A Night on the Moor & Other Tales of Dread, by R. Murray Gilchrist

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Published in the inexpensive Wordsworth ‘Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural’ series, the ‘dread’ of the title proves elusive.  While some of the stories are certainly uncanny, and even at times a little gory, Robert Murray Gilchrist’s style, with exceptions, insulates the reader from anything approaching a visceral reaction.  The stories generally have an overwritten antiquarian ambience, the settings implied to be eighteenth century or some undefined fantasy past.  The intention is to evoke Gothic associations, and overall there is a decadent fin de siècle feel.

At its best Gilchrist’s narrative technique is effective at generating an emotional impact.   He is uneven though, and tends to the glutinous as he piles on the atmosphere.  Despite there being two dozen stories in only 180 pages, there is less variety than one would wish; the narrow thematic range starts to seem monotonous after a while, so these are stories best read in small doses.  However, if tempted to give up, stay with it for the final story.  The last two contain dialect, a form always at risk of provoking tedium, but ‘A Witch in the Peak’ shows a humorous deftness that makes you forgive any heavy weather encountered on the way.

The two elderly protagonists of that story are unusual.  The stories mostly revolve around love won or lost.  The female characters can be forceful, for good or ill (in one we even have a female serial killer), and show the influence of the late Nineteenth Century New Woman.  Often though the ladies come to a sticky end, through perfidy, foolishness or men’s bad intentions.  The men can be weak, or ‘feminised’, and there is the occasional homoeotric element which in ‘My Friend’ in particular seems quite overt.

While Wordsworth are to be congratulated for having put out this collection, an introduction and bibliographic information would have helped to anchor the stories.  Gilchrist has continued to suffer neglect despite the renewed interest in late Victorian and Edwardian fiction.  This reprint may help to contribute to a reassessment and increase his critical stock.  On the other hand, readers may conclude that, on the evidence here, his neglect is justified.

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