Friday, 15 May 2009

Mr Thurber's Ghosts

James Thurber was arguably the best American prose stylist of the 20th century. His short stories and essays remain superb examples of English prose at its best. Thurber's pieces generally read like superbly polished anecdotes rather than works of fiction or journalism. And some of them do deal, however peripherally, with what might be termed the supernatural.

'The Luck of Jad Peters' is one of those maybe-true stories of Thurber's childhood in his home town of Columbus, Ohio. Aunt Emma Peters kept a strange collection of memorabilia, including a hefty lump of rock. For some reason this rock was regarded as a tasteless inclusion, but Aunt Emma would insist on it being there. The reason? Her late husband, Jad Peters, was a garrulous old bore who repeatedly insisted that he was somehow protected by Providence from untimely death. He collected a series of items linked to supposedly remarkable brushes with the Grim Reaper that proved someone up there was looking out for him. Except for the rock. That was picked up by Aunt Emma after Jad passed on... The story is not quite ghostly or spooky, but does reflect the way ordinary people thought (and still think) about dreams and their impact on reality.

Altogether lighter is 'The Black Magic of Barney Haller', a clever tale about a handyman who - thanks to his poor grasp of English - terrifies Thurber with references to Machenesque antics. At one point he suggests that they will 'become warbs'. Thurber cleverly spices it up by giving Barney his own personal weather system, always consisting of thunder and lightning. Again, a story that's a creative anecdote, superbly crafted.

Thurber was a superb parodist, and 'did' Henry James a couple of times. Neither story is ghostly, but they are well worth reading alongside such tales as 'The Jolly Corner'. Thurber's Jamesian pieces as 'A Call on Mrs Forrester' and 'The Beast in the Dingle'. He also wrote an excellent piece on James' surprising influence on the classic American thriller The Maltese Falcon, 'The Wings of Henry James'.

Thurber's seriously impaired vision also inspired near-fantasies such as 'The Admiral on the Wheel'. This account of the things you see when you've lost or broken your glasses is, again, a little gem. The surreal aspects of everyday life often crop up in his work, and his piece on Salvador Dali is telling (rather like Orwell's) in its implicit criticism - these arty types are big show-offs.

One example of Thurber's fantasising around the mudane is of course 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty'. Again, not striclty supernatural. But it was filmed with Boris Karloff as the baddie - so, a near miss. 

Much nearer to the genuinely eerie is 'A Friend to Alexander' - one of Thurber's many tales about marital strife and the distintegration of a 'regular guy'. A good radio adaptation can be heard here. You can download the MP3, it's dated 43-08-03. The story concerns an ordinary, if nervous 'Thurber man' who has a recurring dream. The dream is about Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr - two figures from American history that I, a Brit, had never heard of. But the thrust of the tale is clear enough. Alexander is the victim of Burr's bullying, and our Thurber man feels the need to protect him. This leads to ever more irrational behaviour and... Well, read it or listen to it yourself.

Thurber wrote an interesting variant on the doppelganger theme in 'The Remarkable Case of Mr Bruhl'. See an abstract from the New Yorker here. It concenrs yet another mild-mannered Thurber man who - seemingly by pure chance - happens to resemble a notorious gangster. (The story was published in 1930.) Gradually Mr Bruhl seems to be possessed by the gangster's spirit - or is it his idea of what a gangster should be?

Finally there's 'The Night the Ghost Got In'. This seems to be the genuine article. It's one of a series of pieces ('The Night the Bed Fell', 'The Day the Dam Broke', 'The Car We Had to Push') about the often chaotic Thurber family. The ghost manifests itself as footsteps walking rapidly around the kitchen table. Family members gather at the head of the stairs, wondering who's going to dare to go down. Somebody makes a move - and the footsteps suddenly cross the hall and start up the stairs! Panic stations. Things then become even more confused, not least due to the involvement of Thurber's wonderful grandfather, a Civil War veteran who features in some of his best pieces. The ghost is never explained. That's not really the point. 

1 comment:

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