Posted on July 31, 2022

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

Guest Post

From the Abyss: Weird Fiction, 1907-1945, by D. K. Broster, edited by Melissa Emdundson (Handheld Press, 2022).

There’s a strange irony in the fact that while the names of Weird authors may be known to fans of the genre for their strange and unsettling visions, many of them were also widely popular for more mainstream writing. E. F. Benson, for example, was not only the author of “spook stories” like the deeply chilling “Caterpillars,” a personal favourite of mine, but became well-known for the camp and sometimes caustic humour of his popular Mapp and Lucia series. Dorothy Kathleen Broster was no different. Although aficionados of the Weird may know her for the oft-anthologised tale of Jamesian transgression and punishment that is “Couching at the Door,” it was the Jacobite Trilogy of Scottish histories that made her, as editor Melissa Edmundson points out, “a household name” to the extent that many readers simply assumed she was herself a Scotsman. Should it be surprising that a writer works in different genres and modes? No, but it is surprising when those genres are so opposed to each other – in Broster’s case, deeply researched depictions of historical reality on one hand and, on the other, tales which delve into the world’s occasional bouts of un-reality.

Yet even this clash makes sense in the context of Broster’s weird fiction; it is the friction between her meticulously constructed worlds and the twists she seeds them with, the eerie cracks in her realities, that define the very best of the short stories published in this volume. This is most starkly evident in “Clairvoyance,” where a psychically sensitive girl is taken over by the murderous spirit of a Japanese sword. Broster builds a picture of the setting – the well-tended lawns and cosy drawing rooms and, yes, even the blood-stained floorboards – that draws the reader in just as it prepares them, with hints and quiet asides about “the delicate pale girl with those hands,” that some horror lurks in the dark corners. Similar attention to detail is also lavished on the tale’s antagonist – the ancient katana of the swordsmith Sadamune. We learn of its tsuba, the highly decorated guard that separates hilt and blade, as well as the patterned tempering of its yakiba. The cold beauty of the sword and its precise, brittle terminology is shattered, however, when young Cynthia, a fire blazing in “her eyes, which were not her eyes any more,” suddenly becomes possessed by the blade’s blood-hunger. The “full rosy magnificence” of the manor’s flower beds switches to something more sinister when we learn that “the rhododendrons saved the rest, even the maimed.” It is a chilling, brutal story that builds like a Kurosawa duel, with quiet, intense focus suddenly exploding into wild, overwhelming violence.

This leap from quietly mundane to disturbingly uncanny is given an extra layer by the sleight-of-hand deployed in “The Juggernaut,” as the cheerful, rapid chatter of Primrose and Flora Halkett (niece and aunt respectively) plummets down into a terror as inevitable as it is surprising. Enjoying a restorative break in the seaside town of Middleport, the Halketts are bemused by the obsessive, reclusive actions of a man they come to learn is called Cotton. As with “Clairvoyance,” sidelong whispers intimate a dark history to the bathchair that Cotton pushes along Middleport’s promenade, an explanation for his refusal to allow anyone to sit in it. Even Cotton himself can’t quite allow the truth about his former mistress, the chair’s erstwhile occupant, to be as clear as it should be: “She died right enough, yes, ma’am,” the old man admits before obscurely correcting himself that, “Still, I don’t know as she’s dead. Yet the tale’s ending, as quick as the blade of “Clairvoyance,” derails the juggernaut’s path at the last moment in a way that is deeply shocking. There are many wonderful descriptions in Broster’s writing, but the imagery of how “half a dozen gulls, screaming louder than Flora and Primrose Halkett, flapped indignantly up from their nests on the ledges below” is masterful in its depiction of confused, bewildering terror.

As with every collection, however, not every piece lands as well as others. “Fils D’Émigré” is cloyingly twee and makes the grave error of featuring a precocious child, an admittedly personal bugbear of mine, as its narrative focus. Equally, the Amityville-esque foreboding of “The Window” is deflated by a slightly too satisfying and polite ending, which seems more concerned with Broster’s obvious and joyful francophilia than it does with narrative or atmosphere. Yet these are minor quibbles when considering the power of From The Abyss’ remaining offerings, like the haunting and deeply mournful depiction of frustration-induced madness of “The Promised Land” or the creeping sense of claustrophobic threat that pervades “The Pestering.” Even “Couching at the Door,” which I have read many times over the years, takes on a deeper sense of dread when presented with Broster’s other writing and her repeated concern with half-seen horrors, with debts and promises that linger through time. Augustine Marchant, the tale’s debauched and dissembling protagonist, is delightfully unpleasant. Broster refuses to clearly state what acts – “his occupations in Warsaw or Berlin or Naples” or the “glamorous, wonderful, abominable night in Prague” – caused him to be pursued by his snake-like nemesis so we assume the worst, no doubt far worse than Broster could have ever described in words. Like Helen de Guerry Simpson, another alumnus of Handheld Press’s series of weird fiction collections, Broster is confident enough in her writing and sufficiently assured of her readers’ intelligence to allow intimation and insinuation to paint much of her narrative, a decision which makes all the more powerful those elements she does choose to depict in detail.

From the Abyss is another superb entry in Handheld’s already-excellent library of unsung Weird fiction by writers who’ve fallen out of the public eye, often for little more reason than being women. Stories like “Clairvoyance” or “The Promised Land” have lingered with me in the days since first reading them and, like the uncanny pursuer of “Couching at the Door,” I’m sure they will continue to linger for many more.

You can purchase D. K. Broster’s From the Abyss from Handheld Press and from Amazon (ad):

Review by: Daniel Pietersen, who is the editor of I Am Stone: The Gothic Weird Tales Of R Murray Gilchrist, part of the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series, and also a regular guest lecturer for the Romancing The Gothic project. He covers gothic and weird horror, both fiction and non-fiction, for publications like Dead ReckoningsRevenant and Horrified. Daniel lives in Edinburgh with his wife, dog and a surprising amount of skulls. Daniel has also reviewed The Villa and the Vortex: Supernatural Stories (1916-1924), Elinor Mordaunt, edited by Melissa Edmundson (Handheld Press, 2021) and Gothic: An Illustrated History, by Roger Luckhurst, for Horror Homeroom.

Follow Horror Homeroom on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and Pinterest.

You Might Also Like

Back to top