Saturday, March 17, 2018

In war everything had to be used that was useful: The Thin Red Line by James Jones (1962)

….It was amazing how the longer one lasted in this business, the less sympathy one felt for others who were getting shot up as long as oneself was in safety. Sometimes the difference was a matter of only a very few yards. But terror became increasingly limited to those moments when you yourself were in actual danger….

The Thin Red Line has nothing in common with any Pacific war story I am familiar with. No melodrama, no change-the-course-of-the-war inflationary blather.

James Jones gives the reader war-fighting as a job: episodic, atomizing, open-ended, harrowing and ridiculous.

As we follow rifle company C-for-Charlie from the day they land on Guadalcanal in 1942, characters are transformed in the forcing-frame of combat. But the absurd sniping and competition among GIs for pelf and place, for more responsibility and for less, has as much place in the narrative as fighting against emaciated, starving Japanese soldiers.

The most harrowing combat scene comes with the wounding of Pvt.Tella:

….That whole fucking outrageous ridge was one giant honeycomb of emplacements. It was a regular fortress. He himself was fast nearing the limbo of total mental exhaustion. It was hard to try and act fearless for your men when you were actually full of fear. And Beck wanted reinforcements!

Stein had lain and watched Keck lead his three pitiful little squads up that goddamned ridge with tears in his eyes. Beside him George Band had lain and watched eagerly through the glasses, smiling toughly. But Stein had choked up, cried enough moisture so that everything blurred and he had to wipe his eyes out quickly. He had personally counted every one of the twelve to go down. They were his men, and he had failed in his responsibility to each one who fell. And now he was being asked to send more after them.

Well, he could give him the two remaining squads of 2d Platoon. Pull them back out and put the reserve 3d Platoon up on the crest to fire cover. That would work all right. But before he did it, he intended to talk to Col Tall and get Tall's opinion and assent. Stein simply did not want that responsibility, not all alone. Rolling over, he motioned to Corporal Fife to bring him the telephone. God, but he was bushed. It was just then that Stein first heard from down in the little valley the first thin, piping yells.

They sounded insane. What they lacked in volume, and they lacked a great deal, they more than made up in their penetrating qualities, and in their length. They came in a series, each lasting five full seconds, the whole lasting thirty seconds. Then there was silence under the high-hanging, jouncing racket of noise.

"Jesus!" Stein said fervently. He looked over at Band, whom he found looking back at him with squinted, dilated eyes.

"Christ!" Band said.

From below, high and shrill, the series of yells came again. They were not screams.

Stein was able to pick him out easily with the glasses, which brought him up very close, too close for comfort. He had fallen almost at the bottom of the slope, seventy-five or eighty yards, not far from the other one, the Mississippian Catt, who—seen through the glasses—was clearly dead. Now he was trying to crawl back. He had been hit squarely in the groin with a burst of heavy MG fire which had torn his whole belly open. Lying on his back, his head uphill, both hands pressed to his belly to hold his intestines in, he was inching his way back up the slope with his legs. Through the glasses Stein could see blue-veined loops of intestine bulging between the bloodstained fingers. Inching was hardly the word, since Stein estimated he was making less than half an inch per try. He had lost his helmet, and his head thrown back on his neck, his mouth and his eyes wide open, he was staring directly up at Stein as if he were looking into a Promised Land. As Stein watched, he stopped, laid his head flat, and closing his eyes he made his series of yells again. They came to Stein's ears faintly, exactly in the same sequence as they had before. Then, resting a second and swallowing, he yelled something else.

"Help me! Help me!" Stein heard. Feeling sick and dizzy in the area of his diaphragm, he lowered the glasses and handed them to Band.

"Tella," he said.

Bank looked a long time. Then he too lowered the glasses. There was a flat, scared look in his eyes when he looked back at Stein. "What're we gonna do?" Band said.

Trying to think of some answer to this, Stein felt something touch him on the leg. He yelped and jumped, fear running all through his body like quicksilver. Whirling around, he found himself staring downslope into the fear-ridden eyes of Corporal Fife, who was holding out to him the telephone. Too upset even to be sheepish or angry, Stein waved him away impatiently. "Not now. Not now." He began to call for a medic, one of whom was already on his way. From below the insane series of yells came again, identical, unchanging.

Stein and Band were not the only ones to have heard them. The entire remainder of the 2d Platoon lying along the crest of the fold had heard them. So had the medic who was now running bentover along the slope to Stein. So had Fife.

When his commander waved him away with the telephone, Fife had collapsed exactly where he was and flattened himself as low to the ground as he could get. The mortar shells were still falling at roughly one-minute intervals; sometimes you could hear their fluttery shu-ing sound for two seconds before they hit; and Fife was completely terrorized by them. He had lost the power to think reasonably, and had become a piece of inert protoplasm which could be made to move, but only when the proper stimuli were applied. Since making up his mind that he would do exactly what he was told, but exactly that and no more, he had lain exactly where he had been until Stein called him for the telephone. Now he lay exactly where he had dropped and waited to be told to do something else. This gave him little comfort, but he had no desire to see or do more. If his body would not work well, his mind could, and Fife realized that by far the great majority of the company were reacting like himself. But there were still those others who, for one reason or another of their own, got up and walked about and offered to do things without being told first. Fife knew it, because he had seen them—otherwise he wouldn't have believed it. His reaction to these was one of intense, awed hero worship composed of about two-thirds grinding hate, and shame. But when he tried to force his body to stand up and walk around, he simply could not make it do it. He was glad that he was a clerk whose job was to take care of the telephone and not a squad noncom up there with Keck, Beck, McCron and the others, but he would have preferred to be a clerk at Battalion Hq back on Hill 209, and more than that a clerk at Regiment back down in the coconut groves, but most of all a clerk at Army Hq in Australia, or in the United States. Just above him up the slope he could hear Bugger Stein talking with the medic, and he caught the phrase "his belly blown open." Then he caught the word "Tella". So it was Tella who was yelling down there like that. It was the first concrete news Fife had had of anyone since the two dead lieutenants and Grove. He pressed his face to the dirt sickly, while Bugger and the medic moved off a few feet for another look. Tella had used to be a buddy of his, for a while at least. Built like a Greek god, never very bright, he was the most amiable of men, despite his career in life as a honeydipper in Cambridge Mass. And now Tella was suffering in actual reality the fate which Fife all morning had been imagining would be his own. Fife felt sick. It was so different from the books he'd read, so much more final. Slowly, in trepidation at even raising it that far, he lifted his head a fraction off the dirt to peer with pain-haunted, fear-punctured eyes at the two men with the binoculars. They were still talking. "Can you tell?" Stein asked, anxiously. "Yes, sir. Enough," the medic said. He was the senior one, the more studious looking. He handed the glasses to Stein and put back on his spectacles. "There's nothing anybody can do that'll help him. He'll be dead before they can ever get him back to a surgeon. And he's got dirt all over his bowels. Even sulfa won't fix that. In these jungles?"

