Sunday, June 16, 2024

Current Fascination: The Secret of 'Wind's End' by Herbert Asquith

I first saw a notice of Wind’s End (1924) in a catalogue at the back of another book. It was the first novel by Herbert Asquith, second son of H.H. Asquith, the Edwardian Prime Minister, and it was published one hundred years ago this month. The listing suggested the plot concerned some uncanny force in the English countryside. Wondering if it might be an undiscovered supernatural thriller, I got hold of a copy.

The scene is a village in the Cotswolds. A young semi-genteel rustic full of beer boasts that he will spend the night in a cursed field, Wind’s End, which has a prehistoric barrow crowned by an old thorn tree. There is a folk rhyme which states that no-one who goes there at night ever survives until dawn. And he does not survive: yet there are no signs of violence. There are footprints suggesting someone else was about, but they are not near him. What villainy or devilry is in play? 

There was quite a strong interest in ancient earthworks, including barrows and burial mounds, around this time: they feature in several crime and supernatural novels and stories of the Twenties and Thirties, and at first this appears to be an early example with similar antiquarian aspects. Asquith even brings in at one point an uncanny alignment of several ancient sites, like a ley.

Tom Morland, who is touring the West Country by motor, is staying at the local inn: ‘by nature he was of the exploring type, with an eye not blinkered to the odds and ends of life’. He decides to investigate, and calls in a wartime comrade, Garnet: ‘As an amateur detective he had won considerable fame in a narrow circle’. He achieves his results more by observation and intuition than strict logic. They are the typical Holmes and Watson pairing. 

 We thus have all the apparatus for a Golden Age crime story, and the village setting also has the conventional characters for this: the Rector, the local Doctor, a redoubtable lady of the manor, an eccentric recluse, and a staunch pub landlord. Other sinister incidents happen around Wind’s End, and Asquith also throws in a few more fragments of lore, including an ancestral ghost story. It’s all pleasingly familiar, yet done with a certain dash. The novel is enjoyably written, with plenty of inexplicable mystery and the usual flourishing of red herrings. which keep the reader guessing.

In order to discuss the contemporary context for the novel, it will be necessary for me to reveal the book’s trick: so do not read on if you want to find that out for yourself. For, despite the set-up, the ending would have frustrated strict readers of Golden Age crime fiction because it breaks one of the cardinal rules of the Detection Club. The explanation involves a lethal force unknown to science, wielded, furthermore, by a stock figure, the mad visionary who wants to enforce world peace by deploying a secret weapon. He has been conducting experiments nearby.

It seemed an odd theme for this author, who was then noted as a gentle poet of the pleasant rural scene, somewhat in the Georgian mode. Nor does it fit with his later novels, Young Orland (1927), an autobiographical novel about a young subaltern’s experiences in the First World War, or Roon (1929) and Mary Dallon (1932), mostly social romances. True, he had served in the Royal Field Artillery in the First World War, so presumably knew something about deploying deathly weapons over a distance. Even so, why did he decide to write a yarn about a death ray?

Herbert Asquith was the husband of Cynthia Asquith, the noted editor of ghost story anthologies and writer of ghost stories: they married in 1910 when she was 22 and he was 29. Perhaps her interest in the field was what prompted the idea of an uncanny novel. On the other hand, ghost story savants are no more enamoured of scientific novelty as an explanation than are crime buffs, and Cynthia Asquith would be well aware of that etiquette. She tended herself more towards the literary and lyrical in supernatural tales.

However, in browsing in The Long Week-End, A Social History of Great Britain 1918-1939 (1940) by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, I discovered some useful context for the book. Apparently, death rays of the sort wielded in the plot, were all the rage in the year just before Wind’s End was published. A somewhat colourful British inventor, Harry Grindell Matthews, claimed in 1923 to have discovered one, and was involved in well-publicised disputes with the Air Ministry and others about testing this. The newspapers liked the story and took his side, demanding action, though his demonstrations might best be described as inconclusive. Another death ray had supposedly been developed by a Sheffield University electronics professor. These claims had a receptive audience because of the recent spread of wireless, which prompted the idea that there might be other undiscovered waves or rays. Presumably this current fascination was what had given Asquith the idea for his book.

