Wednesday 28 May 2014

Strange Story #21: Mortmain (Guest Post by MR Cosby)

Strange Story #21: Mortmain
Author: John 'Jack' Metcalfe
Collected In: Nightmare Jack & Other Tales

JE: Some time ago I was thinking about resurrecting the Strange Stories column with a series of guest posts. Unfortunately only one person ever actually completed a piece for me & so I forgot about the idea. Having just remembered that I never posted this piece by Martin Cosby I've posted it now... If anyone reading this has a strange story they'd like to write about on here, do get in touch. 

Martin's début collection, Dying Embers, is out now. So without further ado....

John Metcalfe, often known as 'Jack', lived a life as strange and enigmatic as many of his tales. Married to the manic-depressive novelist Evelyn Scott, they led an unlikely, globe-trotting and nomadic existence, until poverty and bad health intervened. Both their literary reputations declined over their years together; and after Evelyn's death, Metcalfe was left penniless and reliant upon the charity of friends until a fall led to his demise.

Nonetheless, in the midst of such a turbulent life he managed to write a number of novels which, despite critical acclaim and commercial success, have since disappeared without trace; and several collections of short stories, which almost managed the same fate. Luckily, Ash-Tree Press produced Nightmare Jack and other Stories in the late-1990s, thereby bringing his little-known short fiction back to print.

His best-known tale must be Nightmare Jack, famously judged by Robert Aickman to be "one of the finest supernatural tales in English literature", and included in his second Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (1966). Of similar stature are the much-anthologised Brenner's Boy, The Double Admiral, and The Bad Lands. All are masterpieces of creeping dread, creating both disturbing imagery and a cumulative sense of unease.

Mortmain (first published in his collection Judas in 1931) is typical of his best work and is surely influential; it's not just the subject matter that recalls Elizabeth Jane Howard's Three Miles Up from two decades later.

It starts as it means to go on. "In the cabin the rescued girl Salome, now his wife, was washing up the plates from supper." This juxtaposition of the intriguing alongside the everyday sums up the story. John Temple is on a boating holiday with his new wife, the recently widowed Salome; and despite both their best intentions, shadows of her previous marriage loom ever larger as the trip progresses. To begin with, the spectre of Salome's late husband Humphrey Child is embodied by the house they shared. 

"It must have stood within his view a quarter of an hour before he noticed it. From Penny Mile they had come dropping through the windless evening with the falling tide, and it had crept upon him unawares."

They leave the house behind, and make their way along the river. On the face of it, nothing could be more relaxing and familiar than the peaceful, easy rhythm of nature on the Hampshire coast, so familiar to them both. In contrast with this, however, is the rising sense of unease created by repeated sightings of what may or may not be the ghost of Humphrey Child's boat; a 'prestidigitating, pestilential hulk'. At first Temple tries to ignore the apparition, half-seen on distant moorings, hoping that his wife has not noticed its brooding presence. However, he soon realises that despite it being impossible, it cannot be ignored; and that Salome has been seeing it too, in fact more frequently than he.

By this time Salome's health seems to be deteriorating and Temple's state of mind is worsening. Nonetheless, she insists upon them persevering with their trip, and during the second week the sightings of Child's boat increase in frequency, getting relentlessly closer. Then, the encounters with the moths begin; and there can be no denying they are venturing recklessly into the land of the dead. Indeed, Temple's realisation that Salome's cannot resist the lure of Child's attraction from beyond the grave comes far too late. Is it too late for Temple too? 

I won't spoil the ending, but suffice to say the climax of this story is a triumph of the ambiguous story form, and must also be a pretty early example of such. As with most of Metcalfe's work, Mortmain is graced with economical yet beautiful descriptions of the featured landscape, under which lurks a more forbidding and at times frightening side to the natural world. The power comes from when and how this nether world bubbles to the surface.

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