If you read Julia Briggs’ 1977 history of the English ghost story, Night Visitors, it’s easy to believe that the ghostly or supernatural tale had a brief, M R James-inspired flourish in the early twentieth century, before becoming moribund — nothing but, as she puts it, “a vehicle for nostalgia, a formulaic exercise content merely to recreate a Dickensian or Monty Jamesian atmosphere”. But it’s writers like John Metcalfe (1891–1965), whose output bridged the classic (M R James) with the more thoroughly modern (Robert Aickman) eras of the British weird, who give the lie to this. Judging by the sixteen stories and one novella collected in Nightmare Jack and Other Stories (Ash Tree Press, 1998), Metcalfe was no pasticheur of M R James or any other writer, and certainly no indulger in the nostalgic, as his tales were, in the main, set in modern times (his modern times), and betray clear signs not only of that modernity — references to psychoanalysis, aeroplanes, the World Wars — but perhaps also of the modernistic. (It’s true he included some time-worn, even clichéd elements, such as two early stories where the supernatural is tied to the stolen jewelled eye of a foreign idol. But nobody could accuse either “Nightmare Jack” or the so-insanely-funny-it’s-not-funny-at-all “The Smoking Leg” — which TED Klein quite wonderfully calls “jocularly bloody-minded” — of being in any other way traditional.)
But, I don’t want to make it sound as though this is something I’ve always known. I’ve only recently been prompted (thank you, Peter!) to read Metcalfe, and it’s doing so which got me thinking how little I know of the between-and-post-World-Wars British weird. It’s those same World Wars that Briggs gave as the reason the British ghost story (in its broadest sense) declined. As she says:
“The Great War had not only trivialised invented horrors… it had also catalysed changes in society which affected the ghost story less directly but no less fundamentally. Atheism and agnosticism were now more widely tolerated, and totally materialistic philosophies were far commoner than heretofore.”
But, through the lens of Metcalfe’s fiction, it’s easy to see why this explanation — that the Great War achieved a surfeit of real-world horrors thus ending the demand for them as entertainment, and that the loss of religious attitudes made the supernatural ridiculous to the general reader — are inadequate, if not about-face wrong. The very surfeit of horror, combined with an inability to channel it through traditional beliefs which might have ameliorated its force, left the writers of the World War generations (and Metcalfe served in both conflicts) with a massive psychic load to deal with, and no ready-made form with which to do so. The world had gone insane — not once, but twice — and while some people no doubt returned to their lives as though nothing had happened, some were left reeling. The ghost story as nostalgic/formalistic exercise may have been dead, but the tale of the outright weird was very much a live issue.
Nightmare Jack contains stories from across Metcalfe’s career, starting with his first collection, The Smoking Leg, which came out in 1925. The story “The Smoking Leg” shows how far we are from the air of amateur antiquarians and bachelor academics, as here we’re dealing with not one but two alcoholic doctors, plus an unfortunate Burmese boy, as main characters. The first doctor engages in what’s either a cruel prank or a desperate attempt at smuggling, using the poor boy as his unwitting surgical mule. The artefact — the inevitably cursed eye of a idol — proceeds to not only smoke, but causes ships and people to burst into flames. There’s something about the tale, a teetering on the edge between being very darkly funny and barely holding onto any semblance of sanity, that characteristically marks some of these early Metcalfe stories. I get the feeling there was a certain amount of turbulence going on beneath the surface (certainly, Metcalfe’s mental health suffered during his lifetime), of a writer riding the wave of material he just didn’t know what else to do with except craft into these barely-contained eruptions of the dark and strange.
Others from the same era defy any resolution into either a supernatural or psychological explanation, such as “The Double Admiral”, where a retired admiral is haunted by what at first seems like nothing but a distant smudge on the horizon. Resolved to confront this irrationality, he summons two friends to row out to sea and face it. The smudge, in turn, comes towards them, revealing itself to be their doubles… But then, does the admiral die, to be replaced by his double, or is he somehow restored to life and health, only changed in some way? The story, evidently, isn’t about answers, but about a sheer, haunting strangeness that has no answer.
There’s a lot of haunted individuals in these stories, most of them driven to face the source of their obsessions, only to be rewarded with oblivion. One man is haunted by the mostly missing memory of an experience he had at a certain house, which he strives to find once more; another is haunted by his attempt to escape from a prison by digging a tunnel, a moment he constantly relives; a third is haunted by the sense of evil he gets from a remote location, and which may in fact be down to his straying into an entirely different dimension.
There’s more edge-of-the-razor humour in at least one of the stories from Metcalfe’s 1931 collection, Judas. “Mr Meldrum’s Mania”, like “The Smoking Leg”, might be intended as a joke — it certainly seems to be satirising psychoanalysis, as the only explanation given for what occurs to its protagonist is a wildly over-specific memory of seeing a particular illustration on a particular page of a book as a child — but it’s so loaded with the distress of its main character, it’s hard to read as anything but horror. (It recalls, to me, Daphne du Maurier’s “The Blue Lenses”, in its depiction of the isolation caused by a horror only perceptible to one person.)
With “Mortmain”, from the same collection, it can seem at first we’re in more traditional ghost story territory, with a newly-married couple honeymooning on a boat trip around the English coast, apparently pursued by the wife’s (dead) former husband’s boat. But it’s the nature of that husband which takes the story into a very un-traditional sense of wild irrationality:
“Humphrey must plainly have been mad. He had taken to affronting everybody by getting himself up in a sort of parody of female attire—had let his hair grow long, his beard as well, and had affected a shirt-blouse and skirt.”
