The Villa Désirée and Other Uncanny Stories – by May Sinclair
My 15th real-time review.
posted Sunday, 29 March 2009
The Villa Désirée and Other Uncanny Stories
by May Sinclair
Ash Tree Press (2008)
Where Their Fire Is Not Quenched
For me, definitely always one of the five great ghost stories of all time.
A real sense of terrifying religious angst – and a negative symbiosis between dead people who knew each other when alive ….now in a vicious circle of erstwhile life’s places as a sort of eternal Hell.
My questions are: Would the protagonist have escaped this eventuality had she confessed to the priest her sins about Owen Wade? Or would she have ended up in the same predicament simply as a punishment? Why should a simple confession be able to absolve the (perceived) unforgiveable? Why did she find it difficult to confess – ‘knowing’, as she did as part of her own beliefs, that a confession may allow her to escape eternal punishment? (29.3.09)
“I can’t even sit on his manuscripts and keep them down. He cares more for that damned paperweight than he does for me.”
“Well – George Meredith gave it me.”
“And nobody gave you me. I gave myself.”
And the wife who feels uncared-for dies and becomes a ‘light-switch’ ghost to discover if he really cared for her. I won’t divulge the outcome but the ghost was one who could open and shut real drawers in his desk as he works at it. So even a ghost could be a paperweight judging by its powers?
Enjoyed this ghost story divertimento and it cleansed the palate after the spiritually gut-wrenching “Where Their Fire Is Not Quenched“.
An interesting contrast between a voluntary ghost and an involuntary one. (29.3.09 – 5 hours later)
The Flaw in the Crystal
A story of near novella length. It is the Horror of the “Unuttered”. In spite of its melodramatic trappings, its DH Lawrence-isms, John Cowper Powysian theosophies, its Algernon Blackwoodian Centaur-isms (or because of them?), this is a tale of terror regarding a gift or power that leaks between selves proving that filters can work both ways. Inter-marital and interpersonal nightmares of disloyalty that ride with an essence of darkness that nobody not even the perceived controller of the gift or power can restrain – because she has a flaw, a chink that makes it thrive uglily… The character who first supposedly carried the ‘madness’ – a ‘madness’ that the ‘gift or power’ was set to dissipate – was a stockbroker seeking sanctuary from his job by moving to the countryside … no doubt allowing this story to be read as a treatment of the credit crunch and the insanities that dog it.
This is not a perfect story by any shape or means. But like Lovecraft, it seeps a Thing that the author cannot control and the reader is infected by. In many ways, this story is indeed Lovecraftian. It made me understand the quote below properly for the very first time in my life and, if only for that reason, I’m glad I’ve read it:
“The nemo is an evolutionary force, as necessary as the ego. The ego is certainty, what I am; the nemo is potentiality, what I am not. But instead of utilizing the nemo as we would utilize any other force, we allow ourselves to be terrified by it, as primitive man was terrified by lightning. We run screaming from this mysterious shape in the middle of our town, even though the real terror is not in itself, but in our terror at it.” — John Fowles 1964 (from ‘The Necessity of Nemo’ in ‘The Aristos’) (30.3.09)
The Nature of the Evidence — This is a startling story. The build up is logical, sweet even. Cleverly making what eventually happens quite believable but equally shocking. Describing it would destroy the effect. Just remember – from ‘The Token’ – that a ghost is incarnate enough to open desk drawers or be as weighty as a paperweight. Here the ghost is sufficiently ‘there’ or ‘not there’ to be penetrated by one who is still alive. But weren’t ghosts ever thus? — I also imagined an “Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad” excerpt re-performed – as a ménage à trois? — I don’t know if this story is well known but if it isn’t, it certainly should be. This so easily could have been another ‘inter-marital nightmare’: a phrase I wrote for the last story, before I’d read this one. Indeed, the implications are nightmarish, come to think of it. A rope that needs unplaiting.…. (30.3.09 – 4 hours later)
If the Dead Knew
