Monday, June 20, 2011

The Sacrifice and Other Stories

Because of the eccentric but logical way I buy books, I am coming at the works of Sarban in reverse.  After Discovery of Heretics, a collection of unfinished stories and excerpts from unpublished novels, I've now arrived at The Sacrifice and Other Stories.  Like Discovery of Heretics, this is a posthumous volume issued by Tartarus Press; unlike it, this contains complete, polished work that could easily have been published in its own right, had Sarban been a slightly more ambitious and assertive writer.  As it was, however, he left them among his papers, and it is only through Tartarus' interest in the author and the efforts of his daughter, the late Jocelyn Leighton, that these four novellas are available at all.  Not yet having read the short novels and stories published during Sarban's lifetime, I can't compare the contents of The Sacrifice to those works, but taken on their own terms these pieces are well-crafted, quietly atmospheric tales of the supernatural that compare favorably with other examples of mid-twentieth century supernaturalism.

The title story is perhaps the finest.  I found its tale of an artist on holiday who becomes fascinated with a woodland pool in the village where she's staying, and with the unusual statue that watches over the pool, pleasantly similar to Robert Aickman's "The Unsettled Dust," although the relative dates of publication mean that neither story could have influenced the other.  In both stories, a visiting narrator becomes privy to a tragic story from a family's past that has left an eerie, inscrutable pall hanging over the present.  Both also have a strong psychological element, as those past tragedies lead to present instabilities.  One thing that sets the two apart is that "The Sacrifice" is more straightforward, more coherent on first reading than most of Aickman.  Indeed, its final image brings on a terrible clarity.

The descriptive language of this story, and of the others in the collection, is not as stylized or as vivid as that of some writers; like the prose of M. R. James or Forrest Reid or J.R.R. Tolkien, it tends to be clear, unostentatious, and to allow the images to have their own effect once fully formed in the reader's mind, as in this passage:
Frances crossed the lawn and took at random a mossy path between the beeches.  The air was still, and very warm, for all the shade of the leaves.  Once out of sight of the lawn there was nothing to indicate that she was in the grounds of a private house; the woodland was as rough and wild as it must have been in the days before the Chase was enclosed...  The path Frances followed had been little used.  The undergrowth here and there almost blocked it and so few feet had gone over it that in places the moss was a continuous carpet from verge to verge.  The way sloped down after a while and Frances could hear water running somewhere on her right hand.
If "The Sacrifice" is a story of non-European influence on a bucolic English landscape, "The Sea-Things" is a story of Europeans out of place, and (pardon the pun) out of their depth among the dangers of the Red Sea.  The first line is "'I know an Arab who's seen a Mermaid,' said Stanislaw," but the creatures that give this tale its title are nothing so familiar or pleasant as beautiful half-fish, half-women.  The rough narrative outline of "The Sea-Things" is similar to many tales of its type.  What makes it stand out is the mood generated by its climactic scene, one redolent of the vulnerability that surrounds us at all times, but of which we're only intermittently aware.
It is strange to feel a ship stationary far from land... There's a queer, helpless feeling about the thing... With the engine silent and the water sucking and gurgling with a different note round her still hull, she feels, oddly, more a live thing than she does when she's chugging on: she's held alive, helplessly bound, waiting for what the sea will do to her... I felt for the first time since our grounding that we were in danger.  I felt a danger in the blank elements round us; the ship suddenly felt small and lost and I was aware of the drear, dark waste of hostile waters encompassing us behind and beneath that wan curtain of haze.
The third novella, "Number Fourteen," returns to an English setting encroached upon by the foreign, in this case a crippled girl who belongs an obscure South American sect, and forms a close relationship with a beautiful, talented young dancer.  The only possible ending given the elements in play rapidly becomes obvious, and in general the story is longer than it needs to be; possibly if it had prepared it for final publication Sarban might have trimmed it.  In any case, the strange intensity of the young girl and her taciturn mother is psychologically potent, and the story flows smoothly enough toward its resolution.

To my mind, "The King of the Lake," the longest of the novellas, is also the weakest.  Its structure, in which a great block of largely-plotless description is followed by a long storytelling session, is awkward, and it is only near the end that the fantastic dimension of the story becomes relevant to its thinly-drawn protagonists.  However, the evocation of the unlikely oasis in which two English girls take refuge is well-written if not all that evocative, the mythic narrative of the story-within-a-story is done in briskly effective fairy-tale language and the resolution has a grim cruelty that is no less potent for having been foreseen.  It's also more than a trifle prurient, especially when considered in light of what his life and work suggest about Sarban's psychology and personality.

The Sacrifice and Other Stories is now out of print, but Tartarus Press plans to reissue it in the near future.  (Sarban's three other books, two of which are currently in print from Tartarus with the third also to be reprinted, have recently been made available as e-books.)  Of these four stories, I would say that "The Sacrifice" is a classic of its type, while the others, whatever their minor flaws, are generally quite strong, well worth reading for fans of otherworldly fantasy and subtle horror.  Though he worked at various things for much of his life, in terms of completed fiction Sarban was hardly prolific, and The Sacrifice and Other Stories is a welcome and substantial addition to his oeuvre.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your review, Mr. Moody. I think Sarban is one of the masters in that esoteric and rarefied branch of weird writing that could be called literary folk horror: In Sarban's work, as with other writers who have felt this particular fascination, the ancient past is never truly dead.