"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Sunday, December 31, 2017

A long way out on a thin plank over a deep sea: Horse Under Water by Len Deighton.

….I stepped on to the balcony. The stone floor was hot underfoot, and on the grey wooden chairs sat Buddha-like cats squinting into the sunlight. Charly was fixing coffee and toast in the kitchen, holding the front of her silk housecoat closed. I am pleased to tell you that a lot of the coffee-making was a two-handed job….

Horse Under Water (1963) is the first Len Deighton novel I have read. In winter 1991 I made several valiant attempts to summit the novel Winter, but I was too easily distracted.

Horse Under Water starts with our narrator Harry Palmer diving on a sunken World War Two-era German submarine on the coast of the Algarve in Portugal. The sub contains more than meets the eye. Counterfeit currency? A secret log? A weapon hitherto unknown to science? It's up to Palmer to sift the clues and outwit opponents.

(Being a longtime reader of Jack Higgins, I'm familiar with the dangers of sunken Nazi subs making a present-day reappearance. The dangers they pose are not just to divers. They usually contain secrets that will rock today's power-brokers.)

Palmer's biggest opponent as concerns the sub's ramifications seems to be plutocrat cabinet minister Henry Smith. Palmer has an audience with him halfway through the novel, and their conflict is lovingly adumbrated, acid-etched. Palmer leaves none of the fine furnishings of his nemesis unnoted


....The butler led me along soft corridors, men in red coats and tight trousers looked quietly down from the dark paintings lost in a penumbra of coach varnish. Mr Smith was seated behind a table polished like a guardsman's boot.

A slim eighteenth-century clock with frail marquetry panels paced out the silence, and from the Adam fireplace a coal fire ran pink fingers across the moulded ceiling. On Smith's table a lampshade marshalled the light on to heaps of papers and newspaper clippings. Only the crown of his head was visible. He spared me the embarrassment of interrupting his private study. The butler motioned me to a hostile Sheraton chair.

Smith ran a finger across the open book and scribbled in the margin of one of the typewritten sheets with a gold fountain pen. He turned up a corner of the page, ran a finger-nail along the crease and closed the leather cover.

'Smoke.' There was no trace of query in his voice. He pushed the box across the table with the back of his hand, recapped the pen and clipped it into his waistcoat pocket. He picked up his cigarette, put it into his mouth, drew on it without releasing his grasp on its battered tarnished shape, mashed it into the ashtray with controlled violence, disembowelling the shreds of tobacco from the lacerated paper with his long pink nails. He thumped the ash from his waistcoat.

'You wanted to see me?' he said.

I produced a bent blue packet of Gauloises. I lit one with a flick of the thumb-nail against a Swan match. I tossed the dead match towards the ashtray, allowing the trajectory to carry it on to Smith's pristine paperwork. He carefully picked it up and placed it in the ashtray. I drew on the harsh tobacco. 'No,' I said, denuding my voice of interest, 'not much.'

'You are discreet - that's good.' He picked up a battered filing card, held it under the light and quietly read from it a potted description of my career hi Intelligence.

'I don't know what you're talking about,' I said.

'Good, good,' said Smith, not at all discouraged. 'The report goes on, "inclined to pursue developments beyond requirements out of curiosity. He must be made to understand that curiosity is a dangerous failing in an agent."'

'Is that what you wanted to do,' I asked, 'to tell me about curiosity being dangerous?'

'Not "dangerous",' said Smith. He leaned forward to select a new victim from his ivory cigarette box. The light fell momentarily across his face. It was a hard bony face, and it shone in the electric light like the expressionless busts of Roman emperors in the British Museum. Lips, eyebrows, and the hair on his temples were all colourless. He looked up. 'Fatal.' He took a white cigarette and put it into his white face. He lit the cigarette.

'In wartime soldiers are shot for refusing to obey even the smallest commands,' said Smith in his most gritty voice.

'They shouldn't be.'

'Why not?' His drawl had gone.

'Oppenheim's International Law, sixth edition: only lawful commands need be obeyed.'

It was not the reply that Smith was expecting and he flushed with anger. 'You are demanding that an investigation in Portugal be continued. The Cabinet have instructed that it be closed. We should never have sanctioned such an operation hi the first place. Your refusal is impertinence and unless you change your attitude I shall recommend that severe measures be taken against you.'

He pronounced the personal pronoun with discreet reverence.

'No one owns a spy, mister,' I told him, 'they just pay his salary. I work for the government because I think this is a good place to live, but that doesn't mean that I'll be used as a serf by a self-centred millionaire. What's more,' I said, 'don't give me that "fatal" stuff because I've taken a postgraduate course hi fatality.'

Smith blinked and leaned back into the Louis Quatorze chair. 'So,' he said, finally, 'that's it, is it? The truth is that you think you should be as powerful as a Cabinet Minister?' He rearranged his pen set.

'Power is like a fried egg,' I told him, 'no matter how equally you try to divide it someone is sure to get most.'

Smith leaned forward and said, 'You think that because I hold a controlling interest in companies that make jet engines and automatic weapons it precludes me from having a say in the control of my country.' He held up a hand in an admonishing attitude. 'No, it is now my turn to lecture you. You are a spy; I do not impugn your motives as a spy but you feel free to impugn mine as a manufacturer. You say that you work for the government. What is the government you speak of? You mean as each political party is elected to power all the intelligence groups are disbanded and new ones formed? No, you don't mean that, you mean that you work for the country, for its prosperity, for its power, for its prestige, for its standard of living, for its health scheme, for its high rate of employment. You work for all those things, to keep them and to improve them, just as the motor-car manufacturer does. If there is a way for me to sell, for instance, an extra fifteen thousand vehicles next year, my duty is to do so.

'You might say: it's my duty to increase the prosperity of every Englishman living. That is why it is your duty to do as I say in these matters. Your orders come to you through the legitimate line of command because all your superiors understand these things. If, in order to sell my fifteen thousand vehicles I need your help, you will provide it ...' He paused for a moment before adding, 'without questions.

'Your job is an extension of mine. Your job is to provide success at any price. By means of bribes, by means of theft or by means of murder itself. Men like you are in the dark, subconscious recesses of the nation's brain. You do things that are done and forgotten quickly. The things I've mentioned are the realities of this world. No one deliberately chooses that this should be so. No historian is asked to account for the evil of the world. No man who writes a medical encyclopedia is responsible for the diseases he catalogues. And so it is with you. You are a cipher - you are no more than the ink with which History is written.'

'I'm a stoker in the ship of state?' I asked humbly.

Smith gave a cold smile. 'You are worth less than a substantial foreign contract for Clydeside. You sit here talking of ethics as though you were employed to make ethical decisions. You are nothing in the scheme. You will complete your tasks as ordered: no more, no less. You will be paid a just amount. There is nothing to discuss.' He leaned back in his chair again. It creaked with the shift of weight. His bony hand clamped around the red silk rope that hung beside the curtain.

In my pocket with my keys and some parking-meter sixpences I could feel a smooth polished surface. My fingers closed around it as the butler opened the big panelled doors.

'Show the gentleman out, Laker,' said Smith. I made no move except to put the gleaming silver-coloured metal on his mahogany table. Smith watched it, puzzled and fascinated. I bunched my fingers and flipped it. It scampered across the mahogany surface, clattering against its own bright reflection.

'What's the meaning of this?' said Smith.

