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The Villa and The Vortex cover

The Villa and The Vortex: Supernatural Stories, 1916–1924 by Elinor Mordaunt

(Handheld Press, 2021)

Reviewed by L.J. Hurst

Handheld Press have a small but significant list of re-discovered classics. One of their specialities is weird fiction, and within that is ‘women’s weird’ (the title of two of their theme anthologies). Elinor Mordaunt’s life (1872-1942) was extraordinarily varied, from a middle-class childhood through fianc├ęs dying in Africa to actual marriage in the Indian Ocean to someone who proved to be a brute and subsequent escape to Australia. Somewhere in those last two events Mordaunt began to write.

The stories collected here are in chronological order and the first, ‘The Weakening Point’, about a boy born to die and reminded of it every birthday does not seem to have a strong feminine viewpoint. The next, ‘The Country-side’ (1917), about a parson’s wife who is driven to investigate a villager who is both a crone and a wise-woman, while simultaneously her husband is being unfaithful, concentrates on the women’s perspective. Mary Webb’s 1924 novel Precious Bane has a lot in common with the story. Then ‘Hodge’ (1921) will provoke comparisons with a more modern book: after many mournful wanderings on the Somerset Levels a brother and sister release a caveman from the mud and realise that he is lost: the sea is not where it was in his antediluvian lifetime. Once Hodge, the name given to the caveman, appears I couldn't help thinking of Stig of the Dump, though Mordaunt is far more downbeat. The penultimate story, ‘The Four Wallpapers’ (1924) again has a known theme but played in an unusual way: the layers of wallpaper in a Spanish villa have recorded the shocking events of their time, but peeling them back from the outside in, because the most recent layer was put on last, means Eva Erskine learns the denouement before she has perceived the cause.

‘The Vortex’ (1919) and ‘Luz’ (1922) are straightforward tales of terror. In one a playwright manages to play his actors as if they were characters he was manipulating in his drama, while ‘Luz’ puts the narrator in the hands of a madman during one of London’s pea-soup fogs. Towards the end of ‘Luz’ is the implication that the kidnapper’s purpose is to perform the Viking blood-eagle, but this is not clear, rather as the anthropology of ‘Hodge’ is not clear. That may be due to the date of writing. Meanwhile, the ill-wish that rebounds on those that think ill takes residence in ‘The Villa’ (1924). Perhaps looking forward to the lighter fiction of the ‘twenties, such as Thorne Smith’s The Jovial Ghosts, is ‘The Landlady’ (1923) in which a worried little old lady keeps an eye via astral projection on the house she has had to rent out.

‘The Fountain’ describes a young woman’s marriage failing in the isolation of north Wales, her husband another brute, and she becoming a water spirit. The titular fountain, constructed at her wish as she moved into her new home, becomes a haunting as her house becomes damp perpetually. Social isolation is the theme linking this to ‘The Country-side’ as magic invades both homes. Melissa Edmundson mentions ‘home’ in her Introduction when discussing ‘The Landlady’, but I took away something else: the rental income from a house in Blackheath, London, would only keep its owner in a miserable boarding-house.

What is clear about Mordaunt’s stories is that all of them are constructed on strong social themes: women marrying in haste to unsuitable husbands, class divisions, social isolation (in a village where the parson’s is the only middle-class family, the wife has no one to talk to), early parental death leaving families destitute, inadequate education due to incapable or struggling parents, physical decline, years of financial insecurity. It all reads frighteningly possible: what Mordaunt’s characters then experience, and whether it is real or a psychological response to their struggles, is what makes The Villa and the Vortex so interesting.

Review from BSFA Review 17 - Download your copy here.


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