Sunday, October 31, 2021

Ye Beastie Dyde It: More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, by M. R. James (1911)

the 1955 Pan paperback edition

I wasn't surprised to find that medievalist scholar and Cambridge provost Montague Rhodes James, who wrote supernatural horror fiction under the name M. R. James, was a reader of detective fiction by Agatha Christie (and presumably other authors).  The milieus of his stories--villages, country houses, universities--are so often what you find in Golden Age detective fiction.  

But more than that, James' tales often concern investigations into past mysteries, conducted by learned, even eccentric, gentlemen of means.  Even if the resolutions typically are not so tidy as those in a detective story, we are still trying, as in the detective story, to get to the bottom of decidedly queer enigmas.  (Some authors of that time explicitly merged the genres with the employment of "occult detectives.")

More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911)--originally simply entitled, I believe, More Ghost Stories--was the follow-up to M. R. James' Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), a cornerstone of supernatural horror fiction.  I don't believe that the second volume measures up to the first, although it has some fine tales in it.  

The leadoff frightener, "A School Story," is by far the shortest of the bunch and the least substantial, a simple tale of revenge from beyond the grave taken upon a schoolmaster, which makes similar creepy use of a well to the Japanese horror film Ringu and its American remake The Ring.  

"The Rose Garden" details what happens when Mr. and Mrs. Astruther (the latter a most imposing matron), decide to lay out a rose garden at a secluded corner of their newly acquired country house.  It's an entertaining enough story, but I thought the scariest thing in it was the intolerably bossy Mrs. Anstruther.

"The Tractate Middoth" and "Casting the Runes" (great titles both) concern scholars in desperate search of mysterious objects.  In the former, there's even a hunt for a lost will, like something out of Agatha Christie.  (Indeed, the Queen of Crime has an Hercule Poirot short story about a missing will.)   

On rereading these stories I found neither as frightening as I had recalled, but "Casting the Runes," I must add, has a simply smashing setup, which was brilliantly adapted in the 1957 horror suspense film Night of the Demon, one of my all-time favorite movies.  

"Runes" is about an amateur scholar and, well, rather nasty demonologist named Karswell who gets a wee bit, um, wrathful when his academic article is turned down for publication.  Coming from an academic background myself, I didn't find this part such a stretch!  

It all results in a sort of supernatural duel to the death, revolving around a slip of enchanted runes, between Karswell and Dunning, the outside reader responsible for Karswell's article getting rejected. Among the things for which the article is condemned, by the by, is its having had split infinitives, which made me sympathize a bit with that poor devil Karswell, I must admit!

Holden (Dana Andrews), aka Dunning from "Casting the Runes,"
senses the presence of unearthly menace in Night of the Demon

Although the "Runes" is not nearly as terrifying and thrilling to my mind as the film (I really could have done without all the stage Cockney dialogue, for example), it has some very neat elements.  The line "However, Mr. Karswell was an astute man" has stuck with me for decades.  It's deliciously chilling in context.  

Moreover, there's an episode, described at second hand, where Karswell "entertains" village children with a "magic lantern" slideshow which is genuinely horrific.  This was only very loosely drawn on in the film, but it surely inspired the slideshow sequence in the latest film version of Stephen King's horror novel It.  (See below.)  Was this is King's novel as well? I'm guessing it was meant as an homage to James.  I thought it was the scariest thing in the film!

My favorite stories in James' second collection, however, are the last three: "The Stalls at Barchester Cathedral," "Martin's Close" and "Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance."  "Stalls," set in the early nineteenth century and told largely in diary form, concerns the strange demise of John Benwell Haynes, the late Archdeacon of Sowerbridge.  Essentially this is an inverted crime story with monsters.  It's very creepy!

Martin's Close is a true tour-de-force, told largely in trial record form, about the murder of a homely common woman, Ann Clark, by the aristocrat who was emotionally toying with her and his subsequent trial before Baron Jeffries, the infamous real-life seventeenth-century English "hanging judge." 

