|If this cover seems familiar, that's because the artwork by Harold De Lay originally appeared on the cover of the January 1944 issue of Weird Tales.|
"The Green Huntsman" is a gothic short story by Dorothea Gibbons, which was first published in the July 1954 issue of Weird Tales. The story may be found online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.
I came across this story, while I was reviewing "More Than Shadow" by Dorothy Quick and was intrigued that there were two other new stories as well as one new poem and a reprint by women writers in the same issue of Weird Tales, proving once again that Weird Tales was the most woman-friendly SFF magazine of the pulp era.
The name Dorothea Gibbons will not mean anything to most people. However, Dorothea Gibbons is a very well known author, probably one of the most famous mainstream authors ever to publish in Weird Tales next to Tennessee Williams as a sixteen-year-old debut author (and I should really review his debut story some day). For Dorothea Gibbons was none other than British novelist, poet and journalist Stella Gibbons, author of Cold Comfort Farm (which is absolutely genre, even if most people don't realise it). As Dorothea Gibbons (her full name was Stella Dorothea Gibbons), she published three stories in Weird Tales in 1953 and 1954. None have ever been reprinted.
Warning: There will be spoilers in the following.
"The Green Huntsman" opens in the manor house of Scarth on a misty autumn morning dripping with gothic atmosphere. Here Richard Ayreton, lord of the manor, and his agent Nick Borrodale await the arrival of Ayreton's niece Francesca Newtownly, a penniless war widow with a seven-year-old son.
So we have the classic gothic set-up of a young woman coming to a creepy manor, from which she will eventually run clad only in her nightgown, at least if the covers of gothic romances from the 1960s are to be believed. But first, Nick has to pick up Francesca from the train station. He's instantly smitten with her, but also uneasy, because of something that haunts the nearby woods in autumn.
Nick warns Francesca and her son Paul not to go into the woods, so he won't say why, because the truth would either terrify Francesca or worse, she wouldn't believe it. So Nick males up a story about cutting down trees in the woods and that it's too dangerous to go there. Francesca, however, isn't having any of it. "If the men are felling trees, they're very quiet," she says.
Not long after, Nick gets a panicked message from Francesca that Paul and his dog Sebastian have gone missing and that Francesca fears they went into the woods. She also reveals that she knows that there was never any tree cutting work going on and begs Nick to tell her just what the matter is with those woods. Francesca also reveals that she's been in the woods and saw something green watching her from between the trees.
Paul and Sebastian eventually reappear at the manor safe and sound. Paul confesses that he went into the woods, even though Sebastian with his canine instincts for the supernatural tried to stop him. Paul also sees something green among the dead trees. When he investigates, he realises that it's a horseman clad all in green on a green horse. The horseman trains his hypnotic gaze on Paul and beckons him to come, but Sebastian, the heroic dog, intervenes and pulls Paul to the ground, saving the boy. When Paul looks up again, the green rider is gone.
Now Nick and Richard Ayreton finally share the story of the green huntsman with Francesca. It turns out that the huntsman was an evil man who hunted in those woods on a devilish horse hundreds of years ago and has been haunting the woods ever since, always appearing in autumn. According to legend, the only way to get rid of that evil spirit is when another four-legged creature will confront him to save a human life. And Sebastian, the faithful spaniel, saved Paul from the huntsman and thus exorcised the evil spirit for good.
This is a spooky gothic story that is dripping with atmosphere. The decaying manor and the misty, windswept woods are vividly described. The interior art by Virgil Finlay is also great.
I like that Francesca is not your average insipid gothic heroine who runs away from the spooky manor clad only in her nightgown. She never for a minute buys Nick's weak excuse about men felling trees in the woods and also confronts him about it.
My main criticism about "The Green Huntsman" is that it's way too short. After all the build-up, the confrontation with the evil huntsman is over in a few paragraphs. Furthermore, we don't see it happening on the page, but hear it recounted by Paul after the fact.
Also, I would have liked more details about the history of the huntsman and why he does what he does. He was an evil man and now he and his evil horse haunt the woods after his death is a weak explanation. Surely, there must be more to the story. Did the huntsman develop a taste for hunting "the most dangerous game" or was he himself hunted by villagers with pitchforks and swore vengeance from beyond the grave? Inquiring minds would like to know.
That said, I did like the solution that what broke the curse was the heroic act of a cocker spaniel. After Dorothy Quick's tale of an evil faery poodle, which appeared in the very same issue, this one makes a nice counterpoint.
The atmosphere and writing are great, but the story is flawed.