…. Do you remember, in Peer Gynt, towards the end of the play, there is the famous storm scene? Peer is on board ship, returning home at last from his adventures. He stands on the deck watching the storm. Then suddenly he becomes aware that someone is standing beside him at the rail—a Stranger. Peer had thought himself the only passenger on board, yet now he falls into conversation with this mysterious travelling-companion. The man bargains with Peer for his body if he should die in the storm. In the end, unsatisfied, he leaves Peer—he goes down the companion way. Peer asks the ship's boy who the Strange Traveller is.
"There is no other traveller," says the boy. "You are the only passenger."
"But someone was with me a moment ago," cries Peer. "Who was it that went down the companion way just now?"
"No one, sir," says the boy. "Only—the ship's dog . . ."
The Other Passenger
John Keir Cross
With a new introduction by J. F. Norris
I'm not sure what the historical landscape of horror literature for the period 1890-1990 would look like without the efforts of Valancourt Books.
Certainly the record would not be accurate. The finest craftsmen would be footnotes, their paperbacks available only on Ebay for hundreds of the dollars. The invisible hand of the horror fiction market works with greater speed and finality than the dreams of a censor.
One area for which I have a passion, and in which Valancourt has done yeoman service, is in the world of UK horror fiction. John Keir Cross's collection The Other Passenger (originally published in 1944) is an outstanding example of the type.
This is not the UK horror of M.R. James and the Bensons. It is the other UK – the world of strange crime, horrific anecdote, and ghastly punchlines whose masters are John Metcalfe, John Collier, L.P. Hartley, and Gerald Kersh. Keir Cross is an outstanding contributor to this aleatory themed thread (it can hardly be called a "school").
Keir Cross characters are slapped down by mere coincidences, by their own unacknowledged psychological fault lines, as much as they are sometime victims of the supernatural. Often they do not understand they have been something horrible until they piece together their stories in retrospect.
The Kier Cross voice owes much to Somerset Maugham. It is a confidence, cosmopolitan, and educated voice, slightly bored with everyday life and everyday pretensions.
Narrator Bob Malpas strikes that tone at the beginning of "Petronella Pan."
....When I got into the Church Hall that day three years ago I was, at the same time, amused and slightly frightened. Have you ever seen a horde of babies?—a real horde of them, not only one or two together? A terrible, an awesome sight. Squat bundles of flesh, red and raw-looking, clasped to the bosoms of proud mothers. Babies ranging in age from three months to two years—mothers ranging in age from sixteen to forty. The hall sweated love. What could I—a cynic, a misanthropist, a man too aware of the Worm—what could I do in such an atmosphere but cringe a little and wonder more than ever at people like Barrie and Katherine Mansfield?
The narrator of the incomparable "Clair de Lune" achieves something similar, hinting at a deep vein of misanthropy at the same time:
....We sat down—Christine on a hessian-covered pouf, I on a hard, perfectly flat wooden stool that gave me hell after the first ten minutes.
Mrs. Fletcher—one of the mascara-eyed women—talked on and on and on about George Moore. It seemed that she had been his sole confidante—their conversations must have been interminable. Dobson, as a constant background, fingered his lute. The young man with the horse face—Hector Lowe, the runner—came in, having presumably completed his five miles, and then we all drank weak China tea from handleless home-baked cups.
Christine sat on her immense behind, her skirt flaring out all round her, her brows drawn intensely together. I suffered a damnable torture from my hardwood stool and wished myself a thousand miles away.
The only way to really appreciate Keir Cross is to read his stories. They initially seem bent on lulling us, and the reader wonders how a story is going to be made out of such material. But then the sweating begins, and the rushing in the ears, and we are in his grip.
Below are my notes (mostly excerpts).
The Glass Eye • (1944) • short story
A spinster office worker throws over her job and savings to pursue to most handsome mane she has ever seen, a music hall ventriloquist.
…."Mr. Collodi?" she said, hesitantly. Her voice sounded thin and false—not herself speaking at all, but someone else; someone else in her body, trembling, aching, sick in the stomach.
"Max Collodi, at your service," he replied, still smiling.
And suddenly there swept into her, as she sat there, a terrible, an overwhelming desire. It was a desire she had experienced before, in the Old Palace, when it had seemed that the acrobat was going to fall on top of Bernard—the desire to touch. She wanted to touch Collodi—to touch his hand, his forehead, his blue-tinted jaw. And after those thirty-seven years this craving, gathered and condensed in this one moment, was not possibly to be denied.
