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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The Sound of His Horn by Sarban

Tartarus Press edition, art by R.B. Russell

Delirious from lack of rest, food and water, Alan Querdillon, escaping from a WWII POW camp through endless German pine forests, sights a small lake and rushes towards it. Crossing a strange beam of pale light, he’s shocked into unconsciousness. He wakes in a private hospital, and when its German doctor invites him to his study for a chat, Querdillon notices an electric calendar-clock displaying the year 102 — “the hundred and second year of the First German Millenium as fixed by our First Fuehrer and Immortal Spirit of Germanism, Adolf Hitler”, as the doctor says, somewhat amused by his patient’s needing to have this explained. Querdillon has slipped into a future where Nazi Germany has won the “War of German Rights”, and reshaped the world to its wildest desires.

He’s being held in the castle of the Reich Master Forester, Count Johann von Hackelnberg, whose grounds are a sort of retreat where the Nazi elite can enjoy a bit of hunting. He soon gets to witness a fat and rather fed-up sportsman indolently shooting at (and missing) a deer or two, then perking up when he’s handed a peculiarly wide-bored gun and a new form of game is driven past the hunting hideout:

A figure had come into sight, running hard over the shock grass: a human figure, but fantastically decked. It came on, running for dear life and the unseen hounds clamoured close behind; there was no mistaking their intention to rend and kill now. The figure held my gaze; it was a tall, long-limbed girl, her head and features concealed by a brilliantly coloured beaked mask, which yet allowed her dark hair to stream out behind. To see her racing up the glade was as astounding as if you had seen one of the bird-headed goddesses of Old Egypt suddenly break from carven stillness into panic flight.

The wide-bore gun fires a weighted net. The hunter misses the first woman, but another follows, and she’s caught, trussed up, and taken away to be presented as the hunter’s prime catch at an end-of-day banquet.

Sphere paperback

Querdillon has already learned this is a harsh future. Slave men from the “Under-Races”, artificially matured, muted and neutered, do the work, while his nurses are all “Pure German maidens”, educated to such a level of discipline they’ll report their own misdemeanours, and suggest their own punishments (“They know better than to propose too little, too!”) rather than have their fellows beat them to it.

But the worst of it waits for the Count’s after-dinner entertainment. The monstrous Count von Hackelnberg takes his guests outside to a pit containing a couple of deer. Querdillon watches as twenty alluring but horrifying creatures file into the pit, a troop of “women transformed by a demonic skill in breeding and training into great, supple, swift and dangerous cats”. At a signal, they tear the deer apart and eat them raw. Then the Count spots Querdillon, and it’s time for some firsthand experience of what it means to be human prey.

Art by Richard Powers

The Sound of His Horn (1952) is the most well-known work by “Sarban” — real name John William Wall — who spent his working life (including during the Second World War) in the British Diplomatic Service, stationed in Beirut, Jedda, Tabriz, Isfahan, Casablanca and Cairo. During his lifetime he published three books (the other two being Ringstones and Other Curious Tales in 1951, and The Doll Maker and Other Tales of the Uncanny in 1953). In a few ways he reminds me of Daphne du Maurier (who I wrote about a little while back), in that his stories didn’t first appear in magazines or anthologies, but only in his own original collections. And, again like du Maurier, he tends to write quite a long short story, starting at an even pace and continuing that way through an often extensive build-up before we get to the meat of the story. His writing’s never dull. It keeps a measured, steady focus, as though every aspect of the build-up is relevant. But, to me, it does feel that at certain moments his writing bursts free and becomes a bit more intense and poetic. Sometimes, as in his long story “The King of the Lake”, this is when describing the underground wonders of the caves where a mysterious people live by a large, hidden, mid-desert lake. But generally Sarban’s poetic flourishes occur when he’s describing something that forms the ultimate core of several of his stories (including the title story of Ringstones, as well as “The King the Lake” and The Sound of His Horn): women being strapped into leather harnesses and being made to act like animals, usually as part of some sporting activity. In The Sound of His Horn, this is the “Jagdstück” or “game-girls” who are the hunting prey; in Ringstones it’s to act as human horses in a chariot race. At the same time, Sarban’s stories are usually focused on his female characters, who are intelligent, practical and capable people, which makes their frustration and humiliation all the more poignant.

Ringstones, cover by Bob Blanchard

It’s impossible to say there isn’t an element of misogyny here, but at the same time, Sarban’s sympathies seem to lie entirely with his female characters. Is he revelling in their humiliation, or identifying with their frustration? I think, as is probably true with most of the best horror fiction, the answer is an anxious mix of both. Sarban’s attitude towards his female characters is a conflicted mix of sympathy, fascination, and identification, rather than mere aggression. All this sports-and-leather-straps stuff at times comes across as a superheated version of John Betjeman’s love of confident, strong young women (“Pam, I adore you, you great big mountainous sportsgirl”), but the darkness at the heart of the stories is unavoidable. Was John William Wall (who, it seems, was somewhat dominated by his stronger wife, in an unhappy marriage), depicting his own sense of humiliation, vulnerability, and frustration — something he perhaps couldn’t express as a stiff-upper-lipped man of the 1950s — or was he inflicting it on others, in a sort of revenge fantasy? Bit of both, no doubt.

