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.
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.
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.
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.
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)