Feverish Country, This

James Sallis

     In I Got References, the collection of stories, sketches and autobiographical snippets that Paul Duncan says may be the closest we'll ever come as readers to sitting down for a chat with its author, Gerald Kersh writes of his devil-take-the-hindmost childhood.

"I achieved notoriety on account of my destructive tendencies. Once, when a tramcar fell over near Acton, I was seized and chastised, as it were absent-mindedly, as soon as the crash was heard."

     This shows, I think, something both of the man's intense egoism and of his native skill as raconteur. In many ways Kersh continued all his life to be the bad boy of literature. Born early into the new century, some eight years before (as Virginia Woolf has it) human nature changed utterly, he rode in on the last hurrahs of several grand British literary traditions, freelancing articles and sketches to the Daily Mirror and London Evening Standard in Fleet Street, publishing short stories in the many newspapers and magazines for which they were then a mainstay.

     This was the heyday of the short story, in fact, and high-circulation, high-profile magazines like Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post and their counterparts in the UK could provide a fine living. Demand, both there and at lower-paying markets such as John O'London's Weekly or the pulps that specialized in various forms of romance and adventure, was high; many writers specialized, turning out stories by the dozen and little else. Modernism might have been busily kicking over the traces elsewhere, but here standards remained deeply rooted in nineteenth-century notions of popular literature and the well-made story. Nor, again as in 19th-century writing, had "unnatural" elements been purged, as shortly they would be, in favor of a thoroughgoing realism. Magazines offered up heady blends of exoticism, sea adventures, Wellsian science fiction and moral tales, ghost stories, crime stories.

     Here in the States, it's mostly for his stories, of which he wrote several hundred, that Kersh is remembered when he is known at all. Many of these, though generally given his distinctive stamp, were staple fare for magazine writers of the time: ventriloquist's dummy stories ("The Extraordinarily Horrible Dummy"), Siamese twins stories ("The Sympathetic Souse"), cursed- jewel stories ("Seed of Destruction"), circus- or carnival-folk stories ("The Queen of Pig Island"), stories of possession ("The Eye" and, again, "The Extraordinarily Horrible Dummy"). These might in fact more properly be called tales. The majority have elements of the fantastic; if not of the fantastic, then of the grotesque. Many are built around some central gimmick -- what if one Siamese twin were a drunk, the other a teetotaler, for instance -- and have a trick or reverse ending, some final revelation that snaps the tale into new focus.

     They share, too, another strategy common to older work. Many are framed, i.e., presented to the reader as true stories garnered from obscure documents (the last days of Ambrose Bierce in "The Oxoxoco Bottle"), come upon in journals (a Japanese man thrown back in time by detonation of the bomb over Hiroshima in "The Brighton Monster"), or overheard from others (the truly nightmarish creatures of "Men Without Bones"). Kersh from time to time even steps directly into the doorway of the story, presenting himself under his own name as interlocutor. This convention has the dual purpose of lending formal credibility to a story's events and, by placing fantastical or highly- charged events at a remove, of softening and safening them -- taming the story's savage heart.

     History, the shadow of great events, also looms over Kersh's stories -- Hiroshima in "The Brighton Monster," the Cold War in "Prophet Without Honor," the Balkans in "Reflections in a Tablespoon," slavery in "Fantasy of a Hunted Man" -- perhaps as another way of cranking up wattage, raising the game's stakes. Kersh was, after all, competing vigorously and continuously with hundreds of others for the reader's (and editor's) attention.

     As a short story writer Kersh largely belongs to that group of writers Anthony Burgess characterized as making literature from the intrusion of fantasy or horror into a real world closely observed. Their tales more often suggest fable or a sort of grand guignol than the plodding naturalism of much modern work, Burgess notes. They are likely to ransack traditions but not to belong, themselves, to any tradition. And while themselves quite "literary," they play no part in the development of literature: even the most comprehensive histories of English-language literature have no room at the inn for the likes of Saki, John Collier, Mervyn Peake, or Gerald Kersh. This is a type of writer rarely seen today -- a type already fading during Kersh's time.

