Easily distracted

Easily distracted
Marianne von Werefkin (Russian / Swiss, 1860-1938), Mondnacht [Moonlit Night], 1909-10. Tempera and mixed media on paper laid on board.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Sumurun manner: The Chronicles of Clovis by Saki/H.H. Munro




Amazing how content-rich the Edwardian press was. These brief stories by Saki were only a fraction of what he wrote for myriad publications as a professional writer. The oceanic scale of his learning and erudition is suggested in every line, yet his facility and control are perfectly harmonized.  

The teeth-grinding social contradictions that birthed the stories are only hinted at as flippancy is elevated to the status of a fine art.

My spouse, whose tastes are far more visceral than mine, prefers games of walking dead thrones and the fiction of that lugubrious pen-driver Margaret Atwood. I explained to her tonight how much the turns of phrase and parenthetical asides of Saki delight the eye and mind.

Saki makes a tough work week bearable.

Jay
26 July 2017


***

THE CHRONICLES OF CLOVIS by "SAKI" (H. H. MUNRO)
1911


ESMÉ
....Constance and I and the hyaena were left alone in the gathering twilight.

"'What are we to do?' asked Constance.

"'What a person you are for questions,' I said.

"'Well, we can't stay here all night with a hyaena,' she retorted.

"'I don't know what your ideas of comfort are,' I said; 'but I shouldn't think of staying here all night even without a hyaena. My home may be an unhappy one, but at least it has hot and cold water laid on, and domestic service, and other conveniences which we shouldn't find here.

THE MATCH-MAKER
...."If one wants a thing done in a hurry one must see to it oneself. I found a military Johnny hanging round on a loose end at the club, and took him home to lunch once or twice. He'd spent most of his life on the Indian frontier, building roads, and relieving famines and minimizing earthquakes, and all that sort of thing that one does do on frontiers. He could talk sense to a peevish cobra in fifteen native languages, and probably knew what to do if you found a rogue elephant on your croquet-lawn; but he was shy and diffident with women. I told my mother privately that he was an absolute woman-hater; so, of course, she laid herself out to flirt all she knew, which isn't a little."

TOBERMORY
....An archangel ecstatically proclaiming the Millennium, and then finding that it clashed unpardonably with Henley and would have to be indefinitely postponed, could hardly have felt more crestfallen than Cornelius Appin at the reception of his wonderful achievement. Public opinion, however, was against him—in fact, had the general voice been consulted on the subject it is probable that a strong minority vote would have been in favour of including him in the strychnine diet.

MRS. PACKLETIDE'S TIGER
"How amused every one would be if they knew what really happened," said Louisa Mebbin a few days after the ball.

"What do you mean?" asked Mrs. Packletide quickly.

"How you shot the goat and frightened the tiger to death," said Miss Mebbin, with her disagreeably pleasant laugh.

"No one would believe it," said Mrs.

Packletide, her face changing colour as rapidly as though it were going through a book of patterns before post-time.

"Loona Bimberton would," said Miss Mebbin. Mrs. Packletide's face settled on an unbecoming shade of greenish white.
"You surely wouldn't give me away?" she asked.

"I've seen a week-end cottage near Dorking that I should rather like to buy," said Miss Mebbin with seeming irrelevance. "Six hundred and eighty, freehold. Quite a bargain, only I don't happen to have the money."


THE STAMPEDING OF LADY BASTABLE
....Lady Bastable loved shillings with a great, strong love. To lose money at bridge and not to have to pay it was one of those rare experiences which gave the card-table a glamour in her eyes which it could never otherwise have possessed. Mrs. Sangrail was almost equally devoted to her card winnings, but the prospect of conveniently warehousing her offspring for six days, and incidentally saving his railway fare to the north, reconciled her to the sacrifice; when Clovis made a belated appearance at the breakfast-table the bargain had been struck.

"Just think," said Mrs. Sangrail sleepily; "Lady Bastable has very kindly asked you to stay on here while I go to the MacGregors'."

Clovis said suitable things in a highly unsuitable manner, and proceeded to make punitive expeditions among the breakfast dishes with a scowl on his face that would have driven the purr out of a peace conference.


THE BACKGROUND
….It was not a large legacy, even from the modest standpoint of Henri Deplis, but it impelled him towards some seemingly harmless extravagances. In particular it led him to patronize local art as represented by the tattoo-needles of Signor Andreas Pincini. Signor Pincini was, perhaps, the most brilliant master of tattoo craft that Italy had ever known, but his circumstances were decidedly impoverished, and for the sum of six hundred francs he gladly undertook to cover his client’s back, from the collar-bone down to the waistline, with a glowing representation of the Fall of Icarus.


HERMANN THE IRASCIBLE—A STORY OF THE GREAT WEEP
"There is a time for everything," said the King; "there is a time to yield. Pass a measure through the two Houses depriving women of the right to vote, and bring it to me for the Royal assent the day after to-morrow."

As the Minister withdrew, Hermann the Irascible, who was also nicknamed the Wise, gave a profound chuckle.

"There are more ways of killing a cat than by choking it with cream," he quoted, "but I'm not sure," he added, "that it's not the best way."

THE UNREST-CURE
"We have twenty-six on our list," said Clovis, referring to a bundle of notes. "We shall be able to deal with them all the more thoroughly."

"Do you mean to tell me that you are meditating violence against a man like Sir Leon Birberry," stammered Huddle; "he's one of the most respected men in the country."

"He's down on our list," said Clovis carelessly; "after all, we've got men we can trust to do our job, so we shan't have to rely on local assistance. And we've got some Boy-scouts helping us as auxiliaries."

