ELINOR MORDAUNT. The Villa and the Vortex: Supernatural Stories, 1916–1924. Edited by Melissa Edmundson. Bath, UK: 5 Handheld Press, 2021. $17.99 tpb. ISBN 9781912766420.
by Leigh Blackmore
Elinor Mordaunt was the legally-changed pen name of the woman born Evelyn May Clowes (1872–1942). She was a prolific and popular novelist, and traveller born in Nottinghamshire, England who worked in Australia and Britain in the first thirty-five years of the twentieth century. Clowes’ first book, The Garden of Contentment, was published in England in 1902 as by ‘Elinor Mordaunt.’ At Melbourne she published a volume of sketches, Rosemary, That’s for Remembrance (1909), and in 1911 appeared On the Wallaby through Victoria, by E. M. Clowes, an interesting account of conditions in that state at that period. Her autobiography, Sinabada, which recounts many of her fascinating travels through a wide variety of countries including the tropics, was published in 1938.
Dr. Edmundson, the editor of this collection, has also compiled the excellent anthologies Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890–1940 (Handheld Press 2019) and Women’s Weird 2: More Strange Stories by Women, 1891–1937 (2020). The tales in this collection of Mordaunt’s work are individually annotated by Kate Macdonald, who elucidates some contemporary slang and cant terms, place-names and other references. Edmundson provides a thorough Introduction sketching out the writer’s life and work.
Mordaunt is a neglected supernatural writer. I confess my almost total unfamiliarity with her, though on looking her up in Mike Ashley and William G. Contento’s superb The Supernatural Index, I see that a few of her stories appeared in Hutchinson’s Magazine between 1921–23, and in such anthologies as Bohun Lynch’s A Muster of Ghosts (US edition as Best Ghost Stories) and C. A Dawson Scott’s Twenty and Three Stories (all 1924). (“Hodge” from the Scott anthology is reprinted in Edmundson’s earlier Women’s Weird volume).
After a lapse of fifty or so years, in more modern times, a few editors of the 1970s and 1980s reprinted tales by her: Claire Necker chose her tale “The Yellow Cat” for reprint in Supernatural Cats (1972); J.J. Strating reprinted her “The Recall” in Sea Tales of Terror (1974) — it was also reprinted in Rick Ferreira’s 1978 anthology A Chill to the Sunlight; Peter Smith reprinted her “Mrs Scarr” in The Haunted Sea (1975); Bill Wannan reprinted her early tale “The Skipper’s Yarn” in his Australian Horror Stories (1983) and Richard Dalby reprinted “The Landlady” in his Virago Book of Ghost Stories: The Twentieth Century: Volume Two (1991) aka Modern Ghost Stories by Eminent Women Writers (1992–96). Her tale “The High Seas” appears in Mike Ashley’s recent From the Depths and Other Strange Tales of the Sea (British Library, 2018).
Tales of Elinor Mordaunt (Martin Secker, 1934) is an omnibus of tales drawn from her previous short story collections and is now rare. Most of the stories in the present collection are taken from Tales…The Villa and the Vortex provides a welcome reintroduction of a body of this writer’s work in the supernatural and fantastic. What we have in the volume under consideration is a solid collection of nine fantastic tales from Mordaunt’s pen, a number of them unavailable for many years: “The Weakening Point,” “The Country-side,” “The Vortex,” “Hodge,” “The Fountain,” “Luz,” “The Landlady,” “Four Wallpapers” and “The Villa.”
More than one contemporary reviewer compared the strength of Mordaunt’s bleak and hard-edged writing, which nevertheless focusses on questions of personal evil and supernatural forces at play in the world, to the writings of Algernon Blackwood.
Loneliness, pagan sacrifice, the consequences of fear and obsession (as in “The Vortex” with its playwright who must achieve success no matter what the price), all feature in Mordaunt’s work as origins or causes of haunting. The liminal nature of certain forces is well articulated in “Hodge” with its being or spirit who is never quite able to incarnate or fully emerge into the world of those who ‘discover’ him.
Yet sometimes Mordaunt’s tales verge on the scientific realms of an H. G. Wells, as in the crazed scientist motif in “Luz” where fear once again plays an integral role, but the central character suffers from a hubris that often overtakes those who dare trifle with the very stuff of life and death itself. In “The Landlady,” notions of ‘ghost’ are complicated by the quotidian into being interpretable as aspects of what lies all around us on a daily basis — another parallel with the mysticism of a Blackwood.
“The Countryside” is perhaps Mordaunt’s most potent tale in the volume — a story of folk magic and witchcraft let loose upon the realm of parochial religion with all its usual hallmarks of repression. Witchcraft here marks out the freedom of women’s ways and rebellion against the theological forces that would seek to constrain them within a straitjacket of conventional morality. In “The Fountain,” Welsh legendry, mermaids, and the heritage of ancient Druidry come into play in a whirlwind of fate which catches up its characters in a net of seemingly inescapable magic. Mordaunt also excels in a story of prophetic dreams such as “The Weakening Point.”
The editor concludes her well-researched biographical and critical introduction with the “sincere hope that this present volume of Elinor Mordaunt’s supernatural fiction will allow her work to take its place within women’s literary history and within the tradition of supernatural fiction.” We concur with this hope, and look forward to more of Elinor Mordaunt’s accomplished supernatural fiction being collected from the short story collections where it lies unjustly forgotten.
Meanwhile, you will not regret obtaining Villa and Vortex if you are a devotee of the ghostly and spectral.
Published in Dead Reckonings no. 30.
Leigh Blackmore is the Official Editor of the international Sword and Sorcery and Weird Fiction Terminus amateur press association. His recent weird verse has appeared in issues of Penumbra, and in the Speculations III anthology from Mind’s Eye Publications. Forthcoming work includes the liner notes for a vinyl record album from Cadabra Records, and his occult thriller novel The Eighth Trigram. Leigh runs his own copyediting and manuscript assessment company, Proof Perfect Editorial Services, based in the Illawarra region, NSW.