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

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

Friday, March 30, 2018

Nailed down and in torment: Clock Without Hands by Gerald Kersh (1949)

If you only have time for one Gerald Kersh book, make it Clock Without Hands (1949) from Valancourt Books.

It contains 3 brilliant novellas.

"Clock Without Hands" tells the story of a landlord who expects to be star witness at a murder trial when one of his tenants is murdered. When he is robbed of this shot at fame, other plans must be laid.

"Flight to the World's End" is about an orphan in an orphanage, overwhelmed by emotional isolation of his existence and the mercilessly arbitrary decisions of adults controlling his destiny.

"Fairy Gold" is a masterpiece.

A virulent practical joke dupes a young couple surviving on £4 a week  into thinking they've inherited £103,751 6s. 8d.

Over a sweltering bank holiday weekend they decide to cash a £20 check with a local tout. The career of that kited check, its voyage hand to hand, as well as the sorrows and miseries of the couple, accumulate incidents of a picaresque masterpiece.

30 March 2018

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Sgt. Nelson over all

....That's an old story, like the death of Nelson. We—it is typical of us—hide our admiration in our hearts, and giggle at "Kiss me, Hardy," and "England expects …"

But Nelson knew exactly what to say on his last memorable naval occasion. Emotional as a ballerina, but calm as the Angel of Death in crisis; sick as a dog at the heave of a ship, yet dragged out onto the ocean by the ancient sea-wolf that tugged inside him; Norfolk Puritan salted with old Scandinavian—there was plenty of the pale firewater in his mixture; and something sweet, too, for he could be gentle as a woman. He was a very gentle Englishman; a very English gentleman.

But you can imagine the French admiral making a song and dance about glory, honour, death, the France, liberty, the Emperor, Marengo, Austerlitz, the illustrious memory of Monsieur Chose, and so to the peroration. Nelson merely said, in effect: "Being Englishmen, fight to the death."

That was the duty England expected of them. And there is no doubt at all that in every ship in the English fleet, sailors, treated much worse than dogs and scarred as much by punitive flogging as by battle, growled that England expected a hell of a lot…. England expected a bloody sight too much … and England could go and do something impossible to itself … and they were browned off, and to hell with England. Whereupon they fought furiously and won the day.

The Englishman, that inveterate gambler, has loved the feel of long odds against him, since the dawn of his history. You can't breed out what is in the old blood. And here, there is plenty left of the blood that got splashed about when Caractacus threw his handful against Rome—the Caractacus who said to Cæsar, as we might say to Hitler: "You fight to make men your slaves: we fight to stay free men." There is plenty of the spir(it that came out best in affairs like Agincourt, where 9,000 knights and bowmen engaged an army of 27,000, and killed a man apiece and sent the rest flying. History is veined like an inflamed eyeball with our Thin Red Lines!

Sargeant Nelson of the Guards

(N.B. Hilarious book 😃)

“....You’ve got to start somewhere,” says Bearsbreath.

“And where do you end?” asks Crowne, sourly. “If you’re not careful, you end up like them old skivers that mooch about the Naffy Library. The minute the place opens, in they dash. Blind O’Reilly, it’s like a Gold Rush. They go for them four armchairs like pigs for swill. And there they sit, reading books all day long.”

“And listening to the wireless,” says Hands. “Not that that wireless ever works. It squeaks, it goes quack, it screams like a baby; but much they care. They sit and listen just the same.”

“I believe Fatty Teedale’s librarian now,” says Dagwood.

“Fatty?” says Hands. “The only man in the Brigade of Guards that used to bite his toenails. Years ago he used to be in the next bed to mine, and it made my blood run cold to hear him. When he’d used up all his fingernails, he’d start on his toes. Then he got too fat to reach them. He was the worst nail-biter I ever saw in my life. You know what he used to do? He used to save up the little fingernail on his left hand for Sunday afternoon. He’d store up that nail like another man would store a cigar. And first thing after Church Parade, he’d sit down and have a long bite at it. It shook me.”


Gerald Kersh: There are occasions when the entire fabric of dialectical materialism seems to go phut

....‘Sit down and pull yourself together. Tell me, what’s troubling you?’