The frame story of The Sound of His Horn makes it clear that Querdillon was deeply affected by his experience of a Nazified future (which he escapes from, back to his own time, though of course everyone dismisses it as a hallucination caused by hunger and thirst), leading to his mother wondering why he isn’t marrying his long-standing fiancé:

Alan had lost his spirit; his manhood was lost or sleeping; something had so altered him that the girl’s animation, youth, ardour and beauty daunted him. He was simply afraid of her.

John William Wall, a.k.a. Sarban

His experience seems to have affected his identity as a man. And it’s not his witnessing of the (entirely male) Nazi elite’s inhumanity that has affected him, because man’s inhumanity to man is a long established fact — it’s his glimpse of the “utterly unhuman” cat-women’s bestial viciousness, which seems to have awoken a horror of his fiancé’s love of fox-hunting, as though he suspects that vision of women-as-cats has suggested they might all be cats, somewhere under the skin.

Sarban ceased publishing after 1953, blaming mixed reviews, but he continued writing, as Tartarus Press now include previously-unpublished works in their collections of his fiction. (They also run Sarban.co.uk, which has an interesting biography of the man.)

The Sound of His Horn is a real weird fiction classic, written in the urbane, well-controlled style of a well-read British man of letters, but with moments of genuinely dark strangeness of a sort that you just don’t expect to find coming from that well-read British man of letters.

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Daphne du Maurier’s weird fiction

Although she’s more well-known nowadays for her modern-Gothic/psychological suspense novels such as Rebecca (1938) and My Cousin Rachel (1951), both of which have been filmed several times, Daphne du Maurier produced some good shorter fiction that can be classed as weird, supernatural, or science-fictional — in a couple of cases all three at once — some of which have also been filmed, including The Birds (by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963), Don’t Look Now (by Nicolas Roeg in 1973), and The Breakthrough (adapted for TV in 1975, and then filmed as The Lifeforce Experiment by Piers Haggard in 1994).

Hitchcock said that, when adapting, he would read the book or story once, then never look at it again, and it can seem that, with his film of The Birds (scripted by Evan Hunter), it’s only the basic idea of mass bird attacks on humans that the two have in common. Du Maurier’s story (in The Birds and Others, 1952) is set in rural Cornwall and has a male working-class protagonist; Hitchcock’s is set in Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco, and has a female upper-class lead. But there are moments of similarity, including a bird attack on school children, and a visit to a neighbouring farm where the farmer is found pecked to death. Both end without any solution or explanation. I’d say, though, that the roots of du Maurier’s story are more evident, in the way it draws so many parallels with the then still-recent Second World War. Her story is full of scenes of the family huddled round a wireless set, tuning in for news from the authorities, or blocking out the windows just as they’d have blacked them out during the war. As the bird attacks increase, the family bed down together in the kitchen, just as they might have in an air-raid shelter, and the wife says, “Won’t America do something? … They’ve always been our allies, haven’t they? Surely America will do something?” The main character thinks about the birds as he would an enemy army (“A lull in battle. Forces regrouping.”). At the end, as the attacks continue and the authorities struggle to do anything, it’s as though the state of how things were in the Second World War has somehow seeped out from the human world to become the natural order.

None of these are short stories — du Maurier preferred novella length, it seems — meaning that even when she’s working at an idea another weird-fiction writer might turn into a quick twist story, she explores it at greater depth. An example of this is “The Apple Tree” (also from The Birds and Others), about a man who can’t help being a little relieved at the death of his eternally hard-done-by wife, but who starts to notice a resemblance between a stunted tree in his garden and his late wife’s slouched posture, after which he suspects she’s using the tree to haunt him. It’s an idea that’s been used before (Lovecraft’s “The Tree”, for instance), but writing it at length, du Maurier really brings out the relentlessly stifling nature of the marriage, and the desperate futility of the husband’s attempts to find some joy in life now he’s no longer burdened by such a negative spouse. The supernatural element is just the icing on the cake — the final twist to a man who’s already haunted in a purely psychological sense.

Difficult marriages feature in a lot of du Maurier’s tales, and her own was, it seems, troubled at times. There were affairs on both sides (in Daphne’s case, with both men and women), and the couple seems to have been happier living apart — he in London, where he worked after his military career (he became Treasurer to the Duke of Edinburgh), she in Cornwall. When her husband had a nervous breakdown, Daphne, learning he’d been having an affair, decided to do her best to save the marriage, but soon found the loss of creative solitude brought her to the edge of her own breakdown. Writing her next collection, The Breaking Point (1959), was her means of recovery.

