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

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

Friday, September 17, 2021

"We shall meet at Philippi": Six contes cruels by Robert Barr (1849-1912)

    'Of course I don't expect you to take my word for it. If you were any judge of human nature you would see I am not a vagabond. Still that's neither here nor there. Choose three of your own friends. I will lay my proofs before them, and abide by their decision. Come, nothing could be fairer than that, now could it?'

     'Go to the courts, I tell you.'

     'Oh, certainly. But only as a last resort. No wise man goes to law if there is another course open. But what is the use of taking such an absurd position? You know I'm your cousin. I'll take you blindfold into every room in the place.'

     'Any discharged servant could do that. I have had enough of you. I am not a man to be blackmailed. Will you leave the house yourself, or shall I call the servants to put you out?'

     'I should be sorry to trouble you,' said Heaton, rising. 'That is your last word, I take it?'


     'Then goodbye. We shall meet at Philippi.'

-- "The Vengeance of the Dead"

Robert Barr (1849-1912) is known to posterity for creating one of the "rivals of Sherlock Holmes." I would be the first to give that collection, The Triumphs of

Eugène Valmont, pride of place next to The Dorrington Deed-Box by Arthur Morrison and A Prince of Swindlers by Guy Boothby. These three collections really do rival Conan Doyle's great pre-Reichenbach Holmes stories; the Valmont outing "The Absent-Minded Coterie" is itself peerless, one to be reread and savored, like Boothby's Simon Carne story "The Duchess of Wiltshire's Diamonds."

Barr did not restrict himself to mystery stories. In April I wrote about his science fiction tale "Within an Ace of the End of the World," which has been retconned as Steampunk by no less an anthologist  than Mike Ashley.

Hugh Lamb collected half a dozen Barr horror stories into his troika anthology Three Men in the Dark: Tales of Terror by Jerome K. Jerome, Barry Pain & Robert Barr. I was not aware Barr had worked in the horror mode, but as a writer of popular fiction at the turn of the century, it would have been unusual had he not.

Hugh Lamb notes in his introduction:

....Robert Barr was born in Glasgow on 16 September 1850 and his family emigrated to Canada when he was four years old. He was educated in Toronto and he started work as a teacher. It is reported that he was the headmaster of a public school at Windsor, Canada until 1876 (which meant he was a young headmaster indeed). In 1876 he married, and around this time, moved over the border into America, taking up a job as a reporter on the Detroit Free Press. He made such a success of it that the proprietors sent him to Britain in 1881 to set up a British edition. It is hard to believe that, even in the 1880s when papers were avidly read in all kinds of forms, a newspaper called the Detroit Free Press would be a major success in the Home Counties but it does seem that Barr made a go of it.

     Barr used the pseudonym Luke Sharp for much of his journalism, as well as a splendid send-up of a famous detective, in The Adventures of Sherlaw Kombs (1892), and it was under this nom de plume that he published his first book Strange Happenings (1883). He mainly used his own name thereafter and quickly built up a reputation for his writing, generally in magazines but also in an interestingly long list of books.

     It was nine years before he published another book under his own name, the skilled collection of stories From a Steamer Chair (1892). He is now mainly remembered, by crime fiction enthusiasts, for his crime novels and detective stories. He invented the renowned sleuth Eugene Valmont, claimed to have been the model for Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot. He kept up his output of books right up to his somewhat early death on 21 October 1912....

It would be useful at this point to reacquaint ourselves with Brian Stableford's definition of conte cruel in his The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. Most shorthand definitions of the conte cruel focus on its presumed authorial sadism toward protagonist and reader. 

CONTE CRUEL.  A short-story genre that takes its name from an 1883 collection by Villiers de l'Isle Adam, although previous examples had been provided by such writers as Edgar Allan Poe. Some critics use the label to refer only to nonsupernatural horror stories, especially those that have nasty climactic twists, but it is applicable to any story whose conclusion exploits the cruel aspects of "the irony of fate." There is a conte cruel element in many traditional folktales, lovingly extrapolated by many 19th-century writers in that vein, including Hans Christian Andersen, Jean Lorrain, and Oscar Wilde.