Petronella Pan • (1944) • short story
"There was, then," he said, "a woman. You must picture her as a very beautiful woman." (I had a composite vision suddenly of Marie and Mary and Beatrice and Nellie). "But vain—inordinately vain." (Bitches all, I remembered, if truth be told). "In course of time she married. She married a very clever man—a biological research chemist. She grew big with child and was delivered of an exquisite babe—the inheritor of her good looks. And behold, all the pride she had hitherto felt in her own beauty she now felt in the beauty of her child. People said they had never seen a lovelier baby, and the woman thrilled as ecstatically as she ever had at a personal compliment. One day she read an announcement of a baby show. She entered her little daughter for it—she was then, I fancy, one year old—and naturally she won first prize: there was plainly no other child to compare with this cherubic one. A little intoxicated by her outstanding success (for the judge had been wildly eulogistic), the woman kept her eyes open for announcements of other baby shows about the country. And the next six months she spent in travelling all over England in a sort of delirium, winning prize after prize. It became, with her, an obsession. It was almost, so to speak, her trade."
The old man paused and gazed mistily through the window of the pub to the Church Hall opposite, with its Wayside Pulpit message plain to view. He chuckled and sipped at his beer.
"Alas," he went on, "there's always a Worm. The woman knew, from her glass, that beauty fades. She knew that her baby was almost two, and that there must be an end soon to the heap of trophies accumulating on her dresser at home. And she was seized with a sort of panic. And a defiance, too, God help her. It seemed to her she was being robbed—something was slipping past her and she could not grasp at it. There were long nights of despair when she lay staring into the darkness while her husband snored dully by her side, with no knowledge of the weeping anguishes that were going on in the same bed with him. Yet it was that very hoggishness and indifference of her husband that in the end gave the woman the idea. One night, as he snored, she thought angrily: 'What does he care, lying lumpishly asleep! He and his wretched researches, his injection into harmless guinea-pigs!' Then she stopped short and drew a long shivering gasping breath. No matter how stupid a woman is she is bound to know something about her husband's work. And this woman, married to a biologist, had certainly, most devilishly certainly—heard of Glands!"
The Last of the Romantics • (1944) • short story
Thomson, the narrator, is the true monster, happy to relate a ghastly anecdote to his mistress as prelude to greater acts of nastiness to come.
"I could eat you, Patsy," said Purbeck. "Mouthful by mouthful—very slowly and deliciously—thirty-two chews to each bite, the way Mr. Gladstone recommended. I'd have those sparkling eyes in a cocktail, on the end of little sticks—like cherries."
She laughed—a shade uncomfortably. And glanced to the mirror on the wall beside her to see that her lipstick wasn't smudged.
"Don't be silly, Thomson," she said. "You are silly sometimes—you say such silly things."
"Patsy, dear," he went on, "if you only knew it you've given me the most wonderful cue of my whole life. If I waited a thousand years I'd never get a cue like that again. I'll always adore you for it—always. After we've been to bed together once or twice we'll probably drift apart, we two—you'll find me with another woman one day. Or we'll have a lovely scene and you'll accuse me of mental cruelty. Maybe you'll cry for an hour or two—I hope you do: I like to feel that a good woman is shedding tears for me. Then you'll recover and marry someone very solid. And later on you'll remember me as something in your life that was a little bit haunting—and, shall we say?—pleasantly unpleasant. You'll possibly even shudder. But I, Patsy—I shall remember you with everlasting gratitude as The Girl Who Gave Me The Perfect Cue!"
Clair de Lune • (1944) • novelette
We walked slowly about on the damp croquet lawn in the dusk, with the sweet sound of the recorder coming through the windows to us. I had a mallet in my hand, and now and again shot a ball absently towards a hoop.
"Tell me, Christine," I said, "what is the history of Crudleigh?"
"It used to be a row of cottages," she said. "They were built round about 1820—it was some sort of housing experiment, I think—a group of London ladies financed it—blue-stockings. Then round about the middle of the century a set of artists took them over and started a colony—the Crudleigh Water Colour Group—they had the same sort of ideas as the Pre-Raphaelites a little later on. Then in 1880 the cottages were reconstructed into one long house and some friends of William Morris's took it over. Tess bought it about three years ago, after it had been lying derelict for a time, and started running it as a guest house."
