Friday, 27 September 2013

Building a Spooky Library - The Silver Age

It is generally accepted (albeit in a slightly grumpy, 'It's a bit more complicated than that, dash it all!' sort of way) that the Golden Age of British supernatural fiction was roughly the period from about 1890 to 1914. It's the Edwardian Era Plus, really - a time when the Victorian age was coming to an end but the final disillusionment with its supposed certainties had yet to materialise. It was the period when Blackwood, Machen, and M.R. James burst onto the scene. It was also the era of weird fiction to suit any brow, from low to ultra-high, with notable contributions from Conan Doyle, Kipling, Stoker, Wells, Rider Haggard, E. Nesbit, Edith Wharton, Henry James, M.P. Shiel, and other too numerous etcetera.

Much of this was down to the health of the publishing industry. In the 1890s serial publication of novels was well-established and magazines also paid rather well for short stories. Magazines had bigger circulations than ever before because in the late 19th-century compulsory mass education had created a huge reading public. Every sort of fiction flourished, so it's hardly surprising that tales of ghosts, vampires, mummies, man-eating plants and myriad other assorted weirdies were churned out by the hundred. Most were poor stuff, but the cream of the crop set a standard that hasn't really been bettered.

Then came the Great War. Magazine publishing didn't die out, but it took a body blow from the economic turmoil that struck Britain (and of course much of the wider world). That literate audience was still around, but it had less money to spent on frivolities. And the war had produced a change in outlook - if not outright pessimism, then certainly a loss of the old Victorian audacity, so that imaginative fiction of the inter-war years often seems anaemic. And yet the Twenties and Thirties produced a fair crop of British ghost stories and related fiction.

For me the period is distinguished by what might be termed the unholy trinity of the inter-war ghost story - A.M. Burrage, E.F. Benson, and H. R. Wakefield. It so happens that, when I first got into ghostly fiction during the Nineties, Ash-Tree Press was publishing collections by these authors. It's worth noting that Benson achieved literary success before the Great War, and belonged to an earlier generation. But the three do have much in common - not surprisingly, as they all worked within an established ghost story tradition.

No spooky library would be complete without a 'Best Of...' E.F. Benson, and there are plenty to choose from. A Collected Ghost Stories (I have a paperback edition published many years ago) is fine, but it will serve to reveal how mediocre and rather padded a lot of Benson's tales are. He wrote prolifically and at one point was churning out stories in direct competition with Burrage, who worked for a rival magazine. But Benson's best stories are well worth reading, not least because they are often more peculiar and disturbing than his amiable, genteel style might suggest.

For instance, in 'How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery', horrible fates befall those who see the ghosts of two murdered children. Benson seems to have had a horror of certain types of biological physicality, to say the least. When he put his mind to it, he could creep you out with the best of them.
From the centre of the discoloured place there sprouted forth little lichen-like tendrils of greenish-grey, and another patch appeared on her lower lip. This, too, soon vegetated, and one morning, on opening her eyes to the horror of a new day, she found that her vision was strangely blurred. She sprang to her looking-glass, and what she saw caused her to shriek aloud with horror. From under her upper eye-lid a fresh growth had sprung up, mushroom-like, in the night, and its filaments extended downwards, screening the pupil of her eye.
The same disturbing approach can be found in 'Caterpillars' (which is only slightly undermined by its reliance on the old belief that cancer is an infectious disease). Writhing invertebrates like caterpillars and slugs seem to have repelled Benson, judging from stories like 'Negotium Perambulans'. Less material in its horror, but still very effective, is 'The Face', a good variant on the demon/ghostly lover theme. There's also 'The Horror-Horn', a very odd tale of Alpine ape-creatures that can't be classed as a ghost story but is too overtly barmy to fit anywhere else.

A.M. Burrage was a jobbing writer with a lot of energy, and his ghostly fiction has won praise from modern experts such as David Rowlands. I admit that I find much of his work forgettable - the sort of stuff you read once and feel vaguely disappointed by. However, a few tales do have the authentic frisson that you associate with classics of the genre. 'One Who Saw', 'Smee', and 'The Waxworks' are all readable. Here's a dramatised radio version of 'One Who Saw', from the ST YouTube channel.

Wakefield is, for my money, the best of the three, but also the oddest and at times the most annoying. His depiction of women is often astonishing, as he rarely creates memorable female characters who are less than monstrous. There's a general tone of bitterness and cynicism that also mars his work. But leaving aside these flaws, stories such as 'Look Up There!', 'He Cometh and He Passeth By', 'The Red Lodge', 'The Triumph of Death', 'Blind Man's Buff', and 'The Seventeenth Hole at Duncaster' are damn good.

Unfortunately, of the three Wakefield's books are the hardest to obtain. He died in 1964, so under the seventy year rule we can't expect cheap paperback editions for a while yet. (Burrage died in 1956. Benson died in 1940, so his work is now out of copyright.) The Ash-Tree hardbacks are pricey if you can find them at all, but there are also Kindle editions and these seem good value to me. There's also a fine 1978 selection edited by Richard Dalby, if you can find it.

This is of course a very partial and narrow look at ghostly fiction between the wars, not least because it fails to acknowledge the important contribution of the US pulp magazines. But that will be dealt with in due course...


Aonghus Fallon said...

I'll definitely check out Wakefield. I'm currently reading another anthology you recommended: Aickman's 'Put Your Cold Hand in Mine', the first story - 'The Swords' - being the best so far, although the standard is generally pretty good. You mentioned earlier that a lot of his stories were inspired by dreams and this makes perfect sense as each story has all the internal logic of a dream - ie, the mood is coherent, even if the plot-lines are not. For example, I was convinced that the mc in 'The Hospice' was going to be accused of the murder committed by his fellow room-mate and never get away, when in fact he did.

Funnily enough, knowing the stories were inspired by dreams makes it a lot easier to go with the flow - ie, I don't feel under any compulsion to analyse them for sub-text.

Aonghus Fallon said...

Oops. The correct title is - of course - 'Cold Hand In Mine'.

valdemar said...

Glad you're enjoying Aickman. Some people are maddened by what they see as obscurity and pretension. But if you see them as dream-tales you can take 'em or leave 'em as visionary experiences. And they do indeed shun conventional plot-logic, which means they never serve up a warmed-over cliché.