The Alabaster Hand by A N L Munby

1974 Tandem paperback

In a brief foreword to The Alabaster Hand and Other Ghost Stories (first published in 1949), A N L Munby says that these stories “were written between 1943 and 1945 in a prison-camp just outside the ancient walled town of Eichstätt in Upper Franconia”. In fact, Alan Noel Latimer Munby — “Tim” to his friends — spent five consecutive years in German POW camps. He’d joined the Territorial Army some years before the Second World War started, and in 1940 was sent to the continent to help defend Calais. Two days later, with German guns less than 100 yards from the town, Munby and the captain of the French defending forces shared a bottle of brandy, then gave themselves up. Munby was sent to Laufen in 1940, Warburg in 1941, and then Oflag VII B in Eichstätt in 1942. While there, he formed an antiquarian society and gave lectures (he’d been a book cataloguer for Sotheby’s before the war), wrote humorous poetry and a mock-Baedeker guide to the camp, helped make fake uniforms and stand-in parade dummies for escapees, and, of course, wrote ghost stories in the style of M R James. (At least one of which, “The Alabaster Hand”, was composed during an air-raid blackout, with Munby and a friend composing alternate paragraphs.) Three of these tales — “The Four Poster”, “The White Sack” and “The Topley Place Sale” — were published in a camp magazine, printed on a press owned by the Bishop of Eichstätt. (A fellow POW, Elliott Viney, who helped with the magazine, was later the printer of the first edition of The Alabaster Hand in England.)

But before this makes it sound as though Munby had a jolly war, when he was freed and returned to England in 1945 he found that his wife, whom he’d married only the year before his capture, had just died. (He’d marry again, and have a son.) Munby returned to his work for Sotheby’s, but soon left to become librarian at King’s College, Cambridge.

If it weren’t for that foreword, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to look for signs of the Second World War in the Alabaster Hand stories — though that, of course, may be the point. Munby’s narrators (or, quite possibly, his single narrator, as they could all be the same person) gad about the British countryside, visiting friends who own country houses, popping into isolated chapels in remote villages, or take walking trips in Welsh or Scottish mountains. They peruse booksellers’ catalogues, discover the stories behind obscurities in their own antiquarian collections, and have time to listen to the supernatural experiences of old acquaintances. It’s quite possible these ghostly stories, scary though they are, were mainly designed as a sort of mental holiday from the realities of Stalag life, both for their writer and his fellow-prisoners.

But there are a few moments when war — not the Second World War, but still possibly based in elements of Munby’s own experience — breaks through the pipe-smoke fug of academic bookishness and M R James-ishness. For instance, in “The Lectern”, we learn of one Thomas Prandle, whose sheep-farming forebears raised themselves to somewhat surly minor gentry (there are a few examples of upstart gentry behaving badly in these stories, and they always get their comeuppance). Prandle joins the late-18th century equivalent of the Territorial Army, and eventually gets his chance to do some overseas soldiering, though not (as with Munby) in France, but in Ulster. It falls far short of his dreams of soldierly heroism:

“It very soon became clear to Prandle and his troop that this wasn’t the glamorous business for which they’d been training so long. Instead of the dashing cavalry charge that he’d pictured he found the drab necessity of conducting house-to-house searches in a hostile countryside. There is no glory for the soldier matched against guerrillas — no enemy is drawn up in line to do battle, only a sordid series of murdered sentries, shots in the dark and vanishing assailants. The inevitable reprisals only made a bad situation worse. The soldier is at an enormous disadvantage in dealing with civilians. If he is a man of chivalry, they can insult him with impunity, for he cannot retaliate. If an unarmed man is killed by a soldier there is an immediate outcry…”

This surely can’t have been Munby’s experience in Calais, as he wasn’t part of the occupying forces, which makes me wonder if he perhaps formed this picture of Thomas Prandle from observing his German captors.

First HB cover, with art by Joanna Dowling

The only explicit mention of modern war comes in “Number Seventy-nine”, the tale of an antiquarian bookseller’s cataloguer, Merton, who “came down from Oxford in 1913, and got caught up in the war before he’d settled down to anything. He was badly shell-shocked in France, and when he got his discharge in 1918 he was a nervous wreck…” Merton, much to his employer’s delight, becomes engaged, but is even more distraught when he loses his fiancé in an automobile accident. (Reading which, I couldn’t help wondering how Munby must have felt about this tale when his own wife died before his return to England.) Merton turns to spiritualism and then, in a final desperate move, to a manuscript on necromancy his employer has just acquired. His employer (who is telling the sorry tale-within-a-tale to Munby’s narrator) hears Merton scream and run from the shop, and looking out, sees “a shadowy figure… of grey colouring” following him, accompanied by a smell he recognises from an exhumation he’d happened on as a boy. (Smells — quite often of burning — accompany other Munby spectres, too. The reality of burned flesh may be another wartime experience of Munby’s.)

