Where Human Pathways End: Tales of the Dead and the un-Dead by Shamus Frazer
(Ash-Tree Press 2001) is a small collection of horror stories, some supernatural and some not. Several will resonate for the reader who appreciates strange tales.
There is no hoary, clichéd material here.
Per editor Richard Dalby's introduction, Frazer was once discussed as the "new Evelyn Waugh" before obscurity overtook him. Being proclaimed the new Evelyn Waugh was probably a jinx similar to the one perpetrated on Clive Barker when his paperbacks carried the quote proclaiming him "the future of horror."
Frazer shares some similarities with Waugh, Anthony Powell, and Simon Raven (all proportions guarded): a trust in the reader to draw conclusions and fill ellipses; suspicion of melodrama unless distanced with irony; and a healthy disrespect for the motivations and sensitivities of characters. Fraszer's plots are well-machined mouse traps.
"Florinda" is a story about a child's imaginary friend and a mother and father coming apart under the weight of a sizable inherited property. Frazer handles the dialogue beautifully.
'I was sorry to hear about your accident this afternoon.'
'It was such a silly thing, really. I caught my foot in a slip-noose of bramble. It was as if somebody had set it on the path on purpose, only that would be too ridiculous for words. But it was a shock—and I tore myself painfully, trying to get free.'
There was still the ghost of that panic, Roger noticed, in Miss Reeve's pasty, pudgy features, and in the signalling behind the round lenses of her spectacles. 'It's not a very nice path for a walk,' she added, 'but one can't keep Jane away from the lake.'
'I'm having all the undergrowth cleared away from the banks,' said Roger; 'that should make it easier walking.'
'Oh, that'll be ever so much nicer, Mr Waley.'
'Florinda won't like it,' thought Jane, sitting stiffly in her wicker chair by the fire. 'She won't like it at all. She'll be in a wicked temper will Florinda.' But she said aloud in a voice of small protest—for what was the use of speaking about Florinda to grown-ups?—'It won't be nice at all. It will be quite horribly beastly.'
The men didn't care for the work they had been set to do. It was the skeletons, they said—and they prodded suspiciously with their implements at the little lumps of bone and feather and fur that their cutting and scything had revealed. There was a killer somewhere in the woods; owls said one, stoats said another, but old Renshawe said glumly it was neither bird nor beast, that it was Something-that-walked-that-shouldn't, and this infected the others with a derisive disquiet. All the same, fifty yards of path were cleared during the morning, which took them beyond the small Doric pavilion that once served as boathouse and was reflected by a stone twin housing the loch mechanism on the eastern side of the lake.
* * *
Mr Nicholas Loses Grip
A fine and very funny deal-with-the-devil story, "Mr Nicholas Loses Grip" shows us media magnate Roy besting Mr. Nicholas, a magnate from a different kingdom. Again, dialogue is handled with fine economy, and the story is perfectly paced.
Roy had called an emergency meeting 'to end once and for all the Government's vacillating foreign policy.' He was elaborating on the necessity for preparing the public mind for a protective war against some totalitarian empire or other when Nicholas remarked:
'I have some very good friends there, Roy. War doesn't suit my purpose at all just now. The effects of peace are much more insidious and rewarding. Peace is essential at present for the welfare of my kingdom.'
'I would remind you, Mr Nicholas,' said Roy in his most pompous tone, 'that you are not yet established in your kingdom. The Daily Extreme, though committed to a policy of collaboration with you in the matter of a future coup d'état, is not, I am happy to say, bound by any individual interest. It is an independent British journal whose policy is controlled absolutely by myself. Though I am glad to have other people's opinions and am prepared to consider any proposal my directors care to make, the final decision rests with myself alone.'
'You signed the contract,' said Nicholas, 'you'll get all the plutonium and uranium you need, but there were conditions . . .'
'As soon as Atom By-Products receives deliveries we can consider the conditions. And we shall want them soon for our protective war.'
'There will be no protective war,' said Nicholas, 'not yet.'
'If I want a protective war,' said Roy with ineffable dignity, 'I shall have a protective war.'
'Fool,' said Mr Nicholas in a stage whisper, 'do you want everyone to know that you paid Hetty's doctor's bills?'
The mention of this mysterious 'Hetty' had on earlier occasions driven Roy to pasty and blubber-lipped silence. But now, 'You have no evidence,' he said, 'I've looked the matter up and find I used my Number Six autograph on the cheque.'
'Number Six autograph?'
'That's what I said. . . . Now that we have met Mr Nicholas's objections to our strong arm policy I think we may proceed . . .'
Nicholas was still standing. I could see his hands clawing at the table edge. He was very pale—and his eyes, hot and angry, smouldered in their sockets like bad quality coal.
'Don't you understand, you fool,' he said, very quietly, 'don't you understand you're mine—to do what I like with? Oh, I know the contract gives you five years and a scratch of uranium—but what is that in Eternity? You're mine—all of you, body and soul—mine! You must learn to obey. You have already acknowledged my sovereignty in the contract.'
