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Druids and Dimensions – reviewing two collections of weird tales

Books reviewed:

Dangerous Dimensions: Mind-Bending Tales of the Mathematical Weird – Henry Bartholomen (Ed.) published 2021.

Circles of Stone: Weird Tales of Pagan Sites and Ancient Rites – Katy Soar (ed.) published 2023.

Of the two collections, Dangerous Dimensions, was my favourite by far. Every story fascinated me.

While neither a scientist nor a mathematician, I have read theories by physicists and am aware that (from our current understanding) it is likely that there are dimensions beyond time and the three special dimensions we perceive. Popular theories about life, the universe and everything only work if many more dimensions exist.

These stories (penned between the final years of the 19th and throughout the 20th century) explore what beings might inhabit those dimensions, stalking the boundaries of our perception, and what horrors we might unleash if we find a way to explore these hidden dimensions.

Some explore the idea that many missing people are not victims of murder or runaways, but have accidentally or foolishly stepped into a dimension beyond our ken. These seven tales often include mirrors, paintings and doors; additionally those who return to our world are often profoundly changed in some way.

In H.G. Wells’ The Plattner Story (1896) a chemistry experiment gone awry reduces Gottfried Plattner’s body to atoms then reconstructs it elsewhere – with every aspect of his physiognomy reversed.

In Mary Freeman’s The Hall Bedroom (1903) the converted liminal space leads elsewhere.

In Algernon Blackwood’s A Victim of Higher Space (1914) certain vibrations cause a man to slip in and out of the fourth dimension.

In Algernon Blackwood’s The Pikestaff Case (1924) an educated woman fallen on harder times is fascinated and disturbed by the strange habits of her mathematician tenant.

“Surrounded by the enigmas of his personality, by the lines and curves of white paper pinned upon her carpet, by the tangle of silken threads above her head, by the mysterious books, the more than mysterious diagrams in his drawer—yet all these, even the dark perplexity of the rejected mirror and the vanished objects, were forgotten in the curious sense of happiness she derived merely sitting in his room. Her fear contained this other remarkable ingredient—an uncommon sense of joy, of liberty, of freedom.”

In Frank Belknap Long’s The Hounds of Tindalos (1929) a psychoactive drug drags Chalmers into the fourth dimension, and something terrible follows him back.

“[D]id it ever occur to you, my friend, that force and matter are merely the barriers to perception imposed by time and space?”

In H. Whitehead and H.P. Lovecraft’s The Trap (1932) a sorcerer has created a pocket universe accessed through a mirror. Whether knowingly or not, this story uses ideas included in earlier tales, but introduces magic as catalyst. H.G. Wells’ returnee’s organs are on opposite sides of his body when he returns, and it is the same for Robert in Whitehead & Lovecraft’s story. The mathematician/lodger in A. Blackwood’s tale grows smaller as he approaches the other side of the mirror, and it is the same in this story.

While, in Miriam Allen deFord’s Slips Take Over (1964) people can and do slip into parallel universes.

Three of the stories explore what might happen if an additional dimension is introduced somehow to our three: Nat Schachner’s The Living Equation (1934), Donald Wandei’s Infinity Zero (1936), and Robert Heinlein’s And He Built a Crooked House (1941).

“A huge cosmic morgue, with thousands of dead bodies floating and bumping within its vast interior…” Wandei (1936)
“What colour is nothing? Don’t be silly! What shape is it? Shape is an attribute of something. It had neither depth nor form. It had not even blackness. It was nothing.” Heinlein (1941)

Two of the stories fit into neither of the above groups.

The first is John Buchan’s Space (1911) which considers the affect on the human psyche when it is known or sensed that things exist all around us which we cannot see because they are outside our three spatial dimensions. It posits the uncomfortable question—is the empty space that we perceive truly empty?

And the other is Jorge Luis Borges’ The Library of Babel (1941), which ponders the nature of infinity.

In contrast to the unadulterated joy I got from reading Dangerous Dimensions, Circles of Stone was a mixed bag for me. I thoroughly enjoyed some of the stories while others didn’t resonate with me at all. Out of fifteen, five were great, and these tended to be the more modern tellings: The Tarn of Sacrifice by Algernon Blackwood (1921), The Shadow of the Moor  by Stuart Strauss (1928), The Dark Land by Mary Williams (1975), Where Stones Grow by Lisa Tuttle (1980), and The Suppell Stone by Elsa Wallace (2018).

“A hungry vista pulsing with sap and colour; a dark other-world peopled by vile things avid for materialisation.” Williams (1975)

Most of these tales imagined ancient rites (including human sacrifice) performed inside the stone circles. Others offered different takes on how these stones came to be, the source of their dark power, and the consequences of encountering them at the wrong time.

“The walls were merging, streaming across floor and ceiling, greedily filling all the empty space. The living, liquid rock lapped about his ankles, closing about him, turning him to stone.” Tuttle (1980)

Together, these collections have introduced new (to me) writers and allowed me to reconnect with more familiar names. I look forward to continuing my exploration of the weird when the next book arrives this month.

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