There was a pause before Stein spoke again. "How long?"

"Two hours? Four, maybe? Maybe only one, or less."

"But, God damn it, man!" Stein exploded. "We can't any of us stand it that long!" He paused. "Not counting him! And I can't ask you to go down there."

The medic studied the terrain. He blinked several times behind his glasses. "Maybe it's worth a try."

"But you said yourself nobody could do anything to help him."

"At least I could get a syrette of morphine into him."

"Would one be enough?" Stein asked. "I mean, you know, would it keep him quiet?"

The medic shook his head. "Not for long." He paused. "But I could give him two. And I could leave him three or four for himself."

"But maybe he wouldn't take them. He's delirious. Couldn't you just, sort of, give them all to him at once?" Stein said.

The medic turned to look at him. "That would kill him, sir."

"Oh," Stein said.

"I couldn't do that," the medic said. "I really couldn't."

"Okay," Stein said grimly. "Well, do you want to try it?"

From below the set, unchanging series of yells, the strangely mechanical cries of the man they were talking about, rose up to them, precise, inflexible, mad, a little quavery toward the end, this time.

"God, I hope he don't begin to cry," Stein said. "God damn it!" he yelled, balling a fist. "My company won't have any fighting spirit left at all if we don't do something about him!"

"I'll go, sir," the medic said solemnly, answering the question of before. "After all, it's my job. And after all, it's worth a try, isn't it, sir?" he said, nodding significantly toward the spot where the series of yells had now ceased. "To stop the yells."

"God," Stein said, "I don't know."

"I'm volunteering. I've been down there before, you know. They won't hit me, sir."

"But you were on the left. It's not as bad there."

"I'm volunteering," the medic said, blinking at his Captain owlishly.

Stein waited several seconds before he spoke. "When do you want to go?"

"Any time," the medic said. "Right now." He started to get up.

Stein put out a restraining arm. "No, wait. At least I can give you some covering fire."

"I'd rather go now, sir. And get it over with."

They had been lying side by side, their helmets almost touching as they talked, and now Stein turned to look at the boy. He could not help wondering whether he had talked this boy into volunteering. Perhaps he had. He sighed. "Okay. Go ahead."

The medic nodded, looking straight ahead this time, then sprang up into a crouch, and was gone over the crest of the fold.

It was all over almost before it got started. Running like some fleeting forest animal, his medic's web equipment flopping, he reached the damaged Tella, swung round to face him up the hill, then dropped to his knees, his hands already groping at the pouch which held his syrettes. Before he could get the protective cap off the needle, one MG, one single MG, opened up from the ridge stitching across the area. Through the glasses Stein watched him jerk straight up, eyes and mouth wide, face slack, not so much with disbelief or mental shock as with sheer simple physiological surprise. One of the objects which had struck him, not meeting bone, was seen to burst forth through the front of him puffing out the green cloth, taking a button with it and opening his blouse a notch. Stein through the glasses saw him jab the now-bared needle, whether deliberately by design or from sheer reflex, into his own forearm below the rolled up sleeve. Then he fell forward on his face crushing both the syrette and his hands beneath him. He did not move again.

Stein, still holding the glasses on him, waited. He could not escape a feeling that something more important, more earthshaking should happen. Seconds ago he was alive and Stein was talking to him; now he was dead. Just like that. But Stein's attention was pulled away before he could think more, pulled away by two things. One was Tella, who now began to scream in a high quavery babbling falsetto of hysteria totally different from his former yells. Looking at him now through the glasses—he had almost forgotten him entirely in watching the medic—Stein saw that he had flopped himself over on his side, face pressing the dirt. Obviously he had been hit again, and while one bloodstained hand tried to hold in his intestines, the other groped at the new wound in his chest. Stein wished that at least they had killed him, if they were going to shoot him up again. This screaming, which he ceased only long enough to draw sobbing breath, was infinitely more bad than the yells for everyone concerned, both in its penetration and in its longevity. But they were not firing more now. And as if to prove it deliberate a faint faraway voice called several times in an Oriental accent, "Cly, Yank, cly! Yerl, Yank, yerl!"

The other thing which caught Stein's attention was something which caught the corner of his eye in the glasses as he lay looking at Tella and wondering what to do. A figure emerged from the grass on the righthand ridge plodding rearward across the flat and began to mount the forward slope of the fold. Turning the glasses on him, Stein saw that it was his Sergeant McCron, that he was wringing his hands, and that he was weeping. On his dirty face two great white streaks of clean skin ran from eye to chin accentuating the eyes as if he were wearing the haunting makeup of a tragic actor in some Greek drama. And on he came, while behind him Japanese MGs and smallarms opened up all across the ridge, making dirt puffs all around him. Still he came on, shoulders hunched, face twisted, wringing his hands, looking more like an old woman at a wake than an infantry combat soldier, neither quickening his pace nor dodging. In a kind of incredulous fury Stein watched him, frozen to the glasses. Nothing touched him. When he reached the top of the fold, he sat down beside his Captain still wringing his hands and weeping.

"Dead," he said. "All dead, Capn. Every one. I'm the only one. All twelve. Twelve young men. I looked after them. Taught them everything I knew. Helped them. It didn't mean a thing. Dead."

Obviously, he was talking only of his own twelve-man squad, all of whom Stein knew could not be dead.