It's a brilliant variant on the "spectral bride" legend, about which I want to say more when I get to posting about Joseph Shearing.  It should have been titled, "Madam, Will You Walk?," however.   Along with Mrs. Anstruther and a garden maze expert named Lady Wardrop (see below), Ann Clark is the only notable female character in this collection of short stories.

Speaking of Lady Wardop, there is, finally, "Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance," which tells of the sinister supernatural goings-on at the hedge maze at Wilsthorpe Hall.  Mazes have been great settings for scares since the time of Theseus, as anyone who read mythology and seen the film version of Stephen King's The Shining or read J. J. Connington's detective novel Murder in the Maze will know.  (Is the maze in King's novel?  Is this another homage?)

M. R. James really delivers the goods here, in a story that's rather more ambiguous than the others.  And, after all, surely that's the ultimate horror to a Golden Age mystery fan: having a resolution which fails fully to resolve the mystery!  We are all afraid of the unknown and even more so of the unknowable.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

The Monday Club Murder: "Sight Unseen" (1916/21), by Mary Roberts Rinehart

The body lay in the room overhead.  But what of the spirit?  I shivered as I thought that it might even then be watching me with formless eyes from some dark corner.

--"Sight Unseen," Mary Roberts Rinehart

In "Sight Unseen" by American Crime Queen Mary Roberts Rinehart the Neighborhood Club meets weekly on Monday nights to discuss topics of current interest.  The club is composed of six well-off suburbanites, three men and three women.  These are:

first American edition, 1921

  • stolid Horace Johnson, an attorney and the narrator of the tale, and his wife, "known throughout the neighborhood as a perfect housekeeper"
  • literary editor Herbert Robinson and his sister Alice, "not a young woman, but clever, alert and very alive"
  • Sperry, a heart specialist and "bachelor still in spite of much feminine activity"
  • elderly but engaged Mrs. Dane, who, although confined to a wheelchair, is "one of those glowing and kindly souls that have a way of becoming a neighborhood nucleus"

The "fun" begins when the Neighborhood Group, on a Monday evening on November 2, has as its special guest Miss Jeremy, an attractive young woman spiritualist.  A séance is held, at which Miss Jeremy seems to channel a woman who has just committed, or at least been very recently on the scene of, a shocking murder! 

Later that night, Horace learns that one of their neighbors, fast living Arthur Wells, has died, ostensibly by a self-inflicted shooting.  Was is really suicide, however, or murder???

Avon paperback edition, 1946

Could this have been the murder that the medium Miss Jeremy seemed to be experiencing?  Both events took place around the same time, about 9: 30 in the evening.  Horace and his friend Speer, who starts falling for the pretty spiritualist, begin to investigate and come up with some shocking answers.

This is an entertaining murder story, especially original for its time I would think.  Does anyone know of a situation like this in an earlier story?  

I know of mysteries where murders are committed in the same room during seances, but I'm blanking on mediumistic revelations about murders which are taking place elsewhere while the séance is being held.  There's Agatha Christie's The Sittaford Mystery, but that dates from 1931.

Mary Rinehart knows how to spin an engrossing tale and "Sight Unseen" certainly is one.  Nor is it disadvantaged by its shorter length than much of her work--indeed, rather the contrary I think.  (By my count it's just shy of 40,000 words, so it's a long novella.)  

I'm struck again, however, by how Rinehart was more interested in writing stories about crime and character than meticulously clued puzzlers of the Agatha Christie sort.  There's some spiritualistic activity in Christie's detective novel Dumb Witness, which I reviewed recently, and you can bet that when there's a séance in that book there's a good fair play style clue wedged in there!  With Rinehart you don't really get that; it's more a parade of revelations.  And while the mystery is fine and engrossing, there's no shocking twists in culpritude.  

1989 Zebra paperback edition,
which gives "The Confession"
top billing

Indeed what I probably enjoyed more than the murder is the gradual detailing of Horace's life with his wife, that perfect housekeeper as he tells us.  I don't think we ever even learn this imposing matron's first name.  Poor dull Horace comes off as rather a henpecked soul, as it were, and it all makes an interesting portrait of upper middle-class marriage around the time of the Great War.  Just don't hold out great expectations of this linking in with the murder!  