     If Kersh's approach at times could be indirect or sidling ("I had this curious story from a gentlemen in the Paradise Bar..."), his engagement with the material was not. One early critic termed his stories "frontal assaults." Not uncommonly do we come upon such arresting descriptions as that of the wasted, drunken beauty whose eyes have become like "a couple of cockroaches desperately swimming in two saucers of boiled rhubarb," or of the divan whose springs protrude "like the entrails of a disembowelled horse." Nor are Kersh's people often of the nicest sort; he himself spoke of them as having been "quarried" rather than born.

     Yet Burgess proclaimed Sam Yudenow from Fowler's End a comic character on the order of Falstaff. In The Thousand Deaths of Mr. Small, another reviewer asserted, Kersh had created " a character capable of standing on its own feet beside Wilkins Micawber." Harry Fabian of Night and the City intrigues us still, sixty years after he first swam into our ken, as do the va-et-vients and divagations of Busto's rooming-house in The Song of a Flea. And if at first we read for the outrageous stories and sometimes still more outrageous characters, we reread (and Kersh readers one and all, I have found, are veteran rereaders) for quite different reasons: marvelous evocations of down-and-out London; discursions that springboard off some passing observation and continue on marvelously for page after page, pushing all else for the moment aside; startling felicities of language that seem to appear fullblown from nowhere, as though the sentences themselves had burst into flame.

     Harlan Ellison, in his introduction to Nightshades and Damnations, offered up a few notes from Kersh's Greatest Hits.

We hang about the necks of our tomorrows like hungry harlots about the necks of penniless sailors.

A storm broke, and at every clap of thunder the whole black sky splintered like a window struck by a bullet -- starred and cracked in ten thousand directions letting in flashes of dazzling light...

...there are men whom one hates until a certain moment when one sees, through a chink in their armor, the writhing of something nailed down and in torment.

     Harlan and I alike admire Kersh's description of a man so characterless as to be all but nonexistent, whose tie is "patterned with dots like confetti trodden into the dust" and whose "oddment of limp brownish mustache resembled a cigarette-butt, disintegrating shred by shred in a tea-saucer."

     Kersh is a master of metaphor in a manner rare among novelists, lashing whole chapters, the creation of entire characters and vibrant scenes, to the scaffolding of what are essentially extended metaphors. Here, for example, is his stunning portrait of a married couple in Fowler's End, that sinkhole purlieu of London you find by "going northward, step by step, into the neighborhoods that most strongly repel you."

He was a quick, hideously ugly little man, cold and viscous about the hands, with a gecko's knack of sticking to plane surfaces. Once, when I went into his shop to buy a handkerchief, Godbolt, telling me that he didn't have much call for that kind of thing nowadays but thought he had a few in stock, went to get one from a high shelf. It may have been the effect of the fog but I will swear I saw him run up the wall. He had a black-cotton fly of a wife who was always buzzing at him from a distance; she never came within less than five feet of him -- for fear, presumably, that he might thrust out a glutinous green tongue and catch her. He was always watching her out of the corners of his horny-lidded, protruberant eyes.

     I've slipped here, you'll note, from speaking of Kersh as a short-story writer to speaking of him as a novelist. There's a considerable divorce between the two, and for all his facility as a story writer, for all his touches of the grotesque and fantastic therein, it's in the novel, and as a realist, that his specific genius found full force and strength. Stories often seem to have been taken up rather light-heartedly, perhaps chiefly as a means to pay rent or provide passage for yet another relocation, turned out quickly, one suspects, and sent off virtually as the last page emerged from the typewriter. The novels he appears to have taken more seriously. Again, it is 19th-century models, Kipling early on, Dickens a bit later, to which they invite comparison.

     While publication of his third novel, Night and the City, in 1938 brought major attention, it was as a war novelist that Kersh first began earning significant money from his writing and became well known. In these novels he showed a naturalist, almost taxidermic slant quite in contrast to the exoticism and fantastic elements of his short stories.

