“The Cold Flame”

A much-delayed look at this week’s weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing’s The Weird Tradition group.

Review: “The Cold Flame”, Joan Aiken, 1969. 

Like Jorge Luis Borge’s “The Aleph”, the last weird fiction I looked at, this story also features a poet. In addition, it features a troubled child-parent relationships extending beyond death. 

The story is narrated by Ellis who gets a phone call at 3 AM from her friend Patrick. Patrick apologizes saying that, where he is, it’s “only half-past something”. Where is he, asks the narrator?

Then she remembers. Patrick is dead. He fell into the crater of a volcano after lying on its lip as he composed a poem. Patrick was a poet, or, at least, said he was. No one ever saw any of his poems when he lived though he claimed they were “very good indeed”. 

Post-mortem, Patrick wants his poems published and tells Ellis where they are. Since she was a “little in love” with the charming Patrick when he lived, she says she’ll get them. However, she warns Patrick that no publisher may want them. Patrick isn’t worried about that. 

The poems are stored near a portrait of Patrick’s mother by the now famous painter Chapdelaine. Patrick commissioned the work as a birthday present for his mother seven years ago though she refused it, judging it hideous. As a last resort, if no publisher will take Patrick’s work, the painting can be auctioned off and the proceeds used to publish his poems. Ellis protests she must get some sleep and thinks “what a good thing it was they hadn’t got direct dialing yet between this world and the next”. 

Ellis goes to get the poems from Patrick’s apartment but is told his mother, Mrs. O’Shea, already picked them up. Patrick calls again, and Ellis tells him the news. “The woman’s a vulture”, he says. Ellis will have “the devil’s own job” getting the poems from her. Ellis suggests he call his mother.

You don’t understand! For one thing, I couldn’t get near her. For another, she has this grudge against me; when I gave up going home it really dealt her a mortal blow. It’d give her the most exquisite pleasure to thwart me. 

Ellis will have to get the poems by going to Clayhole, the O’Shea residence, tomorrow. Then the call is disconnected. 

Ellis is curious to meet Patrick’s mother. 

Before the breach she was the most wonderful mother in the world, fun, pretty, sympathetic, witty—while after it, no language had been too virulent to describe her, a sort of female Dracula, tyrannical, humourless, blood-sucking. 

Mrs. O’Shea turns out to be

a small, pretty Irishwoman, her curling hair a beautiful white, her skin a lovely tea-rose pink, her eyes the curious opaque blue that goes with a real granite obstinacy. One odd feature of her face was that she appeared to have no lips; they were so pale they disappeared into her powdered cheeks. I could see why Patrick had never mentioned his father. Major O’Shea stood beside his wife, but he was a nonentity: a stooped, watery-eyed, dangling fellow, whose only function was to echo his wife’s opinions. 

The house is well-furnished and elegant but also “achingly, freezingly cold”. 

Ellis explains her contact with the dead Patrick and how highly she always felt of him. His mother says nothing and doesn’t seem surprised. “My family is psychic, however; this kind of thing is not unusual. What did Patrick want to say?”  She explains Patrick wants his poems published. 

It turns out that mom has bundled the poems into a stack about a foot tall, wrapped an old sweater around them, and is using them as a footstool. 

But, argues Ellis, Parrick is anxious to see his work in print. “And I’m not at all anxious they should be published” is his mother’s reply. 

Mrs. O’Shea had three lines of argument: first, that no one in her family had ever written poetry, therefore Patrick’s poems were sure to be hopeless; second, that no one in her family had ever written poetry and, even in the totally unlikely event of the poems being any good, it was a most disreputable thing to do; third, that Patrick was conceited, ungrateful, and self-centered, and it would do him nothing but harm to see his poems in print. 

And she doubts any publisher would want them anyway. Has she read the poems, asks Ellis? “Heavens, no! . . . I’ve no time for such rubbish.” And she doubts anyone will risk money to publish them. 

Ellis explains Patrick’s proposal to sell the portrait which his mother now has as well. Of the painting, Ellis says it was a “merciless job” and captured Mrs. O’Shea’s looks and mien. Mr. O’Shea seems keen about the idea of selling the portrait, but, of course, he has to defer to his wife. Predictably, she refuses. Ellis loses her temper and leaves. 

A flat tire on the way back forces her to stop at the nearby village. Going into a pub, she gets a phone call from Patrick. Why does his mother hate him so much?  His reply hints she is some kind of vampire though of the psychic variety and not a literal bloodsuker.

Because I got away from her. That’s why she can’t stand my poetry—because it’s nothing to do with her. Anyway she can hardly read. If my father so much as picks up a book, she gets it away from him as soon as she can and hides it. Well, you can see what he’s like. Sucked dry. She likes to feel she knows the whole contents of a person’s mind, and that it’s entirely focused on her. She’s afraid of being left alone; she’s never slept by herself in a room in her life. If ever he had to go away, she’d have my bed put in her room. 