"Boy-scouts!"

"Yes; when they understood there was real killing to be done they were even keener than the men."

THE JESTING OF ARLINGTON
STRINGHAM
....Eleanor's outlook on life did not improve as the afternoon wore on. The page-boy had brought from the library BY MERE AND WOLD instead of BY MERE CHANCE, the book which every one denied having read. The unwelcome substitute appeared to be a collection of nature notes contributed by the author to the pages of some Northern weekly, and when one had been prepared to plunge with disapproving mind into a regrettable chronicle of ill-spent lives it was intensely irritating to read "the dainty yellow-hammers are now with us and flaunt their jaundiced livery from every bush and hillock." Besides, the thing was so obviously untrue; either there must be hardly any bushes or hillocks in those parts or the country must be fearfully overstocked with yellow-hammers. The thing scarcely seemed worth telling such a lie about. And the page-boy stood there, with his sleekly brushed and parted hair, and his air of chaste and callous indifference to the desires and passions of the world. Eleanor hated boys, and she would have liked to have whipped this one long and often. It was perhaps the yearning of a woman who had no children of her own.

SREDNI VASHTAR
....The door of the shed still stood ajar as it had been left, and the minutes were slipping by. They were long minutes, but they slipped by nevertheless. He watched the starlings running and flying in little parties across the lawn; he counted them over and over again, with one eye always on that swinging door. A sour-faced maid came in to lay the table for tea, and still Conradin stood and waited and watched. Hope had crept by inches into his heart, and now a look of triumph began to blaze in his eyes that had only known the wistful patience of defeat. Under his breath, with a furtive exultation, he began once again the paean of victory and devastation. And presently his eyes were rewarded: out through that doorway came a long, low, yellow-and-brown beast, with eyes a-blink at the waning daylight, and dark wet stains around the fur of jaws and throat. Conradin dropped on his knees. The great polecat-ferret made its way down to a small brook at the foot of the garden, drank for a moment, then crossed a little plank bridge and was lost to sight in the bushes. Such was the passing of Sredni Vashtar.

ADRIAN: A CHAPTER IN ACCLIMATIZATION
....His mother lived in Bethnal Green, which was not altogether his fault; one can discourage too much history in one's family, but one cannot always prevent geography. And, after all, the Bethnal Green habit has this virtue—that it is seldom transmitted to the next generation. Adrian lived in a roomlet which came under the auspicious constellation of W.

THE CHAPLET
....The earlier stages of the dinner had worn off. The wine lists had been consulted, by some with the blank embarrassment of a schoolboy suddenly called on to locate a Minor Prophet in the tangled hinterland of the Old Testament, by others with the severe scrutiny which suggests that they have visited most of the higher-priced wines in their own homes and probed their family weaknesses. The diners who chose their wine in the latter fashion always gave their orders in a penetrating voice, with a plentiful garnishing of stage directions. By insisting on having your bottle pointing to the north when the cork is being drawn, and calling the waiter Max, you may induce an impression on your guests which hours of laboured boasting might be powerless to achieve. For this purpose, however, the guests must be chosen as carefully as the wine.


THE QUEST
....Clovis, who was temporarily and unwillingly a paying guest at the villa, had been dozing in a hammock at the far end of the garden when Mrs. Momeby had broken the news to him.

"We've lost Baby," she screamed.

"Do you mean that it's dead, or stampeded, or that you staked it at cards and lost it that way?" asked Clovis lazily.

"He was toddling about quite happily on the lawn," said Mrs. Momeby tearfully, "and Arnold had just come in, and I was asking him what sort of sauce he would like with the asparagus—"

"I hope he said hollandaise," interrupted Clovis, with a show of quickened interest, "because if there's anything I hate—"

"And all of a sudden I missed Baby," continued Mrs. Momeby in a shriller tone. "We've hunted high and low, in house and garden and outside the gates, and he's nowhere to be seen."

"Is he anywhere to be heard?" asked Clovis; "if not, he must be at least two miles away."

"But where? And how?" asked the distracted mother.

"Perhaps an eagle or a wild beast has carried him off," suggested .

WRATISLAV
"I don't know why I shouldn't talk cleverly," she would complain; "my mother was considered a brilliant conversationalist."

"These things have a way of skipping one generation," said the Gräfin.

"That seems so unjust," said Sophie; "one doesn't object to one's mother having outshone one as a clever talker, but I must admit that I should be rather annoyed if my daughters talked brilliantly."

"Well, none of them do," said the Gräfin consolingly.

THE EASTER EGG
....Whatever good qualities Lester Slaggby may have possessed, and he was in some respects charming, courage could certainly never be imputed to him. As a child he had suffered from childish timidity, as a boy from unboyish funk, and as a youth he had exchanged unreasoning fears for others which were more formidable from the fact of having a carefully thought-out basis. He was frankly afraid of animals, nervous with firearms, and never crossed the Channel without mentally comparing the numerical proportion of lifebelts to passengers. On horseback he seemed to require as many hands as a Hindu god, at least four for clutching the reins, and two more for patting the horse soothingly on the neck. Lady Barbara no longer pretended not to see her son's prevailing weakness, with her usual courage she faced the knowledge of it squarely, and, mother-like, loved him none the less.