‘I must leave here in the morning,’ said Shakmatko, trembling in every limb; ‘it has found me again. So soon! It must have followed on my very heels. Then what is the use? I can no longer escape it, even for a day. What can I do? Where can I go? My God, my God, I am surrounded!’

‘What has found you? What are you trying to run away from?’ I asked.

He replied: ‘An evil spirit.’

I shivered. There are occasions when the entire fabric of dialectical materialism seems to go phut before the forces of nightmarish possibilities....

"The Devil that Troubled the Chessboard"

Thicker than Water

[Only words, but utterly brilliant and hilarious. Beginning of the story "Thicker than Water."]

‘YOU always were such a confounded milksop,’ said my uncle. ‘I shall never forget that time when you came down from Cambridge, pure as a lily. I gave you a ten-pound note, and told you: “Here’s a tenner, Rodney – go to the West End, find some lively company; have a good time, make a man of yourself!” And out you went, buttoned up like a blessed parson. And you were back by midnight, all flushed…. What? You’re blushing again, are you? Better watch out, Rodney. You make me think of the little train that used to run between Wittingley and Ambersham – when the driver blew the whistle, the engine lost steam, and stopped. Don’t blush; you can’t spare the blood for it. Oh, you curd, you!’

I said: ‘Oh, Uncle – please!’

But he had no mercy. He was in one of his savage, comic humours. He went right on, in apostrophe, talking to the crystal chandelier: ‘… He comes back by midnight, does this Rodney, all of a glow. I say to myself: “Well, now, at last this bookworm has made a bit of a fool of himself. About time! Let’s have a little vicarious pleasure …” And I ask him to tell me how he has spent his evening – not, mark you, that he can have sowed many wild oats between tea-time and the Devil’s Dancing Hour. “Been dissipating, Rodney, my boy?” I ask him. And: “Oh yes, Uncle Arnold!” says this little nobody. And, as I am a living sinner, he puts down nine pounds-three-and-six, with – Lord help us! – a look of guilt, saying: “Here is the change!”’

He laughed his great, coarse laugh, and the crystals of that detestable chandelier vibrated with it, seeming to titter in sympathy. Knowing that it would be useless now to beg for mercy, I remained silent.

He continued: ‘Change, I ask you, change! – the chandelier sang: Change! Nine pounds-three-and-six out of a ten-pound note. And had he dissipated? “Oh yes, Uncle Arnold.” … On sixteen shillings and sixpence, this fellow had had his first big night in town, by all that’s marvellous! … “The cost-of-living must have dropped,” I say, “because when I was twenty-two, forty-odd years ago, and if my uncle had given me a tenner to blue in town, I’d have come home with an empty pocket and an unpaid bill from Gervasi in the Strand – yes, and had to borrow half a sovereign from the butler to pay the cabbie…. What in the world,” I ask this tame mouse, “what in the world can a gentleman do, to have an evening in town on sixteen-and-six?” And he tells me, does this Rodney: “I met my friend, Willikens, of Jesus College, and we went to a picture palace. We saw Rita Anita in Passion’s Plaything, and after the show we went to a café in Soho and had ham and scrambled eggs.”’

I cried: ‘Oh, Uncle——’

‘– Oh, nephew!’ he snarled, glaring at me again. ‘I decided, from that moment on, that you were a beastly little prig. I promised my dear sister-your unhappy mother – that I’d look after you. Poor girl! Your father, whom she went and married – bolts and bars wouldn’t hold her – against all our advice, was a blackguard and a scoundrel and a rogue and a vagabond. But at least he had the decency to go to the devil like a man, if not a gentleman. Whereas you – you whey-faced marigold——’

‘– Uncle, I cannot help the colour of my hair!’ I said.

‘You can’t help anything, you!’ said he. ‘I wonder that you have the nerve to interrupt me. Why, you spaniel, for less than half of what I’ve said to you, I would have struck my own father in the face! My elder brother practically did so to my father for much less, and was kicked out of doors, and went and made his fortune in Africa … and I wish I’d gone with him…. Oh, you spiritless thing – I’d have thought better of you if you had knocked me down, just now, instead of whimpering: “Uncle, Uncle, Uncle!”’

And I could only say: ‘But, Uncle!’

