide at the Mack-worth Arms, Swansea, on October 9th, 1816, by taking an overdose of laudanum.)

The three writers from Wales with the biggest international reputations – Dylan Thomas, Roald Dahl and Arthur Machen – at one time or another wrote tales that dealt with the fantastic, the supernatural or the macabre.

Macabre

It has even been argued that if Dylan Thomas (below left) hadn’t found fame as a poet, he would still have had a sizeable reputation in some circles as a writer of weird tales.

There is a strong streak of the bizarre in many of Thomas’s stories, perhaps most notably in ‘The Burning Baby’, ‘The Horse’s Ha’, and ‘The School for Witches’.

Dahl, now revered the world over as a children’s author, has a particularly icy imagination and his 1960 collection ‘Kiss Kiss’ contains some of the most macabre stories ever penned by a British author. He went on to become known for his ‘Tales Of The Unexpected’ stories, popularised by the 1970s TV series of the same name.

Influence

Would modern horror and science fiction be what it is today without the influence of Caerleon’s Arthur Machen (left)? This contemporary and friend of Oscar Wilde is now best known as the author of the supposedly scandalous novel ‘The Great God Pan’ in 1894. His work had such a huge influence on H P Lovecraft, the father of 20th century horror fiction, that things would have read very differently without him.

(Continued next column)

Machen continues to exert a fascination over modern writers beyond the borders of Wales, not least among them Mark Samuels who has written a collection called ‘The Man Who Collected Machen’.

Closer to home, and named in honour of Machen’s 1895 novel, the Newport-based publisher Three Impostors (left) currently specialises in issuing works that are strongly influenced by Machen’s writing.

In the 1970s the now shamefully neglected Peter Tate (Faces in the Flames, left), a journalist on the ‘South Wales Echo’ newspaper, made a name for himself writing strange and challenging tales. Published by Doubleday in the U.S., Tate’s collections like ‘Seagulls under Glass’ and novels such as ‘Moon Over An Iron Meadow’ impress with their strange and unsettling qualities.

Anthologies

There were also attempts to bring this vein of writing to the fore during the 70s, in the form of two anthologies. In 1973, the Fontana paperback ‘Welsh Tales Of Terror’ appeared, edited by the legendary R. Chetwynd-Hayes; while the following year Gollancz issued ‘The Magic Valley Travellers’, left, edited by the equally legendary Peter Haining.

Both books mixed together stories by Welsh writers, tales simply set in Wales and supposedly true stories, yet they focused attention upon the genre for the first time.

Newport-born Bryn Fortey (left) made two appearances in the ‘Fontana Book Of Great Horror Stories’ (a worthy rival to ‘The Pan Book Of Horror Stories’ series) back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, along with numerous other publications. After several decades away from writing, Bryn has recently made a return to the genre and, now in his mid-80s, has seen two collections of his stories published over the last several years.

Embedded

So it’s plain even from this brief overview that the fantastic in literature is deeply embedded in Welsh culture. Yet despite this it has, more or less, been on the margins. And it remains that way today, even though there is an enormous groundswell of talent.

Within a few hours’ journey of each other you can pop in for tea (or probably something stronger) with Rhys Hughes, Tim Lebbon, Gail Williams, Paul Lewis, Jon Gower, Bob Lock, Anastasia Catris, Steve Lockley, Gary Greenwood, Mike O’Driscoll, Dave Price, Brian Willis, Matthew G Rees (Keyhole, left), Charles Wilkinson and even me. This is certainly not an exhaustive list and there must be many more that I haven’t mentioned, for which I apologise.

While Abergavenny’s John Llewellyn Probert has set up camp just across the Severn Estuary and, even farther afield, Pontypridd-born scriptwriter Stephen Volk (left) has created memorable chills for both Hollywood and the BBC (most notably the downright terrifying ‘Ghostwatch’), as well as unsettling us with his short fiction.

Shadows

And many of the writers mentioned above are outward looking, publishing their work internationally (most especially in the United States) and helping to spread the word about Welsh culture across the globe.

So maybe now it’s time for these writers of weird tales from Wales to finally step out of the shadows and proudly take their place centre stage.

 

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Mark Howard Jones (left) was born in a town in South Wales where it once rained fish. He is the editor of the anthologies Cthulhu Cymraeg: Lovecraftian Tales From Wales (SD Publishing) and Cthulhu Cymraeg 2 (Fugitive Fiction). He has been a regular contributor to PS Publishing’s Black Wings series, edited by S. T. Joshi. Two of his stories, ‘Made of Rain’ and ‘Winter is Coming’, have been published here at Horla and can be found by entering his name in the search engine at the top right of any of our pages. He lives in Cardiff, the capital of Wales.

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Photos of arched doorway at Swansea Guildhall and wood carving of Dylan Thomas (Cwmdonkin Park, Swansea) by Matthew G. Rees