Not long ago I forked out a larger amount of cash than I am normally willing to in order to get a cheaper Tartarus Press book. Tartarus are a small British press specializing in supernatural and horror fiction, generally of the kind that is distinguished by its subtlety, ambiguity, and literate prose. Walter de la Mare, L.P. Hartley, Hope Hodgson, Arthur Machen, Hugh Walpole, Edith Wharton, and the Great One Himself, Robert Aickman, have all been put back into print by them, often in their signature beautiful cream-yellow dust jackets. I would have preferred to get their Marcel Schwob, but what ended up being most affordable was Nugent Barker’s Written with My Left Hand. I had read his poetic ghost story “Whessoe” (1928) in Richard Dalby’s The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories, and the masterfully tense “Curious Adventure of Mr. Bond” (1939) in one of the Hitchcock anthologies edited by Robert Arthur. The ad-copy written by Tartarus for the collection extols Barker’s versatility, and on this front, I was not disappointed, but somewhat contrarily wish he had erred more to one side of things – the gruesome – than the lighter, de la Mare-ish fantasies of sweeping lawns and dreaming widows and vases that levitate and interior thoughts that exteriorize themselves in ways visible only to readers who comb their texts with a fine hand.
The best tales in the de la Mare style tend to be those that run themselves, like the pedipalps of some dream spider, over your scalp so quietly and quickly than you don’t even notice them immediately, but react a second later, stirring uneasily in your chair, waving a hand up to slap at something that isn’t even there. You don’t actually get out of your chair, no, these stories are just too fucking quiet for that, that would not quite be middle class and dignified enough. And you might spill your pipe on the floor! And then the char woman would have to come in and clean it up, and honestly, she’s too busy staring into barren hearths and wishing she were in a Gothic novel to do that sort of chore this late. At their best, such stories (and it’s not fair, really, to pin their origin on Mr. de la Horse, others preceded him) are just as good as straightforwardly weird or surreal fiction in leading the reader with clammy hand to a bizarre, medicated, early-morning hallucination. They’re both insubstantial and airy at the same time as they are porridge-thick. Nothing might have happened, but it’s one hell of a nothing to chew on. Stories like Mr. Horse’s “A Mote,” Madeline Yale Wynn’s “The Little Room,” John Metcalfe’s “The Feasting Dead” (rather belies the title), Wharton’s “All Souls’,” Robert M. Coates’ “The Hour Before Westerley,” Barry Pain’s “The Diary of a God,” Chris Massie’s “A Fragment of Fact,” all do this.
When they are not good, Christ are they ever boring.
The obscure Barker (1888-1955) does run the gamut, although as I said, not focusing enough on his strengths. “Stanley Hutchinson,” about a talking pig and his demise and ghostly return, reads like a folk tale. It, like a handful of other tales, is written in a British dialect I am unfamiliar with. I have no clue how capable Barker was of phonetically rendering speech, but sometimes it sounds similar to American southern dialects:
It was whispered all over the place how the fat things should ought to grow up into swine of a special grandeur, seeing that their father was hisself a well-mannered pig, though his ways was less dentical than their mother’s, I reckon.
Barker dabbles in the conte cruel, delivering “The Six,” a concise and competent piece that ends in a just-barely telegraphed shocker of an ending, which is so dry that it runs the risk of bursting into flame. “Interlude,” one of the high points here, provides a more surreal take on the strange-tale tradition. A stranger comes into a sea-side town that seems to have become so lethally uninteresting it might as well have stopped time. People linger in the cafe, doing very little. The hallways smell stuffy, carafes hold the same stale water, wallpaper curls. The stranger sits down next to a local and shows him a box he has brought with him. The stranger invites him outside for a walk and opens the box, aiming it out at the water beyond. A patch of unearthly brilliant sunlight, the only sun in the gray town, appears on the sluggish waves. The stranger then takes the box into a department store and to an outdoor auditorium, each time bringing the box’s ability to summon light into the dreary town. Finally, somehow disillusioned and disheartened, the stranger sits on a beached boat with the narrator/local, and says to himself, repeating it as if lost, “All things run back into the sea.” Then, Barker relates in a matter of fact manner:
He plunged his head into the box, and died of the sunstroke.
