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

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

Thursday, December 16, 2021

A Christmas ghost story: "The Shepherd" By Frederick Forsyth (1975)

"The Shepherd" is a crisply written aviation adventure. It is not a horror story, but achieves a level of spectral sublimity.

On Christmas Eve 1957 the RAF pilot of Charlie Delta is flying his single-seat Vampire fighter home from West Germany for holiday leave. The opening paragraphs do an excellent job of conveying the young man's assurance and skill, and the beauty of a solitary night flight.

     Swinging over Celle airfield at 5,000 feet, I straightened up and watched the needle on my compass settle happily down on a course of 265 degrees. The nose was pointing toward the black, freezing vault of the night sky, studded with stars so brilliant they flickered their white fire against the eyeballs. Below, the black-and-white map of north Germany was growing smaller, the dark masses of the pine forests blending into the white expanses of the fields. Here and there a village or small town glittered with lights. Down there amid the gaily lit streets the carol singers would be out, knocking on the holly-studded doors to sing "Silent Night" and collect pfennigs for charity. The Westphalian housewives would be preparing hams and geese.

     Four hundred miles ahead of me the story would be the same, the carols in my own language but many of the tunes the same, and it would be turkey instead of goose. But whether you call it Weihnacht or Christmas, it's the same all over the Christian world, and it was good to be going home.

     From Lakenheath I knew I could get a lift down to London in the liberty bus, leaving just after midnight; from London I was confident I could hitch a lift to my parents' home in Kent. By breakfast time I'd be celebrating with my own family. The altimeter read 27,000 feet. I eased the nose forward, reduced throttle setting to give me an air speed of 485 knots and held her steady on 265 degrees. Somewhere beneath me in the gloom the Dutch border would be slipping away, and I had been airborne for twenty-one minutes. No problem.

"The Shepherd'' is not a short story that gets broadly discussed. I have seen no mention of it in literature about strange or ghostly fiction, though the author's style and tone will strike a chord with many readers who prefer the English ghost story. It is a much-loved tale, however, in aviation circles. Amazon reviews alone testify to this. And I can see why the community prizes it so highly. Before a career in journalism Forsyth himself was an RAF pilot, and he does a fine job conveying the tempo and activity of flying. 

     As the fighter slipped toward Norfolk the sense of loneliness gripped me tighter and tighter. All those things that had seemed so beautiful as I climbed away from the airfield in Lower Saxony now seemed my worst enemies. The stars were no longer impressive in their brilliance; I thought of their hostility, sparkling away there in the timeless, lost infinities of endless space. The night sky, its stratospheric temperature fixed, night and day alike, at an unchanging fifty-six degrees below zero, became in my mind a limitless prison creaking with the cold. Below me lay the worst of them all, the heavy brutality of the North Sea, waiting to swallow up me and my plane and bury us for endless eternity in a liquid black crypt where nothing moved nor would ever move again. And no one would ever know.

     At 15,000 feet and still diving, I began to realize that a fresh, and for me the last, enemy had entered the field. There was no ink-black sea three miles below me, no necklace of twinkling seaside lights somewhere up ahead. Far away, to right and left, ahead and no doubt behind me, the light of the moon reflected on a flat and endless sea of white. Perhaps only a hundred, two hundred feet thick, but enough. Enough to blot out all vision, enough to kill me. The East Anglian fog had moved in.

     As I had flown westward from Germany, a slight breeze, unforeseen by the weathermen, had sprung up, blowing from the North Sea toward Norfolk. During the previous day the flat, open ground of East Anglia had been frozen hard by the wind and the subzero temperatures. During the evening the wind had moved a belt of slightly warmer air off the North Sea and onto the plains of East Anglia.

     There, coming in contact with the ice-cold earth, the trillions of tiny moisture particles in the sea air had vaporized, forming the kind of fog that can blot out five counties in a matter of thirty minutes. How far westward it stretched I could not tell; to the West Midlands, perhaps, nudging up against the eastern slopes of the Pennines? There was no question of trying to overfly the fog to the westward; without navigational aids or radio, I would be lost over strange, unfamiliar country. Also out of the question was to try to fly back to Holland, to land at one of the Dutch Air Force bases along the coast there; I had not the fuel. Relying only on my eyes to guide me, it was a question of landing at Merriam St. George or dying amid the wreckage of the Vampire somewhere in the fog-wreathed fens of Norfolk.

As panic and hopelessness infect the narrator, the fighter's cockpit stops seeming like a cozy nook on a cold night.

    Still a creature of my training, I recalled again the instructions of Flight Sergeant Norris:

     "When we are totally lost above unbroken cloud, gentlemen, we must consider the necessity of bailing out of our aircraft, must we not?"

     Of course, Sergeant. Unfortunately, the Martin Baker ejector seat cannot be fitted to the single-seat Vampire, which is notorious for being almost impossible to bail out of; the only two successful candidates living lost their legs in the process. Still, there has to be a lucky one. What else, Sergeant?

     "Our first move, therefore, is to turn our aircraft toward the open sea, away from all areas of intense human habitation."

