Tuesday, 17 May 2022

From the Abyss: Weird Fiction 1907 - 1945 by D.K. Broster


From the Abyss: Weird Fiction 1907 - 1945

by D.K. Broster

Edited by Melissa Edmundson

I’ve already had the occasion of reviewing two volumes of speculative fiction by female authors curated by Melissa Edmundson for Handheld Press.  After collections by Elinor Mordaunt and Helen de Guerry Simpson, the next instalment in the series is From the Abyss: Weird Fiction 1907 – 1945,  a collection which brings together supernatural short stories by D.K. Broster. 

Dorothy Kathleen Broster was in 1877 near Liverpool.  She achieved a second-class degree in Modern History at Oxford in 1900, although she had to wait until 1920, when at last women students were permitted to receive their degrees, to formally get her BA and MA.  For thirteen years, Broster was secretary to Sir Charles Harding Firth, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, and then worked as a nurse in the First World War before eventually dedicating her life to writing.  Her knowledge of history proved useful in Broster’s career as author.  In her lifetime she was best known for her historical novels, most of which have naval settings.  She was particularly famous for her Jacobite Trilogy, a bestselling series of novels which remained in wide circulation in Scotland up to very recently: The Flight of the Heron (1925), inspired by a visit to Lochaber, was followed by The Gleam in the North in 1927 and The Dark Mile in 1929. 

Broster’s forays into weird fiction are a relatively minor, but hardly insignificant, share of her output, found primarily in her two collections A Fire of Driftwood (1932) and Couching at the Door (1942).   Broster was a very private individual and, reading Edmundson’s typically illuminating and erudite biographical introduction to the volume, one senses the editor’s difficulty in discovering details about the author beyond what results from her publications.  In this context, it is quite tantalising to conjecture what might have sparked Broster’s interest in occult subjects – much darker fare to what she usually wrote.    That said, there is certainly an overlap in the author’s sources of inspiration, with many of the featured supernatural stories in this volume also having a strong historical background.  For instance, the events in Fils d’Émigré take place in 1795 during the French Revolution, and many of the other stories, albeit set in the present, follow well-established traditions of supernatural fiction, where the past encroaches on the modern world.  In The Window, a young British army officer on duty in France is trapped by a falling sash window in a deserted chateau, an accident which leads to visions of past violence during the French Revolution.  The Taste of Pomegranates (featured in a previously unpublished version) is a peculiar “time slip” story, where the protagonists have an unexpected glimpse of the Palaeolithic Age.  The Pavement refers to an ancient Roman mosaic and the strange pull it exerts on its elderly custodian – it can be read as much as a “supernatural” story as one of obsession and madness.  But perhaps in this respect the most effective piece is The Pestering, the longest item in this volume.  A couple buy a Tudor-era house, and soon start to be bothered by an insistent stranger who wants to be let inside.  After a quasi-comic start to it, the tale becomes darker and eerier – this is a different take on the “haunted house” genre. 

Although I find the “history” element to be one of the defining ingredients of Broster’s oeuvre, let me contradict myself immediately by stating that some of her most chilling works do not involve any historical aspects at all. I have in mind, for instance, Couching at the Door, the title-piece from Broster’s 1942 collection and one of her more widely-anthologised weird tales.  At its heart is the unsettling image of a fur boa which supernaturally comes to life – a shocking souvenir of a disgusting ritual conducted by decadent poet Augustine Marchant.  The details of the occult ceremony are left untold, but readers are nudged towards reaching their own conclusions about its contents, based on the horrid consequences of that “glamorous, wonderful, abominable night in Prague”.  Also notable is the story which which lends the title to the present volume – From the Abyss tells of a survivor of a car crash who develops a doppelgänger, leading to a tragic conclusion.  This is a truly original tale which shows that Broster was not content with simply following the rich tradition of speculative fiction,  but was a distinctive voice who actively contributed to it.  Kudos to Melissa Edmundson and Handheld Press for bringing her stories to a new public, in a high-quality annotated edition.

This is the full list of stories in the volume, which I heartily recommend:

·       ‘All Souls Day’ (1907)

·       ‘Fils D’Émigré’ (1913)

·       ‘The Window’ (1929)

·       ‘Clairvoyance’ (1932)

·       ‘The Promised Land’ (1932)

·       ‘The Pestering’ (1932)

·       ‘Couching at the Door’ (1933)

·       ‘Juggernaut’ (1935)

·       ‘The Pavement’ (1938)

·       ‘From the Abyss’ (1940)

·       ‘The Taste of Pomegranates’ (1945)


Expected publication: August 9th 2022 by Handheld Press

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