“Oozes atmosphere” – The Villa and the Vortex by Elinor Mordaunt

“Nobody can express big things until they have gone through soul stirring experiences.”

IMG_12Sep2021at165327Elinor Mordaunt must have gone through her share of ‘soul stirring experiences’ if the stories found in The Villa and the Vortex are anything to go by. Her collection of nine tales of the macabre from the early 1900s is not only filled with disturbing glimpses of the supernatural but often a rousing critique of the society Mordaunt found herself in.

The tales themselves ooze atmosphere throughout a range familiar set pieces to period supernatural yarns; echoing mansions, remote villages, rolling moors. If you’re here for quintessential haunted worlds to get lost in you won’t be disappointed. Alongside this the underlying themes of many tales still hold weight today; when friends and family fail to empathise with differing experiences of others we’re told that it’s this “sort of standardising of right and wrong which does more to prevent progress than anything else in this world” – an observation that feels particularly relevant in modern times.

As with any collection of stories there are sure to be stand out moments alongside more forgettable ones, and that can naturally be said here. The very first story easily stands out with its eerily simply premise; a recurring nightmare each and every birthday of a shambling ominous presence moving down a corridor, getting closer and closer with each passing year. Here it’s the fear of the of thin that slowly unravels our protagonist’s life; the dread of an inevitable event stealing the joy of life from a protagonist who by rights has everything you could ever dream of. It’s a brilliant, oppressive tale that instantly showcases the timelessness of the supernatural whilst overtly conceding that true fear lies in the anticipation of something horrific – something that will no doubt ring true with any fan of the genre (and anyone who’s been disappointed with one of Stephen King’s infamous anti-climatic reveals!).

Mordaunt takes her time establishing each story, making us wait for the tension to reveal itself, and whilst such atmospheric scene setting is initially captivating it unfortunately becomes a little too familiar; with each tale suffering for feeling that much less original that the previous.

The majority of tales begin with a slow exposition of our protagonist’s life (typically highlighting the ways in which they didn’t quite fit the mould society had carved for them) or, on occasion, a similarly detailed account of our setting. Conversely, they all tend to end with an almost jarringly pacey crescendo in the final couple of pages, sometimes leading to flipping back through the story in case something was missed (‘The Country Side’ being a particularly good example of this). Whilst shock endings and fleshed out characters are never bad things, by the second half of the book the familiarity of the  journey threatens to overshadow the individuality of each horror.

Throughout, though, Mordaunt revels in highlighting the fragility of society and is keen to convey her distaste for the status quo; the dominance of religion, wealth, status, gender roles – all find their critiques within the stories here. There’s a joyous contempt for the aspirational lifestyles of the time; you can almost hear the eye rolling as a couple is introduced as ‘doing’ the Adriatic in ‘The Villa’. Mordaunt’s own life was somewhat progressive (as the book’s introduction clues us into) and often it’s the staunch refusal to believe that things can be anything other that what they have always been that contributes to her character’s undoing. If the narrative flow becomes predictable, Mordaunt’s critiques and observations remain fresh and inspiring throughout.

Any Cop?: An enjoyable collection of atmospheric tales from an intriguing voice. Read it as much for the quintessential macabre set pieces as the societal commentary throughout.

Scott Lauchlandford

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