     One way in which many modern fabulations seek to emphasize the fact that the velvet glove of fantasy is being used to clothe the iron fist of conscientious scepticism is by careful provision of climactic subversive twists typical of the conte cruel;  expert practitioners include John Collier and Donald Barthelme. [Emphasis added - J. R.]

To me this definition of conte cruel allows the reader to include writers like Bierce, Maupassant, and Saki under the canopy of bloodthirsty and urbane drollery. Robert Barr certainly works hard to achieve such effects in his modest short stories.

*     *     *

Six cruel Barr stories

An Alpine Divorce (1893)

The Alps seem like a nice place to visit. E. F. Benson and Conan Doyle both wrote nonfiction about its splendors and winter sporting glories. (In their fiction, both painted a very different picture).

Robert Barr is not much for scenery, and this short-short tale follows his protagonist's careful game. "John Bodman had planned his crime as grimly and relentlessly, and as coolly, as ever he had concocted a deal on the Stock Exchange."

Bodman, alas, does not realize that there is another player in this game. 

     Whether John Bodman was sane or insane at the time he made up his mind to murder his wife will never be known, but there was certainly craftiness in the method he devised to make the crime appear the result of an accident. Nevertheless, cunning is often a quality in a mind that has gone wrong.

     Mrs Bodman well knew how much her presence afflicted her husband, but her nature was as relentless as his, and her hatred of him was, if possible, more bitter than his hatred of her. Wherever he went she accompanied him, and perhaps the idea of murder would never have occurred to him if she had not been so persistent in forcing her presence upon him at all times and on all occasions. So, when he announced to her that he intended to spend the month of July in Switzerland, she said nothing, but made her preparations for the journey. On this occasion he did not protest, as was usual with him, and so to Switzerland this silent couple departed.

*     *     *

The Vengeance of the Dead (1894)

"The Vengeance of the Dead" deals blithely with inheritance and murder. Barr handles his material economically, and the story has a satisfying appointment-in-Samarra

tone. I only wish to remark on a coincidence of last lines.

"Markheim" by Robert Louis Stevenson (1885):

     He confronted the maid upon the threshold with something like a smile.

     "You had better go for the police," said he: "I have killed your master."

"The Vengeance of the Dead" (1894):

     Allen crossed the room and, turning the key, flung open the door. 'I have murdered your master,' he said, handing the revolver butt forward to the nearest man. 'I give myself up. Go and get an officer.'

*     *     *

The Hour and the Man (1894)

"The Hour and the Man" is a pitiless, grim "torture by hope" tale about a brigand who thinks he has bribed a guard to show him an escape route, offering promise of eventual riches as payment. 

*     *     *

Not According to the Code (1895)

A businessman pursues his former partner; their showdown takes place far from their London base, against an empty Texas landscape. It is a tale of grim comedy.

     'I see you recognize me at last, Mr Danby. This is an unexpected meeting, is it not? You realize, I hope, that there are no judges, juries, nor lawyers, no mandamuses and no appeals. Nothing but a writ of ejectment from the barrel of a pistol and no legal way of staying the proceedings. In other words, no cursed quibbles and no damned law.'

     Danby, after several times moistening his pallid lips, found his voice.

     'Do you mean to give me a chance, or are you going to murder me?'

     'I am going to murder you.'

     Danby closed his eyes, let his hands drop to his sides, and swayed gently from side to side as a man does on the scaffold just before the bolt is drawn. Strong lowered his revolver and fired, shattering one knee of the doomed man. Danby dropped with a cry that was drowned by the second report. The second bullet put out his left eye, and the murdered man lay with his mutilated face turned up to the blue sky.

     A revolver report on the prairies is short, sharp, and echoless. The silence that followed seemed intense and boundless, as if nowhere on earth was there such a thing as sound. The man on his back gave an awesome touch of the eternal to the stillness.