'It's a gift for the man who has everything,' I said. I watched Smith's face. 'It's a die for making gold sovereigns.' I watched the butler out of the corner of my eye; he was hanging on to every word. Perhaps he was planning his memoirs for the Sunday papers.

Smith flicked a tongue across his drying lips like a hungry python. 'Wait downstairs, Laker,' he said, 'I'll ring again.' The butler had withdrawn to his notebook before Smith spoke again. 'What has this to do with me?' he said.

'I'll tell you,' I said, and lit another Gauloise while Smith fidgeted with his guilt feelings. This time he left the dead match where it had landed.

'I know of some gear for wolfram-mining that goes to India in regular consignments. I'll tell you, those people in India must be inefficient because they have received tons of it and yet there is no wolfram in the whole Indian subcontinent] You can hardly blame them when they try to resell to - someone just a few miles north.'

Smith's cigarette lay inert in the ashtray and quietly turned to ash.

'There are people in Chungking who will take as much as the Indians send. Of course, it wouldn't be kosher if an English company sold strategic goods to Red China, and the Americans would blacklist them, but what with all this muddle in India everyone ends up happy.' I paused. The clock ticked on like a mechanical heart.

'As a way of moving gold there's nothing to beat...'

'You are just guessing,' said Smith.

I thought of the diary that Smith's confidant Butcher had made available to me and how easy it had made my subsequent guesses, 'I am just guessing,' I agreed.

'Very well,' said Smith in a resigned but businesslike voice, 'how much?'

'I've not come to blackmail you,' I said, 'I just want to press on with my job of stoking without interference from the bridge. I'm not pursuing you. I'm not interested in doing anything beyond my job. But I want you to remember this: 7 am the responsible person in this investigation, not my boss or anyone else in the department. I'll be responsible for what happens to you, whether it's good or bad. Now ring your bell for Laker, I'm leaving before I vomit over your beautiful Kashan carpet.'


31 December 2017

....'So this is the lot,' Dawlish said. He sniffed contemplatively.

'Yes,' I said. 'I'd guess that most of these people have donated money to the "Young Europe Movement" at one time or another.'

'Jolly good,' said Dawlish, 'I knew you would manage.'

'Oh sure,' I said, 'especially when you wanted to cancel the whole operation.'

Dawlish looked at me over his spectacles, which can get to be very irritating.

'Furthermore,' I said, 'you knew that that girl was employed by the American Narcotics Bureau, and you didn't tell me.'

'Yes,' said Dawlish blandly, 'but she was a very low-echelon employee and I had no wish to inhibit intercourse among the group.' We looked blankly at each other for two or three minutes.

'Social,' Dawlish amended.

'Of course,' I agreed. Dawlish disembowelled his pipe with a penknife.

'When will Smith be arrested?' I asked.

'Arrested?' said Dawlish. 'What an extraordinary question; why would he be arrested?'

'Because he is a corner-stone of an international Fascist movement dedicated to the overthrow of democratic government.' I said it patiently, even though I knew that Dawlish was deliberately leading me on.

Dawlish said, 'You surely don't imagine that they can put everyone who answers that description in jail. Where would we find room for them, and besides, where would the Bonn government get another Civil Service?' He gave a sardonic smile and tapped the pile of documents. 'Our friends here are much more useful where they are - as long as they know that H.M. Government have this little pile hi Kevin Cassel's cellar.'

He opened the drawer of his desk and produced an even more enormous file of documents. Across the front it said 'Young Europe Movement' in Alice's fuse-wire handwriting, and was bulging with months of work that Dawlish had never even told me about.

'You didn't understand your role, my boy,' he said in his smug voice; 'we didn't want you to discover anything. Somehow we knew that you would make them do something indiscreet.'

2017 favorite fiction reading

My favorite reading in 2017.

First place has to go to Arthur Machen. http://jayrothermel.blogspot.com/search/label/Arthur%20Machen?m=0

Hell! Said the Duchess by Michael Arlen

"Cotillion" and "Podolo" by L.P. Hartley

Doctors Wear Scarlet by Simon Raven

The Night Comes On by Steve Duffy

"Wolverton Tower" by Grant Allen

"The Withered Arm" by Thomas Hardy

"The Alien Corn" by Somerset Maugham

Monday, December 4, 2017

On composition: Against the Wind by Geoffrey Household

From Geoffrey Household's memoir Against the Wind.

....In pencil I drive a sort of pilot tunnel through the underground darkness of the imagination. This is by far the hardest work, and I never sit down to it with any real trust that it can be done at all. On a good morning the result is some three pages legible only to myself. In the evening I pass this inchoate mess through the typewriter, and it comes out with the action settled, speed about right, smoothness poor, and the paragraphs close to their final shape. A five-hour day, between morning and evening, will produce anything between seven hundred and a thousand words.

With at last the complete typescript in front of me, I retype the whole lot, modelling the characters nearer to their originals in life or imagination, strengthening the dialogue, and correcting the sentences so that any one of them can be read aloud without pain to tongue or ear. This retyping crawls at a rate of ten or twelve pages a day and, though exhausting, is

at last capable of giving me pleasure. Stevenson said that the fun of writing is rewriting. I should go further, and claim that it is the only fun.

Rogue Male, years later, revealed to me the sort of conglomerate through which the pilot tunnel is driven. A favourite book of mine at the age of eight was Patterson’s Man-eaters of Tsavo—strong meat for the young, but I was not more than pleasurably frightened by it. Possibly I lost my copy in the first term at a preparatory school. At any rate I never saw the book again until I reread it nearly forty years later after the war. Suddenly I was pulled up by a sentence which was nearly word for word in Rogue Male, and I soon found half a dozen fainter echoes. There was no doubt about it. That was where my interest in Fear had come from. Yet today I should not rate Patterson’s anatomy of terror very high—perhaps because in all literature which is not ephemeral the better drives out the good, and his lions are surpassed by Jim Corbett’s tigers.


Sunday, December 3, 2017

Devil Dance: The Sending by Geoffrey Household

The Sending by Geoffrey Household.

Household's protagonist Alfgif Hollaston has returned to his rural, ancestral home after a career in the Indian Army. He discovers he is the descendant of local Wise Men going back hundreds of years. He inherits the familiar of a recently murdered friend: a polecat named Meg.

From Chapter 9

IT WAS MEG WHO roused me when I was half asleep in my chair, my mind wandering through the far forest with tiger brother, disembodied by his dance of worship. Meg was scrabbling at the door trying to get out. I opened it for her and followed her to the front door. When I threw it wide and let in the night, I heard what she had heard.

I could not tell whether it was played on a pipe or on the single string of hunting man. It was a reminder of all the joy we have lost, and thus of infinite melancholy, yet it had the sweetness of bird song—if a bird could have the voice of an animal. The symphony, to which one listens dreaming and reasoning simultaneously, must be the highest product of the human mind, yet a shepherd pipe in the stillness of night or the freshness of dawn is the music which comes nearest to communion with all creation.

Meg looped down past the still sheep under the oaks. They did not notice us, their heads turned towards the woodland which sheltered the piper, or itself piped. She was moving fast and was out of sight in the darkness when she crossed the stream, but I knew that our destinations were the same; even the stems of flowers would have bent towards this song of earth, if it had not been night and petals closed. By both of us the singing was received as a summons. She would have felt no fear at all, only gladness in answering. I felt both, the fear being more in the nature of reverence than the terror transmitted by Leyalá.