But Patrick has come up with a way of bestowing legal authority on Ellis to have his wishes carried out. Instructing Ellis to have a double whiskey and close her eyes, he uses her as a medium to write a document.  It seems that mother and son resemble each other.

For a moment, the contrast with the last time I had held his hand made a strangling weight of tears rise in my throat; then I remembered Mrs. O’Shea’s icy determination and realized that Patrick resembled her in this; suddenly I felt free of him, free of sorrow. 

The document authorizes Ellis to sell the painting and use the money to publish Patrick’s poems. Ellis walks back to Clayhole and presents it. Mrs. O’Shea lets Ellis take the picture – now actually hanging up in the house instead of in storage. Ellis will get the poems if she actually gets any money for the painting. 

An auction is held, and the bidding is stiff. However, as it increases, a very odd thing happens. The painting starts to fade. Eventually, only a white canvas is left. Needless to say, the auction is cancelled. 

The event was well publicized, and Chapedelaine calls up Ellis asking if he can see the picture. Ellis agrees to that. At the meeting, Ellis relates events so far. After examining the painting, Chapedelaine announces

’This is a genuine piece of necromancy,’ he said, rubbing his hands. ‘I always knew there was something unusually powerful about that woman’s character. She had a most profound dislike for me; I recall it well.’ 

Since it’s the only one of his paintings ever subjected to black magic, Chapedelaine offers to buy the painting back at a substantial price, probably more than it would have fetched in auction. He wants to see what Mrs. O’Shea “fetches out of her locker” then. 

Chapedelaine and Ellis go to visit Mrs. O’Shea. She contends the painting’s sale wasn’t honest, that the painter just bought his work back out of kindness. In fact,  the money must be given to charity.  It’s evident now that O’Shea has “absolute hatred” for Ellis. Chapedelaine offers to do another portrait of O’Shea. Half of the money he paid for the painting will be the sitting fee. O’Shea says she wasn’t fond of the last painting. But this one will be different, argues Chapedelaine. He’s developed a new technique. 

O’Shea agrees, but Chapedelaine will have to stay at the local pub. And, pointedly since O’Shea has noticed Ellis and the painter get on well, there won’t be room there for Ellis.  The narrator says she’s going back to work in London and asks for Patrick’s poems. She’ll get them – after the painting is done and if O’Shea likes it. 

Ellis is enraged and, on the way back with Chapedelaine, says O’Shea will figure out some way of wiggling out of the deal. Chapedelaine says he really is looking forward to doing another O’Shea portrait. 

After Chapedelaine’s work starts, Ellis visits with a photographer to check its progress. O’Shea seems to be enjoying it as she sits near the fire, her feet still on the bundle of poems. Chapedelaine won’t let anyone see the work in progress. He doesn’t look well, though, and keeps stoking the fireplace with more wood.

Chapedelaine, who used to work fast, is taking a long time on the work, and Patrick calls Ellis frequently, worried about the delay. 

One day, she calls up Clayhole. Unable to reach it, she calls the local phone exchange and is told there was a fire at the house. 

On reaching it, Ellis finds the place completely burned with three burned bodies being taken out. The local fire chief figures the fire started because of a spark from the fireplace. Ellis immediately thinks of those bundled poems next to the fireplace. There aren’t any papers left in the burned out ruin. 

Patrick calls Ellis again. 

’She planned the whole thing!’ he said furiously. ‘I bet you, Ellis, she had it all thought out from the start. There’s absolutely nothing that woman won’t do to get her own way. Haven’t I always said she was utterly unscrupulous? But I shan’t be beaten by her, I’m just as determined as she is—Do pay attention, Ellis!’ 

Patrick announces he’ll just have to dictate his work to Ellis and begins with that poem he was working on by the volcano. After the first two lines, Ellis tells him they’re from Milton’s Paradise Lost. Patrick knows, but he’s distracted. It’s getting cold where he’s at. Ellis feels the icy grip of his “hand”. Then Patrick’s is gone never to return. 

The story ends with “Patrick never got through to me again. His mother had caught up with him at last.” 

It’s an amusing story with both O’Sheas, Patrick and his mother, not being very sympathetic.  Clearly, the family has some sort of supernatural powers, and the mother seems a sort of psychic vampire or narcissist endowed with magical abilities and who constantly needs others’ attentions.

I wonder about Patrick’s poetry. Was it really any good? Was it even original? Or, maybe, the presence of his mother in the afterlife really is distracting Patrick. Is the desire to get his work published just a variation of his mother’s need for constant attention?

In any case, it seems that Patrick, post-mortem, is doomed to the icy attentions of his mother again.

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