‘– And yet,’ my uncle said, ‘there must be some kind of a spark of spirit in you, somewhere, or you wouldn’t have had the nerve to fall in love with this Mavis of yours. All the same, you should have got that kind of nonsense out of your system, the time I gave you that ten-pound note. “He who commits no follies at twenty will commit them at forty.” Whoever said that was quite right. So here you are, infatuated, at your age——’

‘– Uncle, I’m only thirty-nine!’ I said – and, to save my life, I could not have stopped my voice breaking – ‘and it isn’t infatuation. It’s true love!’

‘That would make it a thousand times worse, if it were true. Only it isn’t. It can’t be. True love, indeed – you, of all people!’

‘And why not me, as well as anyone else?’ I asked.

‘Why not you?’ he replied. ‘Because … you are you. True love’s for men. And what are you? A marigold, a carrot – aha, there he goes, blushing again like a tomato! – a weed, a vegetable; anything you like except a man. Love, young Rodney, takes blood and fire. All the fire in you has gone into your ridiculous hair; and all the blood in your body you need to blush with…. Infatuation, I say – don’t dare to interrupt – infatuation with a common dancing girl, who gets paid a couple of pounds a week for showing her fat legs to every Tom, Dick, or Harry who has sixpence to pay for a ticket!’

Even if I had not been choked with misery and rage, I dare say I should have held my tongue. My uncle was in one of his moods, and if I had told him that Mavis had slender and beautiful legs, he would have corrected himself into further offensiveness by saying: I beg your pardon, skinny legs. If I had argued that, say, Pavlova was also, by his definition, a ‘dancing girl’, and that Mavis was a serious Artiste in Ballet, he would have said, with an unpleasant leer: Oh yes, we know all about that! So was Signora Scampi, when my father set up an establishment for her in Brook Street, in 1883…. Brutal ignoramus as he was, he had a talent for turning any word to his own purpose. So I was silent, while he went on:

‘Now, if you’d been anything like a Man, I’d have been the last to object to your marrying a dancer. I nearly did myself, once – wish I had – she had legs, at least, to recommend her, which is more than my barren scrub of a Lady had … and, as for morals, if any: better. At least, La Palestina was frank, which is more than could be said for our own skinny-shanked, goosefleshed womenfolk … curse and confound them, from their droopy eyelids to their long cold feet! …

‘However, let’s not waste words. Marry your dancer, and not only will I strike you out of my will, but I cut off your allowance. Now then! Decide.’

‘But, Uncle!’ I said. ‘I love Mavis, and she loves me.’

He said, with a sneer: ‘You are infatuated with your Mavis, and she is in love with the eight hundred pounds a year I allow you. I ask you, you radish, what else could any full-blooded woman find in you to love?’

I might have said that Mavis was not the type of ballet dancer of my uncle’s turbulent youth; that she was by no means what he, and his type, would have described as ‘full-blooded’, being dark and slender, petal-pale and serious. But then he would only have snarled a laugh and cursed himself, saying that it was just as he had thought all along – the girl was anæmic, unfit to breed from, and he would see himself damned before he countenanced such a blend of milk and water.

‘Rodney, my boy,’ he said, ‘I want your word, here and now. Give up any idea you might have of marrying this girl. If not, I send a note to Coote tomorrow, and that will cost you eight hundred a year while I’m alive, and my money when I’m dead. You know me, Rodney. I’m a bull-terrier when I lay hold, and my mind’s made up…. Well?’

I said: ‘I’ll do as you say, Uncle Arnold. I’ll give her up.’

Then he struck the table a blow with his purple fist, and shouted: ‘I knew you would! Oh, you milksop! If you had defied me, I’d have raised your allowance to twelve hundred, and given you my blessing; and kissed your bride for you. As it is, you stick of rhubarb, your allowance is henceforward reduced to six hundred pounds a year. And let this be a lesson to you…. True love, eh? And you’d sell it for eight hundred a year!’ ....

Kicked in the mouth by one's horse

....I have survived grape-shot in my ribs, a musket-ball in the stomach, a pistol-ball in the shoulder and, most miraculous of all, a biscaïen ball in the hip (I say nothing of the bayonet-thrust, or a sabre-cut, here and there) and I have had most of the fluxes, dysenteries and agues that our frail flesh is heir to; together with a rheumatic fever which, I believed, was the ultima Thule of punishment. But the gathered might of all my enemies, my friend, never inflicted upon me one-half of the anguish I suffered under the hoof of that white-eyed devil of a dapple-grey mare! The pain of the broken bones in my face was terrible. The agony of my bitten tongue was worse. But worst of all was the pain of a shattered nerve on the left-hand side of my face. It was as if some fiend had delicately pushed a wire into my left nostril, up through some fine passage at the back of the eyeball, and out at the ear – and then applied a powerful current of electricity.

