Impressed by his story in Scottish Stories of Fantasy and Horror, I picked up this collection by John Keir Cross.
Low Res Scan: The Other Passenger, John Kier Cross, 1944, 2017.
This collection is not entirely horror or weird stories. Many of them deal with people in the arts, particularly music, and they are often written by a narrator claiming to be untutored in the art of writing an account of their experiences. The stories often seemingly digress and move back and forth in time, but Cross always ends his stories by satisfyingly tying everything together.
The collection has a quite deliberate order of stories, and there are links between some of them, so I’ll be looking at them in order. All of these stories first appeared in this volume.
J. F. Norris’ “Introduction” to the Valancourt Books edition is useful. This was not Cross’ first book, but his previous ones were children’s books under the name Stephen MacFarlane – the man “now dead” that Cross dedicated the collection to. Cross was an influential figure. Arthur C. Clarke said Cross was the first professional writer he knew. Ramsey Campbell credits Cross’ Best Horror Stories anthology as shaping his view of the genre. After this book was published, Cross was a scriptwriter for the BBC and adapted many other author’s stories to acclaim.
I’ve already looked at “The Glass Eye”.
“Petronella Pan” is a creepy story about a vain woman that, to remain the center of attention, has chemically kept her daughter in the physical (though not mental) state of an infant for 30 years via chemical means. Like many Cross stories, it’s a twice-told story, and the narrator, who doesn’t like babies and goes on a riff about how innocent seeming babies grow up to become grotesque moral or physical monsters, gets the story from his sentimental German-Scottish friend Konrad who has been judging baby contests for thirty years. There is a nice bit with the baby seemingly reading Proust in her baby carriage. The mother’s former husband was a brilliant chemist, and she learned enough of his job to make the necessary formula. Cross wrings some horror out of Christ’s line “unless you become as children”.
Cross’s sardonic wit and knack for twist endings is on display in “The Last of the Romantics”. The narrator tells his “Darling, Patsy” that he will dump her one day and that he likes corrupting her. To prove the point, he tells the story of an old man they see dining alone every night. We hear about a love triangle that ends very badly indeed. Cross is pretty explicit about the idea behind a lot of his fiction in this book and a feature of most of his stories – the mystery of motives:
There’s always one part of the story, you know, Patsy, when you can only speculate. The things we can never really understand – not one of us – are human motives.
“Clair de Lune” centers on the question of motives also, specifically why does Hector, a man so obsessed with exercise and a proper diet, who documents the personal details of both, commit suicide? I liked how Cross brought in descriptions of the bohemian leftist set of the 1930s and their progressive causes, rustic arts, and faddish obsessions regarding food. And there is a real mystery about the Black People the narrator’s girlfriend sees and their relationship to Hector’s death. There is also a winsome quality as the narrator thinks back to the girl who is more vivid in his mind than all the people he spends time with in the story. Debussy’s titular piece of music brings the memories back to him. The story ends on a firm renunciation of knowledge by the narrator: “It is all past. I know nothing.”
“Absence of Mind” is an amusing character study and puncturing of a trait more prevalent now than when Cross wrote this story: gaining status by publicizing one’s shortcomings and weaknesses. Here the heroine, Mrs. Carpenter, is always reveling in her bad memory. It’s not really that bad, but it does get her into trouble, and her inner angst is well depicted.
“Hands” is another story built around the mysteries of human motivation. John Neville teaches school in a Scottish town. He’s been there for three years, dissatisfied with his “lifeless and untidy” existence. Two teachers have seniority over him at the school’s English Department. Neither he likes though he can tolerate Grant and his fat wife. Hamden is overbearing to the point of throwing things at Neville. The story charts Neville’s interest in Miss Tainish, a teacher of modern languages at the school and Neville’s disintegration into sudden violence. And, yes, the title does hint what that violence is.
“Another Planet” depicts dissociative states caused by both love and grief. Lily and Harry both have a sexual past before they meet. Harry may not be noticeably different in looks than any other man Lily has met, but, for her, he seems to live on another planet. The two engage in some pretty low-class behaviors: being “very intimate at the foot of the stairs and in other dark corners”. Harry likes to say “bitch” a lot. However, while Lily has heard and done it all before, it seems magically different this time. While she is with Harry, “everything were happening on another planet”. But things take a stark turn when Harry exits the story, and a sad end awaits Lily.
Allusions to music again show up in “Liebstraum” with its title coming from a Franz Liszt composition. It’s the well-done and melancholic tale of Mackenzie, a middle-aged man hoping he has, perhaps, found love in his life. The story begins with his marriage of 11 years to Bella. They have no children, and there is no real love between them. Bella has an affair – which Mackenzie knows about, but he won’t confront her because that would be an embarrassing scene. After both Bella and her lover die, Mackenzie moves into a rooming house. At age 41, he makes the acquaintance, via his landlady, of 16-year-old Jessie Dean. Mackenzie is smitten with her and hopes, in his own shy way, to court her that she may be his. There is not only a satirical note but a sad one too in Mackenzie reading various self-improvement books full of vocabulary lessons and trivia useful in conversation. Cross really takes you into Mackenzie’s mind. It doesn’t always perceive things as they are, right down to his sad and confused end.
Cross had a knack for portraying the pretensions of artists yet still making them sympathetic and that’s true of “Miss Thing and the Surrealist”. The narrator passes himself off as a friend of Cross (“a devilish queer friend of mine”) and also makes reference to another story in the collection. He looks back at his days hanging out with surrealists in London. Most have now abandoned their pretensions and snarling at the world with what they mistakenly took to be wit. But one, Kolinsky, the surrealist of the title, did have real talent. Miss Thing is not a woman but Kolinsky’s home and studio with bits of female anatomy (breasts, hands) in it serving as functional devices or mere decoration. Unexpectedly, Kolinksy marries a woman named Vera. Vera rather annoys Kolinsky’s friends because she conquers them by accepting them. She isn’t shocked or censorious, and she genuinely loves Kolinsky and cares for him. And, thinks the narrator, Kolinsky loves her. But then, one day, Vera makes an awful discovery. Another Cross tale on the mysteries of human motivations.
Several of the stories in this collection make reference to music, and the composer Frederic Chopin is at the center of “Valdemosa”. It’s a character study with little of the macabre though the tubercular Chopin provides plenty of life’s common miseries and horrors. The story is about Chopin and his lover George Sand (and her children) and their stay in Majorca in 1839. The story concludes the collection’s Part One, “Portraits”.
“Amateur Gardening” opens Part Two, “Mysteries”. This story has lots of references to art, particularly music and the works of Mahler and Wagner. But it is also full of macabre humor. All through the story we hear about a headless body and a “trunk murder”. What that has to do with our narrator Dennis and his old girlfriend Jenny is the story.
“The Little House” is a prime example of a Cross story skillfully told by a narrator who insists he’s no writer. The Scottish content is heavy in this one with Cross describing his fellow countrymen as sentimental and taking their pleasures solemnly: “they must circumscribe themselves with rules and regulations”. The narrator is an insurance agent who, in the opening two sentences, says he hates what money does to people. He relates two incidents. One is paying out weekly checks to a man suffering from silicosis and watching him get weaker and weaker and then his wife picking up checks and then him dying. The second is the main story about the unpleasant couple and their daughter whom he must rent a room from on a business trip.
In “Esmeralda” we hear
People never do things for the reasons they think they do – do they? It’s always something else – something nagging on in the background.
While not a explicitly Freudian story, it deals with the images and fantasies and motives in the background of our protagonist Mr. Broome. The story only starts with Broome murdering his wife after 15 years of unhappy marriage, the 45 year old Broome impulsively strangles his wife Nancy to death one night while she’s asleep. The murder is undiscovered. It’s mostly about a conciliatory fantasy that Broome has carried in his head about Esmeralda, the 13 year old child he never had. Broome has conflated several incidents from his child to create the fantasy of Esmeralda, and they are related to Nancy’s murder. He’s an indecisive man in everything but that murder. Perhaps Cross means us to see Broome as a man very influenced by the random events of his past. We hear a lot about Broome’s sexual encounters before marriage. All seemed to have been initiated by women. Cross, however, doesn’t explain them. Is Broome just that appealing to women? It doesn’t appear so at this stage of his life. Is Cross working against sexual stereotypes with all these women taking advantage of Broome?
“Cyclamen Brown” is a long, chatty, twice told story about the sleazy world of London entertainment with explicit drug use, violence, sex, mobsters, and a reference to an abortion. (I suspect it may have been a bit shocking in its day.) The story is mostly told by John Summers aka Eddie Wheeler, a noted songwriter approaching the end of his life. He tells us a story to the narrator to illustrate that people are “queer”. You have to accept them as they are and that, contrary to what the narrator says, show business people do have morals, they are just odd morals rather hard to understand to an outsider. Wheeler relates the story of the beautiful Cyclamen Brown. These days she always wears a mask because her face got cut up. How that happened and what her two lovers had to do with it is the main story. I especially liked this story even if it has no weird or supernatural elements.
“Couleur de Rose” is the title of the first book Charles Hagerman ever published. Infuriatingly, for his brother Adrian, he did it at the age of 18. Andrian is very bitter about all those decades where his mother paid more attention to Charles than Adrian. But Charles is dead now, and Adrian is free at last.
“The Lovers” is a jokey “ghost” story with a concluding punchline that depends on the ignorance of the narrator, an electrician working in Scotland in the early days of its electrification. He goes on a service call for a man and meets his silent wife. The man starts acting weirdly when it’s suggested that some of the lights in the house could be fixed for better lighting.
“The Other Passenger” provides a strong conclusion to the collection. It’s a moody, sophisticated doppelganger tale which may, though it’s not certain, end in murder. Our narrator is John Aubrey Spenser, a pianist. He plays Chopin and there are references to the earlier story “Valdemosa”. Spenser gives us evidence that he has a doppelganger that controls “every deepest action and speaks through us in every fateful announcement”. It is the “Other Passenger”, “the Man on the Back, the Secret Sharer”. This is another Cross story where the idea of causality in explaining human motivations is questioned: “But what’s a cause? – and where does it begin or end?” There’s another passage that puts forth Cross’ aesthetic about the importance of incident:
What matters isn’t what happens or when it happens, it’s the accumulation of things . . . What matters isn’t what happens or what is said or even felt – it’s the sense from the whole, the smell of it.
Here that sense is that however much Spenser hates his doppelganger, it is because it does things he wishes he could do. That includes making the world notice Spenser and all he suffered when young.
This is justly considered a classic collection. It’s a pleasing group of mysteries of the heart, the macabre, mordant humor, and sophisticated in its stories.