Since we've had three posts about short stories this week, let's have another! I didn't plan to do any sort of themed week, and I rather suspect the theme will screech to a halt after this review, but for today... step forward Frank Baker and Stories of the Strange and Sinister.
I've mentioned a few times before that, although Frank Baker wrote one of my very favourite novels (Miss Hargreaves) I have only read one other of his books. It was Before I Go Hence, which I quite enjoyed - but it was nowhere near the standard of Miss H., and I worried that I'd like his work steadily less and less... so stopped. But it's been three years since I read that, and short stories is moving the goalposts a little, so I tried again, with more reasonable expectations.
Stories of the Strange and Sinister was published over forty years after Miss Hargreaves, in 1983, the year Baker died. It was also his first work of fiction for twenty-two years, although including stories written between 1947 and 1983. The stories - as the title suggests - all touch upon the strange and sinister, but I don't think any of them were intensely frightening. Which is good for me; I'd rather read strange stories than horror stories - which is why M.R. James has remained on the shelf for now.
Intense repugnance. That is one definition of horror to be found in the dictionary. Or, power of exciting such feeling. I think it is more. It is also what is totally unexpected: the long sunlit lane that has only a brick wall at the end, the worm in the rose, the sudden ravaged image of one's own tormented face in a window pane. That which has sudden power to corrupt and defile. A stench where sweetness should be; darkness where light should be; a grin where a smile should be; a scream searing into a night where silence should be. An old withered hand where a young hand should be... And no escape from whatever it may be that has suddenly come upon the visitant. No escape.
This is the beginning to perhaps the creepiest story in the collection, 'The Chocolate Box', about a man who finds a severed hand in - you guessed it - a chocolate box. But, thankfully, it is a definition Baker doesn't keep to. Even in his darkest moments, he can't help introducing a touch of that whimsy which makes Miss Hargreaves so irresistible. For instance, in the middle of my favourite story in the book - 'The Green Steps' - the narrator refers to the disturbingly insane character as 'about as talkative as a Trappist monk in Holy Week.'
In 'The Chocolate Box' the narrator writes:
But this is not a story about music. I must keep it out, otherwise it will flood the pages and consume me.Baker suffers from the same predicament. He is obviously too great a music lover to allow it far from his mind. There is a story about warring partners in a music shop; one about a singer who morphs into a bird; a haunted piano...
But there are moments of terror too - the sack which follows its victim around the house; the presentiment of a steam-room murder... In Baker's hand, we never wander too far into Gothic territory - but the sinister undertones to Miss Hargreaves have become much more alarming, and much less balanced out by humour. The whimsy still - as I said - hides in the corners, but there remains much to chill, even if not give nightmares.
As always with short story collections, I find it impossible to outline many of the stories, or give a proper feel for the collection as a whole - but I think Stories of the Strange and Sinister has convinced me not to abandon Baker just yet. It's pretty expensive to track down, and probably isn't really worth the £20 or £30 that various online sellers are requesting, but there are some interesting and original ideas and thoughtful writing - especially in that first story, 'The Green Steps'. I'll leave you with an excerpt from early in that story, which is both evocative of Baker's atmospheric tone, and so many coastal villages in Cornwall (a county Baker loved) with their mysterious, historic and ambling paths:
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 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.