Stories of the Strange and Sinister (Valancourt 20th Century Classics)

BOOK: Stories of the Strange and Sinister (Valancourt 20th Century Classics)
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FRANK BAKER

Stories of the Strange and Sinister

With a new introduction by

R. B. RUSSELL

VALANCOURT BOOKS

Dedication: For David Simeon

Stories of the Strange and Sinister
by Frank Baker

First published by William Kimber in
1983

First Valancourt Books edition
2016

‘Art Thou Languid?’ was first published in
At Close of Eve
edited by Jeremy Scott (Jarrolds,
1947
); ‘The Green Steps’ in
Cornish Harvest
(
1974
), ‘In the Steam Room’ in
Stories of the Macabre
(
1976
), ‘The Sack’ in
Stories of Horror
(
1977
), ‘The Chocolate Box’ in
Haunted Cornwall
(
1973
), and ‘Tyme Tryeth Troth’ in
Stories of the Supernatural,
(
1979
) all edited by Denys Val Baker and published by William Kimber.

Copyright ©
1983
by Frank Baker

Introduction ©
2016
by R. B. Russell

All rights reserved. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of
1976
, the copying, scanning, uploading, and/or electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitutes unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher.

Published by Valancourt Books, Richmond, Virginia

http://www.valancourtbooks.com

Cover by M. S. Corley

INTRODUCTION

It is not good enough to simply be a good writer. For an author to achieve any kind of recognisable literary success, be it critical or popular, contemporary or posthumous, so many planets must align that only the smallest percentage of authors will ever be literary stars. For Frank Baker the celestial bodies never quite lined up in the night sky, although they often came tantalisingly close.

At his best Frank Baker could write very well, with sympathetic and believable characters, an endearing lightness of touch and a quietly understated humour which means that his novel
Miss Hargreaves
(
1940
) is nothing less than a masterpiece. It is one of very, very few books that successfully combines humour and horror. (These elements almost always undermine each other.) With his title character, Frank Baker created a monster every bit as frightening and dangerous as the creation of Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein, yet Miss Hargreaves observes all the social niceties and even writes poetry reminiscent of Edward Lear. Literary astronomers would have noted that the inimitable Margaret Rutherford successfully played the part of Miss Hargreaves on the London stage; a casting match made in heaven. Had the Second World War not intervened then a classic British comedy might have been filmed that would have stood proudly alongside
A School for Scoundrels
or
The Ladykillers
, immortalising the name of Frank Baker. However, world events conspired against him, and the final planet refused to align.

In the second half of the twentieth century the big screen was a sure-fire way of reaching huge audiences and thereby selling books and gaining fame. Baker might have had a second chance if the planets had decided to take pity on him, but they didn’t: when Alfred Hitchcock decided to make
The Birds
he chose to adapt Daphne du Maurier’s
1952
short story, not Baker’s earlier novel of the same title. Baker was convinced that he had been cheated, for du Maurier’s story of avian attacks on humans is essentially the same as his. However, Baker was a musician at heart and often wrote his fiction in a minor key. This was a great counterpoint to the larger-than-life character of Miss Hargreaves, but it was not appropriate for
The Birds
. His ponderously-told novel meant that only a few hundred copies were sold, and Hitchcock inevitably alighted on du Maurier’s work rather than his. Baker could not argue with this, but he was convinced he had been plagiarised by du Maurier. The fact that she was the cousin of his publisher, Peter Davies, was not proof that would stand up in court, and with hindsight it appears unlikely to have happened the way he imagined. Baker’s sense of injustice seems to have temporarily caused him to forget that his own book was directly inspired by Arthur Machen’s
The Terror
, and if du Maurier had stolen Baker’s story, then credit for Hitchcock’s classic film should probably have gone to Machen.

There are elements in Baker’s writing that might have made for other memorable books, but they never quite coalesced harmoniously. For instance,
Allanayr
(reprinted as
Full Score
) tells the story of a minor composer and contains passages of quiet delight and beauty. It was the perfect subject matter for Baker, but his characters are pleasant under-achievers, and the book never quite transcends the mundanity of their lives and situations. While Oscar Wilde was in the gutter looking up at the stars, and Arthur Machen dreamed in fire but worked in clay, perhaps Frank Baker never quite set his sights high enough? (
Miss Hargreaves
was an exception, of course; a ‘force of nature’ who will have demanded of the author that her story be told.)

Stories of the Strange and Sinister
reflects both Baker’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer. He describes his fellow man with sympathy and understanding and makes him believable. In ‘Art Thou Languid?’ Baker’s depiction of the quiet tragedy of everyday life is understated but powerful, and the question of a haunting almost need not have arisen. At his best, Baker, like the author of
Lolly Willowes
, Sylvia Townsend Warner, makes the point that apparently ordinary people can be remarkable, and the finest story in this collection, ‘My Lady Sweet, Arise’ is a delightful fantasy that could have come from the pen of Warner at her most playful. It suggests that the ‘strange’, now called the ‘weird’, was perhaps Baker’s strength. He was, perhaps, less successful with his ‘sinister’ stories: ‘The Chocolate Box’ and ‘The Steam Room’ have a certain grim interest, but ‘The Sack’, which ought to offer a number of unnerving moments, is let down by the pun that appears at the beginning of the tale and is never quite shaken off.

But ‘Quintin Claribel’ may be the story that remains longest in the reader’s mind. It is quite absurd, but it has the plausibility of those nightmares that we never seem to wake up from soon enough. Perhaps it was the ‘absurd’ that was Baker’s métier, rather than the ‘strange’ or ‘sinister’, but even if Baker had realised this and had written more in this vein, one can’t help thinking that the planets would still have not done him any favours.

R. B. Russell

January
2016

R. B. Russell is an English author, born in Sussex, and the co-proprietor of the independent publishing house Tartarus Press, which he runs with his partner Rosalie Parker. He has had three collections of his own short stories published,
Putting the Pieces in Place
(
2009
),
Literary Remains
(
2010
) and
Leave Your Sleep
(
2012
); a novella,
Bloody Baudelaire
(
2009
), and a collected edition,
Ghosts
(
2012
).

I

The Green Steps

The man who sweeps the narrow twisting streets and alleyways in our village, is he human? Has he a story, has he past and future like other people? Or has he only the present? Is he time, sweeping away our withered illusions? – the drift and dross of our leaflike years, the potato parings, the tattered bits of old newspapers, envelopes, cigarette cartons, paid and unpaid accounts, drawn by his long stiff brush into the shovel and thus to the little cart to be wheeled away by him, as evening comes, to the rubbish dump, the waste land in a stony valley overhung by frowning, glowering woods behind the village.

Whenever I encounter him I think of the finger of fate, of something that awaits us all that we least expect, of a signpost on the moor when we cannot turn back. I think of the sad great songs of Schubert, and the tormented starlike innocence of Hans Andersen, of Don Quixote reborn without the desire to tilt at windmills. And yet he is a kindly man. One sees that at once. His long, lean, spindly figure; his shuffling, mincing gait; his knuckly, fumbling fingers; his thin nose and chin that seem to want to close like a pair of pincers; his opaque, chestnut-coloured eyes; his frostbitten fortitude – all these give an air of detached and consecrated beneficence. That man couldn’t hurt a fly, one would say. If a living fly were struggling on a flypaper in the road, and the stiff brush bristled towards it, the Scavenger would make a detour, avoiding the victim, and probably pick up the wounded fly, take it home, feed it, tend it, train it to understand the cruelty in the world and go out again, aware of flypapers and all that comes between flies and their heaven. That is the sort of man he is, you would say. And you guess that he has suffered much, seen much, seen some visions perhaps, knows many secrets, embraced scavenging as the last symbol of man’s destiny. Back to dust before his time this man seems to wish to go. Or is he working off a long penance, bowed down by an old crime against humanity?

This is more near to the truth, though not all of it; for this man was once a murderer. I have got his story and I will tell it to you.

I had observed him often and I had good reason to know where he lived, for it was very close to our cottage, up the cliff path, that bends sharply uphill over the harbour and the boatmasts that swing and sway in the gales; a path too narrow for any traffic, with rows of cottages, different sizes, shapes and colours, on one side. From the windows of our living-room which overlooks an area – a waste bit of land where kids keep rabbits in hutches and women dry clothes and men saw wood in the winter – I would often, and still often see, the Scavenger. Above the area there are steps, the Green Steps they are called, worn away dangerously, all uneven, ground by the feet of many generations, the stone crumbling, little weeds growing from the cracks. I’d always had a curious familiar feeling about the Green Steps; they brought back a hint of the past to me, a paragraph of my boyhood, as though I’d been there years ago; and I knew I hadn’t. Then, it seemed to me, it was just the name – the Green Steps – that carried some old memory I couldn’t place. Anyway, there Robert Starling the Scavenger lived, up the Green Steps; and on moonless nights, however familiar you were with those few steps (there are only about five, or seven; one can never count straight, they seem to change their number every day) you were likely to lose your footing and tumble backward, or forward. Up to a grassy hill-side sloped over harbour and sea and village roofs, the steps ascend; to a drying-ground where on Monday mornings pants and shirts and socks and pyjamas and overalls and exuberant nightdresses billow and flutter in the dry east wind; a happy place, where little boys play wild games of Touch and Bang-you’re-dead, and little girls nurse dollies and dress up like the Queen of Egypt. (I saw one once; she was swathed with bright-coloured stuffs pinched from an old drawer of Mother’s; a kid of about eight, and when I asked her who she thought she was, she said Cleopatra.)

These dangerous steps ascend between cottages built on all levels that overhang courtyards where the fishermen dry nets and make baskets from willows. A very narrow passageway it is; always something of an effort to get up there at night or when the rain gushes down and the wind slashes you round a corner. Every late afternoon when his job was finished, Robert Starling climbed up there and drifted down again in the very early morning to gather up another day’s débris. He lived in one of the cottages opening on to the passage, a very old place, with the rain streaming in where slates had clattered off the roof, slates that he himself swept next day into his little cart. It was when I watched him sweeping those slates of his, gathering up his own protection against the elements, that I first spoke to him. There was something grim and yet humorous about his expression, as though he knew just what he was doing. I talked about it having been a terrible wild night, to which he agreed; and I went on to say that he’d have to get into touch with his landlord to do something about the roof. To which he only shrugged his shoulders.

I made some inquiries. It appeared there wasn’t a landlord. Starling had taken over the cottage years and years ago from an old man whose wife had died and who didn’t want to use it any more. Then the old man had died in the workhouse, the children had emigrated, as Cornishmen do, far away to mines in search of gold; Starling lived on in the cottage, never paying any rent, and nobody bothered him. In our village people talk about you and invent tales about you; but ultimately they leave you alone. You can go to heaven or hell your own way, blow your nose on your sleeve or use the best silver teapot to shave from. Nobody really cares. We live on the sea and the sea blows into the harbour and over the walls in the high spring tides and seeps and sucks its way into the narrow streets. Plundering this sea, fishermen live perilous and precarious lives and nobody believes in that great civilized myth, Security. Everybody’s their own destiny, and if Robert Starling chose to live alone for twenty-five years in a two-roomed cottage that was slowly falling down, let him do so. Bob Starling was accepted as part of the village, and no more questions were asked about him.

But I wanted to know more. He tormented me, trudging so primly up the steps every late afternoon, so far away in a world of his own, like a figure in a story book come to life. So I asked our neighbour, Jack Williams, about him. Jack is a fisherman and there is little he doesn’t know about everybody, new or old, in the village. So when I said, ‘Jack, tell me something about old Bob Starling,’ out came a lot, but not enough, nothing quite hung together.

‘Oh, old Starling, he’m as mad as a hare, yet there’s nothing that man couldn’t do if he chose. I don’t know what he hasn’t done in days gone by. He’s drove the fish lorry into market, he’s served in shops, he’s done window-cleaning, rat-snaring, wood-chopping, house-painting, coal-heaving. Time was, he used to write signs and letters for they who couldn’t read nor write theirselves. Twenty-five years he’s lived up Green Steps. He’s got a room back there stacked with bits of paper full of fancy poems. Some of them was published, they do say. He had a woman once, pretty maid she were; but that were in his drinking days.’

‘Drinking days?’

‘Didn’t you know old Starling used to be the biggest raging thirst in the town? There was nothing he wouldn’t put away as a young man, crazy mad he used to get, shouting and swearing and singing up the steps. They say he’d fall on the paraffin can when nothing else was left. And all the time scribbling on bits of paper that used to flutter out of his pockets and drift about the square. Just words, he used to write. That man had more words in his head than the sea’s got fish. And he’d sing like a lark in they days, all the pretty old songs were ABC to him. Bob was a fine chap. But after he gone over cliff and landed up in the Infirmary, that were the end of en. He never drunk another drop and it didn’t do him no good either. It lost him his woman, for one thing. What was the maid called, now? Stella, that’s the name; and he used to call her his Star, said that was what the word meant. And she were like a star, too; shining, pretty, twinkling face she had, fit to break through any cloud in a man. But away she went and she’s never come back. If she’s alive and knows about him, I reckon if he were to start in on the drink again, she’d come back to en, she couldn’t help it.’

‘Did she drink too?’

‘Just a bit, to keep Bob company, never much. But she liked en drunk, everybody did like Bob drunk, you couldn’t help it. Even when he bashed her about a bit, she still loved en. Then one night, in one of his fits, he rushed up Green Steps – wild, roaring night it was, sea like heaving mountains over quay – he rushed up there like a whirlwind cursing black hell. He were chasing someone, he said. “I’ll kill you,” he was hollering, “I’ll bash your brains out, I’ll chuck you over cliff.” God knows who he thought he was after. Anyway, over the cliff, up Battery, he went; and how he didn’t break himself into little pieces isn’t reasonable; but he didn’t. I reckon Stella would’ve been glad, in a sense, if he had. He broke his leg and arm and bruised and cut himself something terrible, and had to be dragged up with ropes by the coastguard and me and other chaps. Took us all night. He’d landed twenty feet down on a bit of jutting-out rock; another inch and he’d have gone a hundred and fifty feet to the bottom and that’d been the finish of Bob Starling. But he were lucky. He spent about six months up to the Infirmary, and when he come back to Stella he were as quiet as Sunday morning. “I killed en,” he kept saying. “I finished en off, Stella. He’m gone for ever.” Poor maid couldn’t make sense of en. No more strong drink for he. No more of they songs and poems. Job after job he takes and comes slinking home with his pay-packet till Stella could scream. Never any fun like the old days. That’s why she left en. She was a high-spirited maid and wasn’t born to bide with angels.’

‘Wait a bit, wait a bit!’ I cried. I had been half listening, half following another train of thought in my mind. And now at last I understood the significance (for me) of the Green Steps. Going to a cupboard in my study where I keep piles of old literaries and periodicals, I searched for what I wanted: copies of the
London Alchemist
for
1923
-
4
.

‘You say,’ I said, ‘that he published some of these poems of his?’

‘So they did say. There were lots of writing chaps around here in those days, chaps with beards and coloured shirts. And Bob were one of them.’

‘Did he ever call himself
Robin
Starling?’

‘Not Robin. No. It were always Bob.’

