The Mysteries of Arthur J Rees
Arthur J Rees was the author of 22 books, all in the period 1913-40. Most of them are thrillers, often with a macabre or supernatural dimension. But usually the apparently unearthly turns out to be a false lead, or is not focal to the plot: though in some a certain amount of doubt is left, and in others the uncanny is more fully in play.The books make good use of local folklore and singular history. Some are set in Sussex, where Rees lived in the Nineteen Twenties and Thirties, beneath the crests of legend-haunted Chanctonbury and Cissbury Rings: but there are also atmospheric settings in Norfolk, Cornwall and Wales. A few titles will give a flavour of his work: The Shrieking Pit; The Hand in the Dark; The Threshold of Fear; Cup of Silence.
Not all of his books are thrillers. His first, The Merry Marauders (1913) is a light-hearted tale about a theatre company touring New Zealand. He also wrote romances, and compiled a book of passages from Sussex diaries. Two of his early books were written in collaboration with a John Reay Watson, about whom even less is known than about him.
Rees has somehow mostly evaded recognition and revival, possibly because his books can be a bit over-long, or because they do not always involve pure crime and detection, as some aficionados prefer. For a while his books were not too difficult to find second-hand, but recently there has been a moderate increase in interest in them.
A few years ago, a local historian recorded some memories of Rees from a resident who had known him when she was young. He lived with his wife in the hamlet of Nepcote, near the village of Findon, four miles north of Worthing, West Sussex. His bungalow, Nettledown, was on the lane leading to the ancient hill-fort of Cissbury Ring. It was in fact not much more than a shanty, with wooden walls and a corrugated iron roof that used to resound heavily whenever rain fell, matched only by the clatter of his typewriter as he worked assiduously at his books. After a hard day’s work, Rees would take a ‘constitutional’, over the downs. His home has long since been demolished and the property incorporated into the garden of another house, Thistledown.
Rees clearly had a genuine interest in the landscape and lore of the Sussex downland, and further afield. He describes sinister terrain with real gusto and can invoke foul weather with dark allure. In Cup of Silence: A Romance of the South Downs (1924) we are told that when clouds settle on the top of the ring of trees on its summit, the shepherds say it is “Chanctonbury putting on its night-cap,” an omen of bad weather: and the storm that follows in the book is vigorously evoked. In a short preface, Rees notes that “the hand of man has already wrought its changes upon a part of the downs” in the story, adding that modernity may yet “finally invade and destroy the inviolateness of the downs around Cissbury and Chanctonbury, which as yet remain the “cup of silence” of the story and the dream country of the book.”Researcher Sean Williams compiled as much information as he could about Rees from various sources in a 2009 post. As this shows, even in the age of the internet it can be hard to trace definite details about a figure whose work has been long out of the limelight: sometimes even basic facts are contradictory and there remain gaps.
Arthur John Rees was probably born on 23 September 1872 in St Kilda, Victoria, Australia, but other years have been given. He seems to have worked as a journalist on Australian and New Zealand newspapers, then emigrated to England and continued in the trade in London. As an Australian, he would not have been subject to conscription in WW1, and he probably carried on as a working writer. At some point he moved to Findon and his later years were spent at nearby Worthing, where he died on 22 November, 1942. His age was then given as 67.
Rees wrote on average one book a year, mostly for John Lane, but occasionally for other well-established houses such as Heinemann and Hutchinson. Some were translated for French, Italian and German editions, evidence of their wider attraction. His books have the melodramatic and improbable staples enjoyed by readers of the day. In Cup of Silence, for example, we have two orphans, two sets of dying words, a sea voyage, a lost inheritance, a mysterious heirloom, the glimpse of a possible spectre, a light seen at night in a ruined house, and a thundering great storm, all in the first forty pages.
He evidently understood the appeal of the strange and supernatural to readers. The Threshold of Fear (1925), sub-titled A Sober Fantasy starts with a demobbed officer from the Great War out of work and out of funds, who answers an enigmatic advertisement in The Times for a chauffeur. This type of situation is quite common in Buchanesque thrillers and adventures of the post-WWI period: it reflected the acute reality of widespread unemployment.
The client is an invalid young man, a recluse in the far west, at St Bree, “the loneliest and highest place in Cornwall, where four parishes meet by a holed stone, and all slope down to the moors and the sea”. The protagonist knows Cornwall, and reflects on “the last stronghold of Ancient Britain”, with its “cromlechs, logan stones, black cairns and giants’ caves.” Rees evokes the lonely, brooding country well, and builds up the mystery about the sensitive patient, who only emerge in darkness and will not allow himself to be seen. He is driven across the moors at night to walk on the shore.
The book takes a surprising turn when the chaffeur wins the confidence of his passenger, a war veteran like himself, and learns that his condition was caused by experiences in an expedition to “one of the last unexplored areas of the world”, deep in Peru. It seems likely that this theme was inspired by the contemporary expeditions of Colonel Percy Fawcett in search of a pre-Inca civilisation.
Arthur J Rees’ yarns have the positive qualities to be expected from a busy professional writer: they are pacy, colourful, full of twists and turns, with satisfying heroes and villains. Since the supernatural events are mostly rationalised, his books do not exactly fit the “metaphysical thriller” form, and in any case the thriller element is much more to the fore than any metaphysics.
However, his inscription in my copy of Cup of Silence may suggest another dimension to his character. This is dated ‘Findon, Sussex, 1925’: “To The Very Reverend Dom Wilfred Upson OSB/Prior of Caldey/With the Author’s affectionate/remembrances and regards.” Caldey was a Benedictine community on an island off the coast of Pembrokeshire.
The copy also has the bookplate of the library at Prinknash, Gloucestershire, where the community moved in 1928. Upson (1880-1963) was from 1938 the first Abbot of Prinknash. We do not know how Rees made his acquaintance but this and occasional clues in his books perhaps suggest that he had a deeper interest in the mystical than simply as a vivid backcloth for his books.