From below, because he was still sitting up in the open beside his prone Captain, someone seized him by the ankle and hauled him bodily below the crest. To Corporal Fife, who had seen the vomiting Sico go and who now lay looking up at McCron with his own fear-starting eyes, there was some look not exactly sly about his face but which appeared to say that while what he was telling was the truth, it was not all the truth, and which made Fife believe that like Sico McCron had found his own reasonable excuse. It did not make Fife angry. On the contrary, it made him envious and he yearned to find some such mechanism which he might use with success himself.

Stein apparently felt somewhat the same thing himself. With only one further look at the handwringing, still weeping, but now safe McCron, Stein turned his head and called for the medic.

"Here, sir," the junior medic said from immediately below him. He had come up on his own.

"Take him back. Stay with him. And when you get back there, tell them we need another medic now. At least one."

"Yes, sir," the boy said solemnly. "Come on, Mac. That's it. Come on, boy. It'll be all right. It'll all be all right."

"You don't understand that they're all dead," McCron said earnestly. "How can it be all right?" But he allowed himself to be led off by the arm. The last C-for-Charlie saw of him was when he and the medic dropped behind the second fold, now seventy-five to a hundred yards behind them. Some of them were to see his haunted face in the Division's hospital later, but the company as a whole saw him no more.

Stein sighed. With this last, new crisis out of the way and taken care of, he could turn his attention back to Tella. The Italian was still screaming his piercing wailing scream and did not seem to show any indication that he was ever going to run down. If it kept on, it was going to unnerve them all. For a fleet second Stein had a lurid romantic vision of taking up his carbine and shooting the dying man through the head. You saw that in movies and read it in books. But the vision died sickly away, unfulfilled. He wasn't the type and he knew it. Behind him his reserve platoon, cheeks pressed to earth, stared at him from their tense, blank, dirty faces in a long line of white, nerve-racked eyes. The screaming seemed to splinter the air, a huge circular saw splitting giant oak slabs, shivering spinal columns to fragments. But Stein did not know what to do. He could not send another man down there. He had to give up. A hot unbelieving outraged fury seized him at the thought of McCron plodding leisurely back through all that fire totally unscathed. He motioned furiously to Fife to hand him the phone, to take back up the call to Colonel Tall which Tella's first screams had interrupted. Then, just as he was puckering to whistle, a large green object of nature on his right, a green boulder topped by a small metallic-colored rock, rose up flapping and bellowing. Taking earthly matters into its own hands, it bounded over the crest of the fold growling guttural obscenities before Stein could even yell the one word, "Welsh!" The First Sergeant was already careering at full gallop down into the hollow.

Welsh saw everything before him with a singular, pristine, furiously crystal clarity: the rocky thin-grassed slope, mortar- and bullet-pocked, the hot bright sunshine and deep cerulean sky, the incredibly white clouds above the towering highup horseshoe of the Elephant's Head, the yellow serenity of the ridge before him. He did not know how he came to be doing this, nor why. He was simply furious, furious with a graven, black, bitter hatred of everything and everybody in the whole fucking gripeassed world. He felt nothing. Mindlessly, he ran. He looked curiously and indifferently, without participation, at the puffs of dirt which had begun now to kick up around him. Furious, furious. There were three bodies on the slope, two dead, one alive and still screaming. Tella simply had to stop that screaming; it wasn't dignified. Puffs of dirt were popping up all around him now. The clatterbanging which had hung in the air at varying levels all through the day had descended almost to ground level, now, and was aimed personally and explicitly at him. Welsh ran on, suppressing a desire to giggle. A curious ecstasy had gripped him. He was the target, the sole target. At last it was all out in the open. The truth had at last come out. He had always known it. Bellowing "Fuck you!" at the whole world over and over at the top of his lungs, Welsh charged on happily. Catch me if you can! Catch me if you can!

Zigzigging professionally, he made his run down. If a fucking nut like McCron could simply walk right out, a really bright man like himself in the possession of his faculties could get down and back. But when he skidded to a stop on his belly beside the mutilated Italian boy, he realized he had made no plans about what to do when he got here. He was stumped, suddenly, and at a loss. And when he looked at Tella, an embarrassed kindliness came over him. Gently, still embarrassed, he touched the other on the shoulder. "How goes it, kid?" he yelled inanely.

In mid-scream Tella rolled his eyes around like a maddened horse until he could see who it was. He did not stop the scream.

"You got to be quiet," Welsh yelled, staring at him grimly. "I came to help you."

It had no reality to Welsh. Tella was dying, maybe it was real to Tella, but to Welsh it wasn't real, the blueveined intestines, and the flies, the bloody hands, the blood running slowly from the other, newer wound in his chest whenever he breathed, it had no more reality for Welsh than a movie. He was John Wayne and Tella was John Agar.

Finally the scream stopped of itself, from lack of breath, and Tella breathed, causing more blood to run from the hole in his chest. When he spoke, it was only a few decibels lower than the scream. "Fuck you!" he piped. "I'm dying! I'm dying, Sarge! Look at me! I'm all apart! Get away from me! I'm dying!" Again he breathed, pushing fresh blood from his chest.

"Okay," Welsh yelled, "but goddam it, do it with less noise." He was beginning to blink now, and his back to crawl, whenever a bullet flipped up dirt.

"How you going to help me?"

"Take you back."

"You can't take me back! You want to fucking help me, shoot me!" Tella screamed, his eyes wide and rolling.

"You're off your rocker," Welsh yelled in the noise. "You know I can't do that."

"Sure you can! You got your pistol there! Take it the fuck out! You want to help me, shoot me and get it over with! I can't stand it! I'm scared!"

"Does it hurt much?" Welsh yelled.

"Sure it hurts, you dumb son of a bitch!" Tella screamed. Then he paused, to breathe, and bleed, and then he swallowed, his eyes closed. "You can't take me back."

"We'll see," Welsh yelled grimly. "You stick with old Welsh. Trust old Welsh. Did I ever give you a bum steer?" He was aware now—he knew—that he wouldn't be able to stay much longer. Already he was flinching and jerking and jumping uncontrollably under the fire. Crouching he ran around to Tella's head and got him under the armpits and heaved. In his own arms Welsh could feel the body stretch even before Tella screamed.

