Be happy in the place of horseless carriages...
R. Chetwynd-Hayes is perhaps better known as a horror anthologist than for his own stories; yet in a productive career he published several well-received novels and collections, all of which are thankfully unabused by cult status. Kamtellar is the title story of his 1980 collection, and while it is billed as a novella, at 40,000 words it feels like rather more than that. There is much to admire in its deceptively simple premise, wherein it seems as though the characters of a Hammer movie have got behind the set to find it is, after all, painted on both sides. Inspired by one of Ambrose Bierce's anecdotes, and perhaps by the fate of Bierce himself, it pulls an Englishman out of the sedate Hampshire countryside and into a hellishly familiar colony, where social and spiritual arrangements are no more than a tax that the devil levies on the landscape.
Paul Sinclair's departure from our world is occasioned by a bicycle crash. He finds himself on the outskirts of a small village, the skyline of which is dominated by a huge black house that does not cast a shadow - being somehow its own shadow. He is taken in by one of the villagers whose beautiful daughter, Movita, does not escape his eye. Sinclair is immediately drawn into a struggle: every night doors and windows are barricaded as defence against the creatures which issue forth from the black house and lay siege to the village. Sinclair finds that these villagers inhabit a curious hell - they believe that the flying machines and horseless carriages of his own world are the heaven promised them for their endurance in the land of Kamtellar, and its capital, Hadelton. Sinclair persuades Movita to flee the village in the hope of reaching the capital. But in a hunt organised by the Great Satan, they are chased across the countryside by all manner of nightmare creatures; until Sinclair finds that in the land of the supernatural, rationalism is afforded its own distinct power. But, of course, it is possible to rationalise almost anything away, and Sinclair's found power proves his undoing, even at the very moment of relief. For as went the hunt, there goes Movita... like the Great Satan, he simply cannot help himself.
While it is possible to identify the moment when Chetwynd-Hayes realised he did not have on his hands the novel he wished for, and the accompanying note of disappointment, Kamtellar is still a wildly enjoyable story which often reads like Rogue Male rewritten by H.P. Lovecraft. True, there are few inventions of evil within its pages - rather its qualities are to be found in the extraordinary, stoic routines of the villagers; in the breathless chase of its climax; and in the shiftless angel Movita, whose presence in this world is a greater mystery than its existence.
Like the black house, this story is always its own shadow.