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

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

Friday, September 2, 2022

Yesterday Knocks by Noel Boston (Ash-Tree Press, 2012)

Readers unfamiliar with Yesterday Knocks may prefer to read these notes only after reading the collection.

Yesterday Knocks by Noel Boston (Ash-Tree Press, 2012)

The Half Legs

     Mr. Rotrod is asked to find a hidden room in the Worcestershire home of an old Catholic family. After finding the room, and determining another had been eliminated, Rotrod spends an eventful night. His bedroom is visited by half a specter who has not adjusted to the floorplan change.

The Bellarmine Jars

     Mr. Rotrod, "a scholar who added to a small private income by lecturing and writing on antiquarian and historical subjects," helps uncover the diabolic purpose for which two Bellarmine jars were used back in 1634. 

     'I had no idea you knew so much about the subject,' said his wife. 'It is not exactly in your line.'

Lot 629

     "Lot 629," a square piano purchased at an estate auction by the narrator, plays "The Death of Nelson" (1810) at 1:30 a.m.

The North Cloister Walk

     A cathedraly Christmas season tale.

     It is an undeniable fact that the plainer the indications are of wild weather without, the warmer and cosier we feel inside. Tom Smart, the hero of 'The Bagman's Story' in Pickwick, understood this well; and who has not lain in bed and listened to the howl of the wind in the chimney and the buffetting of the gale on the windows and not experienced just that extra snugness, that luxurious content, that feeling almost of self-congratulation, knowing that, roar as they may, the elements cannot touch us here?

The P Aia Johns Blak

     "The P Aia Johns Blak" is a fascinating story. Boston takes us behind the scenes as Mr. Rotrod breaks some bad news to a local vicar on behalf of the diocese.

     'But if you will not let us sell the Psalter, how are we to pay for our roof? And a roofless church is no use to anyone. Can you get us a grant from the Diocese?'

     'This Diocese,' said I, 'has about seven hundred churches, and its building committee has something under a thousand a year to dole out. You will get something, that is sure, and I may be able to tap other and central sources for you as well. But remember, you did not have to build the church. You inherited it, and it is up to this generation to prove itself worthy of its inheritance and to do something itself, rather than rely on the generosity of the past by selling its treasures.'

Happily, a series of providential events (that some might call coincidence) intervenes, and the vicar and his committee are saved from fundraising.

Right Through My Hair

     "Right Through My Hair" is one of Boston's most satisfying ghost stories. With skill and patience he builds a portrait of "Minor Canon Jogglebury's ambition to write a history of the Choir School attached to the Cathedral at Losingham." In his research, Jogglebury has an unfortunate encounter with something in the cathedral triforium, and Boston excels at depicting the menace of a large dark interior structure at night.

The Audit Chamber

     'There's no need for us to use conventional language,' I replied. 'Let's be plain. You think the room is haunted?'   

     'Well, yes. What else can I think? Someone sneezes and there is no human being there to sneeze—but whoever heard of a room being haunted by a sneeze?'

For all its charm and cathedral close detail, "The Audit Chamber" is notably time-consuming and wears on the reader's patience.

Bump in the Night

     "Bump in the Night" is a mellow, carefully prepared story of non-threatening supernatural horror. Though horror is hardly the word to describe such a congenial story of antiquarian investigation. I cannot help but like a story with dialogue like this:

     'Mr Rotrod, before you go off,' said the Colonel, 'I do want to say that if ever you find yourself in Gloucestershire I very much hope that you will spend a day or two with me. . . . I have a collection of first editions of some of the Victorians, and it would give me great pleasure to show it to you. Now, don't forget, that is not just a polite remark. I really mean it. Abbotts Avon Hall is the address—make a note of it now! And the 'phone is Crutchley 62….'

Several weeks later, Rotrod spends the night at Abbotts Avon Hall while investigating the condition of a Medieval dovecote in the vicinity. 

The Face at the Window

     'You were at Rotary a month ago when I told Broomfield that we had seen someone in Southfield House who had no business to be there?' said Carr.

     At once there was a subtle change in the vicar's attitude. The hearty buffoon attitude had disappeared and, instead, two rather disconcertingly alert and penetrating eyes gazed across the desk at Carr. 

