How the British Library went weird

October 7, 2023

Posted by Daniel Eggleston

The British Library’s popular Tales of The Weird series unearths and republishes strange and uncanny stories, recovering them from obscurity and repackaging them for the 21st century.

Whether delving into ghostly horror or unsettling folk nightmares, every volume is a treasure trove of extraordinary writing from the past and present, each lovingly collected and introduced by that collection’s editor.

In an interview with horror website The Lineup, Jonny Davidson, the production editor for British Library Publishing and Mike Ashley, the editor of some of the anthologies in the series, provided some background on how the collection started.

“It was actually five separate titles that were being published in the same season,” Davidson explains. “That was the beginning of the series. We had two titles proposed by Mike Ashley, who is a sort of anthologist. He’d come to us with proposals for Glimpses of the Unknown, which was going to be entirely made up of stories that never been reprinted before, which he’d found from research at the library. That’s the kind of title that most applies in terms of the key opportunities of working in the building, which has this wealth of printed material from the last–well, from history.”

As Mike recalls, he hadn’t realised From the Depths was going to be the start of the series, “I had a desire to compile a volume of never previously reprinted stories which became Glimpses of the Unknown and during that discussion, or in emails afterwards, Jonny asked whether I could also compile a volume of nautical horror stories, which became From the Depths.”

With their eye-catching artwork, the series has quickly become a fan favourite amongst those who enjoy their fiction to eschew the norms of classic supernatural horror and have helped repopulate the genre, bringing forward stories and names that had been previously lost.

Glimpses of the Unknown contains The Woman in the Viel a previously un-reprinted story by E.F. Benson, an impressive feat, for an author as well-known or as well-researched as he, alongside When Spirits Steal which features the occult detective, Peter Carwell. Originally published by Pearson’s Magazine in the early 1900s, this was a pseudonym used by Marion Holmes who spent time as a political prisoner and was the co-editor of the Suffragette’s newspaper The Vote.

You can re-discover her work and more via the following six ‘British Library Tales Of The Weird’ anthologies that are available exclusively on uLibrary.

A Phantom Lover And Other Dark Tales by Vernon Lee

During her lifetime Violet Paget, who wrote as Vernon Lee, was referred to as ‘the greatest of modern exponents of the supernatural in fiction’, and yet today she remains on the periphery of the genre.

This collection of her uniquely weird short stories and dark fantasies proves why she was once considered among the best of the genre, and why she deserves to return to those ranks today.

From modernised folk tales such as Marsyas in Flanders and The Legend of Madame Krasinska to ingenious psychological hauntings such as the titular A Phantom Lover and A Wicked Voice, Lee’s own voice is just as distinctive and captivating – her weird imaginings just as freshly unsettling – as in her fin-de-siècle heyday.

Listen to a sample here:

From The Depths edited by Mike Ashley

From atop the choppy waves to the choking darkness of the abyss, the seas are full of mystery and rife with tales of inexplicable events and encounters with the unknown.

In this anthology we see a thrilling spread of narratives; sailors are pitched against a nightmare from the depths, invisible to the naked eye; a German U-boat commander is tormented by an impossible transmission via Morse Code; a ship ensnares itself in the kelp of the Sargasso Sea and dooms a crew of mutineers, seemingly out of revenge for her lost captain.

The supernatural is set alongside the grim affairs of sailors scorned in these salt-soaked tales, recovered from obscurity for the 21st century.

Listen to a sample here:

Glimpses Of The Unknown edited by Mike Ashley

A figure emerges from a painting to pursue a bitter vengeance; the last transmission of a dying man haunts the airwaves, seeking to reveal his murderer; a treasure hunt disturbs an ancient presence in the silence of a lost tomb.

From the vaults of the British Library comes a new anthology celebrating the best works of forgotten, never since republished, supernatural fiction from the early 20th century.

Waiting within are malevolent spirits eager to possess the living and mysterious spectral guardians a diverse host of phantoms exhumed from the rare pages of literary magazines and newspaper serials to thrill once more.

Listen to a sample here:

The Outcast And Other Dark Tales by E.F. Benson / edited by Mike Ashley

A grisly spirit turns travelling companion for the unwitting passenger of a London bus; a repulsive neighbour returns from the grave, rejected by the very earth; an innocuous back garden becomes the stage for a nightmare encounter with druidic sacrifice.

From deep in the British Library vaults emerges a new selection of E.F. Benson’s most innovative, spine-tingling, and satisfyingly dark ‘spook stories’.

Complete with an introduction exploring the fascinating story of Benson’s life and including the never-before-republished story Billy Comes Through, this volume hails the chilling return of an experimental master to whom writers of supernatural fiction have long been indebted.

Listen to a sample here:

Evil Roots edited by Daisy Butcher

Strangling vines and meat-hungry flora fill this unruly garden of strange stories, selected for their significance as the seeds of the villainous (or perhaps just misunderstood) ‘killer plant’ in fiction, film and video games.

Step within to marvel at Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s giant wisteria and H.G. Wells’ hungry orchid; hear the calls of the ethereal women of the wood, and the frightful drone of the moaning lily; and do tread carefully around E. Nesbit’s wandering creepers.

Every strain of vegetable threat (and one deadly fungus) can be found within this new collection, representing the very best tales from the undergrowth of Gothic fiction.

Listen to a sample here:

Haunted Houses edited by Andrew Smith

From the once popular yet unfairly neglected Victorian writer Charlotte Riddell comes a pair of novels which cleverly upholster the familiar furniture of the haunted house story.

In An Uninhabited House, the hauntings are seen through the perspective of the solicitors who hold the deed of the property. Here we find a shrewd comedic skewering of this host of scriveners and clerks, as slowly the safer world of commerce and law gives way and an encounter with the supernatural becomes more and more unavoidable.

In Fairy Water, Riddell again subverts the expectations of the reader, suggesting a complex moral character for her haunting spirit. Her writing style is succinct and witty, rendering the story a spirited and approachable read despite its age.

Listen to a sample here:

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