FILBOID STUDGE, THE STORY OF A MOUSE THAT HELPED
....the world was advised of the coming of a new breakfast food, heralded under the resounding name of "Filboid Studge." Spayley put forth no pictures of massive babies springing up with fungus-like rapidity under its forcing influence, or of representatives of the leading nations of the world scrambling with fatuous eagerness for its possession. One huge sombre poster depicted the Damned in Hell suffering a new torment from their inability to get at the Filboid Studge which elegant young fiends held in transparent bowls just beyond their reach. The scene was rendered even more gruesome by a subtle suggestion of the features of leading men and women of the day in the portrayal of the Lost Souls; prominent individuals of both political parties, Society hostesses, well-known dramatic authors and novelists, and distinguished aeroplanists were dimly recognizable in that doomed throng; noted lights of the musical-comedy stage flickered wanly in the shades of the Inferno, smiling still from force of habit, but with the fearsome smiling rage of baffled effort. The poster bore no fulsome allusions to the merits of the new breakfast food, but a single grim statement ran in bold letters along its base: "They cannot buy it now."

THE MUSIC ON THE HILL
"You don't really believe in Pan?" she asked incredulously.

"I've been a fool in most things," said Mortimer quietly, "but I'm not such a fool as not to believe in Pan when I'm down here. And if you're wise you won't disbelieve in him too boastfully while you're in his country."


THE STORY OF ST. VESPALUUS
"'But your Majesty's Christian principles?' exclaimed the bewildered Chamberlain.

"'I never had any,' said Vespaluus; 'I used to pretend to be a Christian convert just to annoy Hkrikros. He used to fly into such delicious tempers. And it was rather fun being whipped and scolded and shut up in a tower all for nothing. But as to turning Christian in real earnest, like you people seem to do, I couldn't think of such a thing. And the holy and esteemed serpents have always helped me when I've prayed to them for success in my running and wrestling and hunting, and it was through their distinguished intercession that the bees were not able to hurt me with their stings. It would be black ingratitude, to turn against their worship at the very outset of my reign. I hate you for suggesting it.'

"The Chamberlain wrung his hands despairingly.


THE WAY TO THE DAIRY
....'Show a cat the way to the dairy—' I forget how the proverb goes on, but it summed up the situation as far as the Brimley Bomefields' aunt was concerned. She had been introduced to unexplored pleasures, and found them greatly to her liking, and she was in no hurry to forgo the fruits of her newly acquired knowledge. You see, for the first time in her life the old thing was thoroughly enjoying herself; she was losing money, but she had plenty of fun and excitement over the process, and she had enough left to do very comfortably on. Indeed, she was only just learning to understand the art of doing oneself well.

THE PEACE OFFERING
....The protective Providence that looks after little children and amateur theatricals made good its traditional promise that everything should be right on the night.

THE PEACE OF MOWSLE BARTON
....Miles away, down through an opening in the hills, he could catch glimpses of a road where motor-cars sometimes passed, and yet here, so little removed from the arteries of the latest civilization, was a bat-haunted old homestead, where something unmistakably like witchcraft seemed to hold a very practical sway.

THE TALKING-OUT OF TARRINGTON
"I met you at luncheon at your aunt's house once—" broke in Mr. Tarrington, pale but still resolute.

"My aunt never lunches," said Clovis; "she belongs to the National Anti-Luncheon League, which is doing quite a lot of good work in a quiet, unobtrusive way. A subscription of half a crown per quarter entitles you to go without ninety-two luncheons."

"This must be something new," exclaimed Tarrington.

"It's the same aunt that I've always had," said Clovis coldly.


THE HOUNDS OF FATE
....In the cold light of morning Stoner laughed mirthlessly as he slowly realized the position in which he found himself. Perhaps he might snatch a bit of breakfast on the strength of his likeness to this other missing ne'er-do-well, and get safely away before anyone discovered the fraud that had been thrust on him. In the room downstairs he found the bent old man ready with a dish of bacon and fried eggs for "Master Tom's" breakfast, while a hard-faced elderly maid brought in a teapot and poured him out a cup of tea. As he sat at the table a small spaniel came up and made friendly advances.

THE RECESSIONAL
....Loona Bimberton had a Coronation Ode accepted by the NEW INFANCY, a paper that has been started with the idea of making the NEW AGE seem elderly and hidebound.

A MATTER OF SENTIMENT
....Lady Susan disapproved of racing. She disapproved of many things; some people went as far as to say that she disapproved of most things. Disapproval was to her what neuralgia and fancy needlework are to many other women. She disapproved of early morning tea and auction bridge, of ski-ing and the two-step, of the Russian ballet and the Chelsea Arts Club ball, of the French policy in Morocco and the British policy everywhere. It was not that she was particularly strict or narrow in her views of life, but she had been the eldest sister of a large family of self-indulgent children, and her particular form of indulgence had consisted in openly disapproving of the foibles of the others. Unfortunately the hobby had grown up with her. As she was rich, influential, and very, very kind, most people were content to count their early tea as well lost on her behalf. Still, the necessity for hurriedly dropping the discussion of an enthralling topic, and suppressing all mention of it during her presence on the scene, was an affliction at a moment like the present, when time was slipping away and indecision was the prevailing note.

THE SECRET SIN OF SEPTIMUS BROPE
"You see," continued Septimus, "I get quite a decent lot of money out of it. I could never live in the style I do on what I get as editor of the CATHEDRAL MONTHLY."

Clovis was even more startled than Septimus had been earlier in the conversation, but he was better skilled in repressing surprise.

"Do you mean to say you get money out of—Florrie?" he asked.

"Not out of Florrie, as yet," said Septimus; "in fact, I don't mind saying that I'm having a good deal of trouble over Florrie. But there are a lot of others."