     'I was.'

     'Well,' continued Charles, 'to put it in a nutshell, I have seen that face three times more, and though four of us have searched the house from cellar to attic not a trace of anyone can we find. It gets dark early at this time of year and about seven o'clock I could swear I have seen someone peering out of that window. It was too dark to see the features but the hair leaves me in no doubt it was a woman. It seems to peer out of one corner of that window.'

     'Is it the same window?' asked the vicar.

     'Yes, and the same position; and, as I say, we have searched and searched, but not a trace of anyone can we find.'

"The Face at the Window" is another non-malevolent haunted house tale. The owner of a local business and his friend the vicar try to solve a mystery about the empty house across the road from the Cowham Iron Foundry.

The Barrier

     That whole day and all that evening Jonah schooled himself not to betray his fears. Quite early he went up to his room, but made no attempt to undress, nor did he turn his light out. In his time he had had some queer adventures. The war had provided him with many startling happenings, but never before had he found himself caught up in such a fantastic affair. Here they were warring against a man who had left this earth two hundred years before, and they had to war with the power of the mind, to put their human minds against that evil being. And who can tell how powerful the mind may become once it is free from the trammels of the body?

"The Barrier" is an almost perfect malevolent supernatural thriller. A novelist staying at a country house teams up with the butler and a retired clergyman to thwart an ancestral curse against his host. Will Sir Giles Massingham be the third scion of Bracken Hall in Norfolk to be lured to his doom by a spectral coach and four?

Scraping the Barrel

     Boston wrote these stories after the second world war. Country houses had been in decline for several decades. The tax burden of the world empire, and buying off a top echelon of the proletariat, was not cheap.

     In the excellent story "Bump in the Night" Colonel Lamborn is down to just Stammers, his old batman, and Mrs. Stammers. Rotrod tells him:

      'You will know what I mean by the difference between a live house and a dead one. Compare the atmosphere of a house inhabited by a family whose forebears have lived here for generations—have probably built the place—and a house, however splendid, that has become the property of some trust or corporation and is open to the public as a show place. By all means let the public see our great houses, but if humanly possible, let us keep them for the purpose for which they were built. Colonel, if I had my way, the country should pay people like you to go on living in your family house, or at least there should be sufficient tax relief to make it possible.'

"Scraping the Barrel" is another story about the scion of an old family trying to keep the property alive.

The story's supernatural element is quaint and never threatening. As is the case with many of these stories, it is the density of family and local history that is the chief pleasure:

     [....] At Sir Daniel's death Maurice found himself nothing like so well off as he had expected. Mind you, there was enough to keep the great place up; for even in those days Hornbeam cost what most men would consider a fortune to maintain—but carefully managed there was enough. But there certainly was not sufficient to look after the estate and to squander at the same time—and this is precisely what Maurice did! I won't particularize, but it was the old story—fast women and slow horses. There was dicing, and cards, and cock fighting, and all sorts of rackety people in the house. That sort of thing absorbed jolly nearly all the income, and at the same time, not a penny was spent on the house or estate. Indeed, when my grandfather came into the property (in the 1860s that would be) he has often told me that the house was nearly derelict, the coverts neglected, hardly a gate that would shut in the park, and the farm and the cottages in a terrible condition. It was far worse for them than for Sir Maurice. In a house the size of Hornbeam, if the rain comes through the ceiling you can always move into another room, but with the cottages it was pretty grim. The tenants grumbled, and from one of the happiest, friendliest places in the country Hornbeam became thoroughly discontented.'

*   *   *

The good Noel Boston (1910-1966) did in life as a clergyman, his friendship and generosity, are attested to by Lionel & Patricia Fanthorpe in their introduction to Yesterday Knocks. His achievements as a fiction writer are minor, and his contribution to supernatural horror fiction is negligible. He clearly abjured the macabre "red in tooth and claw" style of H. R. Wakefield. He was probably too busy with the realities of everyday life to work at imbuing his stories with the cunning of M. R. James or the literary grandeur of E. F. Benson. 


30 August 2022


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