Readers unfamiliar with Fires Burn Blue may prefer to read these notes only after reading the collection.
Fires Burn Blue (1948) by Andrew Caldecott
An Exchange of Notes
Mrs Letitia Parlington, a "rather managing woman" reminiscent of certain characters in E. F. Benson's Tilling novels, saves the Telmington Philharmonic Club's performance of Sir Cuthbert Kewbridge' Poem for Chorus and Orchestra, Northern Lights.
Cheap and Nasty
'....You did a fine stroke of business, Kitty, in getting the stove so cheap; and this house too. We couldn't have found a nicer one at double the price. Now lie down and go to sleep again, darling, and don't keep your ears waiting for noises, or you'll begin imagining them.'
A team is sent into a dangerous zone of the Kongean jungle to bring out a man who has declared himself its king. The area is avoided by Kongeans themselves, as it is home to man-hunting spiders.
A small party sat up in the parlour of Brindlestone Manor to see in the new year. There were five of them, three men and two women. The stillness of a windless frosty night and the warm glow of a log fire made them sleepy; yet it was only a quarter past ten.
'I vote we each tell a ghost story to keep ourselves awake,' said the youngest of the men. 'I want to practise my shorthand and I'll try jotting them down.'
Vampiric plagiarism or incipient insanity?
'What reason is there for the feud?'
'Oh! each of the two families seems to have laid the other under a curse. No Perrandale will take the bridle-path to Knapton after nightfall, and no Farribal that footway to the north of the village green. They're frightened of being "touched", they say.'
What's in a Name?
"What's in a Name?" is a magnificent short story. Young and privileged, Ronald Austin Transome embraces the nickname Rat that others give him. His pet white rat Snattajin assumes a totemic role in his young life. At boarding school, the victories and punishments seem to find an echo in Snattajin's own life back home. The line between love for an animal and something more occult blurs when Rat is stricken with a dangerous fever during an outbreak of measles at his school.
Caldecott's slingshot ending is robustly droll and celebratory:
....It is pleasant to be able to close this record with a coda in the major key. The Rat did great credit to St Olave's, winning a scholarship at Winchingham where he ended by being head of the school and captain of cricket. His career at Selham College, Oxbridge, was little less distinguished, though he just missed getting his blue. After considerable success at the Bar he was appointed Chief Justice of a prosperous colony, where he now is. Mr Transome, now an octogenarian, is fond of repeating that 'all this comes of his having been brought up in a thoroughly happy home; no coddling or making too much of him.'
The Chief Justice's interests are wide. He is known to have read a paper before a Colonial Philosophical Society on 'Some survivals of a belief in Lycanthropy'. His white bull-terrier's name is 'Snattajin'. The history of the first Snattajin used to interest his contemporaries at Winchingham and Oxbridge, also many friends of his later life. That is why it is here offered to a wider public. Names (except that of Snattajin himself) have of course been altered or disguised, but the text of the narrative was sent to the Chief Justice's private secretary for any alterations or amendments that His Honour might consider desirable in the interest of truth or accuracy. His Honour made none, but endorsed the manuscript with the one word: 'Ratified'.
Under the Mistletoe
A story of murder in Kongea's white colinial milieu, imbricated with local superstition and nightime sightings of figures at windows of lonely bungalows.
His Name was Legion
A droll village story: the impact of a local scandal sheet whose contents are reportedly written by Spirits. Caldecott catches the local politics and personalities beautifully, and ends with a sharp crescendo.
Tall Tales but True
Caldecott recounts two stories given to him as true. Both are brief and pleasing in their oddness. The first is about a "phantasm of the living," the second about a house, or its resident couple, who are a nexus for uncanny events only determined to be uncanny "afterward."
A Book Entry
"A Book Entry" is one of the most effective Kongea colonial stories. It begins as a story of apparently whimsical signatures in a visitor's book, and of sleep-talking and sleep-walking. It ends, however, with a nicely managed and chilling line of revelation.
Seeds of Remembrance
The flowers are helping Mabelson more than me. They make me remember his appearance too well. I had forgotten till now that he said to me 'Someday, Brayne, you will regret this…'
I shall have to give up smelling the flowers. They focus my attention only on Mabelson, and he has left no successors or representatives…
Mabelson keeps breaking in on me, even without the flowers. I seem to see and hear him in the room with me: a silly, senile illusion. Despite him I am completing all other settlements….
Seated One Day at the Organ
The strongest supernatural story in the collection, "Seated One Day at the Organ" recounts a vision foretelling death; it is seen by Fulstowe, the Scarminster abbey organist. Canon Glenside is dismissive. At first.
* * *
My notes on Caldecott's Not Exactly Ghosts (1946) can be found here.
Readers looking for the antiquarianism and rhetorical cunning of M. R. James should not expect to find it in Caldecott.
Not Exactly Ghosts and the 1948 collection Fires Burn Blue are modest and worth reading. Several stories in each collection achieve the level of a pleasing terror. Stories of blood, anger, jealousy and abuse of power recall stronger tales by Wakefield and Metcalfe; Maugham's colonial tragicomedies are not far away. Caldecott is a modest writer, and his prose is clear and unaffected.
23 August 2022