Ron Weighell's first collection of weird tales, The White Road, was published by Ghost Story Press in 1997. Not the most prolific of authors, Weighell's second collection has just been published by Sarob Press. The cover, by Santiago Caruso, is extremely impressive, as you can see.
The overall theme is, I think, established by the art. Weighell's characters are almost always bibliophiles, scholars, antiquaries, archaeologists - those who delve into the murkier regions of history and find themselves fascinated or possessed by the occult.
The first story, the previously unpublished 'D'Arca', sets the pattern: it's an all-you-can-read buffet of the arcane; a wondrous panoply of strange scholarship and ever stranger artefacts. A British scholar working in Italy is offered the chance to examine the library of a villa where an eccentric countess recently expired. Instead of a conventional haunting the protagonist discovers the journal of an 18th century traveller who acquired occult knowledge.
It sounds a bit M.R. Jamesian, and there is certainly a lot of spooky scholarship here. But the overall effect is very different. Weighell is a disciple of Machen, and the latter's sense of wonder at the idea of spiritual powers that are not necessarily malign is evident in every tale. Thus in 'The World Entire' the narrator recalls a post-war encounter with a creature of Jewish folklore that is not, in itself, evil. The description of working-class life in Yorkshire is deft, with its undeniable virtue of self-reliance and familiar failing of narrow-mindedness, in this case manifest as casual anti-Semitism.
'The Counsels of Night' tackles a different prejudice, the belief that works of modern art somehow enrich stately parks and gardens. The restoration of 18th century statuary leads to the discovery of an unusual Grand Tour journal. Weighell returns to familiar themes of secret lore and demonic beings, but rings some interesting changes. There are touches of humour, and a serious point about the nature and purpose of art.
The power of art is also central to 'Suburbs of the Black Lyre', which concerns crystallomancy - divination or conjuration via the medium of the photographic plate. The story is divided into chapters, each bearing the name of a different method of divination. More prose poem than conventional story, many images stay in the mind.
'Now Feel That Pulse No More' is, by contrast, a fairly conventional ghost story. Again, the narrator recalls his Catholic childhood, and an encounter with a ghost that haunts a long-deserted family pew. There's a splendid scene involving the boy's problematic progress on icy ground, flailing desperately to stay ahead of a spectre that can ignore slippery surfaces. This is one of those stories that I visualise as a rather good TV drama, full of period detail and with a problem-solving plot leading to a heartening denouement.
The same might be said of 'The Mouth of the Medusa', (which originally appeared in the Ash-Tree anthology Midnight Never Comes) though it is a very different kind of story. Here we find archaeologists unearthing a pagan temple in Wales. We're in Machen country in every sense of the term. Tightly-plotted, the story concerns a clash between a decent archaeologist and her TV celebrity boss. As the author notes, some might feel the punishment meted out to the latter is a bit harsh, but for me this is a Jamesian touch that rounds off an excellent tale.
'An Image of Truth' is a very short piece, and more a meditation on Machen's versatility than a story. It features that unusual savant The Recluse, who makes a wager than a sceptical visitor can't name a book by Machen that is not, in some sense, 'fleshed' in the real world. Again we are confronted by the possibility that what we call reality is merely the summation of innumerable fantasies. Or at least, I think that's the idea...
'The Four Strengths of Shadow' takes us to Venice and another bibliophilic detective story. The central conceit - of a dark ritual that paralleled the ceremonial marriage of Venice to the sea - is brilliant, and there is a nasty twist that works well. Has anyone produced a collection of weird tales about Venice? If they haven't, I offer the idea to enterprising small press folk. There are certainly enough strong candidates for such a volume, and this story is fit to stand alongside Aickman's 'Never Visit Venice', Hartley's 'Podolo', and Du Maurier's 'Don't Look Now'.
The best of these stories confirm Weighell's reputation as a modern master of the genre. And if I could end this review with that I would, but unfortunately there is also the novella 'The Tears of the Gods'. This is a revised and enlarged version of an earlier story. Perhaps the original was readable. A centuries-spanning narrative is clotted with lumps of exposition, and its grand themes undercut by airport-thriller dialogue:
"Rosenberg! Are you insane? If he hears one word of this the Fuehrer will know in a breath! And then you may as well put a bullet in your brain to save time. This is not just about Operation Barbarossa..."Ron Weighell notes that he admires James Blish's novel Black Easter, which does indeed have a similar theme - that the 'forces of history' are in fact supernatural. The resemblance ends there, sadly, because Blish offered his readers rounded characters, a gripping plot, and a satisfying ending. Well, even Homer nods, and some authors who produce excellent short stories can't write well at greater lengths.
Summonings would be a better book without 'The Tears of the Gods'. Even marred by its inclusion it is good value for money. But anyone expecting a collection as good as The White Road will, I feel, be disappointed.