Asquith’s plot may strike the reader unaware of the context as simply a glib way to cheat in the impossible crime novel, and a deflating rationalisation (of sorts) of a supernatural shocker. But we can now see that, while he was playing with the expectations of these genres, he was also responding to a lively contemporary popular excitement. Indeed, Wind’s End is a mostly unnoticed interwar science fiction thriller, an early example of the ‘death ray’ idea, later to become such a popular device in the field.

(Mark Valentine)

Image: Cotswold Internet Books

Sunday, June 9, 2024

'The Heavenly Ladder' by Compton Mackenzie: A Guest Post by John Howard

Sir Edward Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972) was a prolific author, producing a steady stream of novels, satire, biographies, memoirs, and many other works during a career that lasted for over 65 years. The distinctive name of Compton Mackenzie always seemed somewhere in the background of life at home when I was young. My mother read her way through the ten volumes of Mackenzie’s autobiography My Life and Times she borrowed from the town library. (It was archly published in ‘Octaves’: each book covering eight years or so.) The family sitting-room boasted a tall bookcase containing copies of composer biographies belonging to my father and my mother’s paperbacks of Nevil Shute, Alastair MacLean, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien – and a copy of Mackenzie’s comic novel Whisky Galore. In the cabinet beneath my father kept his record collection and back issues of music review magazines. His favourite was Gramophone, which in every issue proclaimed that it had been founded and edited by Compton Mackenzie.

Mackenzie was added to my own shelves when, as a student in an ancient cathedral city, I bought a copy of the heftiest (829 pages) old orange Penguin paperback I had ever seen: his early novel Sinister Street. Although not uncritical, I was very taken with the story, a bulky Bildungsroman chronicling the progress of Michael Fane in society through school, university, and life in London. For me, one memorable aspect of Sinister Street was Fane’s Anglo-Catholicism. I mentioned this to my tutor, who promptly handed me three thick, battered volumes and said that I might like to borrow them. So I became further acquainted with Mackenzie’s fiction, another extended tale of character education, growth, and self-analysis, with one Mark Lidderdale as protagonist. Always a fast worker, Mackenzie had written and published the trilogy in short order: The Altar Steps (1922), The Parson’s Progress (1923), and, one hundred years ago in June 1924, The Heavenly Ladder.

The first volume takes Lidderdale from his childhood as the son of an Anglo-Catholic ‘slum priest’ in London, through gradually discerning his own vocation, to Silchester Theological College and ordination. Lidderdale’s father had regretted getting married and left his wife and son to become a missionary in Africa; the child and his mother moved to Cornwall to live with her father, also a clergyman. The tensions for a priest, whether married or not, between his spiritual and pastoral duties and personal desires and responsibilities, form a constant theme throughout the novels. In the second volume Lidderdale undertakes his first curacy and a series of parochial appointments, mainly in London, where he develops into a sought-after preacher and confessor. Eventually the ‘intensive work in the box’ breaks him, and The Heavenly Ladder sees Lidderdale appointed Vicar of Nancepean – the small Cornish parish where he had lived as a boy.

Lidderdale throws himself wholeheartedly into his new responsibilities, determined from the outset that ‘the change in the style of worshipping to be complete, the transition to [Anglo-] Catholicism to be rapid and sudden’ (1). Nancepean was a very poorly endowed parish, so Lidderdale relies on his London friends to provide the vestments, chalices, books, and furniture that he wants for his church and the richly elaborate rites and ceremonies that he wishes to introduce. He also attempts to pick up the threads of his childhood friendships, but his status as Vicar, rather than mere grandson of old Parson Trehawke, ensures that neither is entirely successful. Although Lidderdale faces much opposition he is still able to inspire a small but loyal band of supporters.

The appointment of a new, unsympathetic, bishop brings the conflict in the parish to a head, when he demands that Lidderdale cease his ‘Roman’ practices. As the Great War suddenly breaks out, Lidderdale decides that if he cannot be Vicar of Nancepean on the terms he believes required by his duty to God, then he will disobey. Lidderdale is deprived of his living and ejected from his vicarage: he ‘struggled on into the darkness, from which he would emerge only to be lost under another name in the deeper murk and utter darkness of war . . . ’ (304). After demobilisation, when he came to consider his future, ‘Mark chose a village in the Bernese Oberland in which to make his interior peace while the nations were making their exterior peace at Versailles’ (313). Conversations with an elderly Roman Catholic priest from England convince Lidderdale to accept that he must reject his Anglican priesthood: the thing that he had desired most.