Clovis's cigarette went out.

"This is VERY interesting," he said slowly. And then, with Septimus Brope's next words, illumination dawned on him.

"There are heaps of others; for instance:

'Cora with the lips of coral,
You and I will never quarrel.'

That was one of my earliest successes, and it still brings me in royalties. And then there is—'Esmeralda, when I first beheld her,' and 'Fair Teresa, how I love to please her,' both of those have been fairly popular.

"MINISTERS OF GRACE"
"Where I think you political spade-workers are so silly," said the Duke, "is in the misdirection of your efforts. You spend thousands of pounds of money, and Heaven knows how much dynamic force of brain power and personal energy, in trying to elect or displace this or that man, whereas you could gain your ends so much more simply by making use of the men as you find them. If they don't suit your purpose as they are, transform them into something more satisfactory."

THE REMOULDING OF GROBY LINGTON
His brother was waiting for him at the hall door.

"Have you heard about the parrot?" he asked at once. "'Pon my soul I'm awfully sorry. The moment he saw the monkey I'd brought down as a surprise for you he squawked out 'Rats to you, sir!' and the blessed monkey made one spring at him, got him by the neck and whirled him round like a rattle. He was as dead as mutton by the time I'd got him out of the little beggar's paws. Always been such a friendly little beast, the monkey has, should never have thought he'd got it in him to see red like that. Can't tell you how sorry I feel about it, and now of course you'll hate the sight of the monkey."


***



Sunday, July 23, 2017

The ship sails on: A Dip in the Pool by Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl's "A Dip in the Pool" was first published in The New Yorker (1952). I caught up with it in the 1994 anthology Sea-Cursed.

Like Saki, Dahl is slick, clever, and pitiless in his stories. This is a quality always in short supply in the horror genre.

Mr. Botibol is sailing home to New York. He obsesses over winning a lucrative shipboard pool for the liner's daily progress.


....When the eating was finished and the coffee had been served, Mr Botibol, who had been unusually grave and thoughtful since the rolling started, suddenly stood up and carried his cup of coffee around to Mrs Renshaw’s vacant place, next to the purser. He seated himself in her chair, then immediately leaned over and began to whisper urgently in the purser’s ear.

‘Excuse me,’ he said, ‘but could you tell me something, please?’ The purser, small and fat and red, bent forward to listen.

‘What’s the trouble, Mr Botibol?’ ‘What I want to know is this.’ The man’s face was anxious and the purser was watching it.

‘What I want to know is will the captain already have made his estimate on the day’s run – you know, for the auction pool? I mean before it began to get rough like this?’ 

The purser, who had prepared himself to receive a personal confidence, smiled and leaned back in his seat to relax his full belly. 

‘I should say so – yes,’ he answered. He didn’t bother to whisper his reply, although automatically he lowered his voice, as one does when answering a whisper.

....‘Do you think the captain knew there was bad weather commg today?’ 

‘I couldn’t tell you,’ the purser replied. He was looking into the small black eyes of the other man, seeing the two single little sparks of excitement dancing in their centres. ‘I really couldn’t tell you, Mr Botibol. I wouldn’t know.’ 

‘If this gets any worse it might be worth buying some of the low numbers. What do you think?’ The whispering was more urgent, more anxious now.

....Down in the smoking-room people were already gathering for the auction. They were grouping themselves politely around the various tables, the men a little stiff in their dinner jackets, a little pink and overshaved and stiff beside their cool white-armed women. Mr Botibol took a chair close to the auctioneer’s table. He crossed his legs, folded his arms, and settled himself in his seat with the rather desperate air of a man who has made a tremendous decision and refuses to be frightened. 

The pool, he was telling himself, would probable be around seven thousand dollars. That was almost exactly what it had been the last two days with the numbers selling for between three and four hundred apiece. Being a British ship they did it in pounds, but he liked to do his thinking in his own currency. Seven thousand dollars was plenty of money.

My goodness, yes! And what he would do he would get them to pay him in hundred-dollar bills and he would take it ashore in the inside pocket of his jacket. No problem there. And right away, yes right away, he would buy a Lincoln convertible. He would pick it up on the way from the ship and drive it home just for the pleasure of seeing Ethel’s face when she came out the front door and looked at it. 

Wouldn’t that be something, to see Ethel’s face when he glided up to the door in a brand-new pale-green Lincoln convertible! Hello, Ethel, honey, he would say, speaking very casual. I just thought I’d get you a little present. I saw it in the window as I went by, so I thought of you and how you were always wanting one. You like it, honey?



Mr. Botibol buys a low number in the pool, calculating that bad weather will slow the liner.



....When Mr Botibol awoke the next morning he lay quite still for several minutes with his eyes shut, listening for the sound of the gale, waiting for the roll of the ship. There was no sound of any gale and the ship was not rolling. He jumped up and peered out of the porthole. The sea – Oh Jesus God – was smooth as glass, the

great ship was moving through it fast, obviously making up for time lost during the night. Mr Botibol turned away and sat slowly down on the edge of his bunk. A fine electricity of fear was beginning to prickle under the skin of his stomach. He hadn’t a hope now. One of the higher numbers was certain to win it after this.

‘Oh, my God,’ he said aloud. ‘What shall I do?’ 

What, for example, would Ethel say? It was simply not possible to tell her that he had spent almost all of their two years’ savings on a ticket in the ship’s pool. Nor was it possible to keep the matter secret. To do that he would have to tell her to stop drawing cheques. And what about the monthly instalments on the television set and the Encyclopaedia Britannica ?