Some of the writing in the novella is actually quite funny.  The blurb on my Avon paperback copy of the story, which has been coupled in published editions with a shorter Rinehart novella, "The Confession" (reviewed by me here) dramatically tells readers, "You Will Tingle and Shudder," but, nah, you won't.  

Truthfully, there aren't any real scares here --"The Confession" actually is rather creepier as I recall--although there is some interesting speculation about spiritualism and the existence of an afterlife.  This being Rinehart, there's a little romance too, though its nothing cloying, as her successors sometimes were with such material.

Originally published in a magazine in 1916, "Sight Unseen" first appeared in book form with "The Confession" in 1921 and has been reprinted in paperback several times since.  Avon's edition, pictured above, appeared in 1946.  Its whimsical cover of a cigarette-smoking skull, cocktail glass and knife bears no relationship whatsoever to the story, but it's a pretty cool visual!

Friday, October 29, 2021

Halloweekend at The Sign of the Passing Tramp, 2021

Classic Arthur Hawkins jacket to a
classic creepy Thirties crime novel by
Joseph Shearing,
aka Marjorie Bowen,
aka Margaret Campbell Long
(1885-1952), who will be one of
our honored guests this weekend
Murder and horror go hand in the hand, even in the era of vintage of crime fiction, when murder could be fun, even rather jolly.  The Golden Age of detective fiction was also, after all, the Golden Age of the Horror/Supernatural Story.  In the United States, where there was pulpish hard-boiled crime fiction, there was also the pulpish, hard-boiled horror fiction of HP Lovecraft and others--visceral, weird, hair-raising stuff.  Meanwhile in England we continued to see classic donnish ghost stories, more restrained but in their own way quite eerie, of M. R. James and his followers. 

Like Arthur Conan Doyle, still around as the Grand Old Man of Mystery during fully half of the Golden Age of detective fiction, M. R. James continued to publish genre fiction in the 1920s, with his last book of ghost stories, A Warning to the Curious, appearing in 1926-- although, again like Doyle, James' best work generally dated back to the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Over this weekend I plan to look at some of the work of M. R. James, to whom I was introduced thirty years ago in a marvelous collection introduced by the late English crime writer Ruth Rendell, a huge admirer of his.  (Rendell herself wrote a few ghostly tales and she well knew how to induce frissons of fear and unease in her murder fiction.) 

Reflecting, I suppose, my general bias in favor of all things olde and English, I greatly preferred James' subtly frightening antiquarian ghost stories to Lovecraft's freakish and ghastly creep shows.  James in turn was a reader of Agatha Christie (who herself wrote some supernatural and "weird" fiction) and I want to look a little about how James' works can resemble classic crime fiction.  At the same time I also want to look at some examples of vintage mystery fiction with supernatural elements.  So buckle of your broomsticks, guys and ghouls, it's going to be a goose bumpy ride!

Sunday, October 10, 2021

And Now for a Stairy Story: Dumb Witness, by Agatha Christie (1937)--with a possible cameo by the author herself (and her little dog too)

In a not insignificant portion of vintage mysteries, the primary murder victim dies from having been fatally impelled in some foul fashion down a staircase.  (This happens in Miles Burton's A Will in the Way, recently reviewed here.)  Naturally this murder ploy faded away with the rise of bungalows and ranch houses.  The classic instance of the "true crime" staircase death dates from the sixteenth century, when all the most fashionable people lived in castles and such, don't you know, and had plenty of stairs that they needs must tread.   

This was the death of Amy Robsart, first wife of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I.  Indeed, after his wife's death, Dudley's enemies intimated that he might have engineered her untimely demise in order to marry the Queen; and ever since historians have debated the famous question, did she fall or was she pushed?  No one knows the answer to that one.  

