Saturday, October 14, 2017
An Experiment in the Sensational - Gerald Cumberland's 'The Cypress Chest'
In my account of the author and adventurer Charles Welsh Mason, And I’d Be the King of China (reprinted in Haunted By Books, 2015), I explained that I had first encountered him, under his pen-name Julian Croskey, in a book by Gerald Cumberland. I had been idly scanning the index to his memoir Written in Friendship (1923), when the Croskey entry caught my attention: I had never heard the name before, and so turned to the relevant pages to find out more. That momentary flicker of curiosity was to lead me on a long and strange quest after this most singular figure of the Nineties.
At the same time, I also looked into Cumberland who was, as it turned out, Charles Francis Kenyon (1879-1926), a music critic and minor composer, with a few other books to his name. He had also written a lively and faintly sly earlier memoir, Set Down in Malice (1919), which had achieved a brief notoriety for its candid and mildly scathing portraits of weighty cultural figures of the time.
I also discovered that he had written a macabre thriller. The Cypress Chest (1927) was a posthumous work issued by Grant Richards in the year after Kenyon died, with a slightly odd note explaining that the author had written it for entertainment, presumably as distinct from his other books, which were to be regarded more seriously: “It is of lighter weight—an experiment in sensational fiction in which careful and detailed character drawing comes second to an absorbing plot. In fact, in writing “The Cypress Chest”, Gerald Cumberland had no more serious aim than to amuse.”
He certainly succeeds in that, and the book seems to have been rather more successful than his other work, going into reprints (the dustwrapper here, by Ellis Silas, is from a John Hamilton edition from the 1930s) and also a French translation by Richard de Clerval, Le coffre de cypress (Paris, Librairie des Champs- Elysées, 1930).
The Cypress Chest is a rather gauche but exotic and pacy detective story in which Percival Boris Maxim, just returned from exploring deepest Africa, goes to his Hertfordshire home and discovers, in an unopened antique chest he bought before he went away, the embalmed body of a beautiful golden-haired girl. He suspects his valet, Soulgrave (a name which has a slightly David Lindsay air about it), of complicity, and decides to investigate the mystery himself. His enquiries lead him to encounters with a sardonic aesthete, a young woman strangely like the one in the chest, and an Egyptologist with a secret. The influence of Stevenson, in his New Arabian Nights mode, seems likely, and Cumberland also knew Machen and may well have enjoyed and aspired to emulate some characteristics of The Three Impostors.
The yarn has some supernatural dimensions. Maxim has premonitions and promptings: firstly, to bid for the box at auction, well beyond its value; and again when he passes a country churchyard, to turn in through the lych-gate; so there are hints of the uncanny, as well as the Poe-esque theme. There is also a mystical dimension to the resolution of the plot. This is a briskly written piece of grotesquerie with bizarre characters, a Gothic atmosphere and a certain insouciance in the telling. It may well appeal to readers who enjoyed such tales as R Austin Freeman's The Eye of Osiris (1911), Riccardo Stephens' The Mummy (1912) or the supernatural thrillers of Dion Fortune.
A Checklist Of Works By Gerald Cumberland
Rosalys, and other poems (Grant Richards, 1919)
Set Down in Malice (Grant Richards, 1919)
Tales of a Cruel Country (Grant Richards, 1919)
The Poisoner (Grant Richards, 1921)
A Lover At Forty (Grant Richards, 1922)
Written in Friendship (Grant Richards, 1923)
Striving Fire (Grant Richards, 1924)
With the Great Composers (William Reeves, 1925)
The Cypress Chest (Grant Richards, 1927)
Music (A Selection: as Charles Francis Keynon)
Day and Night (1906), song for tenor and piano
If I Could Speak (1906), song for tenor and piano
When I Lie Ill (1906), song for tenor and piano
Soliloquy Upon a Dead Child (1906), song for soprano or tenor and piano
The Vision of Cleopatra (1907), cantata for soloists, choir and orchestra
Fairies' Song (1906), singing a cappella for two sopranos and two altos.
The Maiden and the Flower Garden (1914), operetta for children's voices and piano
The Moon (1914), song for soprano, viola and piano
The River (1914), song for soprano, viola and piano
Summer Has Come, Little Children (1914), song for soprano, viola and piano