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The Late Review: November Night Tales

9th Sep, 2019

Author: Peter Tennant

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A philanthropist and polymath, American Henry Mercer (1856 - 1930) devoted his life to the pursuit of knowledge, especially in the fields of archaeology and architecture, during the course of his seventy years garnering numerous awards for his achievements, not least of which was the establishment of The Mercer Museum in his native town of Doylesville, Pennsylvania.

Admirable and interesting as all of that is, our concern here is with Mercer's one foray into the world of speculative fiction, the 1928 collection of NOVEMBER NIGHT TALES (Swan River Press hc, 255pp, €30.00), which was rereleased by Swan River in 2015 in a limited edition of 300 copies.

The book comes with an introduction by Peter Bell in which he ably lays out the details of Mercer's life and discusses the stories in some detail, with particular emphasis on how they reflect the breadth of the author's interests and the depths of his learning. After that we get into things proper with 'Castle Valley' in which the acquisition of a special crystal allows an artist visions of a fantastic Gothic edifice, causing life changes. The story is magnificently atmospheric in its evocation of a haunted landscape and the wild places where other realms can be glimpsed behind the veneer of reality. Moody and with some memorably oddball characters, such as the old man Shronk, and impressively going all over the map, with thoughts on crystallomancy and the purpose of art, this piece was representative of the tone of what was to follow.

Second story 'The North Ferry Bridge' gives us a novel variation on the theme of the mad scientist, with an escaped lunatic seeking revenge on the judge who put him away. Almost pulpish in nature, the story takes its conventional plotline and adorns it with images of horror and chilling developments, while underlying it all is a sickening sense of rot and decay, of the good translated into evil. 'The Blackbirds' are not actual turdus merula, but creatures with a predilection that makes them as unnerving as anything found in the pages of Poe. In this story as well as a mystery with differing explanations, we have a wonderful evocation of place, as an artist and his friends travel into landscape that is truly off the map, a terrain that is as minatory as it is magical, with the stuff going on in the background here even more unsettling than the surface details.

'The Wolf Book' is an unusual manuscript, one sought by academics and lycanthropes in a tale that, like so many others here, goes all round the houses to get to its destination, though in this case it was a little too fond of diversion for my liking, piling up mock erudition on daringly different conceptual premises. 'The Dolls' Castle' concerns a house with a reputation for being haunted and the possibly related disappearance of a child, these two strands of the plot coming together in a superbly sinister work of art. The house itself is a vivid and unsettling creation, with its dilapidated interior and the strange room of dolls at its centre, while confusion as to the location of the building only adds to the prevailing mood of uncertainty. In 'The Sunken City' archaeologists and adventurers in search of an ancient artefact are surprised when a city emerges from the deep in the wake of an earthquake, the story weaving its tapestry from a multitude of strands of early history and mythology, with echoes of the work of Lovecraft in its evocation of the fear of disturbing things that would better be left alone.

Finally we have, by way of a bonus, 'The Well of Monte Corbo', which didn't appear in the original 1928 publication of this book, but was found in Mercer's papers after his death and published posthumously. Like the preceding story it concerns a search for a lost artefact, though in this case the trail of clues consists of various paintings from the past, a search that put me slightly in mind of the back story to The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. It's a fascinating tale, with each step in the unravelling of clues minutely and convincingly detailed, and some larger than life characters, especially the rumbustious Doctor Lysander, while at back of it all there is a gentle hint that the object found is far from harmless.

 Beautifully produced and illustrated throughout with vivid pen and ink drawings by Alisdair Wood that superbly complement the text, this is another fine addition to the publisher's catalogue. While they might be over ninety years old, the tales feel fresh and modern in the way they address genre sensibilities, and Swan River are to be thanked for bringing this intriguing work back into print.



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