"For interesting people," I gibed. "No, what I meant, Christine, was—has anyone died here? Committed suicide, or been murdered—you know the sort of thing."
She looked at me strangely.
"Good heavens, Harry—what on earth put ideas like that in your head? Of course not—at least, I've never heard of any such thing."
I started on another tack. I sent a ball scooting through a hoop, then straightened myself, swinging the mallet.
"Tell me, Christine," I said, "why does Tess use wooden dishes? And why does she serve the food in them without salt?—that dreary vegetable soup, for instance?"
"Really, Harry! You know perfectly well that wooden dishes are a hundred times healthier than any other sort—besides, Tess makes them herself on the turning lathe—it's one of her crafts. And as for salt—if you took any interest in dietetics you'd know that mineral salt is bad for you: all the latest books say so. If you cook vegetables properly you don't need it—and it's far better for you without."
She went into a long statistical report about the latest situation in dietetics. I listened as patiently as I could. When she had finished she said:
"Anyway, Harry, why did you ask? It's not the sort of thing I should have thought you would have been interested in."
I remained swinging the mallet a long time. Then I said:
"Christine—in very old books—not the sort of books I suspect you've ever read—there are such things as witchcraft recipes and so on. One of them tells you to use wooden dishes and to cook without salt—that is, if you suspect that there are evil spirits in your house."
She stared at me, her brows drawn together.
"Harry! You are mad!"
Absence of Mind • (1944) • short story
Forgetfulness, or the self-mystifications of a kleptomaniac?
….It had been a beautiful pendant—beautiful: but really it was too much. It would have been nice, for instance, with the slightly décolleté gowns she wore when she was a member of a platform party opening a bazaar or a fête. She saw, in her mind's eye, people in the front rows staring—not at the Reverend MacNaughton as he made his speech, but past him at her, and particularly at her neck and bosom. Well, it would have been nice. But still . . . Mrs. Carpenter sighed and went on her way through the mountains of cretonne, the hats, the posturing wax figures and the shining pots and pans.
Before she went for lunch she walked once more through the jewellery department. The assistant was talking again at the far end of the counter and Mrs. Carpenter was able, unobserved, to put out an envious hand for one quick caress of the pendant. She sighed again, more deeply, and moved away, out of the store this time, to the little restaurant she patronised further along Oxford Street. Beautiful, beautiful. But still . . .
In the afternoon she went to a cinema, walking back past the big store to get to it, and in the darkness she undid her shoes. She sighed joyously at the relief, settled her spectacles more comfortably—she was very short-sighted—and gave herself up to a contemplation of the screen. But something kept her full attention from the mawkish love story she was watching. At first she did not know what it was—something vague and pleasant that her mind was keen to dwell on. And then, suddenly, as her eye caught a glitter from the jewels round the film heroine's throat, she realised that it was the pendant. Yes—the pendant and her desire for it. And thereafter it went on intruding itself. She had only the vaguest notions as to what the film was about: its scenes were interspersed with other scenes woven by her imagination. At tea, too, back in the little restaurant, the pendant was before her eyes—and in the train on the way back home. It glittered from the pages of the evening paper she tried to read, it shone among the trees and houses that slid past the carriage window. And all the time, as she thought of it, she sighed and went on sighing. Perhaps it was shameful to covet a thing—but she had liked the pendant so much . . .
Hands • (1944) • short story
A masterly story, one to rival Poe and Ramsey Campbell. Psychological, splattery horror turned up to a shattering intensity.
….I cannot deny that he has always been strange. In his recent letters to me I had the impression of something going on in him, something quite nebulous that was a worry and a goad. But even before these letters there was an unaccountable streak. In our days together at University I was constantly encountering a black wall of terrible morbidity—as if malevolent forces over which he had no control were at work inside.
Another Planet • (1944) • short story
….One of Harry's friends told Lily that her boy was in prison. But she didn't believe him. Later, she heard people say that Harry was probably going to be hanged. She didn't believe that either: it was happening on another planet. She sat in a large room while men in wigs talked at great length about Harry, who stood in a box, very pale and frightened. And it seemed to Lily that the ways of this other planet were inexpressibly strange.
