Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Margery of Quether & Other Weird Tales ~ S. Baring-Gould

Sabine Baring-Gould's novella 'Margery of Quether' first appeared in two parts in the Cornhill Magazine in 1884, accompanied by drawings by Harry Furniss (1854-1925). It first appeared in book form in 1891 (more than a decade before the collection A Book of Ghosts), when Margery of Quether and Other Stories was published by Methuen & Co.

In 1999, Sarob Press republished 'Margery of Quether' along with five other tales and one religious poem (see the cover image on the right). 'Master Sacristan Eberhart' (December 1858), 'The Fireman' (March 1860), 'Easter Eve' (April 1860) and 'The Dead Trumpeter of Hurst Castle' (May-June 1860) were originally published in the Hurst Johnian, the journal of St John's College, Hurstpierpoint. 'The Devil's Mill' (1908) and 'Crowdy Marsh' (1910) first appeared in The Storyteller.

In 'Margery of Quether', George Rosedhu is a yeoman of Brinsabatch,* in the parish of Lamerton, Devon. On Sundays, he worships at the little church of S. Michael de Rupe, atop an extinct volcanic cone called Brentor. It is a custom that on Christmas Eve the sexton and two others climb Brentor and ring the bells of the church at midnight, but the sexton has fallen ill, so George offers to do the ringing. He climbs Brentor alone with nothing but a dim lantern to light his way, enters the church, and rings the first bell. He is just about to ring the tenor bell when he sees 'something dark, like a ball of dirty cobwebs, hanging to the cord'. The creature, which has a human form but is only the size of a baby, descends to the floor below.
'In colour the object was brown, as if it had been steeped in peat water for a century, and in texture leathery. It scrambled, much as I have seen a bat scramble, out of the puddle on the pavement to the heap of broken timber, and worked its way with its little brown hands and long claws up a rafter, and seated itself thereon, holding fast by a hand on each side of what I suppose was the body.'
The creature explains that she is Margery of Quether, once a living woman, now a dried up old crone who cannot die. George is so moved by her story that he takes her in his arms and carries her home. She drives her one remaining tooth into his flesh and clasps him so tightly with her claws that he is unable to remove her... until she drops off of her own accord. At which point she appears less dried up, a little rosier, and a little heavier.

Margery is a vampire, though not one of the sparkling variety (she doesn't go to highschool either). She increases her own vitality by draining that of her victim, increasing in youth as her victim increases in age. And she appears to inspire willingness in poor old George to be complicit in his own sapping. Baring-Gould's tale is satirical (with a great deal of social commentary), and yet his church-going vampiric creation is no less dangerous than Stoker's Dracula. The Spectator wrote (3rd of May, 1884):
'We hardly know in what the power of the little tale consists, unless it is in the realistic simplicity with which the horrible "facts" are related; but there is something about it positively uncanny. There is nothing to revolt at, but one would much rather not have read it.'
'Master Sacristan Eberhart' lives in the tower of the ancient church of S. Sebaldus, above the big bells. He rarely descends to the world below, save to attend Mass in the morning, and rarely speaks to another living soul, aside from the birds. On the top of the church tower there are four life-size carved figures, one of which is a monk squatting on his haunches, and Master Eberhart is very fond of him. Having noticed that there is a crack at the back of the figure, and having been told by the mason that the church won't pay for repairs, Eberhart vows that he will pay for them himself, no matter the cost. The monk repays his kindness in a gruesome and dramatic manner.

In 'The Fireman', Peter Lundy, an iron puddler, is not a nice man; he is not averse to a bit of robbery, or a bit of attempted murder for that matter. An elderly man arrives at Lundy's hut and asks for lodging for the night. Then the elderly stranger explains that he is after some curious crystals that can only be obtained by wading into molten iron. He will pay twenty pounds for each specimen procured, he explains, and he gives Lundy a special ointment to protect his lower body from the immense heat of the molten metal. But each time Lundy enters the fiery molten iron, there is a price to pay...

The setting for 'The Dead Trumpeter of Hurst Castle' is the same Hurst Castle in which Charles I was imprisoned in 1648, before being taken to London for his trial and execution. It concerns the King's time at the castle, the appearance of the ghost of a trumpeter that protects Charles during his stay there, and an apparition within the King's room at the moment of his execution.

In 'The Devil's Mill', the narrator, who has an interest in both botany and archaeology, is engaged in research on the coast, when the night draws in suddenly and he loses his way. He comes across a windmill and inside it meets a miller who makes psychosopic lenses. The miller explains, 'he who wears these glasses can see into a man's soul and read all that passes therein.' The narrator takes a bagful of the lenses away with him to sell, but there are consequences to spying on the innermost thoughts of others.

The narrator of 'Crowdy Marsh' is out shooting with his friend Richards on the moor around Brown Willy.** With the light beginning to fail, they set out for a hotel in Camelford, but lose their way and become separated. The narrator comes across a stone house, in which three haggard old women are sorting through unused, neglected and misused 'faculties', left for them by the Wild Hunt.

Unlike A Book of Ghosts, this collection is more serious in tone, aside from 'Margery of Quether', which is satirical in nature. These tales are more creepy. If I had to pick a favourite, it would be 'Master Sacristan Eberhart'. The only tale I don't much care for is 'The Dead Trumpeter of Hurst Castle', which is too sentimentally monarchist for my liking (though I have nothing particular against Charles I, and would have preferred it if Oliver Cromwell had been decapitated instead).

Sarob Press issued Margery of Quether and Other Weird Tales in a limited edition of 250 copies. A fine copy in a fine dust jacket costs between sixty and eighty pounds at the moment (that's about $100-130). Leonaur published The Collected Supernatural and Weird Fiction of Sabine Baring-Gould in 2012, and that is available as a hardback or paperback, the former costing just over twenty pounds.
* In the Cornhill Magazine, George Rosedhu is a yeoman of Brinsabatch. In Methuen's Margery of Quether and Other Stories the location of George's home was changed to Foggaton. The Sarob Press volume utilises the text of the Cornhill Magazine.
** From the Cornish 'Bronn Wennili', meaning 'Hill of Swallows', it is the highest peak on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall.

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