To gather together a collection of short stories linking archaeology and the supernatural might appear blindingly obvious to fans of horror and ghost stories, as it has must have been done before. However I couldn’t find previous evidence of such a literary project. So, Strange Relics is a very welcome book: the intersection of the past and present, with ancient relics, being the catalyst for a disaster or profound shock, is a compelling idea.
The editors have chosen British stories written between 1895–1954. From the fin de siècle period right up to two years before the Suez Canal crisis. As so much pioneering archaeological research was undertaken during the peak and decline of the British Empire then this a neat and appropriate time span.
There are several outstanding, before and during WWI, writers of fantasy and horror (Arthur Machen, Conan Doyle and E.F.Benson); 1920’s storytellers (H.D. Everett, M.R.James, Margaret Lawrence and Eleanor Scott); John Buchan as the sole representative of the 30’s; wartime efforts (where there any to be found?) are passed over; then we have just the year 1948 (John Buchan, Algernon Blackwood and Dorothy Quick) and finally early fifties tales by Rose Macaulay and Alan J.B.Wace.
The editors’ introduction talks of the influence of the 'Stone Tape' effect. Initially I thought of Nigel Kneale’s 1972 TV film The Stone Tape. Yet this idea was predated by Sir William Barrett who was one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research:
“Some kind of local imprint on material structures or places has been left by some past events occurring to certain persons...an echo or phantom of these events becoming perceptible to those now living who happen to be endowed with some special psychic sensitiveness.” Barrett – 1911
Buchan’s story 'Ho, The Marry Masons' has medieval pagan rites infecting a medieval house. This powerful story also unfortunately has too much of Buchan’s attention to 1940’s Tory country manners. Scan over that and you’ll find the story delivers a visceral punch. 'The Next Heir' (like many of the stories in Sacred Relics) contains ancient Roman architecture as a psychic depository of evil. And coming in at only six pages Arthur Conan Doyle’s 'Through the Veil' has ancient Romans (creeping men flowing towards the bridge) in pursuit of those who’ve rudely awakened them because of their excavations of a Roman fort.
The physical connections with the past are powerfully conveyed in Machen’s 'The Shining Pryamid', E.F.Benson’s 'The Ape', M.R.James’s 'A View from The Hill' and Margery Lawrence’s 'Curse of the Stillborn'. That last story being a particularly gruesome clash between the burial rites of Ancient Egypt and Christianity.
Five of the writers are women., and my favourite story here is Dorothy Quick’s 'Cracks of Time'. The appearance of Pan’s face in an old tile, his whisperings in a woman’s ear, to provoke sexual excitement, and her act of violence towards her husband, have an eerie brilliance.
To appropriate T'.S.Eliot’s words Sacred Rites begins with a bang but finishes in a whimper. 'The Shining Pyramid (1895) is such a forceful and confident beginning. 'Whitewash' (1952) and T'he Golden Ring' (1954) that end the book are the weakest stories. So the anthology peters out.
I wondered if this was not necessarily because of being thematically right but emotionally under-powering, and more to do with an end of empire authority in the world of archaeology: that new types of horror fiction were coming and supernatural encounters with threatening artefacts had shifted to the cinema? Still, Sacred Rites is an entertaining selection and contains an excellent well researched introduction.
- Alan Price