And it’s not just eccentricity: the man also drenched a dog in paraffin and set it on fire. Not the sort of thing you’d find in M R James.
“Mortmain” brings to the fore Metcalfe’s relish for language — particularly when evoking the repulsive:
“Something was happening, impending, in the clouds. Above a bloodshot wrack piled banks of rutilous vapour were slowly moving—wreathing and twisting into flaming whorls and spirals and strange convoluted forms. Dark, ragged clots converged upon a festered core, showing a ruddy glow. The scene had a malignant and yet tawdry splendour, a sordid glory which was that of a lost world. Swollen, faeculent masses discharged tardily into a crimson vortex. It was as if the heavens themselves were rancid and dissolved—displayed the specious beauty of corruption.”
One of my favourite tales in this collection, for sheer strangeness, is “Brenner’s Boy” (first published in 1932). It starts with an ex-navy man struggling to recall exactly what he agreed to when he bumped into an old admiral he’d previously served under. Did he really say he’d look after the man’s troublesome boy for a bit? Then the youngster turns up, though with the strange air of having done so on his own steam, and proceeds to be rude, wilful, and obnoxious to everyone, breaking things and constantly straying beyond the bounds of social acceptability. For a while, the protagonist feels too constrained by his inability to recall how much he’d agreed to, and not knowing how to deal with the social aspects of this very awkward situation. The feeling is very much like the sort of tangles of polite constraint and supernatural effrontery in Robert Aickman’s stories. In fact, I’d say, it’s having read Metcalfe that Aickman’s oddities start to make a little more sense — not in terms of resolving into sense, but from pointing to, perhaps, something of a common origin. (Quite what that origin might be, though, is another thing altogether…)
The longest story collected here (and which has recently been published on its own, by Valancourt Books, in the US) is the Turn of the Screw-esque novella, The Feasting Dead (first published in 1954). The narrator’s boy Denis starts spending time in France with distant relations, until things are suddenly broken off. The thing Denis most seems to miss about his overseas visits is an odd “friend” he made — they used to go out and “catch moles” and do other boyish things — only, this is an old man, a gardener or servant, who suddenly appears in England one day and ensconces himself in the narrator’s home. From this point, the narrator finds Denis growing more distant, and the mystery around this unprepossessing “friend” only growing deeper — the man, whose name is Raoul, comes across as so much of a nothing. Strange noises are heard from the boy’s room at night, poltergeist-like sounds (“nightly thumpings, hummings and (a new ingredient) derisive hootings”). When the narrator confronts Raoul, it turns into a struggle, and the man seems to disappear from underneath him. Denis runs away, and the narrator heads out to France, sure that’s where his boy has gone. There, he learns something of the nature of this creature that’s preying on his son:
“They called these—these preposterousnesses, or the cast of mind that fostered and engendered them, ‘sans noms’—simply that. The ‘nameless’. . . .”
Obviously some sort of vampire, it’s the very opposite of the aristocratic, darkly charismatic Count Dracula. It’s here Metcalfe’s love of language comes to the fore again, in the words his narrator struggles to find to describe this thing: “This lay-figure—this fantôche, this hollow puppet”, “this most supreme and consummate nuisance”, “this kind of molestation, or superstition of a molestation”, or best of all, this “eerie lummox” — exactly the sort of floundering for understanding caused by the “totally materialistic philosophies” that, as Briggs would have it, put paid to the ghost story. As the narrator himself admits:
“You might suppose a recent world-war would have knocked such nonsense out of [the superstitious locals] but—suddenly, and wryly, I laughed at myself—though it wasn’t at all funny. Yes, that was rich! Talk of the pot and kettle. . . .! For I was equally in thrall to a grotesque myth with any of the folk I was deriding.”
That Metcalfe’s fiction is deliberately exploring the overlap between the supernatural and the psychological is evident, here — even to his narrator, who says, “The case is fairer game I fancy for a psychical researching bloke, or a psychiatrist.” Those two being pretty much the same, as far as he’s concerned.
But perhaps the key thing here is those noises in the boy’s bedroom. Of them, the narrator says:
“Poltergeists, I had heard, were regarded as the prankish play of a surplus vital force or energy; and it was just after this force’s flow, from Denis, had been stimulated but yet deprived, temporarily, of its accustomed receptacle in Raoul that the impish manifestations, centering round my boy, were commonest.”
Poltergeists, as I said in my review of The Haunting of Alma Fielding, are that peculiarly modernistic eruption of the supernatural, a wilfully irrational upwelling of the suppressed into nonsensical violence, more like psychic grenades lobbed into the world of the living than the work of reasonable ghosts.
That poltergeist-like irrationality — even if poltergeists themselves don’t actually appear — seems like a marked characteristic of Robert Aickman’s fiction, and of Metcalfe’s, too. It’s the sense that, only a very short distance beneath daily life, there’s a bubbling away of violent, irrational, and overwhelming forces that we’ve only avoided this far through chance. A very cosmic, even Lovecraftian idea — “The Colour Out of Space” might well have been a Metcalfe tale, if written with an alcoholic haze to its prose style. Metcalfe’s tale, “The Bad Lands”, makes a close companion to Lovecraft’s. And, what do you know, Lovecraft commented on this very story in Supernatural Horror in Literature, saying it contains “graduations of horror that strongly savour of genius.”