The most visceral passage in all of these stories comes in “The Tudor Chimney”. The narrator’s wealthy friend, who has recently taken up the hobby of renovating an old house, opens a bricked-in chimney and looses something that the narrator encounters one night. Generally, in these tales, the spook is witnessed by someone else, or is even relegated to a tale-within-a-tale-within-a-tale, but this time the narrator himself sees the thing, and his response is authentic:

“There are certain human passions that strip from a man the veneer of civilised culture which normally encases him, that turn him into something primitive and elemental. I felt myself spiritually naked when face to face with the apparition that confronted me that night.”

This passage stands out because, generally, Munby’s narrator is quite cool about the existence of ghosts. In “A Christmas Game”, the narrator sees one coming for a fellow guest, but, knowing it’s not there for him, doesn’t seem to feel any fear. It’s not as with Lovecraft, where the very fact of an entity’s existence is enough to drive a man to madness. Nor is this quite M R James’s approach. Mike Ashley has described Munby as the “Closest to inheriting the mantle of M R James”, and the air of antiquarianism, churchiness, strangely-historied things bought on impulse at auction, and horrors rooted in recent centuries past, is certainly there. But the differences are evident in a tale like “The Tudor Chimney”. While James generally lays out, piece by piece, the whole background necessary to understand the full import of his spook before it makes its final appearance, Munby has us see the ghost, and know it as a ghost, then his characters start the investigation into what or who it is, how it came to be a ghost, and how to lay its disturbed soul. And once it’s dealt with, the characters get on with life pretty much as before, no sanity points lost. A ghost, as the narrator of “The Tudor Chimney” says, “isn’t the sort of thing one can shut away and keep out of one’s mind”, but it’s also, in these stories, not the sort of thing to shake one’s faith.

Munby’s tales are brisk, compared to James’s, and once you get past the POW’s holiday-in-the-mind of gadding about the British countryside engaging in idle antiquarian research, the supernatural elements are introduced quickly, have their stories told in straightforward narratives rather than Jamesian hints, and then they’re put to one side. But they’re effective tales for all that, and if they’re lacking the weird power of M R James’s originals, they get their little shiver of terror by more than mere association.

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All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Although it’s far too well known in the English-speaking world by its translated title, Remarque’s original German title, Im Westen nichts Neues, means something more like “Nothing New on the Western Front”. While the English title conjures up a deceptive lull before the storm, the original German is an ironic comment on the death of yet another soldier, and perhaps a whole generation, being nothing sufficiently new to be worth reporting.

The novel was first serialised at the end of 1928, then published in book form in January 1929. It became an instant bestseller. By the end of that year more than thirty translations had appeared, followed in 1930 by an Academy Award-winning Hollywood film directed by Lewis Milestone (and produced by Carl Laemmle Jr., of Universal Horror fame). When the film reached Germany, the National Socialists, newly voted into being the second largest political party in the country, campaigned to have it banned for its supposed negative take on the “reputation of the German soldier”. They saw their success on this front as their first major victory over democratic Weimar Germany. (When they achieved full power in 1933, Remarque’s novel was one of the first books to be publicly burned.)

As a novel, All Quiet on the Western Front doesn’t really have a story. (The very lack of anything by way of a change in the narrator’s fortunes — a way out of his Hell — let alone one due to his own actions, could well be part of the point.) There’s nothing he can do but go where he’s told to go and try to survive. Rather, the novel does its best to present us with all the basic types of situation a WWI foot-soldier might have found himself in: initial training in bootcamp, waiting for orders near the front, at the front and under fire, on leave and unable to adjust, on duty guarding POWs, back at the front and stuck in no-man’s-land, one-on-one combat with an enemy in a bomb crater, in hospital watching fellow patients being taken one by one to the Death Room, then back at the front once more…

US HB cover by Paul Wenck

From the start, it feels like a sourcebook of all those telling moments you find in so many subsequent novels, films, and TV shows, which illustrate the brutality and horror of modern warfare in a single image. One after another, like a series of trump cards being laid down, you get them in single-paragraph snapshots: helplessly listening to screaming, wounded horses; watching a beloved friend dying in a hospital and wondering who will get his boots (“For us, it is only the facts that count. And good boots are hard to come by.”); the young recruit the narrator takes under his wing, telling him all the tricks on how to survive at the front, only for a random chance to blow him away; the wounded comrade the narrator carries back singlehandedly for medical help, only to find, on arrival, he’s been dead for some time…

What will quickly become clichés of modern warfare fiction are all there: the comrade who, despite the privations of the front-line, can always get hold of those little luxuries; the ultra-strict training officer who goes over the top in breaking his charges; the old men at home who know all about how the war should be fought; the dead enemy soldier with the photo of his wife and child in his wallet… But there are also so many scenes you don’t get in subsequent films and fiction, and which must have really been shocking to those first readers — those who hadn’t witnessed such scenes themselves — for instance, when the narrator and a fellow soldier pass an all-but denuded forest, and speculate idly on why the corpses hanging in the trees are all naked. It’s because they’ve been blown out of their uniforms, it’s just a thing that happens.