Often in life we answer a summons. The receptors of saint and shaman are aware of it, though eyes and ears are unaffected. But this was different. I clearly heard with ears, and knew that once we were under the trees I should also see. That was where fear came in. The legend of Pan and panic of course passed through my mind and was rejected as too simple, too contrived. What I was hearing was the truth behind the myth, whether expressed by man or by my valley itself.

As I entered the trees and began to plunge uphill, the descant of creature or instrument became fainter, not louder, and I guessed where it came from: a small, open glade left by a spreading beech which had fallen and been cut up for firewood. When I reached it I saw Julian Molay sitting on the stump with Meg on his shoulder. All sense of the supernatural vanished. I asked him how on earth he did it.

‘Answer me how on earth you heard it and I will tell you how I did it.’

‘That was how you took Meg away from the vet?’

‘Of course.’

‘And trained her to do all the damage possible!’

‘A small part of all the damage possible. I expected you to kill her.’

‘How could I?’

‘Because in your anger you are without pity. You abused love in order to take revenge.’
I knew exactly what he meant. I denied fiercely that any so-called magic was concerned in the slaughter of Odolaga’s black shepherd and his sheep, except perhaps in the hypnosis of that stage property, the eagle owl.

‘I used the skill of the hunter,’ I told him, ‘not the skill of the shaman.’

‘Yet from somewhere you have the gift.’

Molay was standing up now, his deep eyes condemning me. He was impressive as a judge handing out a sentence, but neither ex-Colonel Hollaston nor the painter of the Holy Well were in a mood to be impressed.
I said that I had no power at all beyond the concentration of the master craftsman: a prayer as he had called it. I had seen what could be effected through the trance and dancing of the shaman, and by trial and error I had found out a little of the use of the familiar: of the good which I might do by communion with Meg and of the evil which was done to me, and life around me, by Odolaga and his training of Leyalá.
‘What you feel in me is the same as you felt in Freeman, to whom you released Meg’ I added. ‘It is a gift from my ancestors and not of my making. My grandfather had it. My great-great-grandfather had it, and we all were named Alfgif.’

‘I thought your name was Alfred,’ he said.
‘Alfred means Wise as an Elf. Alfgif is Gift of the Elf.’

‘What has that to do with it?’

‘I am told the elf is my valley. See it in any shape you like! I have never wished it to appear to me. But I too was taught to sing in silence.’

I must assume that I was possessed. Having no better spell, I used the incantation of tiger brother to call a spirit of the ancestors. I had closed my eyes as I rocked to and fro in the trance, so that I could neither see Molay nor any result, but on and on I chanted until I felt the Presence. When I opened my eyes and stood still except for shaking, Meg had left his shoulder and had begun to dance.

‘And now what shape did you give it?’ I asked.

‘I saw it in the shape you gave it.’

‘And what was that?’

‘Gentle and laughing and of the earth, Alfgif.’

It was the first time he had used my name. He asked me to tell him exactly what had happened on the slopes of Aquelarre. I gave him the story, from the first sight of Izar Odolaga to the making of the bow and the stampede of the terrified sheep. I fear there must have been some pride in my voice besides regret.

‘You said my Columns of the Sun was an invincible prayer,’ I reminded him, ‘and asked if I did not know it. I did not, but I found it was. So it is true that I had no more reason to fear Odolaga. His sending had failed. You must know by now what that was.’

He answered that he did know, that Odolaga in his desolation had confessed all to him.

‘Very well! And then the woman I love fell ill. Her soul was captured, as a shaman would say. Was it surprising that I believed it was another of Odolaga’s telepathic tricks and that I set out to warn him that my powers could be as dangerous as his?’
‘You were wrong to blame him.’

‘I know. It was you who first made me see that I myself could be responsible and now I am sure I was. All the same I think justice has been done—if one can set the beauty of my Holy Well against the beauty of his dear familiar.’

Molay lay back on his elbows in that unspoken courtroom of the glade and gestured to me to sit on the stump. He said that at least my motive had been more generous than Odolaga’s, that I had acted from love and he only from fear for himself.

‘So now you shall be the judge. Ask whatever questions you like!’

‘Did Odolaga kill Paddy for you?’

‘He did.’

‘So you are the devil!’

‘In the sense of anguished clergy long ago, yes, I am.’

‘Is there no other devil within the Purpose?’

‘I doubt it. But if evil were personified, it would be the antithesis of love. Have you forgotten the cough of the tiger which maddened sixty sheep? Man does not need a devil. He does well enough by himself.’
I said that I found it hard to imagine him as that ancestral Horned God, when we were talking face to face and sharing the same faith.

‘I dress my mind and not my body in the innocence of the horns and tail. I do not believe that my blood or my semen will fertilise a field, but it may be that I myself can still fertilise mankind. If I cannot, if my powers fail through age, then before I infect my people with my weakness it is right to kill me and choose a successor. He is already chosen, but he is still too young for the fullness of wisdom. Nothing mysterious there, my Alfgif! Even in politics a party may decide on its future leader before he is quite fit to lead. Therefore I must live longer and one of us had to die in my place. Paddy chose to do so. I did not wish to accept his sacrifice, but as Grand Master it is my duty.’

I could not see the point of either of them being killed, and asked him to explain if he could.

‘What is the point of a soldier’s death?’ he asked.

‘His society expects it of him.’

‘Yes. You have answered your own question. And now I will put one to you. Would you die for the sake of the Christian faith?’


‘Yet you have little respect for the Church and its creed.’

‘Or for its rites.’

‘There you are wrong, for rites are a shadow of the truth. I summoned you to me by what is remembered as the harp of Orpheus. You called up a Presence as mischievous and sweet as Meg by a rite far older. You had faith that you heard. I had faith that I saw. Reality? We are fools to ask what is reality, when all we touch and see and are is empty space and energy. Within the Purpose there are rites named of earth and rites named of heaven, all intermingled in all religions and culminating in that purest and simplest of rites: the Communion of the Christian with the Purpose.’

‘For you, then, what is the Purpose?’ I asked.

‘How often there is more beauty in living things than needed for survival! Consider the peacock’s tail and the feathers of the Bird of Paradise! To attract a mate and be recognised, we are told, but that could be achieved by a fraction of the display. Consider the majestic antlers of the stag! A magnificence and nothing but a handicap. The colours of the butterfly—they have a use but not to that extent of glory. Consider the Columns of the Sun and your late Holy Well! What use to your survival or the survival of the race are those? They have only one conceivable value, and that is to the observer. What the Purpose is we cannot know, but observation must be within it. Observe this garden of the earth and understand that when you cease to observe and to love, you exist no more!’

‘Then death is the end.’

‘You miss my meaning, Alfgif. I know nothing of death except that we should not whine for immortality. Take joy in the gift of life! If the object of my life is finished with my death, I rejoice that I have been able to serve. If it is not finished, I rejoice that there is still a use for me.’

He said that was enough of preaching and remained silent. The scent of the earth was stronger than I had ever known it. Meg ran between us, caressing his face with her whiskers and then returning to my feet. I asked him to tell me about Paddy.

‘Paddy was a healer of the animals. A Robin. His coven was formed of all his friends, though few were conscious of it. He was simpler and more saintly and quicker than I. He would have seen that you could never have abused your gift as I believed you had. He said you had the makings of a leader.’

‘A shaman?’

‘A Robin. I like that happy, English name. The healer. The provider of joy.’

‘And of sendings to the innocent,’ I added, remembering Odolaga.

