Perceval Landon (1869-1927) is well-known to ghost story connoisseurs as the author of “Thurnley Abbey”, a classic in the field, often used in anthologies. It is from his only short story collection, Raw Edges (1908). This contains no other ghost stories, but a few of the pieces have other fantastical elements. Landon was also the author of at least one play, The House Opposite, and is described in Who Was Who as “barrister-at-law; special correspondent, dramatist and author”. The British Library holds a programme for a production of this play at the Queen’s Theatre, London, in 1910.
Landon was better-known in his time for his work as a press correspondent and explorer in the Far East. He accompanied the 1903-4 Younghusband mission to Tibet as special correspondent for The Times, and wrote an account of this, becoming one of the first Europeans to describe the holy city of Lhasa in detail. He also wrote books on his travels in India and Nepal. A checklist of his books is given below. From these, and his career (he seems rarely to have been in England) we might gain the impression that Landon was a man of adventure, an imperialist and diehard straight from the pages of his old friend Kipling.
He was very possibly, however, also the author of another volume of fiction which suggests a different side to his character: playful, scholarly, reflective, imaginative. In 1903 he published a book (dated 1904) of sundial mottoes which purported to be from an old volume Englished in the early 17th century by one John Parmenter, Clerk of Wingham in the County of Kent. Landon claimed to be simply the editor. The British Library catalogue, however, is not convinced: it notes the book is “edited [or rather written]” by Landon. In other words, the entire book is an amiable hoax, and Landon himself is the creator of Parmenter and all the sundial mottoes. While we cannot know how the British Library arrived at this conclusion, it does seem plausible, particularly as nothing else is known of the alleged Parmenter or his book. (There was a John Parmenter of Wingham, Canon for one month in 1475, and later Rector of St Alphege, Canterbury – he died in 1501 and is too early to be this author, but his name may have been taken up by Landon). In Who Was Who, the book is listed as his publication without naming him as editor.
If the attribution to Landon as author is correct, this is a delightful and novel addition to his fictional work. The book itself is very pleasing, a compact royal octavo in grey-green cloth, with a linen spine bearing a paper label: HELIO-/TROPES/-/John/Parmenter. Landon provides a two page preface about Parmenter, claiming to have taken this selection from a “thick little volume of manuscript, written in a clear, minute hand,” mostly on religious matters, such as “commentaries upon obscure passages in the Bible. Landon adds: “he nowhere says where he collected or, as is more likely, copied in their entirety the “posies” which he “expounds””.
There are thirty-two mottoes and one fragment. Each has a note, supposedly by Parmenter, in courtly 17th century English. The notes have something of the flavour of Robert Burton or Sir Thomas Browne, full of out-of-the-way learning and picturesque phrases. Landon possibly gives the game away a little by offering his thanks, in his preface, to Rudyard Kipling, “who has given me a singularly appropriate “posy” (XXVII) for this collection”. The conceit is that Kipling has translated from a Latin motto provided by Parmenter, ‘Me neque Sol radiis placate nec paenitet Umbra”. Here is Kipling’s ‘version’:
I have known Shadow:
I have known Sun.
And now I know
These two are one.
In the last page of the book, Landon says that on the end of the last leaf of the manuscript “is the strange Gnostic verse quoted by Clement of Alexandria from the Gospel of the Hebrews”:
He that Wandereth shall Reigne :
And He that Reigneth shall Rest.
Landon, a lifelong wanderer, perhaps saw a personal message in this verse. He went to his rest at the relatively young age of 57.
Checklist of books by Perceval Landon
A collection of proclamations, programmes, tickets and other material connected with the Delhi Durbar, 1903, formed by Perceval Landon
Helio-Tropes, or, New Posies for Sundials, written in an old book, partly in English and partly in Latin and expounded in English by John Parmenter 1625 edited [or rather written?] by Perceval Landon (Methuen, 1904 )
Lhasa: an account of the country and people of Central Tibet and the progress of the mission sent there by the English Government in the year 1903-4, etc [With illustrations and an introductory note by Sir Francis Younghusband] (Hurst & Blackett, 1905, Two Volumes; New and Revised edition, 1906) (Later editions sometimes entitled The Opening of Tibet).
Under the Sun; impressions of Indian cities, with a chapter dealing with the later life of Nana Sahib (Hurst & Blackett, 1906)
"1857" : in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Indian mutiny : with an appendix containing the names of the survivors of the officers, non-commissioned officers and men who fought in India in 1857 (W.H. Smith, 1907)
Raw Edges: Studies and stories of these days. With designs by Alberto Martini. (Heinemann, 1908)
The House Opposite: a play (programme; Queen’s Theatre, London )
Nepal (Constable,1928; Two Volumes)
Note: Landon’s Who Was Who entry also lists a translation by him from the French, For the Soul of the King (1908): this was performed but not, it would appear, published.