"Aaa-eeeee!" The scream was terrible. "You're killing me! You're pulling me apart! Put me down, goddam you! Put me down!"

Welsh dropped him quickly, by simple reflex. Too quickly. Tella landed heavily, sobbing. "You son of a bitch! You son of a bitch! Leave me alone! Leave me alone! Don't touch me!"

"Stop that yelling," Welsh yelled, feeling abysmally stupid, "it ain't dignified." Blinking, his nerves already fluttering like fringe in a high wind now and threatening to forsake him, he scrambled grimly around to Tella's side. "All right, we'll do it this way, then." Slipping one arm under the Italian's knees and the other under his shoulders, he lifted. Tella was not a small man, but Welsh was bigger, and at the moment he was endowed with superhuman strength. But when he heaved him up to try and carry him like a child, the body jackknifed almost double like a closing pocketknife. Again there was that terrible scream.

"Aaa-eeeee! Put me down! Put me down! You're breaking me in two! Put me down!"

This time Welsh was able to let him down slowly.

Sobbing, Tella lay and vituperated him. "You son of a bitch! You fucker! You bastard! I told you leave me alone! I never ast you to come down here! Go away! Leave me alone! You shiteater! Stay away from me!" And turning his head away and closing his eyes, he began his desperate, wailing, piercing scream again.

Five yards above them on the slope a line of machinegun bullets slowly stitched itself across from left to right. Welsh happened to be looking straight at it and saw it. He did not even bother to think how all the gunner had to do was depress a degree. All he could think about now was getting out of here. And yet how could he? He had come all this way down here. And he had not saved Tella, and he had not shut him up. Nothing. Except to cause more pain. Pain. With sudden, desperate inspiration he leaped across the prostrate Tella and began rummaging in the dead medic's belt pouches.

"Here!" he bellowed. "Tella! Take these! Tella!"

Tella stopped screaming and opened his eyes. Welsh tossed him two morphine syrettes he had found and began to attack another pouch.

Tella picked one up. "More!" he cried when he saw what they were. "More! Gimme more! More!"

"Here," Welsh yelled, and tossed him a double handful he had found in the other pouch, and then turned to run.

But something stopped him. Crouched like a sprinter at the gun, he turned his head and looked at Tella one more time. Tella, already unscrewing the cap from one of the syrettes was looking at him, his eyes wide and white. For a moment they stared at each other.

"Goodby," Tella cried. "Goodby, Welsh!"

"Goodby, kid," Welsh yelled. It was all he could think of to say. For that matter, it was all he had time to say, because he was already off and running. And he did not look back to see whether Tella took the syrettes. However, when they were able to get to him safely later in the afternoon, they found ten empty morphine syrettes scattered all around him. The eleventh remained stuck in his arm. He had taken them one after the other, and there was an at least partially relaxed look on his dead face….


17 March 2018

Friday, March 16, 2018

He really believed he bought it: The Pistol by James Jones

…."Why does everybody want my pistol?" Mast said, almost plaintively.

"Well, why do you want it yourself?" Burton said.

"I don't really know. I guess it's because of those Samurai sabers. I got a hunch—a very strong hunch—it might save me from one of them someday. And I want to be saved. I guess it makes me feel more comfortable."

"Well, you can pretty nearly bet the others feel like you do," Burton said. "That's always a safe bet, I've found. You notice the Topkicker has one, in addition to his rifle. So does old Sergeant Pender."

"Sergeant Pender's had his since the first World War."

Doesn't matter. He's got it. And so does everybody else who can get themselves hold of one. I see no reason why I shouldn't have one too, if I can get one. You know yourself, Mast, that it's always the squad leaders and the officers that those Jap officers head for. We're more of a target than you privates. I could give you a lot of yak about me having responsibilities to my men and all that guff, and it wouldn't be entirely untrue either. But it ain't really the main point. The main point's that I want to be saved out of this war just as you or anybody."

"And so you want to buy my chance of being saved away from me."

"Sure, if I can. And don't forget, I'm offering you a higher price than anybody else around here could."

"Yeah, okay. And then what'll happen to me when we get into combat?"

"Hell, Mast, this outfit may never get into combat. We may sit the whole war out guardin' this island. And it's damned unlikely the Japs will ever try to invade it now. And if that happens, if we do stay here, well, I'm just out and you're ahead, that's all. I'm just gambling with you, that's the size of it."

"Some gamble," Mast said unhappily.

"If the outfit did go into combat, there's no reason why you should have to. With your education," Burton said. "Being a high school graduate and all, you could go into the orderly room or get yourself a good desk job, even, in personnel or someplace else in the Rear Echelon. Any time you wanted."

"Yeah, everybody tells me that. Everybody that wants my pistol, anyway. I don't want a job in the Rear Echelon. I'm not yellow."

"But maybe you'd be helping the war effort better if you did."

"To hell with the war effort. I'm not yellow. I may be scared, but I'm not a coward."

"Well, that's up to you," Burton said. "I think you're silly. Not to take advantage of a safe deal like that.

"Anyway, just don't sell my roadguard short. It's a hell of a good deal. Hell, we're even cookin' our own meals down there now. We get hamburger every day off those people. Steak, every other day. And we've always got some whiskey around. Don't think my roadguard ain't a good deal."

"Yeah. I know that," Mast said unhappily.

"Take some time to think about it," Burton said. "Don't make up your mind right now. I know it's a tough decision. I'll come back later." He got up off the rock outcropping where they had both been sitting, nodded brusquely, and started off. But after he had gone a few yards, he stopped and turned back.

"Don't think I didn't think a long time about it before deciding to make you an offer like this. But I don't think it's bad or dishonorable. Otherwise I wouldn't do it."

There was a look almost of appeal in Burton's level gaze, but Mast was too immersed in his own unhappiness to respond more than feebly.

"Yeah. I guess so, too. Well, I'll let you know."


The Pistol is a 1959 novella written by James Jones. Compared to his two previously published novels, From Here to Eternity (1951) and Some Came Running (1957), it is modest to the point of self-effacement.