‘Forgive him! He acted from foolish fear, and you would not blame the beast which charges when it cannot run. And now for this girl of yours, my strange, chaste sorcerer! It seems you can copy the attack of the carnivore but not the tempest of its mating.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Only a monk could have so much passion and remain celibate. Were you never married?’

‘For two weeks.’

‘What happened?’

She died in my arms.’

‘I see. Guilt, But that was not beyond psychiatrists’

‘I’ll have none of them. I am what I am and know more than they.’

‘But your tiger brother—couldn’t he cure you?’

‘No. He said that a white larva had made its home in my wretched organ and could not conjure it to leave.’

‘I think you would not let him, Alfgif. You believed in your guilt and clung to it. But now will you let me? I can make you as a Robin of old days, whose maidens would hang wreathes of poppies on the symbol of fertility. Will you be ashamed to dance naked with me?’

I might have been, but those gentle, piercing eyes would not release mine. And there was I naked while he, stripped to the waist only, like tiger brother, raised his arms in a hieratic gesture as if he were throwing over his shoulders the skin and tail of the God.

He began to beat the ground with his feet, always circling round me face to face, and I kept time with him. What ritual I was treading out I could not know, though there were memories of the forest and memories of the eager hunting dance which I had performed for my dinner, but never for myself.

‘Your horns are spread between sky and sky, my Alfgif. You have driven away your rivals and the herd of does awaits you. As a bird dances for its mate, so must you. Tell him, Valley, to dance for grandson Alfgif! Tell him, Meg, to dance with you! As we dance, so must you.’

There was much more, but that is what I remember. He circled me, chanting, and each time he passed a young plant of broom he plucked a green twig from it like a browsing goat. In the trance of beating feet, I was aware only of his hands and eyes; nor was I conscious of the erection, being so long forgotten, until he flung the wreath that he had been twisting as if it were a quoit over a peg.

He told me to dress and have no fear.
‘Mate after mate is yours if you wish, and if you wish only for one she will never leave you. What is her name? I will call her.’

‘Rita. But she cannot receive. She would not hear you.’

‘Better so, Alfgif! In you she will find the future and in her you will find the past. Go now, and tomorrow be with her!’

‘Shall I see you again?’

‘As a passing friend it may be, with the simplicity of Paddy.’

I asked him if he really lived on the Syrian shore, as Paddy had told me.

‘Often enough, because that is where all religions meet and all traditions remain. Among my ancestors were reigning devils, or Grand Masters if you wish: Jacques de Molay, Master of the Temple, burnt for heresy; Plantagenets reverenced by Christian and Pagan alike, and true to both. It may well be that you and I are not the first of our two families who have met and prayed together.’

‘Can I drive you anywhere?’ I asked, the question sounding absurdly out of time and place. ‘How are you going?’

‘As I came, Alfgif.’

He shook hands, blessed me and was gone, vanishing with the skill of tiger brother and with only the rustle of his footsteps to show that he was most certainly passing through the trees and not above them.

Witch Trial: The Sending by Geoffrey Household

The Sending by Geoffrey Household.

Household's protagonist Alfgif Hollaston has returned to his rural, ancestral home after a career in the Indian Army. He discovers he is the descendant of local Wise Men going back hundreds of years. He inherits the familiar of a recently murdered friend: a polecat named Meg.

Here he lunches with the enticing Somerville don Eita, who vacations in a cottage near his home.

….I asked [Rita] to lunch after Meg and I had celebrated by stealing out in the late twilight to catch a dish of crayfish, to which Meg, regardless of the season, had added an unsuspecting mallard grabbed with a leap as it rose from the rushes. The invitation seems to have happily surprised her, and when I showed her my Columns of the Sun there were tears on her cheeks. She did not examine it closely, so I think her emotion was due more to my eyes and bearing. Ginny, who is fascinated by my drawings but can’t abide them funny pictures, was also inclined to be tearful. It appears that I am like a botched work of art, cherished because it has been over the mantelpiece for so long.
            After lunch we sat in the garden and Rita again pressed on me her theory that the depression from which I had suffered could be a backlash from the sort of powers I was using. I denied that I had any more powers than the rest of us. I merely knew they existed because I had been on terms of close friendship with a shaman.
            ‘The difference between you and the rest of us is that you appear to have them,’ she said.
            I told her that nobody could seriously believe anything of the sort. She then announced, merry and mocking, her hands setting the scene for me, that she would have another small brandy and put me on trial in 1664 acting as prosecuting counsel within the beliefs of the time. I reproduce it as best I can:
            ‘Prisoner at the bar, you are charged on suspicion of the felony of witchcraft to the Great Offence of God’s Law, Hurt and Damage of the King’s Subjects and to the Infamy and Disquietness of the Realm. Upon the first charge of bewitching Master William Hutchins’ bullocks how say you now to His Lordship and this jury? Guilty or Not Guilty?’
            ‘Guilty, your worships, but not with intent.’
            ‘So now to the second charge, sirrah, of possessing an imp in the likeness of a polecat which you did nourish with your blood. How say you?’
            ‘I never did.’
            ‘Call Mistress Rita Vernon.… Mistress Vernon, tell us whether upon the fourteenth June last you did not witness this abomination!’
            ‘I did indeed witness it, good sirs.’
            ‘Damn it, Rita! Just because I once let Meg lick up the blood where she had scratched me with her claws!’
            ‘Silence in Court! Guilty or Not Guilty?’
            ‘Well, on a technicality…’
            ‘The third charge is that you, Hollaston, did receive visits from the Devil and swore to be his servant. Dare you say you are not guilty?’
            ‘If counsel is referring to Robin’s chasuble of animal skin and tail, or to his appearance as the Man in Black when dressed as any other priest for visiting his parishioners, I deny having received any such visits and know nothing of the organisation and practice of the religion. I confess to have been visited by an incorporeal devil, but against my will.’
            ‘Most damnable! And there is yet a fourth charge which he cannot answer, for examination showeth that he beareth upon his upper arm the mark by which the devil claimed him as his own. How now, Hollaston? What say you to his Lordship?’
            ‘My Lord, I have indeed been initiated by a mark, but see no more harm in it than circumcision or scarring of the face. I confess to the formality of an exchange of blood with the local representative of the Divine. His conception of sin, my Lord, was much the same as yours, plus a few extras. The scar upon my upper arm is permanent because herb juice was rubbed into the cut to keep it suppurating. And how the hell did you know, Rita?’
            ‘Because Ginny told me. Silence in Court! Not only does the prisoner confess to abominable practices, but would persuade us that they resemble those of Holy Church. Let him to be taken out and hanged by the neck until he is dead!’
            Well, it must be fun to be alive to past and present, and a beautiful woman with it. But now she took the wrappings off the parcel.
            ‘Will you admit, Alfgif, that you could be taken for a sorcerer?’
            ‘Not unless you would call Paddy Gadsden a sorcerer, which he certainly wasn’t.’
            ‘Your von Pluwig thought he was.’
            I said that was putting it far too romantically. Paddy’s receptors interacting with nature were more sensitive than mine, but that did not make him a sorcerer. And who in the world, apart from a few of the more superstitious, could possibly think that I was?
            ‘Somebody who in fact can use the powers you only experiment with. Somebody like your tiger brother brought up to date, so that your horrible sending wasn’t a freak like Gargary’s rabbit warren but a quite deliberate attempt on you.’
            I had to agree that at least it was possible, since I was not invulnerable like sceptical urban man, but receptive as a tribesman whom the witch doctor can influence to die.
            ‘I have no enemies so far as I know.’
            ‘Then find him, her or it,’ she said.
            Absurd! Am I blacklisted because I haven’t joined the union? A joke when I put it that way. Yet tiger brother did not approve of competition. He would not admit that he had anything to do with accidents, but they happened—just as to that harmless chap boring me with his chatter about abstract art. Concentrated venom could at least distract his thoughts to the point of tripping over himself. And is there any more deadly method of distraction than to make the mind consume itself, obsessed with terror?
            What alarms me in the witch trials is that the judges—one can’t answer for the juries—were able men experienced in distinguishing truth from falsehood and misrepresentation. Acquittals, light sentences and pardons were frequent. Accusations plainly deriving from malice or superstitious illiterates were thrown out. So what is one to make of the death sentences?
            Leave out Satan and his imps, and the evidence is as straightforward as in any police court, clear, factual and obeying the rules such as they were. Wincanton witches were guilty of using a baptised image for cursing; witches of East Anglia used the familiar. Both could also heal, but not much is recorded about that. In any case, healing by means of incantations was considered no less a crime than cursing….

