Originally published in 1928, two years before his death at 73 - in the week that also robbed us of DH Lawrence – 'November Night Tales' was Mercer's only collection, and penultimate book. Better known in life for non-fiction on his broad specialities of architecture, paleontology and engineering, it soon becomes clear that – unlike so many of his contemporaries - he never allows his first-hand knowledge to stifle style or the sense of adventure. There is a light touch and tight literary discipline in his approach, unencumbered by the usual showy research of the history scholar, while his descriptive sense is sensual but controlled. (His graduating in Liberal Arts also means he consciously avoids the usual contemporary prejudices).
'Castle Valley' – a forgotten prophecy unfurls as an artist, Pryor, unwittingly paints a castle once planned by an ancestor but never completed. When a polished mineral stone is found on the actual site, dating back to the crystal-gazers of folklore, a train of precognitive events appear triggered. 'The North Ferry Bridge' – a discredited doctor, his rival, his experiment, his kidnapping and a secret foundary of ravenous rats are behind this most Buchan-esque of mysteries. 'The Blackbirds' – an engraving, a lost artist and his fate at the hands of Indian fire-worshippers play-out this very Blackwood-ian tale. 'The Wolf Book' – an occult tapestry, kept in a tin can, and lusted after by lycanthropic peasants in the Carpathians, is just one of a lost series of much sought-after 'wolf books,' also wanted by more modern seekers.
'The Dolls’ Castle' – the dramatist, Charles Carrington's second appearance, after 'The Blackbirds,' in a satisfying and creepily restrained haunted house tale. “There, propped close together against the dingy plaster, an unaccountable array of diminutive figures,—dolls, in various dresses and of many sizes and kinds, startling, repulsive,— seemed to gaze at them from the shadows. The slanting rays of evening, through several breaks in the dimmed glass, here and there brightening the display, showed the havoc of moth and damp upon the tattered costumes, mouldy hair, and glassy-eyed faces rotted into paintless knobs.” They also dance --- unaided and unseen --- all according to rumour, of course. Mercer appears to have once considered Carrington and Pryor as more regular characters, since the former features in both 'Castle Valley' and 'The Dolls' Castle,' with the latter also in 'Castle Valley' and here.
'The Sunken City' – the re-emergence of a subterranean city of Homeric legend recurs in this collection's superior tale of cloak n' dagger intrigue. 'The Well of Monte Corbo' – for the fifth time in this collection, the true provenance of a castle and its harboured, mythologised secret is the source of a search between two former art students of parallel sketches by Titian and Durer. This is an additional tale – and up-to-standard – apparently found amongst the author's papers after his death.
While each tale – featuring either a castle, monastery or secretive outbuilding - can therefore be classed as Gothic, they are all written in the, then, modern idiom. For those with a taste for the retro adventure, had Mark Valentine's or John Howard's names been on the cover, few would have questioned the attribution. This gives them a timeless quality that, conversely, evokes many genre-influenced authors today.
If not strictly uncanny, each mystery is layered with intimations of precognition and 'coincidence,' suggesting the iconoclast Mercer himself may well have been a believer. Such authenticity of voice makes each entry a superb example of the genre and a satisfying read for the season. The title is newly-re-released, both in paperback from Valancourt and hardback from Swan River; perhaps a more fortuitous circumstance for the collector-reader than the respective publishers.