The Pistol gives us a sketch of life for a rifle company on Oahu in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor: stringing barbed wire, guarding beaches, winning and losing small fortunes at craps and poker.

Protagonist Richard Mast, a Pfc on orderly duty when the bombs begin to fall, decides to keep the pistol he was issued for this duty. It's a crime not to return the pistol and its holster, belt, and lanyard, but Mast convinces himself the weapon is his key to surviving in combat.  He knows there is a Japanese officer with a sword already preparing to grapple with him at some future place of rendezvous.

Mast makes a fetish of the pistol, living with it and sleeping with it every night.

Other members of his platoon crave the pistol for the same semi-abstract reasons as Mast.  In fact, most of the novel's action and humor flow from Mast trying to out-think men stronger and more implacable than himself as he struggles keep possession of his talisman.

At each turn in the story, Mast tries to erase the memory of his theft, and nearly succeeds in convincing himself he bought the pistol from a guy in another unit.

The pistol may not grant the same ecstasy as gold, but there is ecstasy to be found as a custodian.  Even temporarily.

16 March 2018

Thursday, March 15, 2018

An atmosphere of peculiar circumstances and strange happenings: Algernon Blackwood

I spent the beginning of this week reading stories by Algernon Blackwood.  Previously I had only read "The Willows" and "The Wendigo." I thought the observance this week  of his 149th birthday would be a good opportunity for rectification.

Blackwood is a fine writer with a real connection to the sublimity of the natural world.  But I also appreciate his urban tales, stories of young and broke men trying to make their livings as journalists and private secretaries, stuck in ugly little rooming houses.

Below are some excerpts that struck a human chord with me.


16 March 2018


Keeping His Promise

...."You were feeding — no one," said Greene "Field ate and drank nothing. He was not there at all!"

"But the breathing?" urged the other in a low voice, staring with a dazed expression on his face. Greene did not answer


A Case of Eavesdropping

....Certain incidents, important and otherwise, of Jim's life would never have come to be told here but for the fact that in getting into his "messes" and out of them again he succeeded in drawing himself into the atmosphere of peculiar circumstances and strange happenings. He attracted to his path the curious adventures of life as unfailingly as meat attracts flies, and jam wasps. It is to the meat and jam of his life, so to speak, that he owes his experiences; his after-life was all pudding, which attracts nothing but greedy children. With marriage the interest of his life ceased for all but one person, and his path became regular as the sun's instead of erratic as a comet's....


The Willows

....Contrary to our expectations, the wind did not go down with the sun. It seemed to increase with the darkness, howling overhead and shaking the willows round us like straws. Curious sounds accompanied it sometimes, like the explosion of heavy guns, and it fell upon the water and the island in great flat blows of immense power. It made me think of the sounds a planet must make, could we only hear it, driving along through space.

But the sky kept wholly clear of clouds, and soon after supper the full moon rose up in the east and covered the river and the plain of shouting willows with a light like the day.

We lay on the sandy patch beside the fire, smoking, listening to the noises of the night round us, and talking happily of the journey we had already made, and of our plans ahead. The map lay spread in the door of the tent, but the high wind made it hard to study, and presently we lowered the curtain and extinguished the lantern. The firelight was enough to smoke and see each other's faces by, and the sparks flew about overhead like fireworks. A few yards beyond, the river gurgled and hissed, and from time to time a heavy splash announced the falling away of further portions of the bank.

Our talk, I noticed, had to do with the far-away scenes and incidents of our first camps in the Black Forest, or of other subjects altogether remote from the present setting, for neither of us spoke of the actual moment more than was necessary — almost as though we had agreed tacitly to avoid discussion of the camp and its incidents. Neither the otter nor the boatman, for instance, received the honor of a single mention, though ordinarily these would have furnished discussion for the greater part of the evening. They were, of course, distinct events in such a place.

The scarcity of wood made it a business to keep the fire going, for the wind, that drove the smoke in our faces wherever we sat, helped at the same time to make a forced draught. We took it in turn to make foraging expeditions into the darkness, and the quantity the Swede brought back always made me feel that he took an absurdly long time finding it; for the fact was I did not care much about being left alone, and yet it always seemed to be my turn to grub about among the bushes or scramble along the slippery banks in the moonlight. The long day's battle with wind and water — such wind and such water! — had tired us both, and an early bed was the obvious program. Yet neither of us made the move for the tent. We lay there, tending the fire, talking in desultory fashion, peering about us into the dense willow bushes, and listening to the thunder of wind and river. The loneliness of the place had entered our very bones, and silence seemed natural, for after a bit the sound of our voices became a trifle unreal and forced; whispering would have been the fitting mode of communication, I felt, and the human voice, always rather absurd amid the roar of the elements, now carried with it something almost illegitimate. It was like talking out loud in church, or in some place where it was not lawful, perhaps not quite safe, to be overheard.

The eeriness of this lonely island, set among a million willows, swept by a hurricane, and surrounded by hurrying deep waters, touched us both, I fancy. Untrodden by man, almost unknown to man, it lay there beneath the moon, remote from human influence, on the frontier of another world, an alien world, a world tenanted by willows only and the souls of willows. And we, in our rashness, had dared to invade it, even to make use of it! Something more than the power of its mystery stirred in me as I lay on the sand, feet to fire, and peered up through the leaves at the stars. For the last time I rose to get firewood.

"When this has burnt up," I said firmly, "I shall turn in," and my companion watched me lazily as I moved off into the surrounding shadows.

For an unimaginative man I thought he seemed unusually receptive that night, unusually open to suggestion of things other than sensory. He too was touched by the beauty and loneliness of the place. I was not altogether pleased, I remember, to recognize this slight change in him, and instead of immediately collecting sticks, I made my way to the far point of the island where the moonlight on plain and river could be seen to better advantage. The desire to be alone had come suddenly upon me; my former dread returned in force; there was a vague feeling in me I wished to face and probe to the bottom.

When I reached the point of sand jutting out among the waves, the spell of the place descended upon me with a positive shock. No mere "scenery" could have produced such an effect. There was something more here, something to alarm.

