“The Gates of Horn: Being Sundry Records From the Proceedings of the Society for the Investigation of Faery Fact and Fallacy”

Originally published in England in 1926, The Gates of Horn is a mock-epistolary anthology of poems and faery stories by Bernard Sleigh (1872-1954). A talented artist in several media, Sleigh is best known today as the creator of An Ancient Mappe of Fairyland, Newly Discovered and Set Forth (1917); a scan of the entire Mappe is available via the Library of Congress website.

“An Ancient Mappe of Fairyland: Newly discovered and set forth,” in its entirety and details

In an intriguing instance of life imitating art, Sleigh’s whimsical framing device – that his stories were selected from the otherwise secret archives of the Society for the Investigation of Faery Fact & Fallacy, whose fictional rituals, meetings and workings are described in the final chapter – quickly inspired the creation of a real organization dedicated to that purpose, which became known as the Fairy Investigation Society.

Although The Gates of Horn was clearly written for an adult audience – the faeries in these tales are sexy and dangerous, and one story deals explicitly with the use of mescaline – the original publishers nevertheless marketed it to children. It would have taken a very broad-minded parent indeed to allow a child anywhere near this book, and so it was not a commercial success in 1926. That was a pity; Sleigh’s weirdly poetic and often dark tales of meetings between humans and distinctly nonhumans – mermaids, gnomes, changelings and other faery-folk – are worlds apart from the twee clichés of Victorian-era children’s fiction.

Written and largely set at a time when England’s industrial revolution was in full swing, The Gates of Horn is also a forerunner of modern literary genres such as Urban Fantasy and Eco-Fantasy. Sleigh’s faeries are as apt to manifest in urban slums as in woodland glens and they do not take at all kindly to humans despoiling the natural world.

Those reviewers who appreciated the stories as fairy-tales for grownups were effusive in their praise, and some were happy to play along with the “secret society of fairy investigators” device:

“(…) with its unquestioned appeal to the wonder-sense, and its diverse glimpses of beauty, the work does not belong to the passing “Autumn-season”; it has something of perennial Spring or Summer, and of a witchery beyond all the seasons.”

– W.P.R., The Daily Herald, September 19th, 1926

“With one possible exception, the stories are rare art-pieces wrought delicately on the anvil of a finely poetic temperament. In his beliefs about things of this kind, Mr. Sleigh perhaps nurses a lonely flame, but at least he kindles with it, out of the deep, forgotten ashes of our ancestral selves, something of the deathless beauty which he himself sees, and we can be grateful for that. It is a courageous mind that sees anything of “faery” beauty in a Birmingham tram or a Black Country slum, but Mr. Sleigh would see it almost anywhere.”

– L.B.P., The Birmingham Daily Gazette, October 14th , 1926

“Here, at last, are set down the records, beautiful and ordinary, of the obscure but curious “Society for the Investigation of Fairy Fact and Fallacy,” whose members’ strangely convincing stories of unearthly happenings reveal the all-pervading subtlety of fairy life, whether upon lonely mountain or in gloomy suburb. The writing is delightful.”

– The Marylebone Mercury, December 25th, 1926

“Many strange episodes await the reader of this book, and they are chronicled in a manner which makes them highly interesting reading for believers and sceptics alike.”

– The Scotsman, March 28th, 1927

The real-world Fairy Investigation Society, which was formed shortly after the publication of The Gates of Horn, was originally a collaboration between Sleigh himself and the eccentric, aristocratic Captain Quentin Craufurd, M.B.E. Capt. Craufurd was also deeply involved with then-popular experiments in using radio technologies to make contact with the “spirit world”.

Their Society went through a number of iterations throughout the mid-20th century, and by the 1950s its leading light was a devoted fairy enthusiast named Marjorie Taylor Johnson.  Her careful records of (and deeply quaint speculations about) encounters with the fae folk were eventually compiled and published as the book Seeing Fairies: From the Lost Archives of the Fairy Investigation Society, Authentic Reports of Fairies in Modern Times (2014).

While some members of the Fairy Investigation Society undoubtedly believed in fairies as literally supernatural entities, the question of Bernard Sleigh’s beliefs in that regard may never be conclusively answered.  It’s certain, however, that he preferred to live in a world that venerated the potent, subtle powers of Romance and Nature.

The 2022 ebook edition of The Gates of Horn: Being sundry records from the proceedings of the Society for the Investigation of Faery Fact and Fallacy is available from Amazon.

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