Liebestraum • (1944) • short story
A spell-binding story which confidently inflicts a state of feverish dread on the reader. Mr. Mackenzie is like a character out of a poem by Masters or Robinson.
…."I liked that picture fine," she whispered, and he experienced an immense glow of satisfaction, as if he had made the film himself and she were praising him. He had bought some sweets for her and he put his hand gingerly into his pocket for them, but for some obscure reason he hesitated to pass them over. What could he say?—without seeming clumsy? "Here's some sweeties for you, Jessie . . ."? "Here—I bought you these . . ."? No. He decided to wait till the lights went down. But when the lights did go down he still did not withdraw his hand from his pocket.
When the show was over they walked towards her home, he silent and restrained, she talking animatedly about her favourite film stars, about people in the choral society and so on. He was amazed before such vitality. It seemed to him that he had not lived before at all. His life with Bella had been a shadow existence. Their way to Jessie's home led them past the house where he had spent his fourteen years of married life, and it seemed to him that he was meeting a ghost or hearing a far-off dismal echo. There, in the light of the street lamp, was the gate he had opened and closed so many times, the bleak little plot of grass, the shadowy porch with (and he saw it clearly in his mind's eye) its blistered paint, its knocker in the form of a devil's-head, its small brass plaque engraved MACKENZIE. Now there would be a different name, of course, there would be different furniture, different curtains. Someone else would be sitting before the range, some other woman would be standing in Bella's place by the sink. And yet he had a strange sense that if he walked up the path and knocked at the door, Bella would come and answer it—and beyond her, in the kitchen, he would see Mackenzie, the sanitary inspector, reading the evening paper.
Miss Thing and the Surrealist • (1944) • short story
Yet there were occasions of great seriousness—when suddenly something assumed momentous symbolical significance because, I am sure, of the way we had accustomed ourselves to look at life. I remember one night Jo Haycock and I were sitting talking in my room overlooking King's Road—in the World's End part of Chelsea, I should mention. It was late and wonderfully quiet—towards two a.m. And suddenly in a long gap in our quiet conversation there sheared beastily through the night a ghastly prolonged loud scream. We stared at each other and rushed downstairs.
We found a little shocked crowd on the pavement opposite. Some ambulance men came and the screaming ended when they took away the dreadful forlorn thing. A wretch of a prostitute had flung herself from the top floor of the tall house opposite the one in which I had my room. She had impaled herself on the area palings instead of dashing mercifully to the stone as she had hoped.
Jo and I went upstairs again and made tea. We were sick. We were haunted for days by the long scream of agony shearing out across the big quiet city. All the Surrealistic peering into the unconscious with its emphasis on the lower motives—all the speculation in the world could not satisfy the big strange question about Alice Emmanuel (as the papers told us her name was) and the black body falling through the night to the blunt hideous spikes.
But all this is not any part of the story—at least not directly. I should talk first about Kolensky and in doing so introduce Miss Thing.
Valdemosa • (1944) • short story
The Majorcan holiday of George Sand and Frederic Chopin. Seriously. And it's perfect.
"Oh," cried Solange, "it's chicken! It isn't pork after all—it's chicken!"
Antonia put the dish down before Madame Sand, stood for a moment grinning and wiping her hands, then shuffled out, her loose mules rustling the esparto mat.
The four looked hopefully at the brown and withered roast chicken before them. It was lean and dry—"as old as God," George muttered beneath her breath.
"I want a leg," cried Solange.
"You can't have it," said Maurice belligerently. "You had leg last time—it's your turn for wing this time."
Chopin sipped at his burgundy. Then his eye caught something and he stared at the chicken with horror. And simultaneously they all became aware that the brown, dried-up bird was covered with fleas.
"Ugh!" cried Madame Sand, her face twisted with disgust. "Antonia—for God's sake come here—Antonia! . . ."
Solange began to laugh delightedly and even Maurice gave a perverted smile.
Chopin said nothing. His lips were drawn tightly together, his hand gripped the knife with a nervous ferocity. Then he got up suddenly and went through to the next room. When Antonia shuffled in, wiping her wet nose with the back of her hand, he was coughing and spitting violently.
George signalled for the chicken to be removed. She leaned across the table, took Chopin's burgundy glass, and drained it at one gulp. Then she rose, lit one of the long thin cigars she favoured, and strode angrily backwards and forwards, puffing at it greedily.