Two of its stories stand out, for me. In “The Blue Lenses”, a woman who’s had an operation to implant new lenses into her eyes wakes to find she sees everyone with animals’ heads in place of their own, and seemingly the more she cares for them, the worse the head. (Her husband has a vulture’s.) It’s an unconventional idea for a horror story, at first absurd, but du Maurier quickly builds up the sense of inescapable isolation as her protagonist finds herself unable to hide her horror at what she sees. “The Pool”, meanwhile, is about a girl spending the school holidays with her brother at their grandparents’ house, for whose extensive garden she has an almost mystical reverence. She sneaks out at night to perform made-up rituals to bind herself, once more, to the garden, and to the strange world she can access through a pool in a thicket of trees. It reminded me of Arthur Machen’s “The White People”, which is also about a girl drunk on her own mix of nature-mysticism and fairy lore. But du Maurier brings in an element Machen, I think, never would, as this heady mix of fantasy and weirdness is linked to the girl’s first period. (I wonder how transgressive this was for a book published in 1959? Other stories in the same volume deal with pederasty, incest, madness, and the disposal of a dead baby — all of which, I can’t help feeling, must have felt incredibly shocking at the time.)

Penguin paperback cover, art by Dave and Sue Holmes

For me, du Maurier’s most satisfying single collection is Don’t Look Now and Other Stories (which came out in 1971, initially as Not After Midnight). It’s a collection dominated by recent deaths and troubled mourning, with three of its five stories being about people dealing with grief.

“Don’t Look Now” has a disturbing circularity to its plot. Its main character has unacknowledged clairvoyant powers, and his own death only occurs because he has a vision of what happens as a result of that death. If he hadn’t seen it — if he’d not looked now — he wouldn’t have died. It’s quite a subtly-balanced tale, and I have to admit it’s one I don’t think (though I may be the only person who thinks this) works as well in Nicolas Roeg’s film, which brings even more ambiguities to a story that’s rich enough in them already. Writing of du Maurier in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, Gary Crawford says “All du Maurier’s tales are symbolic and elegant, but they are less terrifying than simply strange, almost in the manner of Robert Aickman.” I don’t think du Maurier is often as outright surreal as Aickman, but “Don’t Look Now” may be her at her most dreamlike.

(And there’s a scene in the 1940 film of Rebecca, where the sinister Mrs Danvers urges the new Mrs de Winter to fondle her predecessor’s clothes, which seems straight out of Aickman’s “Ravissante” — only, of course, preceding it by nearly three decades.)

Still from Hitchcock's Rebecca

For a writer I most closely associate with Rebecca and the black & white Hitchcock/Selznick film based on it, “The Breakthrough” (which is copyrighted 1966, though I haven’t been able to find if it appeared before its inclusion in Don’t Look Now and Other Stories) feels very modern — or 1970s-modern, anyway. An electrical engineer is sent to help with an experimental government project to develop the use of sound as a weapon, but whose leader has co-opted the project to investigate what he calls “Force Six” — essentially, the sixth sense, and its possibility of providing “the explanation of telepathy, precognition, and all the so-called psychic mysteries.” This project leader, James MacLean, also believes that “Force Six” is released as pure energy when we die. Unconcerned with the idea of “souls”, MacLean believes that by trapping and using that energy, “We shall have the answer at last to the intolerable futility of death.”

This mix of secret research, up-to-date electronic gadgetry, and psychic phenomena recalls Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972) and the episode of The Omega Factor (1979) which was also about the military use of sound. (And I can’t help wondering if it was one of these that inspired Kate Bush’s “Experiment IV” (1986), also about the military use of sound.) It’s a satisfying tale, and the BBC2 adaptation (which you can watch on YouTube), is a good take on it.

Daphne du Maurier’s short story/novella output is quite varied, ranging from crime to satire to some outright strangeness (as with “The Lordly Ones” from The Breaking Point in which — I can’t be sure — a boy runs away from his indifferent parents and is briefly adopted by some ponies). My favourite non-fantastic story of hers is, I think, “The Way of the Cross” (from Don’t Look Now and Other Stories), in which a mismatched bunch of pilgrims visit Jerusalem and suffer their own betrayals, redemptions and resurrections in the space of a hectic twenty four hours. But overall my favourites are, of course, the weird ones, and generally those that have been adapted: “The Birds”, “Don’t Look Now”, “The Breakthrough”, and, among the un-adapted, “The Pool” and “The Blue Lenses”. I think a good single-volume collection could be made from her weird fiction, but perhaps they’re better left where they are, as the strangeness of her strange tales seems all the stranger for being couched amongst her other, more normal — though never mundane — stories.

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