Saturday 8 May 2021

Heavy Weather: Tempestuous Tales of Stranger Climes, edited by Kevan Manwaring


The British Library’s series of classic SF anthologies continues to expand and has spun-off a related series, Tales of the Weird. Heavy Weather is one of these, recently sent to me to review. The editor’s introduction provides a brief history of well-known examples of extreme weather in literature, going back to the various tales of a great flood in the Middle East. In this collection, the editor has focused on stories in which the weather has “an exceptional, supernatural or other-worldly quality” to it. The result is an assortment of tales contrasting greatly in content and style.

History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (extract) by Mary Shelley. The Frankenstein author here describes some extreme weather she encounters on a trip to Switzerland - a story with a basis in fact as the explosion of Mount Tabora in 1815 led to the “year without a summer” in 1816, when Shelley’s journey took place.

The Lightning Rod Man by Herman Melville. A short and rather sardonic fantasy of an encounter between a man who attracts the lightning, and the sceptical narrator.

A Descent into the Maelström by Edgar Allan Poe. The second most memorable story in this collection, this consists of a tale told to a visitor to a dramatic part of the coast of Norway, where the seabed configuration causes the formation of a huge whirlpool at certain points of the tidal flow. Anything which falls into that is lost, but the story-teller claims to have survived.

The Great Snow by Richard Jeffries. A winter of such severity that movement is prevented by massive snow banks, and people begin to starve.

The Horror-Horn by E. F. Benson. A couple of Alpine climbers are trapped in their hotel by extreme weather conditions and pass the time by exchanging stories of their adventures. They are staying close to the “Horror-Horn”, their nickname for a forbidding peak which legend has it is inhabited by primitive humanoids. Which is, of course, nonsense…

May Day Eve by Algernon Blackwood. A fantasy more traditional than most, as a man visiting his friend has some strange encounters with supernatural beings as he crosses the wild countryside.

August Heat by W. F. Harvey. On an intensely hot day, an artist finds himself drawing a compelling figure - a man in a courtroom, a picture of despair. By chance he sees the man later that day, and discovers that he is a stone mason who makes headstones for cemeteries. There is one new headstone which catches the artist’s eye…

A Mild Attack of Locusts by Doris Lessing. A plague of locusts hits an African farm; a different kind of “weather”!

Through the Vortex of a Cyclone by William Hope Hodgson. A sustained passage of dramatic writing describing the battle for survival of the crew of a sailing ship which sails right through a powerful cyclone. Rather exhausting to read…

The Wind-Gnome by Jonas Lie. The story of a man who wins the protection of a wind-gnome who uses her control of the weather to ensure he always succeeds in his endeavours while his rivals founder.

Summer Snow Storm by Adam Chase. A weather man accidentally forecasts snow in the middle of a heat-wave, only to find that his forecast comes true. In fact, it becomes apparent that whatever he forecasts always comes true. The opportunities for financial gain become obvious to his friends.

The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes by Margaret St. Clair. Something of a follow-on from the previous story - a young boy makes a couple of predictions a day concerning events within the next 48 hours, and they always come true. But one day, he is strangely reluctant to speak…

Monsoons of Death by Gerald Vance. A one-man scientific research base on Mars has ceased sending vital meteorological data, so an officer is sent to investigate. What he finds is not just extreme weather, but something more.

The Purple Cloud (extract) by M. P. Shiel. This is taken from a 1901 novel about an expedition to reach the North Pole. The narrator is one of the explorers who is determined to be the first to reach the Pole, and is ruthless in ensuring that he is. But it is not just extreme weather he has to deal with; he sees purple clouds in the distance and when he arrives at their locations he finds nothing living.

The Birds by Daphne du Maurier. This is the 1952 story which prompted the famous 1963 Hitchcock movie, although the plot was considerably changed. I hadn’t read it before (or seen the movie), and was impressed; this is the standout story of this collection, the only one to stick firmly in my mind as if superglued. It is a genuine horror story, made even more so by the undramatic matter-of-fact writing style. The focus is on Nat, a Cornish farm labourer, who finds himself fighting for survival when all the birds suddenly start lethally attacking people, hurling themselves en masse at every person or inhabited building. Nat is smart enough to react quickly in protecting his family by securing his isolated home but, within a few hours, the devastating slaughter causes societal collapse. We feel for Nat as he does everything he can to keep his family safe, collecting food and drink from the nearest farm during the occasional “quiet” periods when the birds are inactive. [spoiler warning!] 

Despite these efforts the story is a much darker one than in the movie (judging by the Wiki movie summary).  It is obvious that the attacks are happening everywhere with few if any other survivors and, however hard Nat tries, his limited resources will soon run out with no chance of rescue. 

I will conclude by noting that although the format of these British Library anthologies remains the same, with a general introduction plus editorial notes about the author with each story, there are variations in style and content of these notes. One of the things I like about Mike Ashley’s Classic SF series notes is that he always includes not just the first date of publication of each story but also the dates of the author’s birth and death. I find this very helpful in putting the stories, and the author’s contribution to the field, into context. Other editors please note!

No comments: