Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 6: You Are a Naughty Cat

Until very recently, I was almost completely oblivious to the existence, or former existence, of Charles Birkin. The name rang a faint bell, because, as it turns out, part one of a volume of "best of" stories called A Haunting Beauty was written up by John Pelan in Jones and Newman's Horror: Another 100 Best Books (volume two bears the Lovecraftian title The Harlem Horror). Beyond that, though, I had squat. I think the reason Birkin, who died in 1985 and made his name as a writer of short horror fiction primarily in the 1960s, recently blundered his way into my consciousness is because while searching for information on some other British horror writer (Birkin is British, I might as well say here) I found this site, a forum for discussion about all things British and horrible, wherein I learned, among other things, something of Birkin's reputation. For those in the know, which at the time did not include me, and only includes me now on an amateur basis, that reputation could be described as "good," or even "very good." One guy on the forum didn't exactly crow, but in any event announced, that he'd recently procured a copy of Birkin's 1936 debut collection Devil's Spawn, for the low, low price of what in American dollars would amount to roughly $600. If the picture the guy included is accurate, the fucking thing didn't even have a dust jacket.

Regardless, high in demand is the work Charles Birkin, at least among collectors and such. This in itself wouldn't be enough to interest me that much (a little, but not that much). No, what tipped the scales was all the talk I started seeing about how "cruel" Birkin's stories were. Largely non-supernatural in nature, Birkin's fiction was sounding not at all unlike the adult horror fiction of Roald Dahl, about whom I wrote a couple of years ago, in a post where the word "cruel" and what that meant and whether or not that was a good or bad thing, featured prominently. I love those Dahl stories, so if Birkin was similar (a comparison I, and I alone, was making to myself, I hasten to add) then I wanted in. Then, in the course of my "research," I found this quote about Birkin from Hugh Lamb:

The stories of Charles Birkin, however, are not for the squeamish. Be warned, if you are at all sensitive, leave him well alone. He deals unflinchingly with such subjects as murder, rape, concentration camps, patricide, mutilation and torture.

Is it wrong that this excited me? Part of the reason is that Birkin evidently published this heart-stopping stuff in the mainstream, and fifty years ago (for the most part), when the market for horror would have been somewhat different. I very quickly and very badly wanted to know what this guy was all about. Also his full name and title were Sir Charles Lloyd Birkin, 5th Baronet. I'm not made of stone, people.

Well, it would appear that while six hundred dollars American is on the high side, used copies of Birkin's story collections do tend to run pretty steep. However, after some digging, I was able to turn up two books that I could afford -- these were so affordable in comparison that they're basically the equivalent of Robert Aickman's Cold Hand in Mine and Painted Devils, the two Aickman books that pretty much anyone can get their hands on, become hooked, and then live the rest of their lives unable to read any other Aickman stories because between hundreds and thousands of dollars is just a tad rich. Horror fiction is often an unpleasant thing to be interested in.

But anyway, so, I got these two Birkin collections: My Name Is Death from 1966, and The Smell of Evil from 1965, this latter being highlighted on Birkin's Wikipedia page as his "Notable Work(s)." Whether or not this can be trusted or even means anything at all, I couldn't say. I was happy to be able to score these two specific titles, because they contained at least a couple of the stories I'd seen mentioned as among Birkin's best, or at least most cruel. From these books, I decided to double my usual number of stories around which I typically construct these posts from two to four, because I was so intrigued by the kind of writer I thought Charles Birkin might well have been that I wanted to get a fuller sense of his work than I would normally permit myself. I was just...I was just very intrigued.

So, is Charles Birkin a Forgotten British Horror Great? Well, I'd say it's more like he's a Forgotten British Horror Good. Of the four stories I read, two -- "Greenfingers" from The Smell of Evil and "King of the Castle" from My Name Is Death -- strike me as, by no means bad, but somewhat ordinary in the grand scheme of things. Of Birkin, John Pelan said "In the 1960s one author was almost solely responsible for keeping the horror genre alive in Britain, Sir Charles Birkin," and since I'm in no position to refute that, and if the horror genre in Britain was really as moribund as this quote suggests, I can only assume that if Robert Bloch, say, had been British and Birkin hadn't existed, Bloch would have achieved pretty much the same thing. From what I can tell, Birkin fell very naturally into the pocket that Bloch so ably filled on this side of the Atlantic. The important subtext here, which I'd like to highlight, being that I really like Robert Bloch. But "King of the Castle," for instance, is very much like Bloch's brand of nasty, non-supernatural horror (Bloch wrote plenty of supernatural stories, too, and some excellent ones, but I do think the human-based horror was his real strength). These generally ended on some terrible bit of violence, which was possibly in the form of comeuppance for some terrible character, or not, but anyway that's how it goes in "King of the Castle," which is about a hugely unhappy British farm family dominated by the drunken, bitter patriarch Jack Tetbury. He's the kind of guy disappears for days at a time, spending all his earnings on an extended bender, and it's at these times and these times only that the rest of his family is able to relax. The brunt of his cruelty -- and it's Jack Tetbury who makes the story cruel, not the more traditional horror element -- is reserved for his son Harry, who has a disfiguring birthmark on his face, and who Jack believes to be mentally retarded, and often makes Harry fully aware of this belief. Birkin does skew the formula for this kind of story towards the end, when after a particularly vicious encounter with Harry, he allows Jack to feel some measure of quiet, mumbling guilt. This guilt comes a bit too late. It's a good story, anyway, with the desperation and misery of Jack's family neatly and effectively sketched out. Birkin was an economical writer who could describe a life in a couple of sentences. Edith, Jack's wife, reflects:

Edith was quite dispassionate. She had experienced so many varied emotions for this man, love, jealousy, hurt, humiliation, and finally hatred, a hatred which now was now sharpened by a bleak contempt. Her disillusion had been gradual and cumulative.

