Bertram Mitford’s The Weird of Deadly Hollow

I’ve been haunted by Bertram Mitford’s novel The Sign of the Spider (1896) ever since I read it (and blogged about it), so I thought the time was past due to investigate some of his other works.  The next one that caught my eye was Mitford’s second novel, The Weird of Deadly Hollow (1891), and I thought I’d share a few thoughts about it:

There is still almost no detailed information available online about the life and personality of Bertram Mitford (1855-1914)!  Most of the information I’ve learned about him comes from the introductions to the lovely Valancourt Books editions of his work.  The most I can really say is that he was in essence a competitor of H. Rider Haggard in writing adventure stories of untamed and colonial Africa, though Mitford distinguishes himself in writing stories which are significantly darker.

The Weird of Deadly Hollow is somewhat unusual in that it is more a ghost story/psychological thriller than it is an adventure tale.  The novel does not have the grand, even epic, scope the The Sign of the Spider did, and really feels more like an extended spooky campfire anecdote: the major events of the novel could be summarized in a paragraph or two!   Of course, this would miss all of the wonderful foreshadowing, character development, and generally creepy atmosphere that Mitford sets.

A prelude to the novel begins in London, as a nameless couple quarrel in one of the last bouts of their marriage.  In an act of spite, the wife threatens to slander her husband’s name, and in a moment of angry passion he pulls her backwards.  She falls, strikes her head — and dies.  The nameless husband flees.

The story starts proper in South Africa, as Ida Rendlesham rides home alone through the narrow defile Rooi Ruggens Poort.  A pack of wild dogs set upon her, but she is rescued in the nick of time by the mysterious Custance, who lives at an isolated farm with a dark reputation, and an equally dark name to go with it: Moordenaar’s Hoek, or Deadly Hollow.

Years earlier, the farm was the scene of a gruesome murder, and it is now reputed that the restless ghosts reenact the events on stormy nights.  A giant spectral leopard is said to wander the wilds after dark.

Ida is undeterred by these stories and succeeds in making a connection with the reticent Custance, and he grows increasingly fond of Ida and interacts more and more with her and her family.  Much of the novel is, on the surface, the story of the growing love between Ida and Custance, only punctuated occasionally by encounters of seemingly little significance, ominous foreshadowing, scenes of activities in colonial South Africa, and incidents of genuine weirdness.

The real punch is reserved until near the end of the novel, when the curse (“weird”) is fulfilled.  Events happen quickly, and a number of surprises are in store for the reader — including a scene of torture which was no doubt stunning to readers of that era.  (It’s still quite stunning, but less unusual in this era of splatterpunk.)

In conclusion, I would say The Weird of Deadly Hollow is not  as spectacular a tale as Mitford’s The Sign of the Spider, though still a well-written and interesting novel.  The ghost story that it tells is itself not particularly unique, except for two important factors.  One of these is the unusual setting: how many ghost stories are set in the wilds of Africa, and are an eclectic combination of horror and adventure?  The mixture of a classic-style ghost tale with South African colonial culture makes the book worth reading in itself.  The other factor is Mitford’s writing itself.  His style is a wonderfully seamless mixture of genres, including satire, all written with an overpowering shadowy view of the world that I find absolutely compelling.

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