The Robin: The Sending by Geoffrey Household

From Chapter 4
The Sending by Geoffrey Household.

Household's protagonist Alfgif Hollaston has returned to his rural, ancestral home after a career in the Indian Army. He discovers he is the descendant of local Wise Men going back hundreds of years. He inherits the familiar of a recently murdered friend: a polecat named Meg.

....I HAVE GREAT DIFFICULTY in reading. When I open a book I cannot concentrate; too often I must look round to see what is waiting for me behind my chair. But I did my best, in spite of interruptions, to follow the record of the trial of the Wincanton witches, especially after discovering that they confessed to being instructed and comforted by a Man in Black to whom they gave the name of Robin.
            The prosecution was founded on sound legal evidence of the facts, but the court never attempted to identify Robin. Of course it did not. It assumed that he was the Devil, who could hardly be put in the dock. The witches did not deny it (loyalty or genuine belief?) and sometimes called him Satan.
            They sound like some isolated and fading little tribe whose shamans have been killed or civilised, who cannot recover the rites, let alone their meaning, and flutter around like lost hens.
            All that is left of the Robin, the chief of the coven, the beast-man, the incarnation of the Purpose and its joy, is my grandfather’s uncanny eye at an auction of livestock together with my great-great-grandfather’s power of healing. This gene which activates the human receptors and skips a generation—what is it up to now? Well, somehow, it was detected in me through my beliefs or my words by the saintly Paddy and by my blood brother. An anthropologist or administrator or explorer would not be capable of sensing the aspects of truth behind the antics of a shaman; a hereditary Robin would be.
            Apparently I am a witch—a freelance witch, one might say, with few powers and only the vaguest training in the theology of animism, but possibly with the makings of a Robin. I see that in scribbling my speculations some days ago I came to the tentative conclusion that action at a distance is powered by the dance and self-hypnosis. The latter, I suppose, in more evolved religions is the ecstasy of prayer. That is beyond my reach. I have difficulty in importuning the Purpose. Since I believe in the holiness of the senses, any ecstasy of mine would be praise not prayer: the Te Deum not the Miserere. A Robin may come steaming from the Pit, horned and clawed as the prosecution believed, but can still praise the Purpose.
            This written confession of faith has momentarily lifted the Fear. Praise even in adversity like poor old Job? What else has lifted it? The approach of the vixen and my own identity with her, with the oaks and the radiance of moonlight. That was in fact a passing moment of the mystic vision which, I suspect, is the resting state of animals from the butterfly to the tiger, easily to be entered by primitive man and only with long and deep meditation by the civilised.
            The Wincanton trials are short of hints and tips on the use of the tame familiar. Our local witches do not seem to have had any. They used animals much as the Roman augurs, setting the scene, calling on the god and foretelling the future by the first beast or bird which turned up. I have watched tiger brother go through a similar ceremony to predict the success or failure of a hunt when he could have done it on his own without any fortune-telling at all—just as Paddy, according to George, could pick winners.
            Meg and her like become very important in other trials outside Somerset. The familiar may be supplied by the Robin or bought or just found and tamed. It might occasionally be used for healing but far more often for cursing and petty stuff at that: bewitching the next door neighbour’s pig, stealing some much needed butter, hastening the end of some farmer down the road who was obviously dying of natural causes. All self-advertisement. If an old woman with an eccentric taste in pets could make her district thoroughly afraid of her, she was sure in her utter poverty of gifts and respect. My tiger brother was sometimes no better. His power to send and receive telepathically was beyond doubt, but he was not above hocus pocus if he didn’t get his proper share of what food was going.

            I wish he had used a familiar; but since he believed that he could send his soul to commune with beasts in the wild he had no need of one at home. In spite of all this reading I am still unable to answer Rita’s question: what is the importance of Meg?

King's Blood: The Sending by Geoffrey Household

Excerpt from The Sending by Geoffrey Household. 1980

'....You know the anthropologists' theory of the king who must die for the people?' she asked.

            'Yes. And I've spotted remnants of the belief here and there in India.'

            'And did you know that was why William Rufus was killed?'

            I did not, having only learned the school book verdict that he was a 'bad' king. She explained to me how historians had been puzzled by all the abuse poured on him by monastic chroniclers, when the rest of the evidence showed that he was brave, just, chivalrous and accepted with love by the English, who hated his father, the Conqueror. Why did the common people follow his bier from the New Forest to Winchester? Why was it said that all the way his blood dripped to the earth? And why when Walter Tyrell hesitated to shoot, did he cry: 'Draw, draw your bow for the Devil's sake and let fly your arrow, or you will be sorry for it!' And why was his death expected and foretold all over Europe?

            'He was the King and Grand Master, the grandson of Robert the Devil. That's the explanation. Churchmen knew him for what he was and were appalled by his contempt for them; but the mass of the Saxons, who were as much pagan as Christian, adored him for living for them and dying for their land. This isn't a lecture, Alfgif, so I'll just give you Rufus. There's a good case too for Henry II as Grand Master and a better one for Gilles de Rais who was Joan of Arc's commander in the field.'

            I presumed that she knew her stuff and I saw the implications, but I said I could not for a moment believe that the gentle Paddy was the secret shaman of Western Europe.

            'Ah, but the Grand Master did not have to die. If he could find a willing victim to die in his place he had another seven years.'

            'You're suggesting that the rite still exists in the Europe of today?'

            'There must be more people than you, Alfgif, who share the vision that all living creatures are one within what you call the Purpose. Their myths and forms of worship may be as odd as tiger brother's. And that's no odder than some of those American sects. I told you I couldn't really believe it but the evidence keeps piling up. And you must admit that your Paddy was a Man in Black.'

            'He had no coven.'

            'Of course he hadn't. A village coven would be an absurdity in these days when one can fly to Paris in the time that it took to ride from Penminster to Wincanton. So couldn't a coven now be international? Remember all the strangers and foreigners who came to his funeral!'

            That I had explained by his reputation among horsemen, but it had always puzzled me. So did the fact that a saddler in a little country town had executors of international standing. And if Rita was right, where did I come in? That I did come in somewhere was certain.

            'Why do you think he gave me Meg?'

            'Because he saw you were a kindred spirit, just as your tiger brother did. And perhaps because it was a mark of honour and good for Meg and perhaps because you are loved. Will you start a coven, my Robin, and dance with me on our downs in moonlight?'