1942      They Died With Their Boots Clean
1942      The Nine Lives of Bill Nelson
1943      The Dead Look On
1943      A Brain and Ten Fingers
1944      Faces in a Dusty Picture
Of the last a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement noted: "Once more Mr Kersh's specialty is the plain, coarse, lively, everyday speeches of the troops, and again there is much to admire in the vigour and skill of his dialogue and in the assurance with which he draws from it an impression of English character or of English idiosyncracies." Telling dialogue, the manner in which Kersh caught up the usages and rhythms of those about him and in recreating them used them to illuminate caste, milieu and character, was forever his greatest strength. For Kersh, it's not character, but the way in which one uses language, that is fate.

     Like birds that never stray over a mile past their birth tree, some writers pass their entire professional lives working the same territory, circling central themes again and again, grinding the meal down ever finer. Others, generally not to their benefit in this ever-increasingly specialized world (for most publishers, booksellers and readers want to be able to say just what kind of sausage it is they are buying), are all over the place. Beginning with Night and the City, a mystery novel in the American vein unlike any other written before, and with a firm reputation for war books, Kersh went on to turn out Prelude to a Certain Midnight, a mystery novel unlike any other written before or since, before going on to produce intense psychological portraits (The Thousand Deaths of Mr. Small), masculine fiction in the Hemingway mold (The Weak and the Strong), Huxleyian satire (An Ape, a Dog and a Serpent), pulp science fiction (The Great Wash, in the U.S. The Secret Masters), an outstanding historical novel about Saul's conversion (The Implacable Hunter), and demotic, Dickensian comedies (Fowler's End).

     "I'm sorry, sir, it's just not done that way," British bureaucrats and clerks will tell you when you fail to follow form. And so publishers must have said something of the sort to Gerald Kersh; certainly reviewers said it of him. A general, progressive shrinking of literary boundaries was taking place at the time, a kind of degentrification of the profession. The writer could no longer hope to have it all, to be all things to all men, to write across borders; he was expected to settle down at home and cultivate his garden. He must, to start with, for instance, be either a serious writer or a commercial one.

     Kersh, like many of us since, failed to see or admit the distinction.

     But surely one did not sit down to write a mystery novel and instead stock it with such darting, solid characters as, in a kind of gentle mutiny, to take over the book entirely? And (as if that were not enough) why on earth or in heaven should one choose to employ with great care all the traditional forms of the genre to the express purpose of calling into question the very meaning and significances of that genre? (Care for a game of tennis? But first, let's have these nets down...)

     Observed from afar, Kersh's career indeed might be seen as one long careen from genre to genre, each shelter in turn blown over by high winds. I've used the word facility above. And I wonder if that, with the changing role of the writer, is not another key on the chain.

     Someone said of singer George Jones that it all came too easy to him, that distinctive sound, the phrasing, song interpretation. What others had to work to develop and achieve, he had at his fingertips. Something of the same might be said of Gerald Kersh. Kersh had from the first a terrible facility. He could do anything, it seemed: bring characters to life with one quick phrase, open up their hearts to our view with what they said or avoided saying to one another, show the pettiness, cruelty and wayward kindness aswarm in the anthills of each of us. He could write beautifully, in ways that all but stopped the reader's breath. And he could write knowingly -- he was, after all, a soldier -- of true ugliness, real horror, of despair that has no past, no future.

     Kersh was also a writer of great energy and ambition. Paul Duncan tells us that he often worked night and day with only a couple of hours of sleep, and that eventually this took its toll in regular collapses. One suspects that as time went on Kersh may have leaned a bit heavily on both that energy and on his native facility, expecting them to carry him. "Abundant energy," "exhuberance," "imaginative intensity," "pounding creative energy" -- these are the sort of phrases one encounters again in contemporary reviews of Kersh's work, just as one encounters, invariably, mention of his prolificacy. And in fact critical opinion seems rather early on to have cast itself and hardened about those notions.

     "Just why is Mr. Kersh such an infuriating writer?" the Sunday Times asked upon publication of Kersh's collection Men Without Bones.

Because...we have all been charmed or surprised or shocked at one time or another...by Mr Kersh's energy and expertness; but with each book there has been less of the writer whose promise we hallooed and more of the casually professional huckster of trinkets and tricks....There was a time when he looked to have the chance of becoming a Kipling or a Huxley; all we have now is a kind of poor man's Orson Welles of the short story.

