Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Twisted Clay

Australian author Frank Walford's novel Twisted Clay has the distinction of being one of the more bizarre thrillers published in the 1930s, which is saying something given the excruciating excesses of R.R. Ryan, Harry Keeler, J.U. Nicolson amongst others.
Walford himself bragged that the novel was applauded by the London Times as 'the best book ever written with a lunatic as a central character'. Twisted Clay, first published by Werner Laurie in 1933, was banned in Australia for nearly thirty years before the Australian paperback publisher Horwitz reprinted it in the early '60s. They cashed in on its notoriety, declaring on the back cover: 'Just Released From The Banned List!'
The narrator and anti-heroine of Twisted Clay is Jean Deslines, a precocious fourteen year old in every way. Her mother died giving birth to her, which took place during a terrible storm, and she lives with her loving father and tyrannical grandmother in a “bleak old house on the crest of the Blue Mountains.” Jean delights in causing trouble and innocently denying that she has done anything wrong. Early on in the book she describes how as a twelve-year-old she led on a clergyman, drawing his hand around his waist and kissing him, knowing that her grandmother is spying on them through the window. She also enjoys sharing a bed with the buxom maid, but it is only when her savvy, university-educated cousin, Myrtle, tells her to read psychology textbooks that she realizes she is a lesbian. At first she is appalled, regarding herself as “something unhealthy, a gross abnormality which should have been strangled at birth”, and she tries to kill herself by boiling herself alive in the laundry tub. The textbooks inform her that lesbianism is caused by a deficiency of female hormones, and that she might excite her suppressed femininity by consorting with the opposite sex. She hits onto the bank manager’s son and manages to get herself pregnant; confessing all to her long-suffering father she has an abortion and dumps the perplexed boyfriend. Soon afterwards she has a dream that recurs through the novel: Jean, dressed as a slave girl witnesses the stabbing murder by barbarians of a Roman centurian who, when examined by a doctor, turns out to be a beautiful woman. Events take a turn for the worse for Jean when she eavesdrops on a conversation between her father and the doctor who performed the abortion; they plan to take her to Europe to undergo experimental hormone treatment that they hope will cure her lesbianism and improve her personality. The only way she can see to avoid the treatment is to murder her father; one night she takes him to the local cemetery where a grave has been freshly dug, kills him by smashing his skull with a shovel, and buries him in the grave. Although the doctor suspects her of the crime, she is able to convince the local police that she is an innocent victim who is beaten and abused by her grandmother and the doctor. When it seems that she has escaped all suspicion, she starts to experience intermittent bouts of insanity in which her father appears and implores her to perform specific tasks; her first task is to dig him up and stop up the hole in his head because his brains are slipping out! She accomplishes this over a couple of nights, and when suspicion falls on her she manages to deflect it onto the doctor. Meanwhile, her cousin Myrtle appears on the scene again and becomes infatuated with Jean; the two attend a fancy dress ball, Jean dressed as a slave girl and Myrtle as a centurian, seemingly suggesting that Jean’s dream was clairaudient. The doctor employs a detective to investigate the case and he sees through her charade of innocence; when in another fit of insanity she digs up the corpse of her father he is on hand to apprehend her and she is placed in an asylum. Jean escapes from the asylum and finds that easy money can be made as a Sydney prostitute; however her hatred of men and her intermittent bouts of insanity compel her to become a “Jill-the-Ripper” serial killer as she ruthlessly dispatches her clients. She is able to live in an apartment undiscovered until she murders Myrtle, with whom she has resumed a relationship, in the flat. Once again she takes on a new identity and sets herself up as a beautician; she even seems to be “cured” when she is seduced by “scar-face” Harry Lees, a rough, masculine criminal and drug-dealer. The two go into business together and the partnership prospers. Unfortunately for Jean the detective reappears and she is forced to kill him; when she tells Harry what she as done he is horrified and deserts her. Disillusioned once and for all she gases herself in the kitchen, leaving behind her diary for posterity.
So there you have it! Classic 1930s pulp. Sad to say Walford's other works don't live up to the promise of Twisted Clay. His collection of short stories, The Ghost of Albert and Other Stories, includes a couple of supernatural tales, but they are fairly bland humorous efforts with little to recommend them.
And what of Walford himself? Born in Balmain, Sydney, in 1882 he led an adventurous life in his youth, going to North Queensland as a buffalo hunter and crocodile shooter and living with Indigenous people to learn bush survival techniques. He sailed a schooner between Townsville and Broome with an Aboriginal crew. He settled in Katoomba in 1919 to work for the Blue Mountains Echo newspaper in which he published poetry by Eleanor Dark and Eric Lowe.
His first novel, Indiscretions of Iole, evidently sold 20,000 copies in Britain, and his short stories we regularly broadcast on Australian radio. In 1942 he won 200 pounds in a Woman's Weekly short story contest. He was active in the local community at Katoomba, NSW, where he settled in 1919. During World War Two, he joined the Volunteer Defence Corps and roamed the Blue Mountains seeking out strategic locations for ammunition dumps and bases for guerrilla fighters in the event that Australia was successfully invaded. He died in 1969.

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