Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Wormwoodianaites would know of R. Ellis Roberts through a couple of stories anthologised in Dorothy L. Sayers' sublime Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror series.  Surely his scarce collection, The Other End, is deserving of a reprint in these enlightened times.  Here is a contemporary review that appeared in The Bookman in March 1923.

THE OTHER END, By R. Ellis Roberts (Cecil Palmer, 1923)

There is said to be joy among authors when a critic writes a novel or a book of short stories.  “Now,” they say in their hearts, “he will give himself away.  It is easy for him to point out the flaws in our art and tell us how to do it, but he will not find it so easy to demonstrate how it ought to be done." Any such joy will, in this case, be short‑lived, for “The Other End" proves that Mr. Ellis Roberts is as well able to write stories of his own as to criticise those of others. Here, moreover, he has set his hand to a kind of story-telling that is not often practised successfully and achieved a mastery, at times, over the grim, the terrible, the eerie, the bizarre, over the fine, elusive mysteries of the spirit, that challenges comparison with Poe and Hawthorne.

For all the uncanny air that enfolds these stories, the supernatural elements in them are so quietly taken for granted, and am blended with so much of everyday circumstance that even their unrealities are made to seem curiously real. Mr. Roberts paints you a conventional, smiling English landscape, then by gradual, subtle wizardries touches it with secret, twilight terrors. He finds the gods of ancient Rome still haunting the English countryside where their alters and temples had stood; finds the altar magically re‑erected, the sacred fire burning on the lonely hill in the deep of the night, and a strange worshipper, who had seemed by day an ordinary herd‑boy, offering up sacrifice; finds the gods themselves returning to influence mysteriously, tragically, the lives of present‑day men and women.

In "The Great Mother," Hugh Flinders asks his friend: “Would it surprise you to know that the old worship goes on? That hills near here are still sacred to Apollo? That groves are still dedicated to Diana, and woods to Pan? I don't mean stupid revivals like old Taylor's: I mean survivals of the old faith among the old people ‑ people to whom Christ and the saints are less direct of access than earth-stained Pan, gross Priapus, or even Jupiter of the storm. For months now I have resisted and I can resist no longer. I am going to the grove tonight: and I should like you to come too, it you will. Will you?” The amazing happenings that night at the grove ‑ the baffling disappearance of Hugh, the rush of frenzied dancers, with nothing to be heard but the swift padding of many feet, and nothing seen but the long, rank grass beaten down as by a storm of hailstones ‑ the whole thing, with its matter-of-fact ending, which leaves the wonder unexplained, is done with an art, an imaginative cunning that is rare in modern fiction.

These occult influences of the ancient world are potent in “The Hill,” the piteous tragedy of “The Other End,” “The Wind,” “Under the Sun,” and other of the tales; but it is a different wizardry that is practised by the saintly priest, Lascelles in "The Narrow Way," another sort of spirit that haunts the high road in "The Cage." Any summary of the stories would misrepresent them; they depend so much for their effectiveness on the atmosphere in which they are steeped, on little details of character and incident that, subtly touched into them, subdue the reader to a belief in their bizarre happenings. Some are edged with a delicate irony, or have charm as well as mystery and terror; the best show a power of fantasy and a deftness of finish which seem to indicate that Mr. Ellis Roberts has too long given to criticism what was meant for imaginative literature.

1 comment:

  1. James - fully agree with you about the quality of this volume. In the Nineteen Eighties, I visited some of the sites described by Roberts in his stories and wrote them up for the the gazeteer column in the Ghost Story Society newsletter. I can confirm he quite closely uses real places in his tales and several did indeed have a strange atmosphere! Roberts was also a friend and voluntary literary agent for Arthur Machen for a while, and his influence is evident.

    Mark V