I gazed across the waste of wild waters; I watched the whispering willows; I heard the ceaseless beating of the tireless wind; and, one and all, each in its own way, stirred in me this sensation of a strange distress. But the willows especially: for ever they went on chattering and talking among themselves, laughing a little, shrilly crying out, sometimes sighing — but what it was they made so much to-do about belonged to the secret life of the great plain they inhabited. And it was utterly alien to the world I knew, or to that of the wild yet kindly elements. They made me think of a host of beings from another plane of life, another evolution altogether, perhaps, all discussing a mystery known only to themselves. I watched them moving busily together, oddly shaking their big bushy heads, twirling their myriad leaves even when there was no wind. They moved of their own will as though alive, and they touched, by some incalculable method, my own keen sense of the horrible.

There they stood in the moonlight, like a vast army surrounding our camp, shaking their innumerable silver spears defiantly, formed all ready for an attack.

The psychology of places, for some imaginations at least, is very vivid; for the wanderer, especially, camps have their "note" either of welcome or rejection. At first it may not always be apparent, because the busy preparations of tent and cooking prevent, but with the first pause — after supper usually — it comes and announces itself. And the note of this willow-camp now became unmistakably plain to me: we were interlopers, trespassers, we were not welcomed. The sense of unfamiliarity grew upon me as I stood there watching. We touched the frontier of a region where our presence was resented. For a night's lodging we might perhaps be tolerated; but for a prolonged and inquisitive stay — No! by all the gods of the trees and the wilderness, no! We were the first human influences upon this island, and we were not wanted….


Ancient Sorceries

....strong actions set up forces that are so slow to exhaust themselves, they may be said in a sense never to die.

....Ilsé stood beside him, peering into his face.

Some dark substance, he saw, stained the girl's face and skin, shining in the moonlight as she stretched her hands towards him; she was dressed in wretched tattered garments that yet became her mightily; rue and vervain twined about her temples; her eyes glittered with unholy light. He only just controlled the wild impulse to take her in his arms and leap with her from their giddy perch into the valley below.

"See!" she cried, pointing with an arm on which the rags fluttered in the rising wind towards the forest aglow in the distance. "See where they await us! The woods are alive! Already the Great Ones are there, and the dance will soon begin! The salve is here! Anoint yourself and come!"

Though a moment before the sky was clear and cloudless, yet even while she spoke the face of the moon grew dark and the wind began to toss in the crests of the plane trees at his feet. Stray gusts brought the sounds of hoarse singing and crying from the lower slopes of the hill, and the pungent odour he had already noticed about the courtyard of the inn rose about him in the air.

"Transform, transform!" she cried again, her voice rising like a song. "Rub well your skin before you fly. Come! Come with me to the Sabbath, to the madness of its furious delight, to the sweet abandonment of its evil worship! See! the Great Ones are there, and the terrible Sacraments prepared. The Throne is occupied. Anoint and come! Anoint and come!"

She grew to the height of a tree beside him, leaping upon the wall with flaming eyes and hair strewn upon the night. He too began to change swiftly. Her hands touched the skin of his face and neck, streaking him with the burning salve that sent the old magic into his blood with the power before which fades all that is good.

A wild roar came up to his ears from the heart of the wood, and the girl, when she heard it, leaped upon the wall in the frenzy of her wicked joy.

"Satan is there!" she screamed, rushing upon him and striving to draw him with her to the edge of the wall. "Satan has come. The Sacraments call us! Come, with your dear apostate soul, and we will worship and dance till the moon dies and the world is forgotten!"

Just saving himself from the dreadful plunge, Vezin struggled to release himself from her grasp, while the passion tore at his reins and all but mastered him. He shrieked aloud, not knowing what he said, and then he shrieked again. It was the old impulses, the old awful habits instinctively finding voice; for though it seemed to him that he merely shrieked nonsense, the words he uttered really had meaning in them, and were intelligible. It was the ancient call. And it was heard below. It was answered.

The wind whistled at the skirts of his coat as the air round him darkened with many flying forms crowding upwards out of the valley. The crying of hoarse voices smote upon his ears, coming closer. Strokes of wind buffeted him, tearing him this way and that along the crumbling top of the stone wall; and Ilsé clung to him with her long shining arms, smooth and bare, holding him fast about the neck. But not Ilsé alone, for a dozen of them surrounded him, dropping out of the air. The pungent odour of the anointed bodies stifled him, exciting him to the old madness of the Sabbath, the dance of the witches and sorcerers doing honour to the personified Evil of the world.

"Anoint and away! Anoint and away!" they cried in wild chorus about him. "To the Dance that never dies! To the sweet and fearful fantasy of evil!"

Another moment and he would have yielded and gone, for his will turned soft and the flood of passionate memory all but overwhelmed him, when — so can a small thing after the whole course of an adventure — he caught his foot upon a loose stone in the edge of the wall, and then fell with a sudden crash on to the ground below. But he fell towards the houses, in the open space of dust and cobblestones, and fortunately not into the gaping depth of the valley on the farther side....


Max Hensig

....So now he laughed to himself, and turned on those whizzing brooms of his, trying to forget these first impressions of Hensig, and simply going in, as he did a hundred other times, to get an ordinary interview with an ordinary prisoner. This habit, being nothing more nor less than the practice of suggestion, was more successful sometimes than others. This time — since fear is less susceptible to suggestion than other emotions — it was less so.

Williams got his interview, and came away fairly creeping with horror. Hensig was all that he had felt, and more besides. He belonged, the reporter felt convinced, to that rare type of deliberate murderer, coldblooded and calculating, who kills for a song, delights in killing, and gives its whole intellect to the consideration of each detail, glorying in evading detection and revelling in the notoriety of the trial, if caught. At first he had answered reluctantly, but as Williams plied his questions intelligently, the young doctor warmed up and became enthusiastic with a sort of cold intellectual enthusiasm, till at last he held forth like a lecturer, pacing his cell, gesticulating, explaining with admirable exposition how easy murder could be to a man who knew his business. And he did know his business! No man, in these days of inquests and post-mortem examination, would inject poisons that might be found weeks afterwards in the viscera of the victim. No man who knew his business!