Sunday, November 26, 2017

No hills, and precious little horror: The Horror from the Hills by Frank Belknap Long

The Horror from the Hills 
by Frank Belknap Long.

Originally published in Weird Tales, January-March 1931.

Arkham House 1963.

This novel, which I started last night and finished this morning before yard chores, is a bitter disappointment.

The Horror from the Hills, like Strange Eons, was a title rolling around in my head for thirty-two years. First heard of in the early 1980s, when Lovecraftian books were unknown in my small Ohio town. It was probably mentioned in an article or interview in my first university: Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Magazine.

The words horror from the hills struck a deep chord with me. I have always prized rural/sylvan settings above urban in choices of genre fiction: Blackwood, M.R. James, E.F. Benson, Mundy and Rolt and their aesthetic issue.

Long's title evoked images of black barren limbs against Cadmium Yellow Deep sunsets, menacing shadows descending steep hillsides, and shunned barrows.

Later I learned that Long's novel was inspired by an anecdote from Lovecraft himself, which has come to be called "The Very Old Folk."  This was a fragment from one of Lovecraft's letters, a perfect "pastel in prose" which only served to whet my appetite for The Horror from the Hills.

Had I but known...

Like most tyros who mined Lovecraft's notes and letters (looking at you, threshold-lurker August Derleth), it is a work not only tiresome and tedious in itself, it casts a shaming backward shadow. I am reminded of Karl Marx's dismissive summation of many "Marxists" when he wrote: 'I have sown dragon's teeth and harvested fleas.'

There are no hills in The Horror from the Hills, and precious little horror. Instead we have Manhattan and a coastal highway on the New Jersey shore. "The Very Old Folk" is relegated to the status of dream anecdote experienced by psychic detective (and Entropy-Reversing Machine inventor) Roger Little, to whom Long's protagonist Algernon Harris turns in his struggle againt cosmic Heffalump Chaugnar Faugn.

Most of The Horror From the Hills is taken up with a catalogue of Long's (and most genre writers of the era generally) misunderstandings of physics. Creative misunderstandings, I'm sure they would protest. But mentioning transcendental mathematics and hyperdimensional physics, Long prepares the ground for pages of stupefying pseudo-scientific rationalizational:

....Yet despite the transcendental nature of even its incarnate shell, despite the fact that even in its earth-shape it was fashioned of a substance unknown on the earth and that we can form no conception of its shape in the multidimensional sphere it now inhabits, it is my opinion that it is inherently, like ourselves, a circumscribed entity—the spawn of remote worlds and unholy dimensions, but a creature and not a creator, a creature obeying inexorable laws and occupying a definite niche in the cosmos.

....It was neither beneficent nor evil, but simply amorally virulent—a vampire-like life form from beyond the universe of stars strayed by chance into our little, walled-in three-dimensional world. One unguarded gate may be standing ajar…”

....“With a concrete embodiment of the concepts of transcendental mathematics,” corrected Little. “And such concepts are merely empirically scientific. I am aware that science may be loosely defined as a systematized accumulation of tendencies and principles, but classically speaking, its prime function is to convey some idea of the nature of reality by means of an inductive logic. Yet our mathematical physicist has turned his face from induction as resolutely as did the mediaeval scholastics in the days of the Troubadours. He insists that we must start from the universal assumption that we can never know positively the real nature of anything, and that whatever ‘truth’ we may deduce from empirical generalities will be chiefly valuable as a kind of mystical guidepost, at best merely roughly indicative of the direction in which we are travelling; but withal, something of a sacrament and therefore superior to the dogmatic ‘knowledge’ of Nineteenth Century science. The speculations of mathematical physicists today are more like poems and psalms than anything else. They embody concepts wilder and more fantastic than anything in Poe or Hawthorne or Blake.”

....Little shook his head. “I mean simply that Chaugnar Faugn and its hideous brethren were joined together hyperdimensionally and that we destroyed them simultaneously. It is an axiom of virtually every speculative philosophy based on the newer physics and the concepts of non-Euclidean mathematics that we can’t perceive the real relations of objects in the external world, that since our senses permit us to view them merely three-dimensionally we can’t perceive the hyperdimensional links which unite them...."

In short: no cosmicism, no suspense, not even a whiff of the uncanny.

26 November 2017

I read the novel in:

The Second Cthulhu Mythos MEGAPACK® - H.P. Lovecraft, Avram Davidson, Darrell Schweitzer, Lin Carter, Frank Belknap Long - Google Books

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Executor and Other Ghost Stories by David G. Rowlands

David G. Rowlands' collection The Executor and Other Ghost Stories (Ash-Tress Press ebook 2012) is the largest available selection of the writer's work. 

This is a good thing and a bad thing for a short story glutton like myself. I chewed through the book in the ten days preceding Halloween. Don't make my mistake: read no more than one per day. 

I was tempted to start this note by complaining about Rowlands' uneven tone. But that is an unacceptable summation. Rowlands is a facile and energetic writer, delighted to be doing what he loves, and the tone of each story - whether solemn or mirthful - clearly conveys this.

In his introduction, Rowlands states his aethetic approach:

....Now one of the things I require myself in a ghost story—if it is to convince me—is that the setting and the ‘daily round’ of the protagonists should not only be believable but also accurate. In other words, the writer should be writing about what he, or she, knows. It is dangerous to venture among specialist subjects without adequate knowledge. The entire dénouement of J. Meade Falkner’s The Nebuly Coat, for example, is ruined for me because of utterly absurd inaccuracies in the account of the bell-ringing that brought down the tower in collapse. My immediate thoughts in such circumstances are, ‘this author does not know what he/she is writing about, therefore I must also suspect their ghost of being contrived and faked without writer’s licence!’ Harsh judgement? Perhaps....

This strikes me as a powerful indicator of success among writers of supernatural fiction. M.R. James located every story in a milieu he knew to his fingertips. Rowlands presents a variety themes within a carefully circumscribed milieu; his protagonists are hobbyists, exterminators, change-ringers, vicars, and priests, all warmly and concretely situated in their little postage stamp of turf.

Acknowledging the hubris involved in writing ghost stories today, Rowlands notes:

....Writers of ghost stories today are at a disadvantage compared to their predecessors—and the situation is getting worse. That is of course because, as with ‘westerns’ or other ‘genre’ fiction, there are a strictly limited number of plots and incidents possible. Ghost behavior is ‘old hat’, and the writer seeking acceptance today needs to come up with something a bit original or different.

My personal favorites among the stories a highlighted.


The Father O'Connor Stories

A Graven Image starts as a charming story of remembered youth: local steam railroads, hobby-scale train layouts, vacations with one's father. It picks up pace with a mannikin, a ghastly death, and what the shampoo-blinded narrator touched while washing his hair at a cottage kitchen sink. 

The Apples of Sodom details perils of scything overgrown grass around an ancient churchyard apple tree.  "....Shrugging in annoyance he picked up his scythe and turned back to the grass; to become aware of a short, squat figure watching him from beneath the tree. For an instant he thought it was a dense cloud of the little gnats that had been pestering him, drawn to his perspiration; then he thought it was a heat-haze mirage. Whatever it was, its scrutiny had the effect of immobilizing him while it drew nearer."

The Previous Train begins cosily enough: "It was mid-winter, and the smugness of his study provided a delicious contrast with the wind that lashed sleet against the windows behind the curtains." But the ghost train encounter story Fr. O'Connor relates...