     Phrases such as "ingenuous and tortuous brilliance" or "a brilliant mess" appear ever more frequently. Anthony Boucher spoke for many, critics as well as readers, in his review of Kersh's effort at a science fiction thriller (The Secret Masters):

The relatively quiet but incisive and suspenseful opening portions of the book are first-rate Kersh, richly peopled with the odd bit roles he sketches so well and written with style and individuality. The large scale melodrama which develops later is as banal and dated as it is overwritten and incredible.

     One of the most thoughful assessments, speaking to Kersh's many strengths as to his weaknesses, came via the Times Literary Supplement upon publication of The Song of a Flea in 1948.

Mr. Kersh is at once the delight and despair of his admirers. He is their delight because he is one of the comparatively few living novelists in this country who write with energy and originality and whose ideas are not drawn from a residuum of novels that have been written before; he is their despair because the lack of restraint which makes him such a welcome relief in one direction leads him to all sorts of imperfections in another.

     Anthony Burgess, however, rather famously in his 1961 review of The Implacable Hunter, took to task the sad and arbitrary state of Kersh's reputation.

Too many critics affect to mourn a dead talent in Gerald Kersh, a gift that died with his boots clean; there has been a tendency to ignore or disparage his later work, patronise, sigh, and pretend to nostalgia for the tremendous Nelson.

I can't see why. I read Fowler's End in darkest Borneo, at a time when it was hard to laugh, and considered it to be one of the best comic novels of the century, with Sam Yudenow as superb a creation (almost) as Falstaff.

Many total and partial rereadings have strengthened this conviction. We may adjudge Mr. Kersh, after reading The Implacable Hunter, to be now at the height of his powers.

     It's impossible to say to what degree Kersh's difficulties in later years were in fact precipitated by changing literary tides, to what degree by editorial preconceptions regarding his work and resistance to it on the part of American publishers, to what degree by his egoism and stubborn insistence upon doing things his way. We know, at any rate, from Paul's biographical sketches, that Kersh had a hard time of it.

     Some artists thrive on instability. Hemingway, it was said, required a new woman for each new novel. Others set themselves intricate emotional traps in order to fuel their work. Kersh, instability seems slowly, though progressively, to have undone. To the ever-present fault lines and uncertainties of the freelance life, to market changes and a general decline in the professional's position within publishing, have to be adduced, first, Kersh's failure of health, then a horrendously debilitating marriage, his spendthrift nature, a long series of financial setbacks and unrecoupable losses. It was not that Kersh ever stopped writing. Fowler's End came out in 1957, when his problems were well underway, The Implacable Hunter in 1961. New stories tumbled from him. But fewer and fewer choices remained open. Profligate with his talents from the first, now he sensed their squander. With books such as The Great Wash and A Long Cool Day in Hell he was casting about for firm ground, any firm ground.

     For me, "The Queen of Pig Island" will always be a central story in Kersh's work. This tale of Lalouette, born without arms and legs, and of Gargantua the Horror who cares for her and of Tick and Tack the Tiny Twins, all of them shipwrecked on an island, manages to compress into just over a dozen pages everything that our civilization and our being human entails. "The Queen of Pig Island" is about love, about treachery, about what society is in its deepest heart and about what men choose to be in theirs. I wonder sometimes if in his final months Gerald Kersh might not have thought back to this story, thought again of Lalouette stranded there so far from the civilization she loved, Lalouette who on that island witnessed the worst and best of which her fellow men were capable, Lalouette arduously, painstakingly scratching on paper with the pencil held in her teeth, working to make a record, to get it all down in the last minutes before, forsaken and utterly alone, she dies.


James Sallis has published over twenty books, including the acclaimed Lew Griffin mysteries. One-time editor of New Worlds, he publishes stories, poems, translations and essays widely in literary and popular magazines, reviews new books for the Washington Post, Boston Review and New York Times, and writes a review column for F&SF. Among books due this year are two collections of poems, a biography of Chester Himes, and a Collected Stories.