Poster for the 1930 film

What probably seemed among its most notable qualities back then — and certainly one that riled the Nazis — is it’s not pro- or anti-German. It takes no real political sides at all. As the translator of the edition I read, Brian Murdoch, points out in his afterword, Remarque’s narrator almost never uses the word “enemy”. The soldiers are all too aware that the people they’re fighting are simply recruits like themselves:

“‘It’s funny when you think about it,’ continues Krop. ‘We’re out here defending our homeland. And yet the French are there defending their homeland as well. Which of us is right?’”

To these foot-soldiers, the war’s no longer a thing to win or lose, it’s a thing to endure and survive — and survive at the most basic level:

“We set out as soldiers… we reach the zone where the front line begins, and we have turned into human animals.”

Remarque’s main point, though, is how the war was harshest on one specific generation:

“Things are particularly confused for us twenty-year-olds… The older men still have firm ties to their earlier lives—they have property, wives, children, jobs and interests, and these bonds are all so strong that the war can’t break them. But for us twenty-year-olds there are only our parents, and for some of us a girlfriend.”

This is a generation that went straight from school to the front line, egged on by ultra-patriotic schoolmasters preaching heroism and a greater Germany, and who had no chance to experience anything like the life they’d been brought up to expect. Suddenly, once the shells started falling, they find it has all been a lie, and none of them has had the chance to build up any experience to the contrary:

“They [our teachers] were supposed to be the ones who would help us eighteen-year-olds to make the transition, who would guide us into adult life, into a world of work, of responsibilities, of civilised behaviour and progress—into the future… But the first dead man that we saw shattered this conviction. We were forced to recognise that our generation was more honourable than theirs…”

Education suddenly means nothing, because it had all been preparation for a completely different world:

“Nobody taught us at school how to light a cigarette in a rainstorm, or how it is still possible to make a fire even with soaking wet wood—or that the best place to stick a bayonet is into the belly, because it can’t get jammed in there, the way it can in the ribs.”

Something underlined most poignantly by another comrade’s death:

“Bertinck has been hit in the chest… After a few minutes he sinks down like a rubber tyre when the air escapes. What use is it to him now that he was so good at mathematics at school?”

Remarque in 1929

Erich Maria Remarque (1898–1970) had written one previous novel, published in 1920, under his birth name Erich Remark. He changed the spelling of his surname to the older Remarque (his grandfather’s name) to distance himself from that first novel, Die Traumbude, which he’d begun before the war. It has, apparently, never been translated. (The middle name “Maria” he changed — his original being Paul — in tribute to his mother.)

After having his writing banned by the Nazis, he moved to Switzerland, then to America, and then back to Switzerland in 1948, where in 1958 he married ex-Mrs Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard. He published a kind-of sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front, The Road Back, in 1931.

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The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively

1983 cover by Yvonne Gilbert

Without planning to, I’ve been working through some Carnegie Medal winners recently, starting with Robert Westall’s The Scarecrows, then Margaret Mahy’s The Haunting. I’ve written about Penelope Lively’s teen fiction before, but this is her Carnegie Medal winner, from 1973. (And just as both Westall and Mahy were the only writers to have won the Carnegie twice, Lively is the only writer to have won both the Carnegie and the Booker Prize.)

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe has been described (by Colin Manlove, in From Alice to Harry Potter: Children’s Fantasy in England) as “the best of Lively’s books in the fantastical vein”. Manlove goes on to say it’s “possibly indebted to Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man” as it “deals with an unnatural survival from the past”, though Lively’s previous YA books also dealt with an “unnatural survival from the past” — and I’ve heard that her adult fiction does too, though in a non-supernatural way — so no influence from Amis is necessary.

In Kempe, James Harrison and his family have just moved into East End Cottage in Ledsham, Oxfordshire, a small town that seems to encapsulate Lively’s picture of the world as a place whose heart belongs to the past, but which is slowly being crowded out by modernity:

“It was a very old place, half way between a village and a small town, and had, somehow, the air of being dwarfed by the present. New housing estates were mushrooming now on two sides of it, but the centre remained as it must always have been…”

1992 cover by Richard Jones

Just before James takes residence in his new attic bedroom, it, too, has been modernised, by builders who found (and broke) a small sealed bottle in the wall by the window. Unwittingly, they’ve released the ghost of Thomas Kempe Esq., who died in 1629. A restless, poltergeist-like spirit, Kempe is itching to get back to his old ways of making himself rather bullyingly useful to the people of Ledsham, offering such services as “Sorcerie, Astrologie, Geomancie, Alchemie, Recoverie of Goodes Lost, Physicke”. He decides James is to be his apprentice (and representative), and begins posting notices around the town to let it be known that “I doe once more practise my arte and cunninge in this house.”