For some reason Mackenzie, who had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1914, chose to write about the Anglican variety. Perhaps it was simply more appealing to a storyteller: Anglo-Catholicism was full of larger-than-life personalities both lay and clerical, and had a constantly growing mythology of exploits, told and retold by the faithful and denounced by their enemies. It was decidedly not respectable, but even dissident and transgressive: an incense-laden world of its own, in conflict with the ‘Establishment’ while paradoxically part of it by law.

Although Lidderdale’s progress, his spiritual journey, is never straightforward, its destination is also, perhaps, never really in doubt, because as a Roman Catholic Mackenzie would not have written it any other way. Perhaps, too, it is only natural that the conclusion of The Heavenly Ladder should read like a New Testament paraphrase, words reminiscent of Matthew 18:3, a teaching from the mouth of the Lord who he will still follow: ‘And he, like a child, was beginning life all over again.’

(John Howard)

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Mr. Priestley Fears Not: J.B. Priestley on L.P. Hartley's 'Night Fears'

As our previous posts may have suggested so far, 1924 was a quite well-blessed year for fantastic and supernatural fiction, with some notable titles. This month also marks the centenary of L. P. Hartley’s first book, Night Fears (1924), a short story collection. Hartley was 28, and had begun his literary career with reviewing and contributions to periodicals.

This volume includes some macabre and uncanny pieces, which were evidently an early taste of his, but at this stage they do not quite rise to the sure and sophisticated style he perfected in his later collections, such as The Killing Bottle (1932) and The Travelling Grave (1948). Nevertheless, the tales are of interest as the early work of a later master of the form, and they certainly show invention and panache.

The book was reviewed by J. B. Priestley in the London Mercury for August 1924 (Vol X, No 58) alongside contemporary novels, and receives a paragraph. Priestley was on the whole a generous and tolerant reviewer, with a particular pleasure in classic storytelling qualities of the kind later to be exemplified by his own work. But he was unconvinced by Hartley’s book.  

He begins: ‘Mr. Hartley has collected his short tales too soon. Except in one or two places, he is still merely trying his hand; the experienced and sensitive reader and reviewer is more apparent here than the genuine creative artist’.

It is amusing to see Priestley adopting a sort of avuncular tone here, since the two were near contemporaries: Priestley was born in 1894, Hartley in 1895. Priestley had not yet published a book himself, perhaps because he thought that he was a ‘genuine creative artist’ and was waiting for the right moment. When it came, it was with the Stevensonian thriller Adam in Moonshine (1927), about a picturesque modern Jacobite conspiracy in the wilds of Yorkshire, a most agreeable yarn with a moonshine plot as well as title. I found it great fun, although I'm not sure J.B. quite knew how to end it.

In the rest of the notice, Priestley becomes rather restless about the cleverness and style of Hartley’s work. ’Most of these stories are in reality somewhat pointless anecdotes that have a kind of false subtlety in the telling, a nod and wink manner (italics in original). He can at least see that Hartley has promise, though Priestley expresses this in a somewhat awkward and grudging double-negative: ‘reading these things . . .  does not leave me convinced that Mr. Hartley will not write good fiction—for I think he will’.

Priestley concludes with a characteristic harrumph. The book ‘does at least strengthen the suspicion that what might be called the “highbrow” short story is rapidly becoming as standardised, as much a mere bag of tricks as the despised “low brow” magazine tale.” It is interesting to see him here already quite robust in his literary tastes and opinions. He was himself to become a highly successful author of popular novels now regarded as resolutely ”middlebrow” (if we must have such terns).

He was of course correct to see that Hartley would indeed write good fiction, including some classic stylish and sardonic tales of the uncanny, and these may be found in the two volume edition of The Collected Macabre Stories from Tartarus Press.

(Mark Valentine) 

Image: The first edition of Night Fears (Ashton Rare Books).