Tuesday, 19 January 2016

November Night Tales ~ Henry C. Mercer

Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930) was a man of numerous talents. He was a lawyer, archaeologist, antiquarian, ceramist, curator, author and historian, amongst other things. He was founder of the Mercer Museum, which houses Mercer's vast collection of objects from the pre-industrial age, and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, both of which are located in his hometown of Doylestown, Pennsylvania. He was also the author, at the end of his life, of an incredibly neglected book of uncanny stories, November Night Tales, which was first published by Walter Neale in 1928.

The collection has just been republished by Swan River Press, with the additional tale 'The Well of Monte Corbo', which was first published by the Bucks County Historical Society in 1930.

In 'Castle Valley', one summer day the narrator, Charlie Meredith, encounters his old friend Pryor, an artist whom he hasn't seen for years, painting in the vicinity of Castle Valley Hill. Pryor has painted a view of the hill, and upon the top of it he has placed a castle, without knowing that there once was one, or the beginnings of one at least, in that very spot. A few days later, the two men go exploring the site, and they spy something glittering in the brambles. The object turns out to be a large piece of rock crystal - a scrying stone. But using the crystal brings about unforeseen consequences.

In 'The North Ferry Bridge', the narrator is a young doctor only recently arrived in Bridgenorth. He occupies the house that was once tenanted by the great chemist Dr. Gooch, who killed his assistant, turned rats into cholera-carrying murder weapons, and vowed revenge upon the judge and the town who condemned and imprisoned him. This tale is the inspiration for the dust jacket design.

Pryor, the artist, reappears in 'The Blackbirds'. It is his birthday, but he's been warned by his spiritualist advisor that a calamity will befall him on this very day. Charles Carrington, a dramatist, and his friend Arthur Norton are surprised to bump into Pryor in the street, as they think he's fled town to avoid his calamity. The three men decide to head off to Deadlock Meadow together. But once there, poor old Pryor disappears.

'The Wolf Book', is the story of the discovery, by a certain professor, of a precious but unholy manuscript at the Monastery of Jollok in the Carpathian mountains. In search of lost treasures, the professor purchases what he thinks is a worthless farm ledger, contained within a two foot long cylinder. Upon opening the ledger, however, he discovers a second manuscript - a Wolf Book - which he then has sealed up in a tin for safekeeping. But the professor isn't the only one interested in this manuscript, and werewolves are said to be able to sniff them out... even if they are concealed inside tin cans.

Charles Carrington, the dramatist, returns in 'The Dolls' Castle'. Carrington takes his friend George Westbrook to see an uninhabited house in Belbridge Street that has the reputation of being haunted, and whilst there he is approached by a man and a little girl, whom he later believes to be ghosts. Westbrook, however, is not convinced. A year passes, and all thoughts of ghosts disappear, until Carrington bumps into his old friend Dorrance, the lawyer responsible for letting the house on Belbridge Street. Having secured the keys, Carrington invites Westbrook to investigate the house with him, with terrible consequences.

The narrator of 'The Sunken City' is a mining engineer who, travelling back from the Vars-Palanka mines at Borsowitz to the city of Ragusa in southern Italy, finds a leather-bound volume by the historian Ammianus, which refers to a statue of Aesculapius being lost when the city of Epidaurus sank. The purchase from a local fisherman of an ancient bronze lamp, which appears to bear an image of Aesculapius, sets our narrator off on a quest to find out more about his relic, and about the old book and the sunken city, but he's not the only one interested in such things.

In 'The Well of Monte Corbo', the narrator is taking a holiday in Frankfort-on-the-Main when he encounters his old friend Theodoric Barron. Barron introduces him to Doctor Lysander, who believes he has found a castle that was sketched by Dürer. According to the Doctor, while sketching the castle, Dürer was attacked by robbers, and he threw a valuable relic, rescued from a church burned by Hussites and said to have belonged to John the Baptist, into the castle well in order to keep it safe. When a similar print by Titian is uncovered, a search for the castle and its treasure ensues in Monte Corbo.

Not all of the tales in this collection have a supernatural theme, and the supernatural elements when present are understated, even in 'The Dolls' Castle' with its rather shocking conclusion. But fate (or coincidence, depending on your viewpoint) is a connecting thread throughout. And the standard of writing is consistently high; there isn't a bad tale here. Mercer was a very learned fellow, but he never allows his knowledge of any subject to swamp a story, as some clever folks are wont to do; the information he imparts is always necessary for the development of the tale. He also seems to have had a limitless imagination, and if the contents of this collection are anything to go by he could have produced many more fascinating stories if he'd chosen to. Unfortunately, this one collection is all he left us, which is a sad shame. I enjoyed it immensely, especially 'The Wolf Book'.

November Night Tales was published as a limited edition of three hundred hardback copies and is available from the Swan River Press web site for thirty euros. Coincidentally, (or was it fated?) Valancourt Books has released a paperback edition of the same collection, and that costs £10.99. Or there's the kindle edition which currently costs £4.61.

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