But nobody wants “Sorcerie, Astrologie, Geomancie”, etc., nowadays, so Kempe starts attacking what he sees as his modern rivals. He trashes the local GP’s office (“Physicke”), causes havoc in an archaeological dig (“Recoverie of Goodes Lost”), interferes with the TV whenever it shows a weather forecast (that, too, being one of his services), and generally gives the police, the vicar, and an elderly neighbour, Mrs Verity, who Kempe decides is a witch, a hard time.

2006 cover

The trouble is, because Kempe cannot be seen, and because he mentions James’s name as his apprentice in several of his notices — and because most of his activity takes place in the Harrison household, around James — James gets the blame. James was a bit of a troublemaker beforehand, but quickly comes to resent being blamed for (for instance) pulling the chair out from under the vicar the moment before he sits down, or altering a pharmacy prescription for his sister’s cough to something more herbalistic. He certainly resents the suggestion he might have thrown a brick through someone’s window or chalked insults on Mrs Verity’s wall.

But James is caught between two intolerables. He doesn’t want to be Kempe’s apprentice (which would be just encouraging the self-important old so-and-so, and trapping himself into doing all sorts of things he doesn’t want to do, like having to tell the archaeologists to stop their work, or convincing the people of Ledsham Mrs Verity is a witch, and probably having to learn Latin, too), but if he resists, the poltergeist activity kicks off, and his parents simply blame him for all the breakages and nasty tricks. When he says it’s a ghost, they take that to be one more desperate attempt at the “it wasn’t me” defence. His sister, used to being at odds with him, won’t listen. Even his new friend, bespectacled Simon, never wholly believes. As James says:

“Nobody believes in him except me… And I wouldn’t if I didn’t have to.”

1973 HB cover

If The Ghost of Thomas Kempe wasn’t basically humorous, it could easily be awful for James, considering how harassed and isolated he becomes. It’s not like Lively’s previous go at the theme of a sorcerous personage from the past being summoned into the present (The Whispering Knights) where it’s three children who summon a witch, so at least there’s three of them to share the burden — and it’s definitely their fault. Nor is it quite like William Mayne’s It, another book on the same theme, whose protagonist finds herself singled out for the unwanted devotions of a witch’s familiar, because in her case she’s believed when she talks to an adult about it, it’s just that the adult can’t do anything to help. In fact, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe has close ties with both the other Carnegie winners I’ve reviewed recently, as they’re all about children having to deal with troublesome supernatural incursions while being blamed for their ill-effects, with varying degrees of isolation and distress. (Robert Westall’s The Scarecrows is the one whose protagonist is most responsible for the supernatural incursion, but only because he has the most emotional baggage to deal with anyway.)

One theme that pops up in Kempe but doesn’t get fully developed is when James starts to become aware of his own childhood as just one more aspect of the flow of history. He’s startled, for instance, to find old Mrs Verity telling tales of how naughtily she behaved as a girl, and so comes to see her as still partly a child. And the historical Arnold Luckett (a boy of James’s age who dealt with a bout of Kempe disturbances in the previous century, who James reads about), pops up as an old man in a portrait in the local school. In both cases, we see childhood put in its context as a stage of life that leads to adulthood, but also never quite goes away.

1976 cover

Perhaps we’re supposed to see Thomas Kempe’s selfish insistence the world returns to his idea of how it should be as a form of childishness? Certainly, his poltergeist tantrums are. And the inverse of that idea — the idea that being a child is like being a ghost — comes out in James’s realisation that “as far as most grown-ups were concerned, children were invisible”, therefore ghost-like, but also likely to cause poltergeist-like trouble.

Among Lively’s YA books, I still prefer The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, perhaps because of its slightly more serious tone and folk-horror feel of dealing with things pagan, primal and dangerous, but as far as Lively’s “unnatural survival from the past” theme goes, I think The Ghost of Thomas Kempe is more successful than her other two YA books I’ve covered, Astercote and The Whispering Knights (though it doesn’t have as adventurous a conclusion as either).

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe was read by Ronald Pickup on Jackanory in December 1977, and adapted into a US TV movie in 1979, which sets the action in a modern-looking house in the USA, thereby immediately compromising the influence-from-the-past theme. I haven’t watched the whole thing, though (the one version on YouTube has a weirdly warping picture), so it may improve.

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