November Night Tales: H C Mercer

12 Nov

There are very few creative endeavours to which Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930) was a stranger. Mercer, a collector, archaeologist, historian and tile-maker, took time out from his scholarly, historical and architectural pursuits – and the pressures of operating his tile business – to engage in a variety of other artistic ventures. Often these were pleasant diversions – rest and relaxation for the mind. He played the fiddle, composed poetry, sketched and painted, produced etchings, and listened to and fancied himself a connoisseur of Irish dance music. Leaving nothing undone, or unexplored, he also tried his hand at writing ghost stories. Originally published in 1928, near the end of his life, November Night Tales drew together a collection of stories that Mercer had written and reworked over several years. Another tale, The Well of Monte Corbo, though not included in the original volume, was discovered among his papers and published posthumously. All the stories are set in a world of the fantastic, the mysterious, the horrific, and the magical. In his writing, Mercer found inspiration in the romantic, gothic fiction of the nineteenth century. Authors like Poe, Shelley, Stoker and Conan Doyle were his muses. Along with many other aspects of emergent modernism, it was the writers of the early 1900s that Mercer disdained – Hemingway, for example, was a particular target of Mercer’s scorn The publication of November Night Tales seems to have been an important item on Mercer’s ‘bucket list,’ something he wished to accomplish that would enable him to feel complete at the close of his life, his personal ambitions fulfilled.

As a young man, Mercer travelled widely in Europe, in Mesoamerica, and around the United States. His curious and inquisitive mind seems to have been on record for much of his travels. Later in life he would switch to playback mode, in which he remembered places and scenes found expression in his architecture, tiles and artwork. Even Mercer’s efforts at writing fiction convey the distinct impression that he is resurrecting memories, and that the pictures he paints with his prose are drawn from settings and characters he had encountered years earlier. Some of the stories in November Night Tales do indeed appear to be autobiographical. Most obvious is Castle Valley, in which Mercer’s village of Doylestown is thinly disguised as ‘Highborough’ and the central character and narrator, Charles Meredith, is a stand-in for Mercer himself. Like Mercer, who eschewed a career in law to pursue a more creative path, Meredith decided to set aside political ambitions – and his family’s expectations – in order to explore his true passion and calling as an architect. But even in Mercer’s other stories, especially those narrated in the first person, the reader has a keen sense that it is the author himself who is wending his way through the tale. Though not an especially religious man, Mercer nonetheless had a spiritual side and possessed a strong affinity for the metaphysical. He was not one to dismiss flippantly either coincidence or trifles. Even in the smallest of details or most trivial of circumstances, he imagined some higher or transcendent power at work in the world. Though chance plays a role in his stories, Mercer might rather attribute such coincidences to forces beyond mortal comprehension, not to seemingly random fortune.

Throughout his life, Mercer’s thoughts often turned to castles, and all the romance, intrigue and mystery they represented. Captivated as a boy by the engravings he discovered in his grandfather’s print collection, he later visited some of those ancient edifices firsthand during his travels in Europe. Even in Doylestown, Mercer’s eye was drawn to the Romanesque turrets and central spire of the 1878 courthouse building – his hometown’s very own castle, set on a hill in the centre of the village. It was a theme to which he would return frequently in his art, his pottery and his own architecture. Castle motifs appear also in his fiction – whether it is the folly begun by a local madman on a hilltop in Castle Valley, the ruins of the fortress of Golubacz on the Danube in The Wolf Book, or an evocative sketch of a citadel beneath the clouds that launches The Well of Monte Corbo, the image of the castle imaginatively complements the tale. Indeed, to Mercer the very presence of a castle suggested an almost infinite number of narrative possibilities. Perhaps this is why he may be best known today for the for the museum of pre-industrial American hand tools he established in his hometown of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, or for the extensive array of Arts & Crafts-era architectural tiles he designed and produced at his nearby Moravian Pottery and Tile Works. Mercer’s castle-like home, Fonthill, also remains as an enduring monument to its builder’s architectural creativity and romantic vision. All three buildings, imaginatively constructed of reinforced concrete in the early part of the twentieth century, were perhaps the result of Mercer’s abiding fascination with both castles and stories. As he once commented: “Castles, Castles, Castles – Where do their stories begin or end?”

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