A rundown on my Thanksgiving reading.
We spent a few extra days with my parents for Thanksgiving this year, as much to escape the choking smoke of the Northern California Camp Fire as anything else. In between cooking, eating, sleeping off all the yummy food, and teaching my mother how to use the Kindle that I bought her for her birthday, I found time for some reading, too. Two quite different books, as you will see.
The Croquet Player, H.G. Wells.
University of Nebraska Press. With afterword by John Huntington.
I picked this one up in the used section of Green Apple Books a while ago, but didn’t get to it until now. It’s a short novella—less than 100 pages—originally published in 1936, on the cusp of World War II.
The book opens with the narrator, the titular Croquet Player, introducing himself. He is an idly rich man who doesn’t have to work, but instead has spent his life becoming “one of the best croquet players alive.” He’s also pretty good at archery and bridge. He’s a bit of a Mamma’s boy (it’s his aunt, rather than his mother); and he’s just a bit too young to have served in World War I. Generally, his life is trouble-free and easy. I wondered why Wells spent so much time setting up this person as the narrator, but it makes more sense as the novel progresses.
The narrator and his aunt go to a resort in Normandy to “recuperate” from an exhausting conference of the Woman’s World Humanity Movement (an organization the narrator’s aunt is heavily involved in). There, the narrator meets a fellow Englishman, Dr. Finchatton, who tells the narrator the main story.
Finchatton, a sensitive young physician, enters practice in the remote rural area of Cainsmarsh, and discovers something strange going on. Everyone in the region lives in a miasma of fear, suspicion, and paranoia. Drug use (laudanum) is much higher than it ought to be in the region. Irrational acts of violence and fear erupt from the residents of the area, for no reason. Finchatton consults with the ministers in the region, to see if they have insight into the situation. He discovers an old minister of a “low church” Anglican, rather Puritanical persuasion, who blames all the woes of the region on the Catholic Church.
He wanted suppression, he wanted persecution of Science, of Rome, of every sort of immorality and immodesty, of every sort of creed except his own, persecution, enforced repentance, to save us from the Wrath that was coming steadily upon us….’The Doom of Cain!’ he shouted. ‘The punishment of Cain!’
The other minister is a younger man of (surprise!) “high church” persuasion, who of course blamed the condition of Cainsmarsh on the Reformation—and demonic possession. “We have to restore the unity of Christendom and exorcize those devils.” Finchatton objects:
‘But,’ I told him, ‘there will be opposition!’ and at that the manner of Mr. Mortover changed. He stood up and threw out a stiff hand like an eagle’s claw. ‘It must be overcome!’ said he, and in that instant I understood why men are killed in Belfast and Liverpool and Spain.
1936 marked the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, and Belfast was in the midst of “The Troubles.” I don’t know the history of the Liverpool region, but I’m sure my British readers get the reference. The Croquet Player, however, does not get the references. But eventually, as Finchatton continues his tale, the Croquet Player begins to also get stirrings of unease….
I came into this story expecting either a tale of supernatural evil, or a psychological horror masquerading as supernatural phenomenon. I won’t say which it is, though I will say the final reveal wasn’t quite what I was expecting. In retrospect, perhaps I should have. It won’t be a spoiler to tell you that the whole thing is a massive allegory for the political climate of the time. Wells isn’t describing his reaction to the world situation, but rather his view of other people’s reactions to events going on around them. The free-floating anxiety, the sense of oppression, everyone’s unease and anger and shortness of temper. Reading about the people of Cainsmarsh, and about the physician, felt a bit too on point.
I can’t say I enjoyed the book, exactly, but it did strike a chord. Wells’s characters represent the different ways he saw people reacting to world events, and perhaps Wells even sketched out what he saw as the “right” way to cope with them. But the book is rather pessimistic about the final outcome, and I suppose Wells was right. I hope that sometimes he’s wrong.
Worth reading, and thinking about.
Stories of the Strange and Sinister, Frank Baker
Valancourt Books, 2016. Introduction by R.B. Russell
Frank Baker was a mid-twentieth century author of the weird and macabre who perhaps isn’t as well known as he ought to be. He’s probably best known for his 1940 novel Miss Hargreaves, and for having written the 1936 novel The Birds that is not the inspiration for Hitchcock’s movie of the same name (Daphne du Maurier’s short story came out in 1952, and Baker’s novel was fairly obscure). Stories of the Strange and Sinister is a collection of ten short stories, originally published in 1983.
The stories are a bit uneven (as Russell notes in his introduction), but the best of them are very good indeed, and overall I thoroughly enjoyed the collection. Baker was also a musician and church organist, and his stories are filled with musicians and references to music. He tends a bit to the sentimental, but those are the stories that work the best. I thought the stories where he tried to go darker and more macabre, like the Poe-esque “The Chocolate Box” or “In the Steam Room,” were not as successful.
Standouts for me:
“My Lady Sweet, Arise” : Whimsical and rather sweet. This story of an elderly woman who can’t stop herself from singing might have been my favorite.
“Art Thou Languid?” : My other contender for favorite. A tale of obsession and love lost that is sort of “Brokeback Mountain” in reverse. I couldn’t help noticing how awkwardly Baker slipped in that Mr. Weary “was fond of women, but too shy…to advance any further with them than a longing smile.” Because honestly, the story works better if Mr. Weary doesn’t care for women at all, and it’s certainly the most natural way to interpret the events of the story. The supernatural aspects of “Art Thou Languid?” are almost unnecessary, but they do allow Baker to bookend the tale in a lovely, lyrical way.
“Quintin Claribel” : Odd and humorous tale of a writer with a strange secret. I can imagine Max Beerbohm having written this one.
“The Green Steps” : A great poet stops writing one day, forever. Why? For some reason, this one reminds me of Reggie Oliver. And that’s entirely a good thing.
Featured Image: Woman Reading in a Garden, Henri Matisse (1902-1903). Source: Wikiart