A truly chilling Ghost Story on the theme of the deceased now knowing what your true thoughts are about them after their death and when they were alive. (Cf: the ghost in ‘The Token’ wanting simply to know whether her husband had cared for her). And on the theme of dread that one of your own thoughts may have been the tipping-point of the deceased’s death in the first place. As in ‘The Flaw in The Crystal’, all to the background of selves leaking back and forth into selves… healing becoming destroying and vice versa… A beautiful needlepoint of prose picking out (in one section) a nocturne of whiteness, the regret of repression…. Happiness and sadness are synchromeshed with death’s expectations and fears, deaths of others and of yourself, before love or gratitude is fulfilled. Chilling but strangely comforting that others have voiced such concerns. [All this and Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte. Seems appropriate when the German is translated as ‘Songs Without Words’.] (31.3.09)
The Victim — They keep on coming. This is a tale that really did surprise me more than any other. An overtly grisly, immoral crime … that becomes amoral… almost moral! Nay, I can’t give the ending away. Suffice it to say that it is an evocative horror story that justifies the existence of horror stories by logic of its plot. A seminal Ghost Story – out damned spot! Why on earth have I not been privileged to read it before? A flesh and blood ghost (characteristic of May Sinclair, I’m beginning to think) that becomes thin and eventually dimmer-switched. Retribution of an unrequited death, requited at last. The ‘shoob-shoob’ of footsteps… “As if undermined, the whole structure sank and fell together on the floor where it made a pool of some whitish glistening substance that mixed with the pattern of the carpet and sank through.” (31.3.09 – 3 hours later)
The Finding of the Absolute — Don’t take my word for it – do please read this story first published in 1923. A tale of metaphysics that stretches the modern mind – in fact gives the reader a believable basis for Heaven and what it must be like to ‘exist’ there. A beautifully written absurdist vision involving adultery, leaking selves, meetings with Kant &c. &c. – one that is not at all stodgy and (for its age) not at all theosophical – but brilliantly, limpidly hilarious and philosophically thoughtful. This mind-boggling panorama also conveniently seems to rationalise the conundrum of reconciliation between Steven and Mr Greathead in the previous story (‘The Victim’). And extrapolates on much of the underpinning of the more traditional ghost stories in this book. It also contains this prediction for the future (among others): “…he saw the Atlantic flooding the North Sea and submerging the flats of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, and Kent.” Note the Oxford comma. The only possible criticism of this story. And, oh yes, I live on the coast of Essex. [The nearest modern writer’s work to which I can compare this is Rhys Hughes’ ‘Engelbrecht Again!’] (31.3.09 – after another 5 hours)
Another leaking self. A neat highly humorous tale where a man called Khaki (Miles Dickinson) dies and then leaks sufficiently into one of those left behind for her to become him? A haunting gem reminding me of Belloc, Firbank, Saki… Sinewy and tussling words of prose that spread the leaking along trenches of least resistance between their lines of print.
Khaki is a sort of know-it-all geek who is nicknamed thus because of his skin colour but then when he joins the army and wears its similarly coloured uniform and goes to the Boer War…?
Like ‘The Token’ and ‘If the Dead Knew’ this is about truly ‘knowing’ from the grave. And once ‘known’, then love can more easily leak through to the lady leaked into by he who leaked? And about a crazy banker. Weren’t they ever thus? But does death ennoble even the otherwise un-ennobleable? (1.4.09)
Portrait of my Uncle
I am becoming more and more impressed with May Sinclair’s stories both in style and content as I progress gradually through this book. I had only previously read her three great ghost stories (‘Where Their Fire is not Quenched’, ‘The Intercessor’ and ‘The Villa Désirée’, the memory of which induced me to buy this book in the first place). And incidentally, I am not reading Rebeccah Kinnamon Neff’s no doubt fine introduction until I’ve finished reviewing all the stories.
This story concerns a married couple (do all long-term married couples grow alike gradually?) and their attempts to firewall against each other’s self. A beautifully told story, full of the colour of the times. I will not give away the ending but those who have experienced the previous stories can surely guess! It is actually more subtle than that statement indicates. (2.4.09)
The Pictures — A story that contains Markham: one of the most interesting characters I’ve encountered in fiction for a long time – it almost feels as if this character might one day haunt these very discussion threads where I’m posting this piecemeal review! I’ve not felt so much contempt issue from words as those for Markham’s sniff. The rivalry of artists. A bitter rivalry but also a guarded symbiosis (inter-leaking?). The misguided view of self. Are body and soul configured together?