Already he could see the anger and contempt in the woman’s eyes, the blue becoming grey and the eyes themselves narrowing as they always did when there was anger in them....


Mr. Botibol decides to jump overboard, bringing the ship's progress to a halt. He picks out an old woman standing by a deck rail to sound the alarm.


....'Help! Help! ’ he shouted as he fell.

Then he hit the water and went under.

When the first shout for help sounded, the woman who was leaning on the rail started up and gave a little jump of surprise. She looked around quickly and saw sailing past her through the air this small man dressed in white shorts and tennis shoes, spreadeagled and shouting as he

went. For a moment she looked as though she weren’t quite sure what she ought to do: throw a lifebelt, run away and give the alarm, or simply turn and yell. She drew back a pace from the rail and swung half around facing up to the bridge, and for this brief moment she remained motionless, tense, undecided.

Then almost at once she seemed to relax, and she leaned forward far over the rail, staring at the water where it was turbulent in the ship’s wake. Soon a tiny round black head appeared in the foam, an arm was raised above it, once, twice, vigorously waving, and a small faraway voice was heard calling something that was difficult to understand. 

The woman leaned still farther over the rail, trying to keep the little bobbing black speck in sight, but soon, so very soon, it was such a long way away that she couldn’t even be sure it was there at all. 

After a while another woman came out on deck. This one was bony and angular, and she wore horn-rimmed spectacles. She spotted the first woman and walked over to her, treading the deck in the deliberate, military fashion of all spinsters. 

‘So there you are,’ she said. The woman with the fat ankles turned and looked at her, but said nothing. ‘I’ve been searching for you,’ the bony one continued. ‘Searching all over.’ 

‘It’s very odd,’ the woman with the fat ankles said. ‘A man dived

overboard just now, with his clothes on.’

‘Nonsense!’....




And, as the saying goes, the ship sailed on.

Jay

23 July 2017

A cropped TV version can be viewed here.





My first Powell dance: A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell (1951)


….The day was drawing in. For some reason, the sight of snow descending on fire always makes me think of the ancient world – legionaries in sheepskin warming themselves at a brazier: mountain altars where offerings glow between wintry pillars; centaurs with torches cantering beside a frozen sea – scattered, unco-ordinated shapes from a fabulous past, infinitely removed from life; and yet bringing with them memories of things real and imagined.



It's an odd sensation when  we come to realize that friends of our youth also served for good or I'll as models for navigating the passage to adulthood.

Powell's narrator Nick Jenkins begins to see this in the course of several eventful episodes detailed in A Question of Upbringing.

The novel is written in the first person. But Powell saves time and the reader's patience by keeping introspection to a minimum. Jenkins talks to Templer and Stringham; they chew over fellow students, family members, and masters in the ruthlessly scientific way adolescents do.

After the initial "school" chapter, Powell sends Jenkins off to visit several families. The last chapter gets Jenkins to the university. Here he meets new and warring constellations of individuals.

A Question of Upbringing is a closely observed social novel. The milieu is today called the "cosmopolitan meritocracy." Power elite, old boy network, ruling class... Whatever term we use, Powell gives us a view thru the microscope.

The book is free of melodrama.  No school bullies, no college widows, no blackballing.

Jenkins enjoys learning, while Stringham and Templer seek the wider world. An oddball named Widmerpool makes a few appearances; Jenkins and his friends have a hard time triangulating his social position.

A few excerpts will give the reader a taste:

….Mr. Templer possessed a few simple ideas upon which he had organised his life; and, on the whole, these ideas had served him well, largely because they fitted in with each other, and were of sufficiently general application to be correct perhaps nine times out of ten. He was very keen on keeping fit, and liked to describe in detail exercises he was in the habit of performing when he first rose from his bed in the morning. He was always up and about the house long before anyone else was awake, and he certainly looked healthy, though not young for his age, which was somewhere in the sixties. Sunny Farebrother continued to impress me as unusually agreeable; and I could not help wondering why he was treated by the Templers with so little consideration. I do not mean that, in fact, I gave much thought to this matter; but I noticed from time to time that he seemed almost to enjoy being contradicted by Mr. Templer, or ignored by Jean, whom he used to survey rather hungrily, and attempt, without much success, to engage in conversation. In this, as other respects, Jean remained in her somewhat separate world. Peter used to tease her about this air of existing remote from everything that went on round her. I continued to experience a sense of being at once drawn to her, and yet cut off from her utterly.

….It is not unusual for people who look exceptionally robust, and who indulge in hobbies of a comparatively dangerous kind, to suffer from poor health. Stripling belonged to this category. On that account he had been unable to take an active part in the war; unless – as Peter had remarked – persuading Babs to run away with him while her husband was at the front might be regarding as Jimmy having “done his bit.” This was no doubt an unkind way of referring to what had happened; and, if Peter’s own account of Babs’s early married life was to be relied upon, there was at least something to be said on her side, as her first husband, whatever his merits as a soldier, had been a far from ideal husband. It was, however, unfortunate from Stripling’s point of view that his forerunner’s conduct had been undeniably gallant; and this fact had left him with a consuming hatred for all who had served in the armed forces. Indeed, anyone who mentioned, even casually, any matter that reminded him that a war had taken place was liable to be treated by him in a most peremptory manner; although, at the same time, all his topics of conversation seemed, sooner or later, to lead to this subject. His state of mind was perhaps the outcome of too many persons like Peter having made the joke about “doing his bit.” In consequence of this attitude he gave an impression of marked hostility towards Sunny Farebrother.

