Saturday, 4 October 2014

Unholy Relics ~ M. P. Dare

Marcus Paul Dare (1902 ~ 1962) was an antiquarian, writer, and genuine student of the occult (for more about the man, see my previous post). Unholy Relics and Other Uncanny Tales, M. P. Dare's last published work and his only collection of ghost stories, was published by Edward Arnold & Co. in 1947. ‘These tales are fiction—and yet not fiction,’ he wrote in his introduction to the slim volume of thirteen stories.
'They are all founded upon actual experiences of the author in the realms of the uncanny. The antiquary, perhaps because he is in close touch with the human thought of all time, that is not dead, but sometime sleepeth, comes more into contact with that dim borderline region than most people.'
Each tale details the doings of Gregory Wayne and his lifelong friend Alan Granville. The two men, we are told, grew up together, both ‘with a burning love for the past’. They live together in an old Leicestershire Wolds manor-house, which they purchased together and restored. Their domestic staff consists of two ex-army batmen, James and John, and their ‘monastic peace is undisturbed by the meddlesome hand of womankind’.

In the first story, 'Unholy relics', Wayne leaves Granville at home and travels to Toulouse alone. While being shown about by a fellow scholar, Wayne is taken to La Maison d’Enfer (the House of Hell), the home of Amaury de Moissac, an alchemist and practitioner of the dark arts, who died in 1563. According to a privately owned manuscript, Amaury carried on some of his experiments in the crypt of St Sernin, the home of a number of holy relics. He bribed the sacristan to get his hands on freshly buried bodies from the graveyard, and attempted to raise the spirits of the saints whose bones resided in the crypt. He was found dead in the crypt with the lid of one of the reliquaries over his face.

Later, while exploring the Cathedral of St Saturnin, Wayne finds himself alone in the crypt where the necromancer was found dead. Locked in and in total darkness, in the ‘menacing full silence of deep shades,’ Wayne attempts to steal the bones of two English saints... much to their annoyance.

In 'The Haunted Drawers', Wayne is invited to examine the family archives of H. Alberic Sharman, of Rockington Manor. He is having dinner with Mr Sharman and his daughter, Eva, when the latter blurts out: 'do you know my drawers are haunted?' The drawers in question, rather than being the young lady's bloomers, are in fact those belonging to an eighteenth century chest, and each night the contents are mysteriously flung out of them.

In 'A Nun's Tragedy', Wayne and Granvill are cycling back from Bledburn Abbey one autumn evening when they spot a solid-looking Gothic church tower over to their right. Intrigued by its exterior triforium gallery, the pair go to investigate. Once at the church buildings, they go off in search of the crypt or undercroft and find an ancient circular stone staircase, which they descend. Once inside the crypt, they find themselves trapped in the dark... and they are not alone.

One of Dare's strengths is that he is effortlessly able to draw upon his own extensive knowledge of history and the occult when writing his tales. Also, as the stories are partly based upon his own experiences, the detail, the locations, and the way that the events are investigated all have an authentic feel. His tales are quirky and entertaining and there is an underlying humour in a number of the tales that is appealing. Though Dare does lack James' subtlety, his approach is certainly Jamesian, so if you like traditional supernatural tales then Dare's stories are worth a read. Anyway, who could fail to like a collection of stories in which one is entitled 'The Demoniac Goat'? I'm not quite sure what M. R. James would make of the goat-bum kissing, though!

I came across this very short mention of Unholy Relics in the 'Books for Today' section of the Western Morning News for Tuesday, the 23rd of March 1948:
'“Unholy Relics,” by M. P. Dare (Edward Arnold and Co. 7s. 6.) gives us thirteen stories, all of which are uncanny; two or three are pleasing enough; others are gruesome. They are related as “fiction - and yet not fiction... founded upon actual experiences of the author,” who has been a lifelong student of the wisdom of the East and of the West. Lent readers of the book will put it down with a deepened appreciation of the mighty shield of their Christian faith.'
A fine copy of the first edition of Unholy Relics, with a fine dust jacket, will set you back about forty to sixty pounds (around $65~100), though they're not easy to find. Copies turn up in fairly reasonable condition, with or without a similar dust jacket, for about twenty to thirty pounds ($30~50).

The Ash-Tree Press edition, published in 1997, contains all of the stories from the 1947 edition, and adds the article ‘Ghosts I Have Met’, first published in 1961, and ‘Beyond the Veil, which first appeared in Indian Underworld in 1938. It also includes a rare photograph of the author himself and several of his sketches, and the cover illustration is taken from one of Dare’s paintings. A fine copy costs about forty to fifty pounds ($65~80). If you can't find a physical copy of Unholy Relics, all is not lost; the Ash-Tree Press kindle edition is available for a few pounds.

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