Fall Gal
Emily Arundell takes a near fatal tumble
down the stairs at Littlegreen House

In Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot novel Dumb Witness, wealthy, elderly spinster Emily Arundell is NON-fatally propelled down the staircase at her home by means of of a trip wire, although this attempted slaying is covered up to look like an accident.  Emily owned a terrier named Bob, you see, and Bob had been trained to drop a little rubber ball down the stairs while recumbent at the half landing.  It's assumed that to her near-death Emily tripped over the ball, which evidently inadvertently had not been picked up and put away in its drawer.  (Someone removed the telltale trip wire, you see.)

However, Hercule Poirot appears on the scene after Emily's later, ostensibly natural, death.  (After the staircase incident Emily had written him an agitated, disjointed letter asking him down, but Poirot received the epistle only after her death.) 

Naturally Poirot discovers this criminal hanky panky and he decides, perhaps a bit quixotically, to stick around to snoop some more into the matter of Emily's ostensibly natural death.  Attempted murder followed by "natural" death he finds a little too hard to swallow, n'est-ce pas, like a plate of bubble and squeak--although his friend Hastings thinks the little Belgian is just dramatizing himself again.  (Hastings will never learn!)

Yes, Hastings comes along for the ride as well, in what would be his last appearance in the Hercule Poirot canon until Curtain was published nearly four decades later.  According to the Agatha Christie Fandom website, Dumb Witness marked the seventh appearance of Hastings in a Poirot novel, which somehow seems fewer than I recalled. However, it's true.

first English edition by Collins, with Agatha Christie's own dog, Peter, gracing the cover as Bob

Hastings appeared in three Poirot novels in the 1920s, followed in the 1930s by Peril at End House, Lord Edgeware Dies, The ABC Murders and Dumb Witness.  After his back-to-back appearances in Peril and Edgware, Hastings missed three consecutive Poirot novels until The ABC Murders (a three-year gap), then missed two more novels between ABC and Dumb Witness.  So it does appear that Christie indeed had become something less than enamored with Hastings in the mid-thirties and was in the process of gradually dispensing with his services.

Certainly Hastings' late appearance in Dumb Witness seems a bit off-kilter, because Christie presents the first four chapters of the novel as having been written by Hastings in the third person, artfully dramatizing the events within Emily Arundell's demesne, Littlegreen House, before he and Poirot arrive on the scene.  Now I know such literary devices are a legitimate conceit of fiction writers, yet, really, I think we all have to admit that such imaginative skill would have been utterly beyond Hastings' capacity.  I can't help feeling that Christie was really ready to move beyond Hastings.  

Bob drops the ball

So why did she use him at all here?  Were the fans clamoring for the return of Captain Hastings?  This seems unlikely, as reviewers at the time mostly just commented, in reference to Poirot's Watson, that he was just as dumb as ever.  My theory is that Christie needed Hastings to relate to the dog Bob, who in fact is a major character in the novel.  Hastings even allows Bob to "speak," in passages which readers likely will either find delightful or painful depending on how much they like dogs.  Being a dog lover myself (like Christie; see below), I don't mind it.  One of the many transgressions of the television version of Dumb Witness, in my eyes, is that it portrays Poirot as Bob's special pal.  Does Poirot have to have everything in this life?  I say at least give Hastings the dog! 

So for better or worse Hastings narrates most of Dumb Witness, which has largely been regarded, since its publication almost 85 years ago, as the weakest of the Thirties Poirot novels.  (Admittedly they set a high bar.)  I have been writing lately about underrated Christies so as I reread Dumb Witness I had to ask myself, is it underrated?  

Poor Hastings! Poirot (David Suchet)
makes a new friend in the 1996
television adaptation of Dumb Witness

On the whole, I think not.  It probably indeed is the worst of the Thirties Poirots, although it is important to add the caveat that even a subpar Thirties Christie was likely better than 75% or more of the detective novels of the time.  She was that good in those days.  

First off, does the title even make sense?  Bob obviously is the "dumb" (i.e., mute) witness, but in the book he's neither dumb (Hastings has him "speak," seriously) nor a witness with anything important to impart to the detective.

