Friday, June 4, 2021

A Relic of the Nineties

Anyone who often gazes along the shelves of second-hand hardback fiction is bound to find certain authors who are nearly always there, and often in quantity. The questers after Arthur Machen get used to the stout phalanxes of Compton Mackenzie books, and those who seek for Algernon Blackwood are unlikely to elude encounters with R D Blackmore or with bound volumes of tales from Blackwood’s Magazine. Similarly, the seeker for a rare volume by David Lindsay often encounters instead a row of Cape books by the prolific and evidently once popular Eric Linklater.

Some of his books, indeed, have very attractive dust-jackets, often designed by Hans Tisdall, and their titles may at times sound faintly alluring – Laxdale Hall, for example, or The Dark of Summer. And it must have been under these circumstances that I acquired The House of Gair (1953).

This indeed has a most promising start. The narrator, Stephen Coryat, whose name is evidently taken from the enjoyably eccentric 17th century travel writer Thomas Coryat, is himself a writer travelling in a remote stretch of the Scottish Highlands when his car falters to a halt. He is able to descry a lonely house, high and neo-Gothic but a little decrepit, and goes to ask for help. 

Though it is very venerable, I find this sort of beginning always pleasing. It is almost an entire sub-genre, and I suppose in the days when cars were fewer and less reliable and country house owners might be expected to be decent coves ready to lend a hand, the device is not that improbable. Notable examples of the 'stranded traveller' type include John Buchan’s The Dancing Floor and Walter de la Mare’s ‘A Recluse’.

Rather unexpectedly in this wilderness, the narrator's mishap leads him to make the acquaintance of Hazeldon Crome, a relic of the Nineties, whose conversation is peppered with allusions to Oscar, Bosie, Max, Frank Harris and other luminaries of the period. The old man himself apparently had one or two scandalous successes. Coryat finds him fascinating, perhaps a genius of sorts, and is invited to return and stay longer. There is something of a mystery about how his host funds his quite sybaritic lifestyle and after a while he begins to have his suspicions.There appear to be elements of literary forgery at work, making this title an unusual biblio-mystery, of sorts.

Crome is sardonic about human foibles, convinced of his own worth and of the world’s duty to keep him while he is, perhaps, composing another masterpiece. To Coryat, there is a certain persuasiveness about his approach when applied to those in his meshes who are not themselves very sympathetic characters, and might even be thought deserving of it. But Coryat then discovers that Crome’s spiderish preying badly affects others more vulnerable, including those in his own orbit. Is he, however, already himself too far in? Has Crome now a hold on him? 

The Nineties aspect and the rumoured lost work were both enticing and skillfully conveyed and in fact I rather wished they had remained more to the fore and that this had shaped as a mood piece of overblown decadence gone to seed and of a melancholy literary dwindling. But instead the author wanted to introduce more drama and dilemma, emotional complications and ironic twists, moving it closer to a sort of seedy realism. 

Linklater’s book has some strong qualities – the character of Crome is picturesque, and the author conveys well how charm, originality and a certain magnificence might be alluring and even survive knowledge of some shadier, shabbier qualities. The aesthetic aura, the sinister machinations and the subtly uncanny household are also well sustained. But the novel does not quite achieve that extra dimension of strangeness that would make it even more compelling, there are elements of melodrama, and after the agreeably peculiar beginning the plot has a long declining arc that lowers the temperature somewhat. I thought that it could do with introducing one other more sympathetic character. It may not be unfair to regard it as an interesting minor key achievement.

Still, if you are in a bookshop and there is no copy of The Haunted Woman or Devil’s Tor, and you are not sure you are ready yet for Sinister Street or Lorna Doone, then it might be worth lingering over the Linklaters, just in case. 

(Mark Valentine)


  1. By coincidence I recently watched Poet's Pub, a 1949 film based on a novel by Eric Linklater. The first half hour is enjoyable whimsy about aspiring poet Saturday Keith and an old country pub called The Downy Pelican, sadly then the plot falls apart.

  2. If I may go off topic, you mention bound volumes of Blackwood's Magazine - I recently saw a large bound collection of John O'London's cheap in Oxfam. Is it likely to contain anything of interest to those in search of the weird?

    1. Hi Sandy - I have several bound runs of John O'London's, and a number of loose issues. Machen contributed articles to the paper, and they are often very good. There is often some interesting bookish stuff, as well as Machen.

  3. Over the years I've picked up a few Linklater books--Juan in America, Juan in China, Sealskin Trousers and Other Stories, The Wind on the Moon--simply because they looked interesting. "Sealskin Trousers" is a selkie story, The Wind of the Moon won a Carnegie Medal and the Juan is Don Juan. All these associations appealed to me. But, as so often, I found these four books but haven't yet found the time to read them.--md

  4. And searching for Oscar Wilde I have seen much Thornton Wilder.

  5. Despite there being "stout phalanxes of Compton Mackenzie books" it seemed to be a long time before any one of them relinquished either of his two Capri based novels Vestal Fire (1927) and Extraordinary Women (1928). Both well worth having if you like your seedy decadence.

  6. Strange but true, found this book in a charity shop the very next day after reading the post, along with a huge omnibus collection of Godzilla comics.