Story: "Teeth and Nails"

Absalom, Absalom pickles

In the year of Our Lord 1796, Absalom Relish founded the House of Relish in a potting-shed, in Clodpuddle, in the County of Kent. The foundation of this business represented the consummation of a lifetime of honest endeavour. The son of humble parents, he left the land on account of an inherent weakness of the knees, and entered the service of Baron Soyle of Clodpuddle in the capacity of knife-and-boots boy. His integrity, willingness and sagacity did not escape his master’s eye, so that before twenty years had passed Absalom was elevated to the dignity of second footman, from which he worked his way, in the course of ten or twelve years, to the position of butler to the Baron, and the secrets of the recipe-book and the pantry. Punches, sauces, and metal-polish, soap-boiling, jam-making, and elderberry wine were as an open book to Absalom Relish; nor were the secrets of game-hanging and the putrefaction of Stilton cheese unknown to him. But above all, he became possessed of the recipe for the famous Soyle Pickles, which for centuries had been the envy of the nobility of the county. This was the corner stone of his house….

Beginning of “The House of Relish”


Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Brown on Resolution By C.S. Forester

Brown on Resolution by C.S.Forester


Forester's non-Hornblower novels have the same capable and surprising complications as the works for which he is famous.

Brown on Resolution (1929) is the first nautical-related tale Forester wrote. Until then he was known for a series of grimly intense crime novels.

Brown on Resolution is not only a superb "man-alone" thriller in what would later be called the Rogue Male tradition. It gives us Brown's entire humble life, explaining at each stage of the boy's development those strengths of character that would allow him to accomplish all he did in those crowded hours when he fought alone against the Kaiser's warship Ziethen on Resolution.

27 March 2018

Historical melodrama à la mode: The Hope and The Glory by Herman Wouk.

….As the morning reports poured in, all the officers in the war room were looking cheerful for a change. Even the dour bone-weary Pasternak was studying the big table map with something resembling a smile. The girls were moving pins and unit symbols far into Sinai, except for Colonel Yoffe's brigade, which had not yet budged.

Operation kadesh was finally unfolding as Dayan had foreseen. The laggard British bombing of the airfields had done the job, eliminating the enemy air force from the fast-moving war; and the Egyptian troops that had been pouring into Sinai were in a headlong rush back to the Canal Zone. So at last - and this was why Pasternak was almost smiling - Yoffe's brigade could start down the track mapped out by the yarkon patrol along the Sinai's east coast; heretofore it would have been too vulnerable from the air. Yoffe had to go mighty fast, however, to capture Sharm before the United Nations voted on an American ceasefire resolution already under debate in the General Assembly. There were two enemies now, the Egyptians and the clock.

A soldier at the table: "Sir, telephone for you."

"Hello, Pasternak here."

"Crazy balagan," were Zev Barak's first words. "No use giving you a long story. I want your authorization to buy eighty-seven cows."

"Eighty-seven cows? Is this a joke?"

"Do you want an explanation, or will you just give me an okay? We have a serious problem."

"Let's hear it."

Barak glanced out the open farmhouse window at the

stumpy white-haired figure keeping the bulldozers at bay. The smell from the barns was oppressing his city-bred nose. "Okay, it seems there's this old guy whose cow bams extend a few feet into the railroad right-of-way. Actually one very long barn, all along the track. The trains cleared it, so he got away with it for years. There are eighty-seven cows in that barn. He's one of these old Russian Jews, built like a rock, a demented individualist. He says the rotten socialist kibbutz system is behind all this, he's made all the rotten kibbutzim look sick with his successful private dairy, and they're out to get him."

"So what? Knock the barn down."

"He's got an Uzi, and he's ready to shoot the bulldozer drivers." .

"Well, then, disarm the old lunatic! That's hard?"

"Sam, we got to talking. Turns out he knew my grandfather in Plonsk, in fact, he says he was once in love with my grandmother. I feel sorry for him."