The imaginary conversation with instructor Sergeant Norris is nicely done, a way to dramatize inner voice without resort to stream of consciousness. Forsyth strikes me as too objective and fastidious a stylist to go in for more than a few sentences of:

....The fuel read between zero and a quarter full—say ten minutes' more flying time. I felt the rage of despair welling up. I began screaming into the dead microphone:

     "You stupid bastards, why don't you look at your radar screens? Why can't somebody see me up here? All so damn drunk you can't do your jobs properly. Oh, God, why won't somebody listen to me?" By then the anger had subsided and I had taken to blubbering like a baby from the sheer helplessness of it all.

     Five minutes later, I knew, without any doubt of it, that I was going to die that night. Strangely I wasn't even afraid any more. Just enormously sad. Sad for all the things I would never do, the places I would never see, the people I would never greet again. It's a bad thing, a sad thing, to die at twenty years of age with your life unlived, and the worst thing of all is not the fact of dying but the fact of all the things never done.

It's the maudlin self-pity of a skilled young pilot who has never been seriously confronted by the imminent prospect of death. Forsyth handles the moment with studied economy.

     Out through the Perspex I could see that the moon was setting, hovering above the horizon of thick white fog; in another two minutes the night sky would be plunged into total darkness and a few minutes later, I would have to bail out of a dying aircraft before it flicked over on its last dive into the North Sea. An hour later I would be dead also, bobbing around in the water, a bright-yellow Mae West supporting a stiff, frozen body. I dropped the left wing of the Vampire toward the moon to bring the aircraft onto the final leg of the last triangle.

     Down below the wing tip, against the sheen of the fog bank, up-moon of me, a black shadow crossed the whiteness. For a second I thought it was my own shadow, but with the moon up there, my own shadow would be behind me. It was another aircraft, low against the fog bank, keeping station with me through my turn, a mile down through the sky toward the fog.

     The other aircraft being below me, I kept turning, wing down, to keep it in sight. The other aircraft also kept turning, until the two of us had done one complete circle. Only then did I realize why it was so far below me, why he did not climb to my height and take up station on my wing tip. He was flying slower than I; he could not keep up if he tried to fly beside me. Trying hard not to believe he was just another aircraft, moving on his way, about to disappear forever into the fog bank, I eased the throttle back and began to slip down toward him. He kept turning; so did I. At 5,000 feet I knew I was still going too fast for him. I could not reduce power any more for fear of stalling the Vampire and plunging down out of control. To slow up even more, I put out the air brakes. The Vampire shuddered as the brakes swung into the slipstream, slowing the Vampire down to 280 knots.

     And then he came up toward me, swinging in toward my left-hand wing tip. I could make out the black bulk of him against the dim white sheet of fog below; then he was with me, a hundred feet off my wing tip, and we straightened out together, rocking as we tried to keep formation. The moon was to my right, and my own shadow masked his shape and form; but even so, I could make out the shimmer of two propellers whirling through the sky ahead of him. Of course, he could not fly at my speed; I was in a jet fighter, he in a piston-engined aircraft of an earlier generation.

     He held station alongside me for a few seconds, down-moon of me, half invisible, then banked gently to the left. I followed, keeping formation with him, for he was obviously the shepherd sent up to bring me down, and he had the compass and the radio, not I. He swung through 180 degrees, then straightened up, flying straight and level, the moon behind him. From the position of the dying moon I knew we were heading back toward the Norfolk coast, and for the first time I could see him well. To my surprise, my shepherd was a De Havilland Mosquito, a fighter bomber of Second World War vintage.

     Then I remembered that the Meteorological Squadron at Gloucester used Mosquitoes, the last ones flying, to take samples of the upper atmosphere to help in the preparation of weather forecasts. I had seen them at Battle of Britain displays, flying their Mosquitoes in the flypasts, attracting gasps from the crowd and a few nostalgic shakes of the head from the older men, such as they always reserved on September 15 for the Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters.

     Inside the cockpit of the Mosquito I could make out, against the light of the moon, the muffled head of its pilot and the twin circles of his goggles as he looked out the side window toward me. Carefully, he raised his right hand till I could see it in the window, fingers straight, palm downward. He jabbed the fingers forward and down, meaning, "We are going to descend; formate on me."

"The Shepherd" can be purchased and read here

A free audio version is on YouTube here

* * *

"The Shepherd'' is a fine yuletide story. Forsyth is apparently one of those writers who never work in the ghostly mode, but do rise once to the occasion of the season and its literary traditions. The combination of uncanny coincidence, mortal stakes, close observation of professional detail, and the holiday theme of shepherds and their flocks, are amalgamated with energy.

"The Shepherd" is also the first adult supernatural fiction I read. It was released as a mass market Bantam paperback to coincide with the 1979 release of the author's latest thriller, The Devil's Alternative. I bought my copy on Forsyth's reputation alone, having spent a recent weekend enjoying a Reader's Digest Condensed Book version of The Day of the Jackal

At the time my reading was confined to Starlog magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland and James Blish Star Trek paperbacks. My exposure to supernatural horror was limited to movies like "The Uninvited" and "The Ghost and Mrs Muir." Favorite TV shows like "Happy Days" and "The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries" sometimes had an old-dark-house episode. "Scooby Doo" was behind me, and the graduate-level education of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Magazine" was still ahead. I had just started high school. 


16 December 2021

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