Change-ringing certainly has great mental fascination, and I suppose I once achieved a fair measure of proficiency at it. By the by, there is a tale associated with it which you may care to hear. Remind me at dinner tonight.’

Sins of the Fathers
A rural inn, a mighty story at night, buried treasure, a sleepwalking landlord.
A horrible death, shut up in that cramped, dark tunnel; even a murderer—for so he may have been—cannot deserve that terrible, lonely, slow dying. Although motivated purely by selfish thoughts of safety, he was heading for the church and Sanctuary. I hope he has—in a more true sense—found the peace he was seeking.’

Being Ireland,’ the good Father’s eyes twinkled, ‘the guard had the kindness to set me down near to the intersection of what they’d call “droves” in East Anglia: those grassy “green lanes” that once veined these islands, even as the Ley lines still do. As I walked toward the boggy foothills—the best place for Dermott’s type of fly—I was thinking of the superstition surrounding the intersections of these lanes; how suicides were buried there, and of their connection with ancient tribal magic; much, in fact, like the Voodoo I had battled with in the Indies....'

Wyntours is a superb story, which I already read in a Stephen Jones Year's Best. It details the perils of minutely recreating real locations on your miniature railroad. (Rowlands would be well represented in any anthology of Ghost Stories of a Hobbyist.)

The Whistling Stones
'....Stone seems to be particularly suitable. I’ve had vague glimpses even at such unromantic sites as Caernarfon Castle, when hemmed in on all sides by tourists. Once, at Kenilworth, I seemed to see the whole pageantry of Elizabethan England unfold before my eyes. Why, even on a derelict Irish railway bridge . . .’

A Fisher of Men
Sailors of fortune land on an island of unexpected riches: "....Here you will find treasures indeed—the joys of serving God and of forgetting yourselves. Your minds will grow pure and unsullied by lucre and you will come to rejoice in praying for others...."

Fairy Horse
Well, now, let us see. People believed well enough in witches that flew on broomsticks to the Black Sabbath; yet it has been demonstrated by learned toxicologists that the “witches” who anointed themselves with belladonna ointment only thought they flew: it was a hallucination induced by absorbing the poisonous salve through the skin. Likewise I think the chemicals in the dried ragweed or Fairy Horse can produce similar illusions: I was lying on the dried plants, actually inhaling the flower-dust I’d stirred up, remember.’

Unconsidered Trifles
....Once, after moving what seemed like tons of old cisterns and guttering to get at a nondescript mass of verdigris, the clapper of which fell out heavily on to my foot, I offered to pay for the casting of a bell at Whitechapel, to be inscribed ‘Seek and Ye shall find’. But the Father smiled at my irony. ‘Patience, my dear fellow,’ he said, ‘I’m certain I shall find just what I want, one day.’

The Fifteenth Evening
....In the window, by the practice piano, it was a little lighter and I gravitated there, to wait until Treves should relent. Down in the old burial ground below I could dimly see a few of the lichened tombstones, and also something that moved along the ground as I stared out. After a few moments of screwing up my eyes, it became evident that whatever it might be was climbing up the buttress toward me.

The Uncommon Salt
One of the College Tutors, a Fr Campbell, was a young man only some eight or so years my senior, and possessed of remarkable intellect. In fact, his tutorials were most stimulating for the argumentative, and he turned out excellent debaters. Much as I respected his intellect, however—and young men of eighteen readily “adopt” those to whom they feel drawn—I did not take to him as a priest. Professionally I could categorise him as a “conman” or salesman, good at propaganda that he found it expedient to put over; glib and persuasive. No doubt it was arrogant and presumptuous of me—a mere student—to sit thus in judgment on an ordained priest whose talents had been selected by my superiors in the church. Nonetheless, I was aware of an inner conviction that he was an academic dabbler in ritual for its own ends. If there were truly incalculable heights to his grasp of philosophy, yet might there not be depths also?

The Executor is one of the strongest stories in the collection. Along with Wyntours, it is also an excellent place to start. A personal anecdote of the local Baptist minister, Mr Cummings, it touches on family secrets, murder, Wise Women, and the problem of uncanny bequests. Not to be missed.

....Among the traditional scenes depicted, she pointed out what my eyes could scarcely see in muddy pigments: a representation of a row of trees, probably intended as oaks, and opposite a good representation of a mediaeval church. She said that the expert eye might detect a figure atop one tree, surveying a sea of fiery brimstone for the craft of hell. This shook me considerably, for reasons which will become apparent later; but not as much as the large green snake, or whatever it was, that twined among the foliage. I don’t think I gave any indication of my surprise, however.

Traveller’s Fare

You can, perhaps, imagine my chagrin! To be stuck in this desolate, mist-girt place, with no chance of leaving for several hours, was not a cheerful prospect. I might find my way to the road, but it was still nine miles to civilisation—or what passed for it in Snowdonia—even if I could keep to the road; and the chances of meeting a motorist were as likely as meeting a dragon....'

The Elbow
‘ “In the chancel (south side) can be seen a row of stalls once owned by the Cresswell family, incorporating woodwork obtained from Clerebury Cathedral in 1709. A notable feature of the stalls are the elbows, which depict beasts of the chase and a comic scene of a man struggling to remove his shirt without undoing the buttons”.’

The Tears of Saint Agathé
But no one steals relics these days,’ I expostulated. ‘I almost wish they would—it might indicate a return to some piety....'

Gebal and Ammon and Amalek
A small miracle of churchy diabolism.
"....After the service he had crept back to look more closely at the figures. Cowls and robes hid their forms to a great extent, but each carried a staff or sceptre. While he looked at them, absorbed with interest, the vicar came by and patted his shoulder. ‘Fortescue tomb, eh?’ he sighed. ‘Philistines, my dear Willie, the lot of them; and old Jasper a philistine and a sodomite.’ He carried on down the church, leaving Willie—who did not know what a sodomite was—amazed at his own accuracy in naming the figures—‘the Philistines with them’—so that they became something of an obsession. He was not given to Bible study, though supposedly his Sunday afternoons and evenings at the kitchen table were so employed. For the first time he turned avidly to his Bible for information, about the Philistines. He was supposed to be learning the Catechism, for his Confirmation a month hence; instead he studied the Philistines: ‘Blood sacrifices are their delight’."

Mr Batchel Stories

From the Diggings
....Whereas the surrounding clays have yielded their due of fossil reptiles, the gravel has been excavated less in the cause of zoology than of profit and the Great Eastern Railway. It is an indisputable fact, however, that these sordid delvings, which have done so much to give the parish its unlovely character, have themselves yielded archaeological and zoological spoil on occasion.

One Man Went to Mow
....Through previous decades, even centuries, and right up to this newly-entered twentieth century, the lawns of Stoneground vicarage had been lovingly—if laboriously—tended by a succession of gardeners and their assistants plying scythes in graceful sweeping movements, and keeping the ground and turf under strict control by much heavy rolling.

One Good Turn . . .
....According to Thrapston’s account, he had awakened in the early hours of Sunday to find the form of his wife at his bedside—in her night-attire, in which she had died—looking at him reproachfully (or so it seemed). He had asked what she wanted, but the form had not answered, and had merely pointed vaguely at a corner of the room before giving another accusing look and then vanishing.

The Marsh Lights
....From the Middle Ages up to more recent times many fenland churches burned a night light to show late travellers the way. By contrast, the flickering lights that sometimes appeared on the marshes were supposed to be a lure of the devil to mislead the wanderer into the swamp. The question was, what were these strange lights? Were they animal or insect? Or simply luminous gases rising from the bogs?