The last scene, despite the reader’s own growing contempt for Markham (as tutored by the I-narrator if not by Sinclair herself), is highly poignant and one feels for him very deeply. One almost falls in love with Markham, despite everything. For once not a ghost story (more a ‘conte cruel’). Powerfully delivered. And it rings with something to be cherished in fiction: timelessness. And a real shyme. (2.4.09 – 4 hours later)
“It’s a little fat yellow devil that squats in a saucer. There’s crimson ooze from when it burns, as if the thing sweated blood before it began its work.”
A companion story of ‘The Pictures’ with plot literally leaking between them. May Blissett, like Markham, is a very strong character – paradoxically strong, as she is described explicitly as a Nemonymity.
An important use of the word ‘immune’.
Whether you are destroyed by a hydrogen bomb or a pin-prick, you shall truly never know – now or later when it is too late. And the last line of the story is truly devastating in the context of the whole.
These stories genuinely get more and more impressive. I’m astonished. But I did have an instinct about this book. Why I obtained it in the first place. (3.4.09)
A companion story of the previous two. About immunity and insecurity. The clumsiness of large white hands within the painted miniature that is this story. Of a baby that seemed fresh out of a modern Japanese cartoon. I also imagined both Markham and May Blissett within the baby’s stunted growth of body and mind, “full, full of a heavy, sleeping mournfulness.”. Life is an accident of birth leading to further accidents of change… (3.4.09 – five hours later)
The Mahatma’s Story
The 5th story in a row about paintings and painters – often their rivalry – a rivalry here induced by a form of wife-swapping among two couples that involves memory but apparently not will/temperament or body. Fascinating! Even more fascinating in the context of the various intricacies of the ‘self-leaking’ theme in this book so far. A well-written curiosity with a message for our modern ways. I shudder that there may be layers in these stories that even I am not ‘getting’! These fictions horrifically make me doubt my own selfhood (be it id, ego or nemo)! (3.4.09 – another 3 hours later)
A companion story to the previous one and it is a satirical fable on the British class system around the time of the Boer War (Cf. ‘Khaki’). No, it’s not. Yes, it is. No, it’s not because it is a fictional treatment of the split-destiny complex where freedom and pre-determination are set to fight and we fall down a dark abyss of recurrent mistakes for eternity and we must decide at the moment of death what one wants to do in the next life unless a previous decision voids a later one. Nobody is immune. Enough to give the reader nightmares. No, it isn’t. Rubbish. Who am I to say? I feel insulted by myself. And I was my own best playmate when I was small. You can’t trust your own selves further than you can caste them. Each self in its own ring-fenced nightmare. Time for dinner. Rice for the Mahatma this time. “…and he who is deceived by the illusion of contamination is contaminated.” (3.4.09 – another 2 hours later)
A companion story of ‘The Finding of the Absolute’. And I think here, by means of hilarious absurdity, one at last finds the Absolute. This vision of ‘Heaven’ has a huge cross blazing like the sun in the sky and the protagonist’s mother having dragged him to her own personal Heaven after death where Christian iconography and intolerance prevail. Beautifully written, one almost feels we are talking about real things – that exists as a personal cosmology. Millions of personal Heavens webbed between by the power of ‘will’. (Note: it was ‘will’ in the earlier wife-swapping story that was immune to the swapping). A Heaven from where the protagonist is eventually ‘tugged’ by the tug of unrequited love, now to be requited. Between selves, this tugging is the positive form of the negative leaking (which some of the previous stories now point up) in this fiction fruition. I usually like sad endings, but here the reader feels he has actually earned a happy one. It remains to be seen, however, if the final two stories complete the book in similar manner. (I enjoyed the scene where Darwin and Huxley are catechised by a crass verger-greengrocer in the protagonist’s mother’s Heaven. And another great character: Mr Minify!] (4.4.09)
