Saturday, 3 March 2018

The Other Passenger by John Keir Cross, Valancourt Books

The arrival of John Keir Cross (1914-67) spearheaded the post-war second wave of BBC script writers for radio and TV. He was mainly known for his children's fiction under the pen-name, Stephen Macfarlane. The Other Passenger (1944) was his only collection for adults; issued under his own.
  Of the Portraits, 'The Glass Eye,' 'Clair de Lune' and 'Miss Thing and the Surrealist' are the best. Of the Mysteries, 'Liebestraum' and 'Cyclamen Brown.' These avoid the usual overwrought reactionism, in most contemporary horror, where the reader is supposed to respond, with robotic obedience, to the author's most lurid descriptions, leaving little room for imagination. These five – though featuring horrific elements – are as much reliant upon strangeness and, yes, the uncanny.
  In 'The Glass Eye,' the black humour is beautifully judged, triggered from a lovely fable of Eastern philosophy, worthy of M.P. Shiel or Vernon Lee. A woman in her late thirties, unlucky in love, falls for one she perceives as a handsome ventriloquist at a local theatre. She initiates an amorous correspondence. When – too late - she learns the secret behind the act's success, her bitter vengeance reflects the impotence at her heart – as well as his. This tale may have not only inspired the memorable 'Ventriloquist's Dummy' entry of the film Dead Of Night the following year; it might also have gained Keir Cross entry into screenwriting itself.
  'Clair de Lune' opens on an invitation by a platonic girlfriend to stay at a country retreat amongst a group of bohmeian highbrows, initiating a dark attachment eternally awaiting the spirit of a fearful young girl who appears in the garden for the protagonist alone. The title alludes to the beckoning tune played by ghostly hands upon a stationary lute in the house. A tale that succeeds, mainly, for its manifestation of the girl and the period descriptions of the guests. Intriguing, but not quite followed through, is the raison d'etre of the shadowy enemy that comes between them both.
  Of the sad-older-man-obsessed-with-pretty-young-girl entries, 'Liebestraum' possesses a subtlety and heart, harbouring a sympathy for both main characters, right up to the end. A sanitary inspector loses his wife. Neither husband nor wife loved each other – each knew it - and when the wife dies while having an affair, he, understandably, feels the need to break out and find a very different replacement of his own. Things go well enough, platonically, but something else is going on within him.
  'Miss Thing and the Surrealist' features an artist (of guess which former movement) and the disparate, disguised identity of his greatest work that somehow maintains a psychological hold on its creator and followers; a refreshingly odd diversion from the genre and its sub-genres depicted elsewhere. 'Cyclamen Brown' is the first-person narrative about a meeting with a commercial writer of popular song, who ducks and dives amid the 'racketeers, sharks and toughs' of Forties London. The character Eddie Wheeler is convincingly drawn. (Convincing in that he reminded me of someone I know); fast-talking, no-nonsense, with a depracating wit to his speech. The title alludes to his mysterious, torch-singing muse who wears a permanent mask on and off-stage. This is, in truth, her story.
  Subsequently, Keir Cross's most resonant contribution to the genre were, first, with the BBC, as radio script-adapter for anthology series The Man In Black (1949), (introduced by the sepulchral-voiced actor, Valentine Dyall), then, in the 50s' and 60s', a return to children's fantasy with entries for Children's Hour. He ended his career with a one-off production of The Box Of Delights for Saturday Night Theatre (1966).
  To J.F. Norris's credit – whose new introduction gives precious background on the career – he leaves the reader hungry to proceed. The remaining tales, however, don't truly deliver. The title tale, a doppelganger re-run, displays much stylish form for little real substance.
  Keir Cross's approach is hardly ahead of its time, being very much of it. Like his contemporaries, he has a particular disdain for the metropolitan lower middle-class. Men are henpecked, wig-wearing, denture-wearing impotents eager to cave-in their spouse's heads as a delusional shortcut to dominance. His women are ideal targets for that era's casual misogyny, depicted as 'little,' 'loathsome' or excessively fat; sex-jaded burdens on their long-suffering husbands. Next to Valancourt's exemplary reissues by Forrest Reid, Claude Houghton, Lord Dunsany and many others, The Other Passenger proves we'd been spoiled; but, the best of Keir Cross shows what might have been had he remained longer on the page.

Pan Review Of The Arts No.7 will appear in May.

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