This contrasts, for example, with Belisarius, the delightful feline in Miles Burton's detective novel The Cat Jumps (1946), who literally witnesses the murder and could have told sleuth Desmond Merrion all about it, had he but possessed the power of speech.  No wonder the Americans changed the title of Dumb Witness to Poirot Loses a Client--not that that's a great title either! 

Also, what possessed Christie to have Hercule Poirot name the culprits in murders from four of his previous cases (i.e., four of Christie's past novels)?  That's a lot of wanton spoilerage in one book!  I wonder if this indiscretion on Poirot's part still occurs in later editions of Dumb Witness, or in the American edition?  I will have to check.

a long way down

Critics since 1937 have pointed out weaknesses in the puzzle structure of Dumb Witness, but I can't discuss that aspect of the book without massive spoilerage, as it were.  However, I will say that most of the novel's cast of characters is composed of an exceptionally pallid bunch by the Queen of Crime standards.  To be sure, Emily Arundell and her latest beleaguered companion, Wilhelmina "Minnie" Lawson, are done to a turn--Christie always portrayed imperious spinsters and their skittish companions well--but Emily's relations are a forgettable lot, aside from her Greek doctor son-in-law, who is interesting not so much in and of himself but for how the author treats him.  

Truthfully, the dog Bob is more developed than any of these humans.  (Maybe that's the authentic Hastings' touch!)

Strikingly it's Emily's dead relations--her sisters and her brother and her domineering drunk of a father, the General--who strike the most powerful chord.  There's a passage where Emily wanders though her house late at night thinking about the shades of her late family that is quite moving.  It may have been beyond Hasting's literary ability but it certainly wasn't beyond Christie's!  How interesting a Christie murder novel set in the Victorian era would have been.

this "special edition" with pictures
(see photos) probably followed
the first UK edition the next year

As we learned from John Curran, Dumb Witness had its inception in an unpublished Christie short story, "The Incident of the Dog's Ball," written a few years earlier.  Was this story inspired by real life practice of Christie's own terrier, Peter, dropping a ball down the stairs at Christie's own house?  It seems too colorfully specific to have been entirely imaginary.

I assume Christie's main house at the time would have been Winterbrook House, a lovely red brick Georgian house, coincidentally now up for sale, just outside the town of Wallingford, Oxfordshire, in the village of Winterbrook.  Wallingford is said to have been the model for the town of Market Basing, Berkshire where Emily Arundell's Littlegreen House is located.  Winterbrook at the time was part of Berkshire too.  From what I can tell, Littlegreen House seems a lot like Winterbrook House.

So presumably Christie modeled Littlegreen House after Winterbrook House.  She affectionately dedicated the novel to Dear Peter, Most Faithful of Friends and Dearest of Companions, A Dog in a Thousand.  Peter, who also had been a co-dedicatee of The Mystery of the Blue Train nine years earlier (reviewed here), died the year after Dumb Witness was published.  

Peter was photographed as Bob, it has been claimed, in the "special edition" of the Dumb Witness which The Book Club published in England, not long after the original edition.  So this claim goes, Peter appears at the half landing of the stairs, having just dropped his ball, while no less than his mistress, appearing as Emily Arundell, lies prone at the bottom below--at least according to some booksellers.  (See pics above.)  Christie authority Mark Aldridge disagrees, however.  I'm told John Curran emphatically doesn't buy this notion either.  Me, I'm keeping an open mind about it.  (Peter definitely appeared on the cover of the Collins hardcover edition of Dumb Witness, published slightly earlier; see pic above.)

If true, I think Christie most definitely must have had more than a passing affection for the book to have done this.  She must not have deemed it the dog that some of the critics did.  Or perhaps that's some other lady at the bottom of the stairs!  Who was that lady?  And who was that dog?

pictured: Agatha Christie's home Winterbrook House, the model for Littlegreen House?
"These large Georgian homes fronting the street must be the devil to get rid off."
(Hastings to Poirot on Littlegreen House, Market Basing, Berks in Dumb Witness)