That gloriously evocative paperback cover of the titular objects and the British moorland wilds seemingly aswirl with ghosts and fancies, by the legendary Richard M. Powers, is a tad misleading; only a couple scenes are so tinged with windswept mystery, and I didn't find the story really "mordant" at all, but perhaps if I were a British citizen of the mid-20th century I would have found Ringstones "having or showing a sharp or critical quality; biting" as the dictionary definition goes. But really, that is one helluva cover.
We begin with an unnamed narrator talking about "Daphne Hazel's manuscript," and how the woman was a school friend of the narrator's pal Piers Debourg. Piers has received this item in the post and wants the narrator to read it. It's a perplexing, unsettling document, written longhand in a school notebook. Could it possibly be true? She seemed such a level-headed girl. After a couple pages of this, we get to the tale proper, and Daphne's story in her own hand begins.
Original 1951 hardcover, UK
"Elves, fairies, giants, magicians--certainly not just ordinary human beings must have raised these circles... a church chooses to sit up a heathen temple. perhaps these ancient stones hold down something far more ancient, something far stranger than the men who placed them understood. Some queer feet have danced here, I feel."
Marvan and Ianthe followed [Nuaman and me] in our comings and goings, always reserved and shy and a little behind. He gave them little orders--or what seemed to orders--in their language, always softly and gaily, and they obeyed promptly, fetching and carrying for him as an English girl might fetch and carry for an adored brother years younger than herself...
Knowing Katia's mixing of vowel sounds, I said her words out loud in that order: weep. Wap? Wep? Wip? Wop? Wup? Nonsense. Wait. Wip. Nuaman wip... Got it! Nuaman whips. Oh. Shit. That doesn't sound good...
I didn't read the back cover copy so as not to spoil my reading whatsoever; however that left me totally blind as to what was going on, even while it was going on! The more I thought about it, though, Sarban's shaggy-dog story rather came together. Now his other titles are definitely on my to-own-and-read list, and Ringstones is easy to recommend to readers who like their Machen and their Blackwood--although perhaps not to those who like their horror fiction loud and bloody. Me, I found the hints of ancient gods and mythical creatures, chthonic powers and illicit desires hidden in unspoiled nature just behind this veil of (oh-so-British) modernity, quite bewitching.
"I want to keep you here forever," Nuaman said, still gripping my hand hard.
"Ah well, you can't do that, you know. Everything has to end. Except a circle."
"A circle!" he exclaimed. "But Ringstones is a circle. And, look! We've made a complete circle now, and as we've made this we begin another. You never can come to the end of Ringstones."
"Can't we?" said I.