What all of this means is, of course, uncertain, although that last image is reminiscent of de la Mare’s “The Riddle,” where the children climb into the old trunk and shut the lid over themselves, never to be seen again. There is a weak character study of a Spanish capitalist tycoon in “The Spurs.”. The domestic tale “Out of Leading Strings” struck me as is impenetrable in its banality, but might hold more than a first reading (from a mediocre reader) allows. “Gertie McNamara” is a middling tale of a coven of rural witches, livened up by Barker’s flair in describing spell recipes. A number of tales fall into this category of being lightweight and easily toppled over.
Darker in tone, and much more successful, is “Mrs. Sayce’s Guy.” Another British tale set on Guy Fawkes’ day, it is an atmospheric and cleverly written narrative. It begins in early morning, and Barker gives a wonderful picture of the scene:
The November wind had sobbed all night over Hannibal Terrace as though its heart were breaking. But dawn put an end to the monotonous sound, smiling at first, a little wanly, into those squalid windows, and eventually packing the narrow street with mist, and roofing the mist with a sulphur-coloured sky. Later, on to this shadowy daylight a back door was opened, and Mrs. Sayce stood, dimly visible at the head of her yard, clutching at a plaid shawl and earnestly passing her tongue over her lips:
She could hear the voices of her neighbours. The dark morning seemed to invest each one of them with a peculiar detachment: the voice of Mrs. Parslow; the voice of Molly Gunn; Lizzy Dixon’s querulous outcry; the measured, mournful tones of Thomas Cooling; Macquisten’s brutal laughter; Nancy Tillit, Arthur Tillit’s widow, calling stridently to Lily and Jack; the united, youthful clamor of the Glydds; Henry Glazer’s mincing, almost gentlemanly accents; the quick, high, frequent giggle of Edie MacKatter.
Barker’s writing is keen throughout as we follow Mrs. Sayce on her doomed journey through the English city and countryside in the early, sulphurous morning, carrying a heavy Guy Fawkes effigy for reasons which remain dark for us until the end. Barker’s shrewd sense of simile and his handle of metaphors credibly grown from the tale’s environment really shine here. It appeared in a Gawsworth anthology in 1934, and should have appeared in others since then.
After the bloody and humorous “Curious Adventure of Mr. Bond” (which I might do a separate entry on), the crown of the collection is “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.” After a single read, I’m not really sure what in the hell it means. But it makes excellent use of the creepiness of old nursery rhymes that went adrift in the folk stream over the years and washed up on the shore of the present fairly incomprehensible and haggard, mumbling things to us which make little sense, in a breath of staleness and sawdust. It seems that Barker decided to construct a story around the titular limerick, which goes:
One, two, buckle my shoe
Three, four, shut the door
Five, six, pick up sticks
Seven, eight, lay them straight
Nine, ten, a big fat hen
Eleven, twelve, dig and delve.
This counting rhyme more or less holds the plot of the tale. The insistent meter ensnares the narrator into a fatalistic reenactment of an event that happened many years prior, and the innocuous rhymes become encumbered with sinister weight. This is a theme that has been done a number of times, but not with the same effect achieved here. Like Edward Lucas White’s “Lukundoo,” what begins as a conventional fireside frame tale becomes something unexpected. I’m reminded of the late guitarist Harry Taussig, who had a record he titled “Fate is Only Once”; in the realm of “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe,” fate can be many times over. This piece, “Curious Adventure,” “Mrs. Sayce’s Guy,” and “Interlude” pack a strong punch in a lesser known writer’s bibliography, but unfortunately the rest of the tales do not have their same dark intensity of vision. Nonetheless, these four deserve to be celebrated.