Sunday 9 June 2013

The Other Place and Other Stories of the Same Sort by J.B. Priestley, Valancourt Books

This collection of nine tales - republished on the sixtieth anniversay of its original release - constitutes the entirety of novelist and playwright John Boynton Priestley's uncanny short fiction. The tone throughout is one of lighthearted scepticism and a gentle lampooning of suburban city-types of the pre- and post-World War II era.  In our time of literal zombies, Priestley satirises his self-important dullard rotarians as either aliens in disguise or animated corpses.  Or, is it just the madness-inducing monotony of the rat race affecting each narrator's perception?
  Some context: Priestley (1894-1984) - a left-of-centre socialist - had co-founded the Common Wealth Party in 1942. Founded primarily to break the decade-long stranglehold of Conservative power, it was also in response to the perceived additional stagnation caused by the subsequent wartime coalition of the three main parties. Common Wealth disbanded after only three years, however, from a combination of inertia, in-fighting and a lack of direction after War was won.
  It is also just as likely the Party relied upon its intellectuals for ideas, which, in Party politics, is always a hiding to nothing.  Still, Priestley instinctively distrusted 'the establishment' anyway and this was very much reflected in his cash-supplementing short fictions.
  His career path - if it could be called such - paralleled Orwell's perhaps less popular radio broadcasts and this might explain the latter's uncharacteristic jealousy in his including Priestley's name on the pro-communist list of suspects he submitted to the Information Research Department; the new Labour Government's propaganda unit of 1949.
  Four years on, with Orwell's demise and the coronation secured, Heinemann published this collection that gently mocks that era's obsession of white collar paranoia and Priestley's own with self-regarding pen-pushers.
  The uncanny is often secondary to the targets here, but there are intriguing exceptions; the authentic voices of a Midlands working-class family adds piquancy to a lately deceased but still vengeful relative in 'Uncle Phil On TV'; in 'Look After the Strange Girl,' a man from the future is asked to chaperone a woman whose fate must be kept secret; while in 'Night Sequence,' an arguing couple seeking sanctuary apparently spark the spiritual return of a Regency menage-a-trois that makes them reflect upon their own lives.
  Priestley's depracating wit and sketching of class-bound propriety still render vividly these long-unseen tales of haunted English suburbia.  His one other tale of the uncanny is the earlier novel 'Benighted' (1927) - filmed as 'The Old Dark House' by Universal in 1932 - and also available from Valancourt.

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