….Later in life, I learnt that many things one may require have to be weighed against one’s dignity, which can be an insuperable barrier against advancement in almost any direction. However, in those days, choice between dignity and unsatisfied curiosity, was less clear to me as a cruel decision that had to be made.

….This ideal conception – that one should have an aim in life – had, indeed, only too often occurred to me as an unsolved problem; but I was still far from deciding what form my endeavours should ultimately take. Being at that moment unprepared for an a priori discussion as to what the future should hold, I made several rather lame remarks to the effect that I wanted one day “to write:” an assertion that had not even the merit of being true, as it was an idea that had scarcely crossed my mind until that moment.

….This was about the stage when I began to become dimly conscious of what Short was trying to convey when he spoke of Sillery’s influence, and his intrigues; although, as far as it went, a parent’s discussion of her son’s future with a don still seemed natural enough. Sillery, I thought, was like Tiresias: for, although predominantly male, for example, in outward appearance, he seemed to have the seer’s power of assuming female character if required. With Truscott, for instance, he would behave like an affectionate aunt; while his perennial quarrel with Brightman – to take another instance of his activities – was often conducted with a mixture of bluntness and self-control that certainly could not be thought at all like a woman’s row with a man: or even with another woman; though, at the same time, it was a dispute that admittedly transcended somehow a difference of opinion between two men. Certainly Sillery had no dislike for the company of women in the way of ordinary social life, provided they made no personal demands on him. I was anxious to see how he would deal with Mrs. Foxe.

Meanwhile, I continued occasionally to see something of Quiggin, although I came no nearer to deciding which of the various views held about him were true. He was like Widmerpool, as I have said, in his complete absorption in his own activities, and also in his ambition. Unlike Widmerpool, he made no parade of his aspirations, on the contrary, keeping as secret as possible his appetite for getting on in life, so that even when I became aware of the purposeful way in which he set about obtaining what he wanted, I could never be sure where precisely his desires lay. He used to complain of the standard of tutoring, or how few useful lectures were available, and at times he liked to discuss his work in great detail. In fact I thought, at first, that he worked far harder than most of the men I knew. Later I came to doubt this, finding that Quiggin’s work was something to be discussed rather than tackled, and that what he really enjoyed was drinking cups of coffee at odd times of day. He had another characteristic with which I became in due course familiar: he was keen on meeting people he considered important, and surprisingly successful in impressing persons – as he seemed to have impressed Truscott – who might have been reasonably expected to take amiss his manner and appearance.

….There are certain people who seem inextricably linked in life; so that meeting one acquaintance in the street means that a letter, without fail, will arrive in a day or two from an associate involuntarily harnessed to him, or her, in time. Le Bas’s appearance was one of those odd preludes that take place, and give, as it were, dramatic form, to occurrences that have more than ordinary significance. It is as if the tempo altered gradually, so that too violent a change of sensation should not take place; in this case, that some of the atmosphere of school should be reconstructed, although only in a haphazard fashion, as if for an amateur performance, in order that I should not meet Stringham in his new surroundings without a reminder of the circumstances in which we had first known one another.

For some reason, during the following day in London, I found myself thinking all the time of Le Bas’s visit; although it was long before I came to look upon such transcendental manipulation of surrounding figures almost as a matter of routine.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

What Pongo had to tell: The Night Sea-Maid Went Down by Brian Lumley

I purchased the Barnes and Noble anthology Sea-Cursed: Thirty Terrifying Tales of the Deep in June 1994. Tales of the sea (William Hope Hodgson, C.S. Forrester, Nicholas Monsarrat, Alastair Maclean, Patrick O'Brian, Hammond Innes) have been perennial pleasures.

The only story I can remember reading from the book is Conrad's "The Brute," which I've enthused abjectly about here.

This month the Facebook Group Alone With the Horrors is featuring a nautical theme. Which recalled Sea-Cursed to mind. Sadly, my copy is long lost, but a little online detective work turns up locations for nearly all the stories.

The Night Sea-Maid Went Down

Lumley is a problematic writer for me. He seems to have been self-taught, and was apparently adopted early, like Ramsey Campbell, by Arkham House. What he lacks in appetite for complication, he makes up for in pastichist gusto. I don't actively despise pastiche, but the stars have to be right to enjoy it.

I read a little Lumley thirty years ago. I have completely forgotten The Burrowers Beneath (1974). Demogorgon (1987) leaves a positive echo; did it take place in Greece? Necroscope (1986) was a fun spy-vampire thriller in a style reminiscent of John Gardner. I never read any more Harry Keogh stories.

"The Night Sea-Maid Went Down" (1969) is crippled by retrospective first person narration, which lets the air out of a promising story taking place on a North Sea oil rig. Lumley does not (or cannot) create much nautical or engineering verisimilitude. A lubberly tone prevails.



....Now, you’ll remember that right from the start there was something funny about the “site” off Hunterby Head. The divers had trouble; the geologists, too, with their instruments; and it was the very devil of a job to float Sea-Maid down from Sunderland and get her anchored there; but nevertheless the preliminaries were all completed by late in September. Which, where I’m concerned, was where the trouble started.

We hadn’t drilled more than six-hundred feet into the sea-bed when we brought up that first star-shaped thing. Now, Johnny, you know something?—I wouldn’t have given two damns for the thing—except I’d seen one before. Old Chalky Grey (who used to be with the “Lescoil” rig Ocean-Jem, out of Liverpool) had sent me one only a few weeks before his platform and all the crew, including Chalky himself, went down twelve miles out from Withnersea. Somehow, when I saw what came up in the big core—that same star-shape—well, I couldn’t help but think of Chalky and see some sort of nasty parallel. The one he’d sent me came up in a core, too, you see? And Ocean-Jem wasn’t the only rig lost last year in so-called “freak storms”!

there was a certain member of the team who saw what was coming and got out before it happened—and it was mainly because of the star-shaped things that he went!

