Book Reviews

Review: Strange Relics, edited by Amara Thornton and Katy Soar

Another great collection of Weird supernatural tales from Handheld Press – this time all focused on archaeology!

Book: Strange Relics: Stories of Archaeology and the Supernatural, 1895-1954, edited by Amara Thornton and Katy Soar

Publication date: 20th September 2022

Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Handheld Press. All opinions my own.

Content warnings: Violence, injury, death, murder; racism and outdated racial theories; arson and house fires; desecration of remains/tombs; mentions of stillbirth; ableism.

Strange Relics is an anthology of classic short stories in which the supernatural and archaeology are combined, originally published from 1895 to 1954. Never before have so many relics from the past caused such delicious and intriguing shivers down the spine.

Archaeological historian Amara Thornton of the University of London, and Classical archaeologist Katy Soar from the University of Winchester have curated a selection of twelve outstanding short stories encompassing horror, ghosts, hauntings, and possession, all from archaeological excavation. From a Neolithic rite to Egyptian religion to Roman remains to medieval masonry to some uncanny ceramic tiles in a perfectly ordinary American sun lounge, the relics in these stories are, frankly, horrible.

As always with these anthologies, I applaud the thoroughness of the introduction but recommend reading it last of all; while insightful, it spoils the twists of several of the stories and I feel like the analysis would have made a better afterword, once you have some context! However, there’s a potted history of how archaeology has been seen as supernaturally adjacent, which is very interesting and could be read first, and I appreciated that the authors were upfront about their intention to avoid collecting only stories of white, male archaeologists discovering long-buried ‘exotic’ horrors, and to avoid racism and othering as much as they could. They are also upfront that they haven’t been entirely successful, which I think says a lot about the canon they’re working with, and feels like a genuine regret. These stories are of their time, and as such some contain some outdated attitudes in terms of race, disability, and gender, particularly in the first story, ‘The Shining Pyramid’, which was written in 1895 and on top of casual racism directed at Romani and Chinese people, also discusses outdated racial theories of evolution. A couple of the stories associate mental or physical disabilities with evil, and use outdated language for them. That being said, there is a clear attempt to include stories that don’t centre around these things, even where they include them. ‘Curse of the Stillborn’ by Margery Lawrence is an interesting one, because although the narration at times has a rather patronising attitude to the Egyptian characters, depicting them as ‘exotic’, the moral is clearly that the Christian colonialists are in the wrong for riding roughshod over their customs and imposing their religion. In some ways it’s still exoticising, but in others feels quite progressive for 1926. Similarly, a white British character in ‘The Ape’ by EF Benson, from 1917, comments strongly on the negative effect that British imperialism and tourism has had on Egypt. I think the collection is a step in the right direction towards highlighting that there does exist more to Weird archaeology than colonialism.

I’m not sure there was a single story I outright disliked in this collection! The only one I wouldn’t say I loved was ‘Ho! The Merry Masons’ by John Buchan, which was just a bit long-winded – I think there were good creepy bones here, but wrapped up in the meandering storytelling of the narrator, it lost some of its punch. I was perhaps expecting more artefacts and actual archaeology scenes, but I’m not complaining about what is here instead, as the variation keeps the collection feeling fresh. There’s everything from barrows to pyramids to floor tiles to gods, and if you’re interested in the ways mythology and folklore mesh with the real world, and the very human tendency to feel that places with a lot of history have something more to them, then these stories will entertain you. Three of the stories deal with Pan, one of the most unnerving Greek gods, who as students of folklore know transfers very effectively into a British setting; not only in his associations with abundant woodland and compelling excess, but also in his darker nature, his goat-like details linking him to the Christian devil, and those who discover him turning swiftly from ecstasy into panic.

‘The Shining Pyramid’ by Arthur Machen was an interesting story that ended up a sort of combination of Holmes-ian mystery and horror as two acquaintances investigate the appearance of odd flint structures and crude drawings; one fears burglars’ marks, but the other is sure there’s something weirder going on. ‘Through the Veil’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a really effective short piece about a married couple having a strange experience when viewing the excavation of a Roman fort – I enjoyed how efficiently it built up the characters and showed the supernatural side of things. ‘The Cure’ by Eleanor Scott is understated folk horror with an interesting structure: the narrator is grieving the big event and tells the tale in a fractured, hindsight-filled way that should undercut the building tension by giving too much away, but actually ramps it up rather effectively by adding dramatic irony. I really enjoyed the quiet, scholarly tone of ‘The Golden Ring’ by Alan JB Wace, which reminded me of my own studies into Minoan and Mycenaen culture; the supernatural element here relies heavily on assumed mythological knowledge, so it may not land for everyone but I really enjoyed the hints.

One of my favourites was ‘The Ape’ by EF Benson, whose writing is phenomenal – the opening scene-setting describing Luxor was just fabulous! Fabulous too is the way this story descends from a fairly jovial look at amateur artefact collectors to a story of total horror, and how well the characters are all depicted in a few short scenes. I would happily have read a whole book of this story, and what’s more, I would have enjoyed it even without the Weird element. Also up there at the top for me were ‘The Next Heir’ by HD Everett, which is the longest story in the book and combines an interesting social plot about an inheritance from an eccentric gentleman with some genuinely creepy goings-on, and ‘View from a Hill’ by MR James, which had a fantastic, unusual haunted object and some wonderful writing and weirdness. These three stories come one after the other in the collection, so this was a great little run!

Earlier this month I reviewed DK Broster’s From the Abyss (also from Handheld Press) and I can’t help but feel that one of the stories there, ‘The Pavement’, would have fitted in perfectly here, as it deals with a woman’s obsession with a mosaic depiction of a beautiful girl – so if you’ve read and enjoyed that story or collection, Strange Relics would be a great bet as the vibes in general are similar. Even if you haven’t, if you’re in any way interested in Weird fiction or supernatural archaeology and folklore, this is a must read. Five out of five cats!

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