Providing a Footnote
Well, anyways, I saw it move, Mr Batchel, sir, and—well, look you here.’ She blushed and with a sudden movement pulled up the hem of her skirt and showed a pretty leg which would have delighted William Burchell, but which caused poor Mr Batchel no little embarrassment. Alice pointed out where a series of red marks ascended round the limb from ankle to knee, before reverting to her usual modest self. Mr Batchel wiped his forehead and coughed. ‘You had better tell me about it, child.’

Off the Record
....To his amazement Miss Wilkins was waving and calling him from the vestry roof, and clearly her recorder was playing back the sounds of those ghostly monks recorded via the chantry flue, whence the clouds of incense were intended to rise straight to heaven. Unmindful of his inadequate attire for a rendezvous with a lady, Mr Batchel climbed nimbly up the ladder, and was about to clasp her helping hand when his slipper came off, and he fell backwards and down.

Hic Dracones
....During his early years in the parish Mr Batchel had absented himself on Christmas Eve to attend Evensong at Kings’ College, Cambridge and to help stage a supper and an entertainment for the choristers, after which the lads were packed off to their beds, while their seniors indulged themselves with food, some impromptu music, a good deal of reminiscence and a chilling ghost story from the Provost, to speed on their way those—like Mr Batchel—who had to return home by pony and trap. The vicar enjoyed these occasions immensely, and when the weather was favourable he could be back in his parish in plenty of time for the early Communion on Christmas Day.

The Train of Events
....Mr Groves, on the other hand, was, in the mould of many clergyman, a great enthusiast of the steam locomotive, and he combined this love with his photographic skills. His occasional ministerings to the railway employees brought entrée to the sidings and the engine houses, from whence he brought back much dirt and grime, to the dismay of his long-suffering landlady, Mrs Rumney. It was seldom that camera, tripod and plates did not accompany him on such pastoral visits, particularly when there were new locomotives to be seen being prepared.

Vox Humana
....He had turned momentarily from the honest toil of the carpenter and his son, and was regarding with displeasure the really very ugly monument behind the choir stalls, when a cry from the workmen startled him.
    ‘Here’s a go, Vicar! Gorsh, it’s a skellington!’ And he beheld the older Rockford leaving his hole in the floor considerably faster than he had entered it.     Sure enough, there—a considerable way beneath the floor, where a space had been made in the foundations to contain a body—were the dusty remains of a person buried for many decades.

The Long Hundred
I have listened to your arguments. Now, I have become aware,’ (he coughed) ‘from my research into old documents, that the “long hundred” is based on error. Why not’—he turned to Whittle—‘pay last year’s rate for the true hundred? You sell the bricks by the true thousand or by the ton, I believe. Could you then pay the same rate for twelve bricks less per batch?’

On Information Received
....Mr Batchel forced himself out of his chair in a panic and moved away, but the muffler followed him. Then he was seized from behind, and the muffler was placed gently round his neck. Relief swept over him, and he tried to turn, only to see his fallen coat rising in the air and approaching him. He turned his head as far sideways as he could, but the presence behind him was as invisible as the one in front.

With This Ring
....The course of this narrative may possibly have warned the reader of the shock that awaited the vicar; for, once his ears had adjusted to the cold metal and to the acoustic reverberation of his bloodstream echoing in the airspace, he detected another noise. Not the singing whistle of elevated blood pressure, nor the affliction of tinnitus, but a sibilant sound, rather like—yes, rather like a whisper; the distant voice of a woman.

The Codex
....Save for the lectern glow, the lights were turned down, and the Provost read the story ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book’ in his dry, unemotional tones to a spellbound silence.
    During the reading Mr Batchel allowed his eyes to wander up to the Gallery and all but started. Looking over the rail was the craggy, hawk-like face and bushy eyebrows of the late Mr Henry Luxmoore. Then, of a sudden, the face was withdrawn.     He nudged Lombard, looked at the new portrait, and whispered, ‘I’ll swear I saw Luxmoore up in the Gallery.’     Lombard nodded, re-packing his pipe. ‘You’re not the first—but Monty doesn’t want to believe it,’ he confided, sotto voce.

The Saints Which Slept
....Suddenly he was aware of a company of men in the south aisle, who were also looking at the dead Man hanging on the Cross. They were strangely stiff and still, rather like a waxworks group of ‘Parsons through the Ages’. It seemed to Mr Batchel that he should know them . . .

Ghost-Tales of Eton College Choir School

Every Picture Tells a Story
....After Evensong that afternoon Stokes had me dusting the ante-chapel while he ‘guided’ two parties of tourists round the chapel before he could get away to his tea. As the last party disappeared down the stairs, M looked round the curtain screening the entrance to chapel, and beckoned me in.

"The Passage" is a masterful tale of supernatural horror. Its directness and lack of affect give it an exalted rhetorical authority. 

What’s In a Name?
....I knew all about the ‘googly’, that seeming leg-break that deceives the batsman by turning out to be an off-break; and I had pored over numerous Boys Books of Cricket, trying to understand the diagrams that purported to show how to deliver this bowler’s equivalent of sleight-of-hand. However, the professional who coached us could not show me how to master it either (in fairness, he was a batsman by trade). Yet I felt instinctively that it was what I wanted—nay,must have, if I was to become a useful bowler rather than the economical change-man who kept runs down while the fast bowlers took a breather or changed ends, and skittled a few ‘tail-enders’ with straight balls or the occasional dramatic leg-break.

The Greeter
....they were playing ‘Fizz Buzz’, a mental exercise in counting invented by a late colleague, Tony Oliver. That was a puzzle indeed. Where had these boys come across that? Choristers had been taught by Oliver in the past, certainly, but not for six years or so.

Other Stories

Truth Will Out
....During the balmier weather of a late autumn we fell into a routine for a while of doing music for Hawaiian-type luau parties at plushy houses, catered and organised by brother Tim. Luckily we were Hawaiian music enthusiasts (‘Coconuts’, as they’re known in such circles), and enjoyed this otherwise undemanding fare. Tim usually laid on some girl waitresses in muumuus or raffia skirts . . . and in our spare moments we could attempt to fraternise with these dollies—who were actually a pretty hard-boiled bunch: changeable and unreliable. Who’s to blame them? Any sort of waiting is pretty thankless, but at a party populated by inebriated twits and louts who fancy themselves it is also a job that calls for certain muscle and forthrightness of speech. 

On Wings of Song
‘ “When we did the post mortem on Chris,” said Dr Edmonds, “we found what at first we thought was a growth in his intestine; but it was a large hookworm, which had fastened there and been draining his blood. The eggs of these things are carried by Mansonia as well as the viral encephalitis. I discussed it with Ross, and we worked out the incubation period for eggs in the bloodstream to be about four months. Just the time you boys were looking around here. How right your vampire notion proved to be! Not just the original bite and infection—for by the way, like the vampire of legend, Mansonia will return to the same source for blood meals until replete and ready to lay its own eggs—but in the parasite that grew within poor old Chris, feeding on his blood.”

King John’s Ditch
....It was Prior Aldwin, of course—and with an acolyte who, judging from his dress and sleepwalking demeanour, could only be this year’s ‘Round’ beneficiary. Getting below to the cellar was relatively easy; surviving the poisonous atmosphere of the ditch was less so, and I was very conscious of my laboured breathing.