Joe Borszowski was the man—superstitious as hell, panicky, spooked at the sight of a mist on the sea—and when he saw the star-thing…!

It happened like this:

We’d drilled that first difficult bore through some very hard stuff down to a depth of some six hundred feet when a core-sample produced the first of the stars.

Now, Chalky had reckoned the one he sent me to be a fossilized star-fish of sorts from some time when the North Sea was warm, a very ancient thing; and I must admit that with its five-pointed shape and being the size of a small star-fish I believed him to be correct. Anyway, when I showed the Sea-Maid star to old Borszowski he nearly went crackers. He swore we were in for trouble and demanded we all stop drilling and head for land right away. He insisted that our location was “accursed” and generally carried on like a mad thing without attempting to offer anything like a real explanation.

....before Davies’ accident, there was that further trouble with Borszowski. It was in the sixth week, when we were expecting to break through at any time, that Joe failed to come back off shore-leave. Instead he sent me a long, rambling letter—a supposedly “explanatory” letter—and to be truthful, when I read it I figured we were better off without him.

The man had quite obviously been cracking up for a long time. He went on about monsters (yes, monsters!), sleeping in great caverns underground and especially under the seas, waiting for a chance to take over the surface world. He said that those stone, star-shaped things were seals or barriers that kept these beings (“gods”, he called them) imprisoned; that these gods could control the weather to a degree; that they were even capable of influencing the actions of lesser creatures—such as fish, or, occasionally, men—and that he believed one of them must he lying there, locked in the ground beneath the sea, pretty close to where we were drilling. He was afraid we were “going to set it loose”! The only thing that had stopped him pressing the matter earlier (when he’d carried on so about that first star-thing), was that then, as now, he believed we’d all think he was mad! Finally, though, and particularly since the trouble with the fish, he had had to warn me. As he put it: “If anything should happen, I would never be able to forgive myself if I had not at least tried.”

....I’ll never eat fish again.

The little devil: Petey by T.E.D. Klein

Reading “The Cat Jumps” by Elizabeth Bowen for the first time this week, I recalled that other great house-warming party tale, T.E.D. Klein's short novel Petey (1979).

Bowen’s story is a bravura sardonic short piece about petty bourgeois self-satisfaction. Its characters (well, except for Muriel) are all up to date and highly educated. Which makes their common collapse by the end of the story so satisfying. Humans are social animals, and Bowen indicates just how close to the surface the animal bit really is.

I first read Petey in the summer of 1986, in Klein's distinguished collection Dark Gods. (Apparently that book is now out of print.) One first and second reading, I could not fathom the plot. I came back to it this week (with a further thirty years of reading under my belt), and feel like I just read it for the first time.Petey is a rich work, written with assurance and flawlessly executed.

George and Phyllis are throwing a housewarming party in their new home in the wilds of Connecticut tobacco country. A dozen couples attend, green with envy that George, through connections and via some shady practice, made the deal of a lifetime.

The story covers the party from start to finish in about thirty thousand words. We follow the guests' interactions, and as they accumulate the menace builds. George senses a nemesis coming at him. You don't cheat a mad old hermit out of his home and just get away with it.

An excerpt will convey some of the flavor: M.R. James transplanted to Cheever and Updike country.









….Doris pointed to the woodcut." See? The farmer dresses him up in a little suit, and tucks him in at night, and he has himself a little friend."

" I don't think I'd want that thing for a friend."

"Well, that's the whole point. That's why he's called the Little Devil.

He's supposed to help the farmer tend the garden and clean the house, but he just causes mischief and eats up whatever's lying around.

Including a few of the neighbors."

Ellie shrugged." I'm afraid I don't approve of fairy tales, at least not for very young children. They're really quite frightening, and so many of them are unnecessarily violent, don't you think? Our two grew up quite nicely without them, thank God." She paused, then added, "Not that a steady diet of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew is so much better, of course." ill- "Oh, these stories wouldn't frighten anyone. They're all told with tongue in cheek. Typically French."

"French, huh? That reminds me-that's what I came in for, something French. What's this book called?" She turned to the title page, Folk Tales from Provenge. Hmm, no author listed, I see. How about the story?"

"None there, either. All I know is, it's called, "The Little Devil." I don't know what the title is in French." She closed the a thump; the sound seemed excessively loud in so silent a room.

The attic door slammed loudly; he hadn't counted on the wind pulling it closed. Bathed in the warmth of the hall, he turned the corner, and froze involuntarily at the figure in the doorway-though his brain had long since identified it.

" Sorry, Walt. I wake you?"

Walter stumbled back to the bed, his eyes puffy and half shut.

Creases from the quilt were etched into the side of his face." Jesus," he muttered, a slackness still about his lips, "it's a good thing you did.

I was having one hell of a nightmare."

George followed him into the room and stood awkwardly by the bed; he wished that Walter had picked somewhere else to sleep. He had left a sour, liquory smell in the room.

"Boy, it'll take me a while to get over this one. It seemed so goddamned real."

George smiled." They all do, that's the point."

The other was not comforted." I can still picture the whole thing.

It was night, I remember-"

"Are you sure you want to talk about it? You'll forget faster if you put it out of your mind." He was bored by other people's dreams.

