Tuesday, 28 December 2021

The Villa and the Vortex: Supernatural Stories, 1914 - 1924 by Elinor Mordaunt


The Villa and the Vortex: 

Supernatural Stories, 1914 - 1924

by Elinor Mordaunt

edited with an introduction and notes by Melissa Edmundson 

Melissa Edmundson is doing much to revive neglected and forgotten works of speculative fiction by female writers.  She edited Avenging Angels: Ghost Stories by Victorian Women Writers (2018) for Victorian Secrets, which was followed by two anthologies published by Handheld Press:  Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940 (2019) and Women’s Weird 2: More Strange Stories by Women, 1891-1937 (2020).   Handheld Press has now published The Villa and the Vortex, a single-author collection curated by Edmundson dedicated to writer Elinor Mordaunt (1872 – 1942). The volume brings together several of Mordaunt’s stories published between 1914 and 1924.  As Edmundson explains in her introduction, Mordaunt was a colourful character who lived an eventful life:

… a life that would have fitted well into the plot of one of her many novels. She was an independent, free-spirited woman, travelling the world, and visiting North and South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia. She lost a fiancé early in life, escaped from one abusive husband [who once offered her as a stake during a card game], separated from another, and raised a son entirely on her own. She survived malaria, the zeppelin attacks on London during the First World War, and the 1918-19 Spanish flu.  Amidst this life of adventure, Mordaunt was constantly gathering material for her writing.

Reading this collection of supernatural tales, I was surprised that Mordaunt, admired by Virginia Woolf amongst others, is not a better known writer.  Certainly, her stories reflect themes and repeat tropes which were common in the supernatural fiction of the period, but none of them feels derivative, and most have an original slant which distinguishes them from similar tales by other authors.  The writing style is atmospheric and rich, perhaps slightly overwrought at times, but even then, quite in keeping with the aura of decadence expressed in the stories.

During her lifetime, Mordaunt’s works were favourably compared to those of Algernon Blackwood and H.G. Wells.  The references to these two authors give a good indication of Mordaunt’s brand of supernatural fiction which, rather than ghost stories in the traditional vein, venture more into the realm of horror and the weird.  Creations like the village witch in The Country-side, and the eponymous prehistoric revenant in Hodge, have a strong basis in folklore and folk horror.  A sense of mysticism a-là Machen pervades The Fountain, whose female protagonist is at once “physical” and “elemental” – a woman ethereal as mist… not altogether a woman, nor altogether water.   Of all the stories in this collection, I felt that Mordaunt came closest to Wells in the urban Gothic Luz, set in a foggy London which disorientates the vulnerable female narrator. 

Most of the stories are, in essence, psychological studies. That is certainly true of the two title pieces, despite their being very different in nature.  Playwright Lawrence Kestervon, the protagonist of The Vortex, becomes obsessed with the success of his latest play but things go awry when the actors are possessed by the characters their play.  The Villa – inspired by a house which Mordaunt actually visited on a trip to Ragusa (in present-day Croatia) – has elements of the haunted house sub-genre  but, tellingly, what prompts the curse which lies on the house is a young couple wishing ill of its original owner. Their guilt following the owner’s death seems to project itself onto the house which, in return, avenges itself on subsequent inhabitants. 

In her well-researched and erudite introduction, Melissa Edmundson examines each story in detail and makes a compelling case for including Mordaunt in the canon of great supernatural writers of the 20th Century.  This collection is certainly a promising step in that direction.

Published October 26th 2021 by Handheld Classics

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