"Zev, what the devil will the army do with eighty-seven dairy cows?"

"We can eat them, can't we?"

"By my life, you're as crazy as he is. You don't eat dairy cows, you milk them. Demolish the bam, I say, and fast. Tell him Solel Boneh will build him a brand-new one." Solel Boneh was the giant governmental road-building and construction corporation.

"All right, I can try that."

"Zev, you sound light in the head. What about your brigade? Is it on the move?"

"Definitely. Yoffe has started south, and I'll catch up with him when I've cleared this snag. The landing craft are loaded on flatcars in Haifa ready to go. The other demolitions have been done. There's just this cow bam."

Barak was in fact iight-headed, not having slept all night in the hard push to get the brigade ready to roll. He found the barn impasse weirdly amusing, and enjoyed baiting Pasternak with it. Moreover, short of using force on the old man, he really was at a loss.

"Do whatever you think best," snapped Pasternak. "Buy

the cows, shoot the old guy in the leg by accident, I don't care. The UN may vote today or tomorrow on the ceasefire. Move!"

Barak approached the dairyman, who, except for a bristly white beard, rather resembled the Prime Minister in his pugnacious jaw, heavy nose, and fierce eyes under bushy snowy brows. When Barak made the Solel Boneh proposal, the Russian exploded. "Solel Boneh? I worked for Solel Boneh! I quit Solel Boneh! The only thing in this country worse than the kibbutzim is Solel Boneh. Before Solel Boneh gets around to it, the Messiah will build me a barn."

"The army will buy your cows, then."

"And what will I do without cows? Go back to work for Solel Boneh? I fart on Solel Boneh!"

Barak took from a pouch his operation map of kadesh. "Look, Reb Shloimeh, here is how things stand." In quick sentences he sketched the war picture, making as clear as he could the mission of Yoffe's brigade, the reason for the demolition, and the race against the UN vote. "Without the replenishment by sea, Reb Shloimeh, the boys won't take Sharm el Sheikh, because the tanks and trucks won't have the fuel to get them there. And your barn is in the way of the boats I have to freight to Eilat. Zeh mah she'yaish." ("That's how it is.")

The dairyman listened, looking hard at the map and nodding. "Why didn't those fellows on the bulldozers tell me all that?"

"They're just drivers, they had their orders. We're racing the UN."

"I fart on the UN," said the farmer, lowering his gun. "Let me get my cows out into the field."

"I'll give you a document, showing that the government will rebuild your barn."

"Wipe your ass with the document. I'll rebuild my own barn."

Colonel Avraham Yoffe, the big burly brigade commander, had requested Zev Barak as his deputy because he knew him from the Jewish Brigade days. As Sergeant Wolfgang

Berkowitz, Zev had been adept at coping with the deep sand and balky machines of the North African desert. Also, Barak had been on the yarkon patrol, so he understood that the challenge to the brigade was as much making it down the Sinai coast, as taking Sharm el Sheikh.

Barak had risen to the job, had drawn up formidable lists of requirements, and had sleeplessly checked their delivery and distribution, driving Yoffe's staff to exhaustion and accepting no report except, "Done!" Now, as the long column of the Ninth crawled out of the Negev into enemy territory, there was no lack of spare parts and repair equipment in the ten-mile-long serpentine on wheels, nor of water, food, extra fuel, spare tires, and the thousand small items of a mechanized force on the march through a wasteland, carrying its own means of life support like a fleet putting to sea….

Herman Wouk's novels rotate around the same central themes:

1. A protagonist married to the wrong woman, too busy in his career to strike out boldly for divorce so he can wed the right woman, with whom he is having an adulterous affair.

2. The martial career as a prism through which the values of the middle class professional and artistic layers are observed and judged.

Wouk's Israel novels, The Hope and The Glory, are probably disliked as low-brow and old-fashioned, and also as defenses of Israel itself. They are massive potboilers filled with soap opera melodrama and second-hand politics.

I liked them. Usually I find I enjoy a novel most when the gulf between its politics and mine is unbridgeable.  I can relax and enjoy the writing and the hellish slog endured by the characters.

The hundred characters are hard to keep track of, but the complications and witticisms keep coming. (The point with these books is not to slow down.) And there are passages of humor and hard-won poignancy.


27 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….