"What is more easy," he said, holding the bars with his long white fingers and gazing into the reporter's eyes, "than to take a disease germ ('cherm' he pronounced it) of typhus, plague, or any cherm you blease, and make so virulent a culture that no medicine in the vorld could counteract it; a really powerful microbe — and then scratch the skin of your victim with a pin? And who could drace it to you, or accuse you of murder?"

Williams, as he watched and heard, was glad the bars were between them; but, even so, something invisible seemed to pass from the prisoner's atmosphere and lay an icy finger on his heart. He had come into contact with every possible kind of crime and criminal, and had interviewed scores of men who, for jealousy, greed, passion or other comprehensible emotion, had killed and paid the penalty of killing. He understood that. Any man with strong passions was a potential killer. But never before bad he met a man who in cold blood, deliberately, under no emotion greater than boredom, would destroy a human life and then boast of his ability to do it. Yet this, he felt sure, was what Hensig had done, and what his vile words shadowed forth and betrayed. Here was something outside humanity, something terrible, monstrous; and it made him shudder. This young doctor, he felt, was a fiend incarnate, a man who thought less of human life than the lives of flies in summer, and who would kill with as steady a hand and cool a brain as though he were performing a common operation in the hospital.

Thus the reporter left the prison gates with a vivid impression in his mind, though exactly how his conclusion was reached was more than he could tell. This time the mental brooms failed to act. The horror of it remained....


The Listener

....Last night, however, the annoyance was suddenly renewed another and more aggressive form. I woke in the darkness with the impression that someone was standing outside my bedroom door listening. As I became more awake the impression grew into positive knowledge. Though there was no appreciable sound of moving or breathing, I was so convinced of the propinquity of a listener that I crept out of bed and approached the door. As I did so there came faintly from the next room the unmistakable sound of someone retreating stealthily across the floor. Yet, as I heard it, it was neither the tread of a man nor a regular footstep, but rather, it seemed to me, a confused sort of crawling, almost as of someone on his hands and knees. I unlocked the door in less than a second, and passed quickly into the front room, and I could feel, as by the subtlest imaginable vibrations upon my nerves, that the spot I was standing in had just that instant been vacated! The Listener had moved; he was now behind the other door, standing in the passage. Yet this door was also closed. I moved swiftly, and as silently as possible, across the floor, and turned the handle. A cold rush of air met me from the passage and sent shiver after shiver down my back. There was no one in the doorway; there was no one on the little landing; there was no one moving down the staircase. Yet I had been so quick that this midnight Listener could not be very far away, and I felt that if I persevered I should eventually come face to face with him. And the courage that came so opportunely to overcome my nervousness and horror seemed born of the unwelcome conviction that it was somehow necessary for my safety as well as my sanity that I should find this intruder and force his secret from him. For was it not the intent action of his mind upon my own, in concentrated listening, that had awakened me with such a vivid realisation of his presence?

Advancing across the narrow landing, I peered down into the well of the little house. There was nothing to be seen; no one was moving in the darkness. How cold the oilcloth was to my bare feet.

I cannot say what it was that suddenly drew my eyes upwards. I only know that, without apparent reason, I looked up and saw a person about half-way up the next turn of the stairs, leaning forward over the balustrade and staring straight into my face. It was a man. He appeared to be clinging to the rail rather than standing on the stairs. The gloom made it impossible to see much beyond the general outline, but the head and shoulders were seemingly enormous, and stood sharply silhouetted against the skylight in the roof immediately above. The idea flashed into my brain in a moment that I was looking into the visage of something monstrous. The huge skull, the mane-like hair, the wide-humped shoulders, suggested, in a way I did not pause to analyse, that which was scarcely human; and for some seconds, fascinated by horror, I returned the gaze and stared into the dark, inscrutable countenance above me, without knowing exactly where I was or what I was doing.

Then I realised in quite a new way that I was face to face with the secret midnight Listener, and I steeled myself as best I could for what was about to come....


The Nemesis of Fire

...."Yes, I'm coming to that," [Colonel Wragge] said slowly, "but the wood first, for this wood out of which they grew like mushrooms has nothing in any way peculiar about it. It is very thickly grown, and rises to a clearer part in the centre, a sort of mound where there is a circle of large boulders — old Druid stones, I'm told. At another place there's a small pond. There's nothing distinctive about it that I could mention — just an ordinary pine-wood, a very ordinary pine-wood — only the trees are a bit twisted in the trunks, some of 'em, and very dense. Nothing more.

"And the stories? Well, none of them had anything to do with my poor brother, or the keeper, as you might have expected; and they were all odd — such odd things, I mean, to invent or imagine. I never could make out how these people got such notions into their heads."

He paused a moment to relight his cigar.

"There's no regular path through it," he resumed, puffing vigorously, "but the fields round it are constantly used, and one of the gardeners whose cottage lies over that way declared he often saw moving lights in it at night, and luminous shapes like globes of fire over the tops of the trees, skimming and floating, and making a soft hissing sound — most of 'em said that, in fact — and another man saw shapes flitting in and out among the trees, things that were neither men nor animals, and all faintly luminous. No one ever pretended to see human forms — always queer, huge things they could not properly describe. Sometimes the whole wood was lit up, and one fellow — he's still here and you shall see him — has a most circumstantial yarn about having seen great stars lying on the ground round the edge of the wood at regular intervals —"

"What kind of stars?" put in John Silence sharply, in a sudden way that made me start.

"Oh, I don't know quite; ordinary stars, I think he said, only very large, and apparently blazing as though the ground was alight. He was too terrified to go close and examine, and he has never seen them since."

He stooped and stirred the fire into a welcome blaze — welcome for its blaze of light rather than for its heat. In the room there was already a strange pervading sensation of warmth that was oppressive in its effect and far from comforting....


Secret Worship

Harris, the silk merchant, was in South Germany on his way home from a business trip when the idea came to him suddenly that he would take the mountain railway from Strassbourg and run down to revisit his old school after an interval of something more than thirty years.