'Ah, the contract.' said Roy. 'I took the precaution of using my Number Four Autograph for the contract.'
'Your Number Four Autograph?'
'Yes, my secretary will explain. Bettenson, tell this gentleman what my Number Four is worth.'
The secretary perched a pair of rimless spectacles on the thin bridge of his nose and said nervously: 'I'm afraid, Mr Nicholas, sir—if you were to try and establish Lord Southend's Number Four Autograph in a Court of Law, you wouldn't succeed. The Number Four, sir, is a forgery: a very good forgery, but detectable as such by the experts. It's an autograph His Lordship invariably employs for dubious agreements, sir.'
* * *
The Yew Tree
"The Yew Tree" is a brief story, but a horror masterpiece nonetheless. The reader gets all the trimmings, including a flying thing with tentacles. It might as well be set in Lovecraft country, but the folk horror elements carry a lilting Jamesian air.
We were going up the steps under the arch of creepers when I heard a gasp from Martin. 'Good God!' he cried. 'Don't tell me there are yew trees in Malaya.' He was looking at a tree on the terrace a few yards to our left—a tree which does, in fact, bear some resemblance to the yew.
'I think that's a sintada,' I said. 'There's certainly a likeness . . .' Then I noticed Martin's expression. He was staring in horror at that sintada tree, and he was positively tottering on the edge of the steps as if he were going to faint. I caught him by the arm, helped him down the last flight of steps, and steered him to the car. He was pale and dazed as a zombie, and I half feared he was suffering from heat-stroke.
By the time we reached home he had recovered—more or less; but his teeth clinked like ice against the rim of the tumbler as he drank off the double whisky I poured for him.
'I'm sorry,' he said at last. 'I made an awful ass of myself just now. I ought never to have gone into the beastly place. But I didn't expect. . . . You see, though it happened a good many years ago, I suppose I've not got over it yet. I wonder if I ever shall.'
'Don't tell me if it'll upset you again,' I said with revolting hypocrisy—for I am curious by nature, and nothing is more distasteful to me than unresolved mysteries.
He was silent for a while, and I thought he was going to take me at my word. I poured him a stiffer drink.
'They do say these things are sometimes better for a father confessor,' I said. A sudden sigh of wind stirred a rustling from the trees in the garden, and Martin shivered and pulled his chair round with a creak to face the sound.
'You won't believe the tale,' he said; 'nobody does. Sometimes I try to kid myself it was a dream. But that's no use. It wasn't, you see.' He hesitated again. Then he asked, 'Do you know Darkshire?'
'I stayed near Doomchester once. It's a pretty place.'
'If you like trees . . .' he said, without any particular expression, 'there's the remains of Robin's forest, and those great feudal estates, the Princedoms.'
'All sold up now,' I said.
'I used to spend holidays there when I was a child,' said Martin. 'I loved the place. Trees, too. But I didn't know the western side until a few years ago, when I was sent up there on a job. Do you know that side at all?'
'Vaguely. Bleak and hilly—full of limestone caverns and lead-workings and streams spilling over boulders.'
'It's an evil place,' he said, and relapsed into silence.
'But there are few trees, Martin,' I said, keeping him to the point.
'Oh, the forest creeps up into those Pennine valleys. The hills are bare enough, but you get those beastly secretive valleys. Like Hallowvale, for instance.'
'Never been there.'
'You can be thankful you won't have a chance. It lies under several million gallons of water now. I was sent up to report on the place. You know that group of great reservoirs there that feed Sheffield and several of the Yorkshire industrial towns? Well, they were planning an extension of the Tarnthorpe Reservoir, and Hallowvale seemed a likely place to meet requirements. For one thing, no one lived there. No one had lived there for well over a hundred years. So I was sent off to make a preliminary survey.
* * *
The Tune in Dan's Café
A haunted pub tale, "The Tune in Dan's Café" has a very up-to-date specter and a pleasantly barbed and brittle tone courtesy of the protagonists.
'A perambulator at this hour, Charles.' Helen's lipstick was a purplish black in the neon glow. 'Two hoods too. Twins?'
'She can only bring it out at twenty to midnight, Helen—and in the rain. Two hoods so that no one can look inside.'
'But why shouldn't they look inside?'
'Because they'd die of shock if they did—and she loves it so.'
'I think you're being revolting, Charles.'
'It wasn't her fault. She'd been reading Space Fiction in the Labour Ward, and . . .'
'No,' said Helen, 'you're not to tell me.'
'But whatever it is it died six months ago.'
'It's probably her afternoon's shopping—huge packets of cereals and detergents . . . and a second-hand television set.'
'At this hour? . . . Now she's turning off by the Baptist Chapel, look.'
'Oh Charles, d'you think she's going to blackmail the minister?'
'I know,' I said, 'I know for a certainty that minister has anthropopophagous tastes. He was once a missionary in darkest, oh darkest Africa.'
