Perceval Landon (1868-1927) was an English writer and journalist, now best remembered for his classic and much reprinted ghost story Thurnley Abbey. Well known to ghost story connoisseurs, Thurnley Abbey is a true classic of the genre, as well as being one of the most anthologised tales of the supernatural ever written. I’m not joking, Thurnley Abbey appears in virtually every other ghost story collection ever published! The tale was printed originally in Landon’s only short story collection, Raw Edges (1908), which in fact contains no other ghostly tales, although a few of the pieces have other fantastical elements. Raw Edges generally, as well as Thurnley Abbey in particular, display both Landon’s intelligence and his versatility as a writer. He was well-travelled, educated and discerning in his tastes (as well as being related to Spencer Perceval, who holds the dubious distinction of being the only British Prime Minister ever to have been assassinated). Despite all of this, and despite the fact that he was also a barrister, a good friend of Rudyard Kipling, a journalist, a war correspondent and an expert on heraldry, Landon is best remembered today as a ghost story writer and the perpetrator of one of the oddest hoaxes in publishing history.
Landon was born in 1868 of French Huguenot descent and educated at Hertford College, Oxford. He was called to the Bar by the Inner Temple but in 1899–1900 he was War Correspondent for The Times newspaper during the Boer War. For the next forty years Landon travelled constantly, visiting Persia, India, Nepal, China, Japan, Egypt, Sudan, Mesopotamia, Syria, Italy, France, Palestine and, finally, North America. This travel experience fed into his writing, as can be seen from Thurnley Abbey (click to read!), which is narrated by means of the framing device of two English gentlemen meeting while travelling abroad and one telling the other a chilling tale. It appears that the one with the tale to tell has had a traumatic experience in England while visiting the country home of a friend, one so terrifying that he finds himself unable to sleep alone afterwards. Suffice to say, once he has narrated his experiences at the titular Thurnley Abbey, the reader has no trouble understanding his difficulty getting to sleep! Whilst this is a very basic, run-of-the-mill ghost story for 1908, it is exceptional for two things: the fact that it does not take itself too seriously, while at the same time offering up a nasty shock with its genuinely creepy ‘ghost’.
Landon was very possibly, however, also the author of another volume of fiction which suggests a different side to his character: playful, scholarly, reflective, imaginative. In 1903 he published a book (dated 1904) of sundial mottoes which purported to be from an old volume translated into English in the early 17th century by one John Parmenter, Clerk of Wingham in the County of Kent. Landon claimed to be simply the editor. The British Library catalogue, however, is not convinced: it notes the book is “edited [or rather written]” by Landon. In other words, the entire book is an amiable hoax, and Landon himself is the creator of Parmenter and all the sundial mottoes. Whilst we cannot know how the British Library arrived at this conclusion, it does seem plausible, particularly as nothing else is known of the alleged Parmenter or his book. If the attribution to Landon as author is correct, this is a delightful and novel addition to his body of fictional work.