....The very smell of the cooking came back to him — the daily Sauerkraut, the watery chocolate on Sundays, the flavour of the stringy meat served twice a week at Mittagessen; and he smiled to think again of the half-rations that was the punishment for speaking English. The very odour of the milk-bowls — the hot sweet aroma that rose from the soaking peasant-bread at the six o'clock breakfast — came back to him pun-gently, and he saw the huge Speisesaal with the hundred boys in their school uniform, all eating sleepily in silence, gulping down the coarse bread and scalding milk in terror of the bell that would presently cut them short — and, at the far end where the masters sat, he saw the narrow slit windows with the vistas of enticing field and forest beyond....


The Man Whom the Trees Loved

....There followed a summer of great violence and beauty; of beauty, because the refreshing rains at night prolonged the glory of the spring and spread it all across July, keeping the foliage young and sweet; of violence, because the winds that tore about the south of England brushed the whole country into dancing movement. They swept the woods magnificently, and kept them roaring with a perpetual grand voice. Their deepest notes seemed never to leave the sky. They sang and shouted, and torn leaves raced and fluttered through the air long before their usually appointed time. Many a tree, after days of roaring and dancing, fell exhausted to the ground. The cedar on the lawn gave up two limbs that fell upon successive days, at the same hour too — just before dusk. The wind often makes its most boisterous effort at that time, before it drops with the sun, and these two huge branches lay in dark ruin covering half the lawn. They spread across it and towards the house. They left an ugly gaping space upon the tree, so that the Lebanon looked unfinished, half destroyed, a monster shorn of its old-time comeliness and splendor. Far more of the Forest was now visible than before; it peered through the breach of the broken defenses. They could see from the windows of the house now — especially from the drawing-room and bedroom windows — straight out into the glades and depths beyond.

Mrs. Bittacy's niece and nephew, who were staying on a visit at the time, enjoyed themselves immensely helping the gardeners carry off the fragments. It took two days to do this, for Mr. Bittacy insisted on the branches being moved entire. He would not allow them to be chopped; also, he would not consent to their use as firewood. Under his superintendence the unwieldy masses were dragged to the edge of the garden and arranged upon the frontier line between the Forest and the lawn. The children were delighted with the scheme. They entered into it with enthusiasm. At all costs this defense against the inroads of the Forest must be made secure. They caught their uncle's earnestness, felt even something of a hidden motive that he had; and the visit, usually rather dreaded, became the visit of their lives instead. It was Aunt Sophia this time who seemed discouraging and dull.

"She's got so old and funny," opined Stephen.

But Alice, who felt in the silent displeasure of her aunt some secret thing that alarmed her, said:

"I think she's afraid of the woods. She never comes into them with us, you see."

"All the more reason then for making this wall impreg — all fat and thick and solid," he concluded, unable to manage the longer word. "Then nothing — simply nothing — can get through. Can't it, Uncle David?"

And Mr. Bittacy, jacket discarded and working in his speckled waistcoat, went puffing to their aid, arranging the massive limb of the cedar like a hedge.

"Come on," he said, "whatever happens, you know, we must finish before it's dark. Already the wind is roaring in the Forest further out." And Alice caught the phrase and instantly echoed it. "Stevie," she cried below her breath, "look sharp, you lazy lump. Didn't you hear what Uncle David said? It'll come in and catch us before we've done!"

They worked like Trojans, and, sitting beneath the wisteria tree that climbed the southern wall of the cottage, Mrs. Bittacy with her knitting watched them, calling from time to time insignificant messages of counsel and advice. The messages passed, of course, unheeded. Mostly, indeed, they were unheard, for the workers were too absorbed. She warned her husband not to get too hot, Alice not to tear her dress, Stephen not to strain his back with pulling. Her mind hovered between the homeopathic medicine-chest upstairs and her anxiety to see the business finished....


The Glamour of the Snow

....He knew by some incalculable, swift instinct she would not meet him in the village street. It was not there, amid crowding houses, she would speak to him. Indeed, already she had disappeared, melted from view up the white vista of the moonlit road. Yonder, he divined, she waited where the highway narrowed abruptly into the mountain path beyond the châlets.

It did not even occur to him to hesitate; mad though it seemed, and was — this sudden craving for the heights with her, at least for open spaces where the snow lay thick and fresh — it was too imperious to be denied. He does not remember going up to his room, putting the sweater over his evening clothes, and getting into the fur gauntlet gloves and the helmet cap of wool. Most certainly he has no recollection of fastening on his ski; he must have done it automatically. Some faculty of normal observation was in abeyance, as it were. His mind was out beyond the village — out with the snowy mountains and the moon.

Henri Défago, putting up the shutters over his café windows, saw him pass, and wondered mildly: "Un monsieur qui fait du ski à cette heure! Il est Anglais, done ...!" He shrugged his shoulders, as though a man had the right to choose his own way of death. And Marthe Perotti, the hunchback wife of the shoemaker, looking by chance from her window, caught his figure moving swiftly up the road. She had other thoughts, for she knew and believed the old traditions of the witches and snow-beings that steal the souls of men. She had even heard, 'twas said, the dreaded "synagogue" pass roaring down the street at night, and now, as then, she hid her eyes. "They've called to him ... and he must go," she murmured, making the sign of the cross.

But no one sought to stop him. Hibbert recalls only a single incident until he found himself beyond the houses, searching for her along the fringe of forest where the moonlight met the snow in a bewildering frieze of fantastic shadows. And the incident was simply this — that he remembered passing the church. Catching the outline of its tower against the stars, he was aware of a faint sense of hesitation. A vague uneasiness came and went — jarred unpleasantly across the flow of his excited feelings, chilling exhilaration. He caught the instant's discord, dismissed it, and — passed on. The seduction of the snow smothered the hint before he realised that it had brushed the skirts of warning.

And then he saw her. She stood there waiting in a little clear space of shining snow, dressed all in white, part of the moonlight and the glistening background, her slender figure just discernible.

"I waited, for I knew you would come," the silvery little voice of windy beauty floated down to him. "You had to come."

"I'm ready," he answered, "I knew it too."

The world of Nature caught him to its heart in those few words — the wonder and the glory of the night and snow. Life leaped within him. The passion of his pagan soul exulted, rose in joy, flowed out to her. He neither reflected nor considered, but let himself go like the veriest schoolboy in the wildness of first love….