I enjoy picking up an old William Kimber book now and again – some of the books from this 70s/80 publisher have striking illustrations (often by Ionicus) and the largely rustic supernatural fiction they offer tends to be of a reliably high level of quality as long as you don’t expect the ghosts etc. to be too terrifying. A small percentage of Kimber authors are total clangers (I may address this in another post lol) and the endless obsession with The Real Cornwall gets a bit wearing (I’m looking at you Denys Val Baker), but there are a number of good writers like James Turner (whose Where Shadows Fall I reviewed a while back) and the subject of this post, Meg Buxton.
I’ve got two Buxton collections – Footprints In The Sand and No Earthly Reason – which I was moved to purchase after enjoying her contributions to several of the Kimber mixed-bag anthologies. Like Turner, she is almost completely unknown today, and seems mainly remembered for writing a book called ‘The Story of Daisy, The Fat Lazy Mouse’, though a list of her endeavours can be found here.
This is a great pity as I feel her better stories have aged exceedingly well and would please a lot of readers today. Footprints in the Sand is definitely the better of the two collections. There are eighteen stories, most of them eerie rather than outright horrific, and many of them memorably beautiful with commendable sharpness of imagery and economy of style. They are filled with a fascination with nature, which is often described in a totally charming way that is more than just pretty. Buxton’s fauna, gardens, flowers and woods go far beyond simple window-dressing, and her obvious love of the West Country, where most of these stories are set, makes this collection quite euphoric to read, even though death and darkness are never far away.
One thing I particularly enjoyed is her way with animal characters, who are treated with great respect but without too much sentiment. My favourite story in the collection, ‘Cat Among The Bidding’, is actually a darkly comic number starring a large fluffy black cat with criminal tendencies who is compelled to Take Care of Business after his aristocratic mistress passes away and her belongings are auctioned. It’s hilarious and very life-affirming, without being twee.
‘The Horse’ is a must for anyone who loved Paul Cornell’s recent novel Chalk, and deals with an age-old equine ceremony that filters down to a present-day Cornish village festival. This has a more cyclic, experimental structure than much of Buxton’s work, but she’s fully in control and it’s a very evocative work with that most crucial of qualities for what is now called “folk horror”, a proper sense of the past as something that is still alive and kicking hard.
Another good one is ‘The Herb Garden’, a slipstream piece which features a rather lost fellow falling prey to a garden still haunted by the monks who once tended it. Some of Buxton’s very best nature writing, and positively dripping with loveliness and mystery.
Not all the stories have quaint rural settings and wealthy characters, mind you – Buxton wasn’t scared of industrial themes, and tales like “Disaster At Wheal Gratitude” (about tin mining families with very long memories), and ‘The Flora Stone’ and ‘Sixpence’ (involving different types of domestic violence) are very clear-eyed about what life was like in the past for the less fortunate. It’s impossible to finish this collection without actively wanting to meet Buxton, who seems like a really compassionate, fun and shrewd person. Sadly she died decades ago so that’s not going to happen!
The second collection I read, ‘No Earthly Reason’, was a disappointment after this cracking first experience. Many of the stories here are in the comic vein, but are more waspish and judgmental than in ‘Footprints…’ This may explain why they feel more dated, in a kind of Tales of the Unexpected way. There are also some dalliances with sci-fi, which aren’t that great.
However, there are still some fine stories. “One Man and his Dog” is a comic number that does manage to come off, and showcases Buxton’s knack for the final twist. ‘January 18th’ is also strong though it is much more serious, dealing with a grieving sexton who encounters echoes from his married past in the church he tended for so long. ‘The Children and the Apple Tree’ is a very uncharacteristic work, hazy in message, pessimistic and possibly affected by environmental anxiety, but no less worth reading because of it. And though the repeated deployment of evil plants feels a bit old sometimes, I did enjoy ‘The Passion Flower Within’, about a nymphomaniac passiflora.
In short, you can probably overlook No Earthly Reason, but don’t miss Footprints In The Sand if you see it second-hand! Most of the copies online aren’t dear, though I had to get mine without its jacket to get under that magical 10 quid barrier…