Wednesday, July 6, 2022

And We the Shadows - Richard Gray

Some years ago I found a novel called And We the Shadows by Richard Gray (Cassell, 1945). A previous owner had put their rather hurried-looking signature in blue ink in the top left corner of the fixed front endpaper: W. Francis/1945. The title, which was what drew me to the book, as it sounded promising for one seeking the supernatural or strange, is from Shelley: ‘And we the shadows of the dream’, quoted on the title page.

The book is dedicated ‘To/Mercy Legh/A Token of Regard’, and above that there is another, unattributed quotation: ‘Wrest not from me those eager hopes/Which in this so encumbered world/Have moved me to delight’ (this poem will appear in full later in the book). The opening lines of the book proper are: ‘Allen Swain opened the door of Trinoll and for a moment he stood still’. It’s a good beginning: you want to know more about him, about the place, and about why he stands still.

Swain, an artist, has used a substantial legacy to buy an old house in the West Country that he believes is perfect for him. It has its own watermill, stream, island, meadows, and may once have belonged to a nearby abbey. There is a good library, which he hopes will be his own special den. He is evidently aesthetical and sensitive, and wants everything to be just so. The move is opposed, however, by a fearsome aunt, of the pterodactyl type who preyed upon Bertie Wooster. She thinks the place is damp, rat-infested and haunted. Her attitude mars the enjoyment of his arrival: he sees shadows, reflections, hears things. Is Allen Swain coming into possession of this remote old house, or is it coming into possession of him?

Brief, unexplained incidents and impressions build up an intense sense of unease, but none are quite definite, and Swain, as he tries to piece them together, feels there is some explanation he is missing. He is in a state of constant trepidation. The effect is rather like some of Walter de la Mare’s stories, for example ‘A Recluse’ or ‘Mr Kempe’. We are not quite sure how much is in the protagonist’s mind and how much is real. There is an appreciative allusion to, and quotation from, Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe by Hervey Allen (UK edition, 1927: Gollancz reprint, 1935), so perhaps there are aspects of the House of Usher here too.

There are other enigmas. Associates from Swain’s past visit, but he finds them irksome and is no longer in sympathy with their casual, bohemian ways. There are allusions to an incident, not described, in his past. Also, Swain has engaged a housekeeper, a beautiful young woman who proves to be mute, though she can hear, and there is some mystery about her background. Some amatory complications ensue and in these and in the pervasive influence of the house I was also reminded somewhat of David Lindsay’s The Haunted Woman. 

Gray is attempting a difficult, delicate task, trying to depict his protagonist in the everyday world while also conveying an undercurrent of the sinister and unearthly.  The work is uneven: sometimes awkwardly written, even gauche, but in other passages finely shaded and elusive. But it is also adventurous, asking questions about the nature of fiction and the imagination. The ending is ambiguous: just how much of what has gone before was purely visionary? The clue may be in the line of Shelley’s poem preceding the one used for the book’s title: ‘Where nothing is, but all things seem,’.

Richard Gray is not all that distinctive a name, so it was at first hard to find out anything about him, except that he had written just one, earlier, novel, Salutation Inn (Michael Joseph, 1941). This proved to be very hard to find. I had it on my wants list for years until one day a very rough, ex subscription library copy at last turned up. This book had earned praise from Margery Allingham, who said: “It has an indescribable urgency about it. I couldn’t put it down,” and so it has a certain cachet with crime fiction collectors. There is a very full 2014 description of Salutation Inn at the ‘Journal of a Southern Bookreader’ blog. This explains that the fictional town of Ilham in the book is based on Topsham in Devon, where the real inn of the title still exists. The location of And We the Shadows is not so obvious, other than that Trinoll is in Wessex, though there are some descriptions that may provide clues. 

The blog discussion also reveals that ‘Richard Gray’ was the pseudonym of the artist Jasper Sulwey (c.1883-1956: his birth year is elsewhere given as 1884 or 1885). This would seem to be the Jasper Philip Sulwey who published a Guide to Rothbury, Northumberland (Alnwick, 1913), perhaps suggesting origins there, several “how to” books on drawing in pencil from 1921 to 1931, and albums of his own sketches in Cornwall, Lincoln, and French seaports, then, after his novels, Heart of Northumberland, a walking guide (St Catherine Press, 1949).

And We the Shadows is a peculiar book and I am not sure I have quite conveyed (or even, perhaps, understood) its visionary thesis. But it is certainly an original and thoughtful attempt at an oblique, modern, metaphysical thriller.

(Mark Valentine)


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