And, with this entry, David Hambling gets his own separate post even when appearing in an anthology.
Review: “A Question of Blood”, David Hambling, 2016.
This is another of Hambling’s Norwood tales set in that area of South London in the 1920s though it doesn’t, as far as I could tell, have any links to his Harry Stubbs’ stories or the stories in The Dulwich Horror and Other Stories.
Hambling often takes off on other stories, and here there is, right off the bat, a quote from H. P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Reanimator”. There are also nods to Edgar Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” and Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”. And the setup is a kind of darker version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy.
Our narrator is Paul Pennywell, age 21. Upon reaching the age of majority, he got a letter from his solicitor revealing who his grandfather is: a wealthy man named Beaumont living in Norwood.
Upon entering the house, Paul sees a portrait of someone looking very much like his father, Mark Beaumont. But its subject is Matthew Beaumont, Paul’s uncle.
Led into his grandfather’s study, Paul does not find a warm reunion. His grandfather, possessing the air of an Old Testament prophet, is not happy to see Paul and did not ask to see him.
We then get some family history. Matthew was Mark’s twin, born half an hour earlier and, therefore, heir to the estate. But Matthew died without issue at the Battle of Cambrai. Beaumont questions Paul on his drinking, gambling, and sex habits and concludes he did good by sending Paul away to Canada and that, if he continues farming in a good Christian community, he will be all right.
We then learn the letter the solicitor passed on to Paul was from his mother, long dead, and written for him. She died in a hospital for the “morally defective”. Paull is well aware that his parents were married very soon before he was born.
Beaumont tells Paul his father was a coward, a wastrel, a gambler, a thief, a drunkard, a whoremonger, and a heathen. After Matthew died in the war, it was Mark’s job to produce a legitimate heir, and Beaumont found a wife for his wayward son, a girl from a good family. Beaumont then rants on about blood with various allusions to the Bible and agriculture. Mark, resentful at the attention paid to his elder brother, was a sullen, rebellious youth, but the newest Beaumont, young Matthew, is from good stock and fit to inherit the Beaumont title.
Paul is half-caste, and he’s not getting any Beaumont money. He’d best go back to Canada. Beaumont did the best he could for him and that’s that, and Paul is dismissed.
Stunned, Paul starts to leave, but then he meets his Aunt Florence, his father’s sister, who also lives in the house. She is much kinder.
From her, Paul learns that his father ran off with a serving girl (hardly the harlot of the elder Beaumont’s accusation) for six months. When she became pregnant, the two married. While they were together, Mark was hopeless at providing an income, but Paul’s mother found work.
After Paul was born, he was placed in an orphanage. Mark’s father “reeled him in”, and his mother was institutionalized as “morally insane” for the crime of supposedly seducing a young gentleman. She died a few months later. Florence, childless and unmarried, wanted to care for Paul but her father forbade it. Paul was placed in a Norwood orphanage and eventually sent to live with a family in Canada.
The elder Beaumont, by paying off her family’s debts, secured a bride for Mark. However, she didn’t become pregnant. Assuming something was wrong with Mark, Beaumont sent Mark to a doctor for the Voronoff Process. (This was a real procedure done in the 1920s by Dr. Serge Voronoff and involved grafting monkey testicles unto human testicles to rejuvenate and extend life and increase potency. It’s even featured in an Arthur Conan Doyle story. This was done before the discovery of testosterone.)
The operation seemed to work. Mark’s wife got pregnant, but he died before the child was born. Florence wanted to raise the child, but her father thought she would mollycoddle him, so the servants raise Matthew. And not well says Florence since he suffers from many accidents. Florence tells Paul there is a whole bunch of books on the Voronoff Process in the library. Paul is briefly introduced to young Matthew who wants to know, when told he’s Paul’s half-brother, what the other half is.
Florence finds a place for Paul in servant Tommy’s room. Beaumont is not to be told Paul is still in the house until Florence talks to him.)
Tommy is an affable fellow. While he can understand why Paul wanted to be in London rather than Canada, he says Paul is better off without the Beaumont family.
Young Matthew has a tail, a tail which grows back even after amputation. Servants have caught him reading a disgusting book in the library, a filthy book with pictures of animals and things. Young Matthew’s mother died giving birth to the child. When suckling a wet nurse, young Matthew bit her, and she later died of septic infection. Beaumont lectures young Matthew on the Bible all the time, but it’s not going to do any good.
While they are sleeping, Tommy is bitten by what seems to be a snake bite. Paul thinks of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”. Would Beaumont really resort to killing Paul?
The commotion wakes the servants up, but no snake is found. We don’t know what happens to Tommy because then Paul suddenly gets the idea to sneak into the Beaumont library. There he comes across a book with an innocuous sounding title, Some Account of the Burial Places of the Early Christians in Rome, which is actually filled with obscene and violent pictures including men, women, witches, and demons having sex. Though not stated, this is presumably Mark’s book and the reason for his father claiming he was a heathen.
Pennywell also finds several books on the Voronoff Process including an ad from the doctor Mark got his treatment from. The doctor thanks one Dr. Herbert West for his contribution to the work and talks about the benefits of using material from sphinx lizards rather than cells. Said sphinx lizards have amazing regenerative powers that extend way beyond just growing their tails and are nearly extinct given their place in Chinese medicine. (One of the things I like about Hambling’s fiction is his use of real science. However, I haven’t, in a quick internet search, established sphinx lizards are real.)
Then the sinister young Matthew, naked, shows up. He does have a long tail and other oddities. His skin is squamous in parts with diamonds and triangles patterns. His hips are irregular. His legs are mismatched. One even has an extra joint between thigh and knee. The other leg splits in two between knee and ankle and then rejoins.
And Paul sees other oddities suggesting Matthew’s final shape still is taking form. He seems “the child of some other deity”. Matthew scorns and says he’ll be blamed for what happened to Tommy. Paul protests they don’t have to fight.
Yes, they do, the creature replies. It’s in the Bible. Cain, the son of a coupling between Eve and a serpent, had the Mark of Cain and had to drink his brother Abel’s blood. Paul protests that’s not in the Bible. Matthew says that Paul, like his grandfather, is stupid and doesn’t know the real Bible. He says the strong drink the blood of the weak, and God won’t stop that because he can’t.
At this point, Paul wonders if the book in the library has corrupted Matthew’s soul like the Vornoff Process corrupted his body. Or is it something worse? This is a nice hint that something supernatural is going on, that Mark’s interest in the occult corrupted his soul, and passed that inheritance on to his son.
Paul thinks about setting Matthew on fire with a candle. He seems to fear fire.
But he really doesn’t. Matthew blows out the candle and heads for Paul, and there the story ends.
I will point out something not often commented on this sort of ending. It’s become a literary convention in modern horror that narrator’s get to relate their thoughts right up to some horrible fate and do it without the older convention of leaving some record behind. It’s less plausible, but, as I said, it’s a convention that is common now.
I like a couple of things about this story.
First, the phrase “blood will tell” is never, that I recall, used in the story, but that’s certainly elder Beaumont’s position, and it’s a position that horrifies most modern readers. And, of course, Beaumont’s point is not true regarding Paul. But it is true in the one area Beaumont’s blind about, his other grandson. It’s a nice reversal of expectations. It turns out that, as per the elder Beaumont, blood will tell – just not in the way expected.
Perhaps this story partakes of some of the ambivalence of a Hambling column in Fortean Times a few years ago on whether research in human genetics’ influence on personality and intelligence is a good thing. Certainly, many a modern person, despite the evidence, would rather not venture beyond their island of placid ignorance and discover that, yes, blood – genetic inheritance – does often tell in things like personality and intelligence.
Second, I liked how Hambling gives us two types of inheritance for young Matthew: that weird regeneration from sphinx lizards and a moral corruption from, perhaps, something outside our world.