Nightmare Jack and Other Stories by John Metcalfe

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.

US HB of The Smoking Leg, 1926

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.

1931 cover of Judas

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…)

Arkham House cover for The Feasting Dead, 1954

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.

Illustration for Metcalfe’s story “Funeral March of a Marionette”, published in The Reynolds Newspaper (6th Nov 1932) as “A Guy Fawkes Adventure”

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.”


The Travelling Grave and Other Stories by LP Hartley

Valancourt Books cover

Although The Travelling Grave was first published by Arkham House in 1948, most of the stories it collects had already appeared in LP Hartley’s British collections Night Fears (1924) and The Killing Bottle and Other Stories (1932). It was reviewed (if that’s the right word for a piece in the publisher’s own magazine) in the Arkham Sampler for Spring 1924:

“Mr. Hartley’s book can be recommended especially to those readers who like to be led casually into a setting and story and brought up short, face to face with terror and horror. Mr Hartley succeeds in doing this time after time, and doing it so well that I cannot offhand think of any other contemporary writer who managed this effect quite so memorably.”

I came to The Travelling Grave thinking of it as a collection of ghost stories, but they’re not ghost stories — even those with ghosts in them (or, really, walking corpses) — so much as contes cruels, whose focus is on the method of delivering each tale’s particular moment of comeuppance or revelation. Hartley plays an artful game of laying out everything a reader needs to anticipate what’s coming — all, that is, but the final detail, the who-it-happens-to, or how-it-happens.

Arkham House cover, art by Frank Utpatel

The perfect example is the lead tale, “The Travelling Grave”, which introduces what I like to think of as a literal plot device, in the shape of a mobile, mechanical coffin that is not only self-burying, but will also gather up and kill — snatch and despatch — its occupant. As its owner Munt, a collector of unusual coffins, says:

“But it’s very quick, and it has that funny gift of anticipation. If it got a fellow up against a wall, I don’t think he’d stand much chance. I didn’t show you here, because I value my floors, but it can bury itself in wood in three minutes and in newly turned earth, say a flower-bed, in one.”

The tale begins by introducing us to Hugh Curtis — “a vague man with an unretentive mind”, making him sound like perfect victim material — who’s persuaded by an acquaintance to spend the weekend at Munt’s house. When Munt realises Curtis hasn’t told anyone else he’s come, and is unlikely to be missed for some time if he disappears, it of course sets this collector thinking about fully testing this latest addition to his collection. But, of course, things don’t quite work out the way Munt — or the reader — expects.

Hartley’s first book, the collection Night Fears, which contains some of the tales later collected in The Travelling Grave

Those tales that do have ghosts — and the supernatural impinges on the majority of these tales — don’t look too deeply into the nature of the supernatural. Hartley’s walking corpses are there to exact retribution, sometimes deserved — as in “A Visitor from Down Under”, whose protagonist learns you can’t escape a crime committed on the other side of the world, especially if your revenger is (a) dead and (b) capable of using public transport — sometimes not deserved — as in “Feet Foremost”, where the new owners of an old haunted house inadvertently re-activate its ghost (despite the house having been redesigned long ago to prevent such an occurrence) simply because they neglected to inform the servants — but don’t really betray much of the metaphysical workings behind these revenants’ ability to linger beyond death as they do.

Hartley’s tales can’t help sounding comical in summary, but this, and the humour evident in this stories — he’s a witty stylist — do nothing to ameliorate their horror. As Jack Sullivan in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural says: “humour in Hartley’s work is not so much a relief from horror as another dimension of it.” And the humour (like the horror) is there at the verbal level, too, in Hartley’s way with macabre word-play. To give an example, the speaker here is one of his revenants, a masked walking corpse who (the reader will have already guessed) only a short time before put a bullet through his brain:

“I was always an empty-headed fellow,” he went on, tapping the waxed covering with his gloved forefinger, so that it gave out a wooden hollow sound — “there’s nothing much behind this. No brains to speak of, I mean. Less than I used to have, in fact.”

This mix of humour and terror — in particular, the way it’s both at once — and the way such double meanings create an air of intense anxiety in the very substance of the narrative, reminds me most of all of Ramsey Campbell. Both writers use language to create an all-pervading sense of unreliability in the world around their protagonists, creating an air of anything — and most likely any scary thing — being about to happen.

PB edition from 1959

The thing that most stood out for me, in fact, is Hartley’s inventiveness at revealing the inner state of his (often highly anxious, though just about managing to keep it contained) protagonist’s psyches. In “A Change of Ownership”, for instance, Ernest, approaching his own house in the dark, starts imagining all sorts of inventive situations, conversations and meetings, all of them fanciful and designed to distract him from his fear of entering this empty house, but all of them somehow working their way round to latch onto the reasons for that fear. It’s Ernest’s effort not to think about what scares him that lays it bare.

Early on in another tale, “The Cotillon”, we learn that the protagonist, Marion Lane, is preoccupied by guilt about a recent relationship she only pretended to take seriously. Rather than simply saying she feels guilty, Hartley gives us this:

“She extinguished the light, but the gramophone within her went on more persistently than ever. It was a familiar record; she knew every word of it: it might have been called The Witness for the Defence.”

1951 HB release

It might seem a commonplace nowadays to liken worrying thoughts to having a record playing in one’s head, but I can’t help feeling it was new when Hartley wrote it, and its inventiveness brings home both the force of Marion’s worry, and the very modern (when Hartley was writing it) world in which this scary story is about to play out.

I note this aspect of modernity because Julia Briggs, in her history of the ghost story, Night Visitors, criticises Hartley for this very reason:

“Hartley showed courage in introducing motor cars, a radio broadcast and a plane crash into his ghost stores, but they also created further problems for him.”

But, to me, Hartley’s use of the (to him) modern world just highlights the unfairness, cruelty, and horror of the horrors, when they turn up. Everyone else in, for instance, “The Cotillon” with its “brightly-lit modern urban scene” (as Briggs puts it), is having fun at a masked ball, and this just isolates Marion all the more, as well as making Hartley’s skill at introducing his walking corpse all the more notable, for it’s against this air of fun and modernity that things come to seem so very unfunny.

But the modernity of the “internal gramophone” idea also brings home Marion’s very real worries. This isn’t a distanced character like, say, Professor Parkins in M R James’s “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You”; this is someone I, at least, can relate to. And I suspect Hartley’s ability to evoke characters with obsessive anxious worries is too widespread in his stories — and too inventively and effectively evoked — not to have been based on his own inner life. Time and again we get characters struggling with worries before the supernatural element even hints at turning up. Henry Greenstream in “The Thought”, for instance, begins his tale with a habit of counting the number of times his latest worry intrudes into his thoughts when he goes for a daily walk. Jack Sullivan, again from his entry on Hartley in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror, notes that “The technique here of intensifying fears into actual supernatural visitations became, in later stories like ‘The Thought’ and ‘A Change of Ownership’, a Hartley trademark.”

Before reading The Travelling Grave, I mostly knew Hartley from the 1971 film (by Joseph Losey, who also did The Damned) of his most well-known novel, The Go-Between, and as a respected reviewer who was thoroughly capable of intelligently reviewing both the literary and the fantastic (writing positively on Stapledon’s Star Maker, for instance, and an insightful and mostly positive review of Lindsay’s Devil’s Tor). But I’d been meaning to read him for a while, and I’m glad I finally did.


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.