The Intercessor — Despite its melodrama, its sometimes wooden re-telling of the plot’s background in a conversation with the doctor, and its appalling Hardy-esque sense of gloom, there is no question that this, to my mind, is one of literature’s great and most disturbing ghost stories. Even more so for me today as it feeds off the previous stories in the book in a kaleidoscope of ways I can’t cover here. For example, it presents us with a bloated form of ‘The Bambino’ (of the whole story as well as its baby character) plus echoes of the flesh-and-blood nature of ghosts, their symbols as destiny, retribution and, in this story’s case, eventual redemption. It also perhaps conveys in one or two explicit scenes an adult+child sense of sin reflective of the spectral nature of the ‘ménage à trois’ in ‘The Nature of the Evidence’. It reeks of gloom and pain and evil and unwelcome sexual undercurrents. But one hopefully exits with a purer mind than the mind one must (temporarily at least) submit to this story for this story to take as part of its mechanics of being told. I sense May Sinclair herself had to abandon herself to it. It is as if the story itself is an evil ghost on the borderland (‘borderland’ being a word that is often used in this story – a house on the borderland which Garvin (the protagonist) is drawn towards, too) and all of us connected with this story are infected, ‘leaked into’ – including the readers it manages to garner. Thankfully we are released at the end by a happy ending, in the manner of ‘Heaven’. But is that good enough? This story at least tried finally to intercede on our behalf, as Garvin did for Effy.
“And now he knew its secret. Their evil saturating the very walls, leaking through and penetrating those other walls, the bounds of Garvin’s personality, starting in him a whole train of experience not his own.” (4/4/09 – 3 hours later)
The Villa Désirée
A horror story that truly horrifies. It seems as if the ghost has now truly come home to roost: as a tangible monster. This book has been threatening to bring on stage a real monster (previously a flesh-and-blood ghost that can act as a paperweight!): a monster that has leaked into the man who arranged for our lady protagonist to be in the haunted room so as, later, being able to present himself as the hero going to save her from the monster but that was before the monster actually became him and “got there before him”! The ‘Flaw In The Crystal’ prefigured the type of horror here. But it also has the stylish, atmospheric, if fractured, feel of a ghost story by Elizabeth Bowen (a big compliment from me).
The lady protagonist wanted simply to know, wanted, like the reader, to expose herself to ‘knowing’ – and we’ve all learned to our cost that reading this book as a gestalt is dangerous! But I have survived, survived the Absolute … it seems. The words and stories form a painting and one sees all parts at once as well as the brushstrokes, colours blending into each other. Markham and May Blissett notwithstanding.
I do not need to say anything more about the book’s gestalt as I hope it has become clear now and ‘in media res’ above. You now need to see for yourself. It cannot be read piecemeal, I feel. It needs to be read as a whole. All I will say is that May Sinclair has written three famous Ghost Stories: ‘Where There Fire is not Quenched’, ‘The Intercessor’ and ‘The Villa Désirée’ – but there is at least one more classic May Sinclair story embedded within the book’s gestalt: one that should be just as famous: i.e. a ‘triptych’ of three (lesser known?) stories blended together: ‘The Pictures’ + ‘The Pin-Prick’ + ‘The Bambino’. I don’t know what its overall title should be. (4/4/09 – another 2 hours later)
“”You can think off, can you?”
“Yes, that’s how you protect yourself. Otherwise life here would be unbearable. Just keep quiet for a second will you?”
(from ‘The Finding of the Absolute’).
Others have pointed out elsewhere that the protagonist’s name in ‘Where Their Fire Is Not Quenched’ is Harriott (Leigh) – an unusual form of Harriet – Harlot? Iscariot?
2. Weirdmonger left… Saturday, 4 April 2009 5:07 pm
- My reading of the book was without any knowledge of May Sinclair as a person or her actual chronology of writing these stories – i.e. mine is ‘intended’ to be a critique in tune with ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ but that does not mean it is any more right or more wrong than Neff’s.
I read the book as printed and hoped to read out of it or read into it an audit trail that seemed to work for me. And it did!
I hope others will read this book before they read Neff’s intro or my own review of it. But if they read this book because they saw my review first, that will be a good result, too! Thanks, Ash Tree Press, for making it possible at all. 🙂