"Greenfingers" from The Smell of Evil doesn't quite count as a horror story, it seems to me, despite the presence of a garden full of death. I'm being glib and I feel bad because "Greenfingers" draws its horror from a small German town that supports a concentration camp during World War II. The main character is Hilde Gerber, a woman who tends to her beautiful garden for which she wins prizes, and also carries out an affair with a German officer from the camp, Karl Schultz, who showers her with black market goods, and brings one of the camp prisoners, Stanislav Zelini, with him when he visits so Zelini can work on Hilde's garden. "Greenfingers" feels like more of an angry revenge story than horror, though almost any work of fiction that deals with the Holocaust could be argued to be horror. What I liked about it was that even though the significance of the garden can be easily guessed, the way the story plays out is less predictable. Had "Greenfingers" gone the more predictable route, in fact, it would be more easily categorized as horror. But Birkin's main strength here is depicting his German villains as delusional, and keen practitioners of self-deception. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Hilde can't even accept the idea that Germany is destined to lose the war. It's this point of view that makes "Greenfingers" feel angry: it doesn't matter what people like Hilde or Schultz convinced themselves was going on, because the effort put into ignoring the truth was evil enough.

The strangest Birkin story I read, also from The Smell of Evil, was "The Serum of Doctor White." It's intriguing in its absence of any villain, or even malevolence, while still being shocking and off-puttingly violent. A young girl named Rachel is terribly ill. As the story opens, Humphrey, her father, is setting off to pick up Dr. Max White, the mysterious specialist who had most recently treated her tumor, but whose treatment, his serum, eventually, after a period of success, has apparently made the girl's condition far worse. Rachel's mother, Alathea, brought Dr. White into their lives, based on panic over her daughter's condition, and hope that Dr. White's unorthodox, controversial methods would succeed where more traditional ones had failed.

The nature of Rachel's worsening condition is left hidden until the end, but we know that Humphrey is almost venomously angry at Dr. White, and his plan is to use Rachel's appearance to shock White into action. What actually happens is something altogether less satisfying in terms of traditional storytelling, but is unquestionably horrifying. Now this...this is a cruel story. The ending is really almost the definition of cruelty in fiction. Even though Birkin does not set up "The Serum of Doctor White" as a story that's likely to have much in the way of a happy ending, he also doesn't suggest the bitter "Fuck you" that we actually get. And again, the complete absence of evil intentions makes this all the more nasty.

Finally there is "Kitty Fisher," the first Birkin story I read. Found in My Name Is Death, the title of this story is not quite the name of the main character, but rather a reference to her, via the rhyme "Lucy Locket lost her pocket, Kitty Fisher found it; there was not a penny in it, but a ribbon round it." Kate Quinn is a young girl, the middle child of an artistic society couple who, as the story begins, are preparing to go out -- Basil Quinn is an actor, and there's a film premier, and a subsequent party, he and his wife Valerie want to attend so Basil can put his name in the hat for a roll in an upcoming play. They are leaving their sensible teenage son Hubert in charge of the self-possessed, smart, but cold and friendless Kate, and their infant daughter Lucy, nicknamed Lucy Locket by her adoring parents. But sensible though he is, Hubert is still a teenager, and the lure of the girl of his dreams and a string of bad luck leaves Kate and Lucy alone for a while. Just about long enough, or, actually, just about too long.

Birkin writes Kate convincingly -- under the precisely wrong set of circumstances, it's quite easy to see something this horrible happening in just this way. What Kate does (which might well be inferred by what I've written above) is hideous, but Birkin lays out her thought process with chilling plausibility. He describes the anger of this odd little girl as something so common as to almost be a cliche', but when the act, the horror, is taking place he never makes the reader believe that Kate isn't fully aware of what she's doing, but also says that she "refused to look down" at what she's doing, a very childlike way of mentally separating thought from action. Her subsequent morally oblivious pleas for understanding are a bit more like what you'd expect from the villain of a story like this, if "villain" is how you choose to describe Kate (and why not?), but the gradual progression to the moment when the ribbon tightens is inevitable and terrifying. Cruel, even. Very much like Roald Dahl.

Okay, but overall I'm not at all prepared to go that far with my praise of Charles Birkin. As it stands, the two books I have are good enough for me. Still, eventually, as I read further, I may come to think about the Birkin collections that I can't afford, longingly.


John said...

Great writeup. Except for "Kitty Fisher" (in the Gahan Wilson book), Birkin is a new (and interesting) name to me. Now I remember that story a little better, the smartly handled nastiness of it all, and think that even Dahl at his most mean-spirited never produced anything nearly so malevolent (and even at his cruelest, there was always at least a hint of slightly manic black humor to lighten things up, just a little).

bill r. said...

I don't know, have you read Dahl's "The Last Act"? I don't remember even a tiny bit of humor in that one.

John said...

I'm pretty sure I read that in Switch Bitch, but it's been awhile. Often, though, the "horrible" fates in Dahl's stories felt like they were delivered with a sly wink to the readers, a slightly undercutting sense of absurdity. Not always, though, I'm sure. He was, if anything, an unpredictable writer wonderfully unconstrained by any sort of timidness.

Jose Cruz said...

I was baited by Birkin's notoriety much like yourself and remember reading synopses of his stories on a now seemingly-defunct website that chronicled a lot of the cheap paperback anthologies that came from the U.K. during the 60s and 70s (it wasn't Vault of Evil... I've frequented their boards many a night).

I thought I had read a story or two by Birkin, but turns out they were actually by Oscar Cook, a fellow Brit who seemed to relish in the same type of contes cruel matters that Birkin did. If you haven't checked *him* out, I know a few of his stories were collected in the Pan Horror books.