‘Ah!’ I gave an exclamation of triumph. I had found the poem that had so vaguely yet so significantly lurched back into my mind, lines that I had read years ago as a schoolboy. ‘The Green Steps,’ it was called. It was about a scavenger who ‘feeds on wasted vision’. And it was by Robin Starling.

Well, I said to myself, when Jack Williams had gone presently and I pondered over the strange lines of this forgotten old poem of the neo-Georgians – tantalizing as it is to play with the idea that this queer old scavenger is Robin Starling grown old – it just will not do. For Robin Starling, a brief and brilliant voice in the early twenties, had died almost before his evocative lyricism had had time to linger in the ear. By only a few present-day critics would even his name be remembered. And probably not one poem of about a dozen that got published in various literaries of the period would now be recalled by anybody. Except me? Was I the only person who had been moved by ‘The Green Steps’? And had lingered over it in my boyhood, feeling that it had a special meaning for me that I only half understood? I had come across no other lines by this poet; he had quite gone out of my mind; and now returned by the strangest coincidence – that he bore almost the same name and wrote about the Green Steps – and a scavenger.

But was this coincidence? I couldn’t, of course, let it rest here. Robin Starling was dead, that was pretty certain. For now I recalled a brief obituary notice about him, that I couldn’t find in any of my old magazines. But, Jack Williams had said, the Bob Starling of twenty-five years ago had written poems; and he had tumbled over a cliff, apparently under the illusion that he was chasing somebody.
Had it been an illusion?
Had this old scavenger really been chasing somebody up the Green Steps that dark wild night of twenty-five years ago? Had he – ?

Innumerable questions. The beginning of an exciting quest. All simplified, you might say, by direct questions to the man himself. Not so. For you could not get beyond that amber-like glint in his eyes, and never any more than a few words would he mutter to you, always courteous, always humble, but about as talkative as a Trappist monk in Holy Week.

I thought about it endlessly. I read and re-read the strange, sad, yet exciting poem. Not a very good poem as we would think now. It made sense and it rhymed; but it said far more under its simple words than a first reading made clear. Was I to believe that this was not the work of the old man himself? A room stacked with manuscripts, Jack Williams had said; and literary high-yap in the twenties, coloured shirts and beards and Bloomsbury gone wild as Bloomsbury does once it goes west.

Two burning questions. How had ‘Robin Starling’ died? And – had ‘Bob Starling’ actually been chasing somebody up those steps?

The first question was easily answered. I wrote to a friend of mine, a critic whose pleasure it is to ponder over the oddities of literature – the forgotten ones who find their unlamented way into the Charing Cross Road book troughs. What could he tell me about Robin Starling?

The answer was terrifyingly what I had expected. Starling, after spending the early years of his life wandering about France and England, a sort of Villon with ever a rabble of noisy scoundrels at his heels, and ever a woman to worship him, had written a handful of verse. Like Rimbaud he had become a flame, rapidly to die out, yet kindle other sleeping fires. The last two years of his life, said my friend, he had spent in the West of England. ‘You should know all about him’ (I quote from his letter), ‘since he lived in your village and gathered a rusty-fusty greenery-yallery crew around him. He went the whole hog with drink and had, I believe, one faithful woman who loved him; dead now, probably like him. His death was “correct”. Dead drunk, he ran up a steep cliff path and smashed himself to bits two hundred feet below. That was the story put round by a brother of his, anyway; and this brother had the handling of some poems published – only in the literaries – shortly after his death; I believe he wrote one critical article in praise of his work in a thing I now can’t trace, an ephemera of the middle twenties. Then the brother seems to have gone silent, and all Starling’s rackety set came to nothing. Starling’s was a brief, but certain trumpet note that died in the air before anyone heard it properly. You should make it your business to discover all you can about him. For all we know he might have left a mass of work behind him that should see the light. Does the brother still live, I wonder?’

BOOK: Stories of the Strange and Sinister (Valancourt 20th Century Classics)
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