Amateur Gardening • (1944) • short story
When I force myself to be honest I know that all the time I've been writing, I've been thinking over that last scene between us—seeing it dimly in my mind, misty and obstructed because of the mental effort to write. As in a glass darkly. (If ever I write the story of all this, that's what I'll call it—As In a Glass Darkly.) I remember going to her flat that night, knowing I shouldn't go, that it was already over between us. I had some flowers with me (futile gesture—I'd only bought them on the way to cover something up from myself) and a big slab of the cake she used to like so much. When I went in Dennis was already there. I had known he would be, of course, but somehow it was still a surprise—a surprise that what I had known had been confirmed, I imagine. Jenny was standing close to the fire—very tall and slim and dignified in a black gown. I gave her the flowers and the cake and then we all three looked at each other in a futile and foolishly antagonistic sort of way. There was nothing to stay for—nothing at all—but somehow it was absurd simply to disappear again. Besides, I wanted to look at them—I wanted to look at Dennis—to see why I'd failed and he succeeded . . .
The Little House • (1944) • short story
Just a beautifully set anecdote. Its only power is that it will make you weep.
Esmeralda • (1944) • short story
"Esmerelda" rivals "Hands" and "Liebestraum." A story of psychological disintegration, it has the power to sting and slap the reader repeatedly with at each new turning. There is no playing at cleverness here. Keir Cross simply gives us an imperishable tale.
Music When Soft Voices Die ... • (1944) • short story
Suddenly we became aware—simultaneously—that two of Gregory's assistants were moving towards us. Apparently the African trophies were the next item on the catalogue. I glanced quickly at Menasseh.
"Now's the time," I said smiling. "You seem interested in these drums of Erskine's. They're going up, I fancy. Are you buying?"
He gazed at me, his eyes large behind the thick glass of his spectacles.
"Oh no," he whispered. "Oh no. God forbid it . . ."
The two men in green baize aprons were lifting some of the larger drums, preparatory to carrying them over to Gregory's dais. Menasseh, I saw by this time, was looking quickly backwards and forwards in an access of nervous apprehension of some sort. He suddenly leaned close up to me.
"Ferguson," he said, "I can't keep it, I can't. I must tell someone. I want to see you—I must see you."
"We could go outside," I said, a little disturbed, I had to confess, by his urgency. "I shall not be bidding again. Will you?"
"No. No. Not here," he muttered. "Not here—I can't stay here. It has upset me too much—I must go away from here, quickly."
He fumbled in his waistcoat pocket and thrust a card into my hand.
"If you are in Dundee," he said, "if you should be in Dundee—"
"I have to be there at the end of this week, as it happens," I answered. "I have a little business which I am mixing with my holiday. Thursday, I should say—or possibly Friday."
"Good. Good. Then could you call on me? For God's sake could you call on me?"
I nodded: and he, in his nervousness, set his old head nodding up and down too. I fingered his card, looking at the address on it:
39, The Portway
"My business address," he said, reading my thoughts. "But come anytime, anytime this week. I shall be there. I have a little room behind the shop where I live—I only go to my house outside the city at week-ends and so on." Then, reading my thoughts still more deeply, he added: "My business is strange—very strange. Don't be surprised. It's a little—unpleasant. I don't tell people about it—I won't mention it here . . . But come, sir—oh for God's sake I beg you to come! It will haunt me, this—I'll have no peace!"
Cyclamen Brown • (1944) • short story
A London underworld tale of grim humor and misunderstanding. Not equal in intensity or grasp to the stories that precede it.
Couleur de Rose • (1944) • short story
And here was he talking of looking at the world through rose-coloured spectacles! The irony of it—the incredible irony of it!
The Lovers • (1944) • short story
Not a taxi business. A taxidermy business!
The Other Passenger • (1944) • novelette
…. Why should I waste time now by building up the dramatic climax? I should describe, in detail, with a cumulative atmosphere, the nailing of that terrible thing to the crosspiece, the weeping struggle I had to drape the sagging ancient clothes round its limbs, the ecstasy that was inside me as I packed the yellow straw tightly, tightly round the foot of it . . . But there is no dramatic climax. There is only, all about me, a flow of images.
….We go. Somehow we go. And with us goes always that other silent Passenger.