     Strong, now that it was all over, began to realize his position. Texas, perhaps, paid too little heed to life lost in fair fight, but she had an uncomfortable habit of putting a rope round the neck of a cowardly murderer. Strong was an inventor by nature. He proceeded to invent his justification. He took one of Danby's revolvers and fired two shots out of it into the empty air. This would show that the dead man had defended himself at least, and it would be difficult to prove that he had not been the first to fire. He placed the other pistol and the knife in their places in Danby's belt. He took Danby's right hand while it was still warm and closed the fingers around the butt of the revolver from which he had fired, placing the forefinger on the trigger of the cocked six-shooter. To give effect and naturalness to the tableau he was arranging for the benefit of the next traveller by that trail, he drew up the right knee and put revolver and closed hand on it as if Danby had been killed while just about to fire his third shot.

     Strong, with the pride of a true artist in his work, stepped back a pace or two for the purpose of seeing the effect of his work as a whole. As Danby fell, the back of his head had struck a lump of soil or a tuft of grass which threw the chin forward on the breast. As Strong looked at his victim his heart jumped, and a sort of hypnotic fear took possession of him and paralysed action at its source. Danby was not yet dead. His right eye was open, and it glared at Strong with a malice and hatred that mesmerized the murderer and held him there, although he felt rather than knew he was covered by the cocked revolver he had placed in what he thought was a dead hand. Danby's lips moved but no sound came from them. Strong could not take his fascinated gaze from the open eye. He knew he was a dead man if Danby had the strength to crook his finger, yet he could not take the leap that would bring him out of range. The fifth pistol-shot rang out and Strong pitched forward on his face.

*     *     *

Transformation (1896)

     If you grind castor sugar with an equal quantity of chlorate of potash, the result is an innocent-looking white compound, sweet to the taste, and sometimes beneficial in the case of a sore throat. But if you dip a glass rod into a small quantity of sulphuric acid, and merely touch the harmless-appearing mixture with the wet end of the rod, the dish which contains it becomes instantly a roaring furnace of fire, vomiting forth a fountain of burning balls, and filling the room with a dense, black, suffocating cloud of smoke.

     So strange a combination is that mystery which we term Human Nature, that a touch of adverse circumstance may transform a quiet, peaceable, law-abiding citizen into a malefactor whose heart is filled with a desire for vengeance, stopping at nothing to accomplish it....

The to-ing and fro-ing of a pair involved in bomb-making, and their various transformations. 

*     *     *

Purification (1896)

     'A man must live,' said Caspilier at last; 'and the profession of decadent poet is not a lucrative one. Of course there is undying fame in the future, but then we must have our absinthe in the present. Why did I marry her, you ask? I was the victim of my environment. I must write poetry; to write poetry, I must live; to live, I must have money; to get money, I was forced to marry. Valdorème is one of the best pastry-cooks in Paris; is it my fault, then, that the Parisians have a greater love for pastry than for poetry? Am I to blame that her wares are more sought for at her shop than are mine at the booksellers'? I would willingly have shared the income of the shop with her without the folly of marriage, but Valdorème has strange, barbaric notions which were not overturnable by civilized reason. Still my action was not wholly mercenary, nor indeed mainly so. There was a rhythm about her name that pleased me. Then she is a Russian, and my country and hers were at that moment in each other's arms, so I proposed to Valdorème that we follow the national example. But, alas! Henri, my friend, I find that even ten years' residence in Paris will not eliminate the savage from the nature of a Russian. In spite of the name that sounds like the soft flow of a rich mellow wine, my wife is little better than a barbarian. When I told her about Tenise, she acted like a mad woman – drove me into the streets.'

"Purification" is a useful warning for any poet trying to have his cake and eat it, too. Be wary if your wife hosts you and your mistress at breakfast in a dining room soaked in naphtha, and offers you your favorite cigarette after the meal.

*     *     *


17 September 2021

No comments:

Post a Comment