Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The "Fleurs de Mal" Of Sleepy Derbyshire



Cartledge Hall, Derbyshire

"The book is sinister, enveloped in gloom -- yes, and Decadent (like much fine literature): but it is strong, it has authenticity; the effect sought is the effect won. There is nothing quite like The Stone Dragon in modern English fiction: but in it you may distinctly trace the influence of Poe, and perhaps also Villiers de l'Isle Adam and Charles Baudelaire. Indeed, if there is a man who could catch and cage the spirit of Fleurs du Mal in our Saxon tongue, it is the author of The Stone Dragon."
[From a contemporary review of "The Stone Dragon", 1894.]

Last summer, meandering en route to Chesterfield on a bright sky-blue day, I remembered that Robert Murray Gilchrist - the nearly-forgotten author of the superlative decadent horror collection "The Stone Dragon & Other Tragical Romances" - had lived in the area.

Now, there are few things in life more interesting to me than visiting the homes and locations of places that may have inspired artists I admire, whether they be writers, musicians or filmmakers. Several years ago I blagged my way into the former family home of ghost-story writer M.R. James in Great Livermere, and have been boring people with the story ever since. Ditto for the time I visited the late Gerry Anderson at his home outside Henley-on-Thames, when he showed me around his eye-popping workshop, which was filled with models and puppets from all the great 'Supermarionation' shows (Thunderbirds, Joe 90, Supercar, UFO, Stingray etc).

However, in the case of Gilchrist, I suppose I had always subconsciously assumed that his former ancestral home would have fallen into a ragged state of melancholy disrepair, chiming gloomily with the entrancing tone of his emotionally-charged tales of love, death and betrayal, amidst a wild psychological landscape in which a vivid, raging maelstrom of cruel supernatural vengeance would whirl. I had expected to find heavy, black sepulchral clouds blighting the house in a perpetual veil of screaming purple twilight; broken gutters vomiting black rainwater violently onto the shattered roof tiles below; the spindly casements mildewed and rotted, their grey sills spiky with jagged glass. I envisioned huge murderous ravens strutting about in dark rooms, malign and conniving, their beaks glistening with sheep's blood, their eyes swivelling about for weak prey. I had imagined weathered castellations about the roofline, with ruinous masonry depicting subversive and occult heraldic designs, and for the walls to be pockmarked with macabre, people-eating gargoyles, their foul bulging eyes and lustful, pox-ridden tongues warding off faint-hearted sojourners. At the very least, I thought the grounds would be blasted and desolate, an ill-defined contagion of nettle, diseased timber and straggling vegetation, with weed-choked fountains and broken stone walls, rotting bones and split graves. I had expected the garden to be indeterminate from the wild Peak District moorland which should seethe and swirl about it like wild foam on a dirty green sea.

Instead....instead I found neatly clipped lawns, brightly-painted window-frames, perfect tubular guttering, and, worst of all, happy sunshine, gilding both Cartledge Hall and the surrounding bucolic countryside with what can only be described as peaceful contentment. It was like stepping into a P.G. Wodehouse novel. Indeed, had 'Plum' [note to heathens: 'Plum' was Wodehouse's affectionate nickname] had been standing where I had been standing, he would have probably also documented cooing doves various, bunny rabbits frolicking on verdant lawns, and, of course, the industrious hum of bumblebees, as those contented insects went about happily 'doing their bit' for Lord Emsworth's breakfast; to wit, producing glorious, golden honey, which Lord E. would then eagerly spread - some might say 'ladle' - upon crispy white toast every morning, after consuming a first course of eggs & b.

But I disgress. The point is, I suppose, that Cartledge Hall was insufficiently gloomy to live up to my unreasonable and selfish expectations.

It was with a heavy heart that I retrieved my camera from the car. The shots would depict Cartledge as though it were a show-home in some glossy property magazine. Then, as I set about taking photographs, a woman suddenly appeared from one of the outbuildings, and she paused, studying me from afar, holding some rolled linen in her hands. I felt obliged to explain my prurience.

"Did Robert Murray Gilchrist once live here?" I cried out. Holding up my camera, I said: "I'm interested in his book 'The Stone Dragon'. Do you mind if I take photographs of the outside of the house?"

The lady regarded me with an inscrutable expression, but appeared to have no serious objection, though really, it was impossible to say for sure. I was reminded of several similar incidents in Robert Aickman stories, where narrators try to communicate with shadowy and indistinct figures, as though shouting ineffectually through space, or feeling powerlessly mute in a dream. I felt like Delbert Catlow calling out across the river to Petrovan in "No Time Is Passing" [which, incidentally, was itself a scene lifted from a Phyllis Paul novel]. Anyway, she gestured with a half wave, half nod, and scuttled into the main house, like a mechanical figure in a cuckoo clock on invisible wheels, presumably to monitor my presence from a place of safety. I deprecated, and set about taking a few pictures in what I thought would project as being jaunty, open and honest manner. It is an attitude I often strike when visiting art galleries, National Trust houses and the like. I imagine that it puts middle-class people at their ease.

Robert Aickman [centre]

Anyway, although it is extremely tempting to photo-shop the images - by way of portraying the house in which Gilchrist's 'tragic' tales were written in a darker, more suitably gothicky light - I present the shots here completely unadulterated. I do so despite harbouring the absurd fear that in doing so, I shall highlight to aficionados of weird decadent literature just how very beautiful and highly desirable this ripe, purple peach of a house really is, lest I one day ever be be fortunate enough to bid for it.

[Whereupon I would set about destroying its balmy bucolic charm, to restore it to the doom-laden, decadent yellow mausoleum that it should be.]

Cartledge Hall [entrance]

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