This week I’m recommending a collection of short stories loosely based on the folklore of the West of England. `Diving Belles’ by Lucy Wood came out in 2012.  In America it is known as `Diving Belles and Other Stories’. Both titles seem too frivolous for Wood’s delicate but disturbing tales, though the first story does indeed feature a woman descending in an old-fashioned diving-bell to search the sea-bed for her lost husband. Does that pique your curiosity? It did mine.`Diving Belles’ contains twelve stories and is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook.

Wood grew up in Celtic Cornwall, that most legend-rich of English counties. To learn more about Cornwall’s mermaid-infested seas,  mysterious standing-stones, holy wells and haunted tin-mines, or its giants, pixies, witches, evil wreckers and spectral hounds, you should consult a 19th century book which I’m sure was one of Wood’s major sources – Robert Hunt’s `Popular Romances of the West of England’ (there are lots of paperback reprints). It has the more accurate subtitle – `The Drolls, Traditions and Superstitions of Old Cornwall’ and famously creepy illustrations by George Cruikshank. If you fancy hearing the stories of Giant Bolster and St Agnes, the Fairy Widower, Madge Figgy’s Chair, The Dancing Stones, and The Mermaid’s Revenge, or want to draw up a handy list of things to avoid (such as spilling salt, meeting people on the stairs, looking at the new moon through glass or failing to take your hat off when you see a magpie) this is the book for you.

Are Wood’s stories just straightforward retellings of these Cornish fairy tales? No. She uses her local source material in a much more innovative way. Wood doesn’t really do plots, she is more interested in character and situation; a preference which has got her published as Literary Fiction rather than Fantasy. At this point in the review I must make a confession. When I first read this book, I found many of the stories in it profoundly irritating. They seemed to stop just when things were getting interesting. Wood sets up extraordinary premises with great skill – such as a young couple meeting amongst the bones of giants (`The Giant’s Boneyard’), a woman slowly turning into stone (`Countless Stones’) or the ghost of a wrecker haunting a cluttered flat (`Lights in Other People’s Houses’) – but then, as so often in real life, nothing very conclusive seems to happen. I felt that most of the stories in `Diving Belles’ were too long, too leisurely and too lacking in drama- and yet they lingered in my thoughts. I found myself continuing some of the stories in my head, giving them endings and interpretations. It was almost as if I was under a spell… So, rather nervously, I decided to go ahead and recommend this book.

Wood’s stories have contemporary or timeless settings. They are packed with the small details of ordinary lives, while the supernatural elements are treated in a matter of fact way which is close to the Magical Realism school of fiction. When Rita feels herself begin to turn into stone `as if someone was building a house inside her’  (`Countless Stones’) she waters her plants and worries about whether the food in the fridge will go mouldy. In an updated version of the traditional tale of the ointment which allows you to see fairies, a woman gets a startling insight into the love-life of her divorced mother after using her eye cream (`Of Mothers and Little People’). Sometimes the transformation spells or magical beings seem to embody emotional states. In `Lights in Other People’s Houses’, audio-typist Maddy unpacks a watery ghost with the memories she’s been reluctant to deal with in a new home that she is failing to make her own.  The missing husband in `Diving Belles’ has run away to swim with the mermaids. Middle-aged men tend do that sort of thing. In `Wisht’ (which according to Hunt is a west-country word `meaning more than ordinary melancholy’) the Wisht Hounds who haunt Dartmoor at midnight are a pack of lonely men with failed relationships and dead-end jobs.

To give you more of a flavour of the book I’ll finish by describing two of the stories. `Blue Moon’ is one of the most haunting Fantasy stories I’ve ever read. It begins and ends with a woman trying to catch a frightened hare. Inbetween we learn that the narrator works in the Blue Moon Nursing Home for elderly witches. There is plenty of humour in her account of the problems when `you couldn’t serve tea without someone turning it into blood or oil and they were always in and out of each other’s rooms stealing wax and recipes…Our vacuum bags filled up with soil, twigs and fingernails.’ One of the residents is Mrs Tivoli, who looks 38 but must be at least 70, and has a sinister familiar in the form of a catfish called Maria. The narrator breaks the `no taking part in magic’ rule when she becomes fascinated by Mrs Tivoli’s collection of Witch Bottles. Each one contains somebody’s mistakes and regrets and the worst regret of all is for something that is about to happen, leaving an old lady frantic and alone. The description of exactly how a witch turns into a hare is worth the price of this book all on its own.

`Some Drolls Are Like That and Some Are Like This’ features an encounter between a droll-teller (a teller of traditional tales) and two of the creatures that the Cornish fear most – tourists. The droll-teller has lived in the same Cornish town for hundreds of years but he is forgetting his unwanted traditional tales and fading away. One morning he’s persuaded to lead a bogus `Story Tour’ for two out of season tourists who need a new narrative in their own lives now that their daughter has left home. At first, the droll-teller just makes up any old rubbish but as he and his receptive audience reach a disused tin-mine, `he could hear the story creeping out of the mine towards him.’ It is a new beginning for the droll-teller and for the rich seam of Cornish folklore mined by Wood. Until next week…