"No, man, you've got it backwards. You're supposed to talk about your nightmares. Helps you get rid of em." Walter shook his head and eased himself back on the quilt, the bedsprings twanging with each shift of his body." It was at night, you see, but early, just after the sun had gone down-don't ask me how I know -and I was driving home.

The countryside was exactly like it is around here."

"Here? You mean this part of the state?"

"Yeah. Only it was around seven at night, a few hours ago, and Joyce wasn't with me. I was alone in the car, and I wanted to get home. And somehow-you know how it is in dreams-I knew I'd lost my way. All the roads began looking the same, and I remember being very conscious of the fact that it was getting darker and darker all the time, and that if it got too dark I'd never make it. I was driving on this road that led through a tobacco field, just like the one we passed tonight-"

"Right, it's a big crop around here. We've got plantations just down the road."

"Yeah, crazy-looking things, laid out so flat and regular… But I could barely see the land. It was dark now, except for a little glow in the sky, and I was driving very, very slowly, trying to find my way.

You know, kind of following the beams of my headlights… And then way off in the field I noticed a farmer or someone, one of the hired hands, way out there in the tobacco, so I pulled over to the side of the road and leaned across the front seat, you know, to ask directions… And I'd unrolled the window and was yelling to him when the man turned and made this odd movement with his head, kind of nodding at me, only I couldn't see the face, and then he came toward the car and bent down and I could see that it wasn't a man."

George gave him a moment's silence, then asked, "So what was it, then?"

The other rubbed his eyes." Oh, something pale, puffy, not completely formed… I don't know, it was only a dream."

"But, God damn it, you were just saying how realistic it was!" He found himself glancing toward the window, the shadow of the elm, and was angry.

"Well, you know how quickly you forget dreams, once you tell'em…Doris pointed to the woodcut." See? The farmer dresses him up in a little suit, and tucks him in at night, and he has himself a little friend."

" I don't think I'd want that thing for a friend."

"Well, that's the whole point. That's why he's called the Little Devil.

He's supposed to help the farmer tend the garden and clean the house, but he just causes mischief and eats up whatever's lying around.

Including a few of the neighbors."

Ellie shrugged." I'm afraid I don't approve of fairy tales, at least not for very young children. They're really quite frightening, and so many of them are unnecessarily violent, don't you think? Our two grew up quite nicely without them, thank God." She paused, then added, "Not that a steady diet of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew is so much better, of course." ill- "Oh, these stories wouldn't frighten anyone. They're all told with tongue in cheek. Typically French."

"French, huh? That reminds me-that's what I came in for, something French. What's this book called?" She turned to the title page, Folk Tales from Provenge. Hmm, no author listed, I see. How about the story?"

"None there, either. All I know is, it's called, "The Little Devil." I don't know what the title is in French." She closed the a thump; the sound seemed excessively loud in so silent a room.

The attic door slammed loudly; he hadn't counted on the wind pulling it closed. Bathed in the warmth of the hall, he turned the corner, and froze involuntarily at the figure in the doorway-though his brain had long since identified it.

" Sorry, Walt. I wake you?"

Walter stumbled back to the bed, his eyes puffy and half shut.

Creases from the quilt were etched into the side of his face." Jesus," he muttered, a slackness still about his lips, "it's a good thing you did.

I was having one hell of a nightmare."

George followed him into the room and stood awkwardly by the bed; he wished that Walter had picked somewhere else to sleep. He had left a sour, liquory smell in the room.

"Boy, it'll take me a while to get over this one. It seemed so goddamned real."

George smiled." They all do, that's the point."

The other was not comforted." I can still picture the whole thing.

It was night, I remember-"

"Are you sure you want to talk about it? You'll forget faster if you put it out of your mind." He was bored by other people's dreams.

"No, man, you've got it backwards. You're supposed to talk about your nightmares. Helps you get rid of em." Walter shook his head and eased himself back on the quilt, the bedsprings twanging with each shift of his body." It was at night, you see, but early, just after the sun had gone down-don't ask me how I know -and I was driving home.

The countryside was exactly like it is around here."

"Here? You mean this part of the state?"

"Yeah. Only it was around seven at night, a few hours ago, and Joyce wasn't with me. I was alone in the car, and I wanted to get home. And somehow-you know how it is in dreams-I knew I'd lost my way. All the roads began looking the same, and I remember being very conscious of the fact that it was getting darker and darker all the time, and that if it got too dark I'd never make it. I was driving on this road that led through a tobacco field, just like the one we passed tonight-"

"Right, it's a big crop around here. We've got plantations just down the road."

"Yeah, crazy-looking things, laid out so flat and regular… But I could barely see the land. It was dark now, except for a little glow in the sky, and I was driving very, very slowly, trying to find my way.

You know, kind of following the beams of my headlights… And then way off in the field I noticed a farmer or someone, one of the hired hands, way out there in the tobacco, so I pulled over to the side of the road and leaned across the front seat, you know, to ask directions… And I'd unrolled the window and was yelling to him when the man turned and made this odd movement with his head, kind of nodding at me, only I couldn't see the face, and then he came toward the car and bent down and I could see that it wasn't a man."

George gave him a moment's silence, then asked, "So what was it, then?"

The other rubbed his eyes." Oh, something pale, puffy, not completely formed… I don't know, it was only a dream."

"But, God damn it, you were just saying how realistic it was!" He found himself glancing toward the window, the shadow of the elm, and was angry.

"Well, you know how quickly you forget dreams, once you tell'em…”