'I thought I was hungry,' said Helen in a wail 'but you're putting me off.'
'It's as well. I suspect Dan's forgotten to hang the "Closed" sign on the door.'
'Darling, you look diabolic in this light . . . Charles, did you see that?'
'That umbrella tilted, and it was a negress under it.'
'She too is turning down by the Baptist Chapel, you'll notice.'
'What a dismal place to have a breakdown!'
'Have psychoanalysts ever attempted to analyse places, Helen?'
* * *
The Fifth Mask
From Dalby's introduction:
Ramsey Campbell recalls that 'The Fifth Mask' was a seminal influence on his own budding literary career when he first read it in London Mystery during his early teens, and this distinctly 'Campbellian' weird tale was included in his U.S. anthology Fine Frights (1988).
"The Fifth Mask" is an outstanding story of remembered horrors from childhood. It is one of the longest stories in Where Human Pathways End, and one of the most rewarding. In it, a man recalls an encounter he and his friend Robin had during their interwar youth in Failing, Darkshire.
She was sitting in the middle of one of those seats I've spoken of; fussy iron painted a dark crimson, that must have been put there the same time as the gas-lamps were set up when the Widow Queen sat at Windsor in crinolines. She was thin as her voice, dressed all in black, a kind of black straw bonnet with a purple velvet ribbon nodding on her head; there was a stucco wall behind her, patched and discoloured as a gravestone, and the ghosts of winter trees rising above and losing themselves in the twilight. I got as big a fright to see her as when I'd first heard her voice—and I'd have bolted but for Robin's grip on my arm. 'Come on!' he said, and pinching me as if he'd have me join in with him, called out in a kind of wheedling sing-song: 'Spare a penny, lady, for the old guy?' 'Which old guy?' she said with a chuckle that set your teeth on edge. 'I only see two young ones, but my eyes are not as good as they were . . . in the dark!' She beckoned us with a long hooked forefinger, white as a leper's: 'Come closer . . . closer . . . until I can see the whites of your eyes. . . . Then we can fire away at one another more effectively. . . .'
I would have hung back, but Robin had hold of my wrist and pushed me along ahead of him until we stood a couple of paces in front of her—near enough for her to catch hold of me if she'd have leant forward suddenly.
* * *
The Cyclops Juju
"The Cyclops Juju" is a novella-length school story braiding a cursed colonial totem, classical legend, and amateur dramatics. But that kind of reductive description robs the tale of its astonishing originality. Like "The Yew Tree," it folds together HPL and MRJ; but this too-crudely summarizes, doing little justice to a tale of unique power.
* * *
The Deepest Lady in Singapore
A Maughamian East-of-Suez conte cruel.
* * *
Walking on Air
A delicately executed anecdote of colonial Malaya.
* * *
Archeological horror in the desert as a team finds the ruins of a cursed city.
My eyes were drawn again to the rock tomb now less than two hundred yards from us. The massive fluted columns carved out of the sheer red sandstone upheld a pediment whose oblique angle roofed a group of statuary. This consisted of three robed female figures, two seated, one recumbent and headless, her left arm flung out into the acute angle at the western foot of the pediment: in the eastern angle a nude male figure fled away on winged heels, his cloak blown out behind him and one crooked arm clutching an object too clumsy to be lyre or caduceus.
'The Three Fates?' Jules queried, in the tone one uses in an empty church.
'Perseus and the Gorgons,' I corrected him, 'without a doubt. You see that man running off on the left? Can't you identify what he's carrying? Here, take my binoculars.'
He put them to his eyes and adjusted them. 'A basket . . .' he hesitated before adding, 'a kind of bag of . . . of serpents.'
'It's the Medusa's head in the sack, Jules. The snakes—well, descipitation has disarranged her hair-do. . . . It's funny,' I went on, 'that Monsell doesn't describe those sculptures: he mentions the Doric columns and the pediment, yes—but not a word about the figures. Possibly he was being cagey about details until he could bring a camera along to confirm them, but that's unlike him. More probably when he came to write of those creatures his pen dried up. They're rather a gruesome form of life-in-death, aren't they?'
But Jules had lowered the binoculars and focussed them on the doorway in the deep shadow under the great arch.
'By God,' he cried, 'Monsell made it! He got in! Look, Pierre, a passage has been forced through the stones sealing the door of the temple.' His excitement rebounded from the cliff in a small avalanche of echoes.
* * *
A tiny, clever, black-humored story that would do Saki or Roald Dahl proud.
* * *
A poem. Excerpt:
Black mast and shrouds
Dimmed the clouds,
This thud of earth
Drummed at my birth,
The twisted screws,
Behold my wake,
Sloughed skin of snake!
In this barque
Chorus of Ark
Sounds timeless horror dim
Of Styx in stink of sin.
What can keep out
The hideous rout?
Will nothing hold
Back the cold,
Or keep at bay
10 February 2021