Thursday, 5 September 2013

The Killer and the Slain by Hugh Walpole

It needs also a cynical humour; although Roy laughed so much I never thought he had a very quick sense of humour, and I am quite sure that he was incapable of cynicism.

This is Maugham’s verdict on Kear/Walpole and it seems borne out in the novels. The situations he describes are bizarre but he foregoes the humorous possibilities that might lighten the story and make it flow better. Of course the grotesque, baldly related, has its own grim comedy and the restricted length of The Killer and the Slain brings out the irony of juxtaposition. He is not allowed the luxury of length that might dissipate the effects. Those are many.

First of all the dedication:

That is a significant nod as they share the theme of spiritual oppression and possession.
jolly corner

The novel is related in the form of narrative statements by the protagonist John Ozias Talbot now 36 years of age. He begins with an account of his schooling and his first encounter with his bete noir who at first seems a saviour. John Talbot as a shy and timid schoolboy is taken up by Jimmy Turnstall who is popular and burly enough to prevent the other being bullied. It becomes very clear that he guards him only to have exclusive tormenting rights.

He was always laughing, joking, calling out, on the move. As a small boy (he was the same age as myself, born in the same month) he was friendly to all the world. I suppose, to use modern rather cheap terms, you would say he was an extrovert. I was an introvert. But there was more in it than that. He used his breeziness and heartiness to cover his secret designs. Even then, at ten years of age, he was plotting how he could use everybody and everything to his own advantage. He was helped, of course, by the fact that he never had any morals whatever.

He begins to oppress Talbot and it is his chief amusement to claim a special affinity with him even though Talbot loathes him. ‘Jacko’ is the contemptuous name Tunstall gives him:

‘You know, Jacko, I DO like you, although you’re such a goup. I think you really like me too, although you’re a bit afraid of me. I like that as well.’

‘I hate you! I hate you!’ I cried, breaking away from him.

In time Tunstall moves away to London and Talbot remains in the seaside town of Seaborne in the county of Glebeshire running the antique shop established by his deceased father and writing novels. At the date of the First Narrative, 1936, he has had 3 published, the last of which The Gossip-monger is a success. He has married by this time, a beautiful if cold woman called Eve who takes over the antique business running it successfully and allowing him to focus on his writing. Then Turnstall turns up. He is now a well known portrait painter and has taken a house where he intends to stay for part of the year. When they inevitably meet Talbot makes it clear that he wants nothing to do with him:

Then he said: ‘Don’t you want to know what’s been happening to me all this time?’
‘I don’t particularly care.’
‘That IS a rude thing to say. All the same I’ll tell you. I’m quite a successful painter. Hadn’t you heard? Especially with portraits. I paint people as they’d like to be. That’s the thing. That’s what you ought to do. What’s the use of writing these books that nobody wants to read? Simply wasting your time. I’ve made quite a bit of money, and, like a wise man, I married a woman with money.

This is the beginning of a pervasive occupation of the weaker man’s mind and spirit. The title of the book is an indication of where this leads but there is a Mr. Hyde twist to it that does not require a special potion. Is Talbot’s transformation a psychotic delusion or the absorption by an incubus?

There are excellently realised minor characters. Cheeseman aka The Rat a loathsome blackmailer is fascinatingly repellant.
I heard all this from Basil Cheeseman, a friend of his, and about Cheeseman, known to myself and some others as ‘The Rat’, I must say a word or two. Physically he resembled a rat, for he was a little man with very prominent white sharp upper teeth. He had reddish-brown hair and restless whisky-coloured eyes. When he smiled his teeth jutted out over his lower lip. He was, and is, an evil little man; a journalist by profession who had settled down in a ramshackle cottage near Seaborne and there indulged in shabby orgies with girls from London or visitors to the resort. He made a living by picking up paragraphs and sending them to London and the provincial papers. He had, and has, as malicious and dirty-minded a soul as exists in the world to-day. He was the very man for Tunstall. He was more evil, I don’t doubt, than Tunstall and yet I did not hate him half as much. He had no power over me. I thought of him possibly as a kind of emanation from Tunstall. When Tunstall couldn’t come to me himself he sent the Rat instead, and I can see him now with a faint shiny stubble on his cheeks, his projecting teeth and false grin, his restless cat-like eyes. ‘He’s come back and he’s going to stay,’ the Rat said, eyeing me curiously. His malicious curiosity knew no limit. He had long ago discovered my hatred and fear of Tunstall, but what was Tunstall’s hold over me? I did not look as though I had any vices. And, farther than that, why did Tunstall bother about me at all? What was my attraction for Tunstall?

This is an excellent novel and should be on a list of the neglected classics of the macabre.

What of the retort to Maugham that I mentioned previously?
witch's hat
One of the novels Talbot had published was called The Gridiron that Rose the well known novelist had liked although the public did not concur.

The Gridiron, into which I put so much good work—a novel, I am still convinced, with something unique in it, something that has never been done before and will never be done again—appeared and was dead as soon as born. And yet not quite so! For it roused the interest of certain critics, and Rose, the famous novelist, wrote me an enthusiastic letter concerning it. Now I consider Rose’s novels very poor indeed—old-fashioned, romantic, platitudinous— but he IS a very well known writer and when he reviews a novel he helps, undoubtedly, its popularity. I have often enough inveighed against the practice of one novelist reviewing another novelist and have especially criticised Rose in this connection, but after he had said some fine quotable words about The Gridiron in The Message I felt rather differently about him. His letter to me was kind and enthusiastic, if patronising, and when I next saw the picture of his high and shining forehead in a newspaper I felt, I must confess, quite friendly towards it.

There was in The Gossip-monger a certain dry humour and irony and it happened that the public fancied in one of the figures of my story a caricature of Rose himself. This helped its sale, and Rose was very magnanimous, alluding, humorously, in his review to the caricature as though he had enjoyed it; as a matter of fact I heard afterwards from a friend of his that it hurt him very much. It was Rose’s great ambition in life, I think, to be considered a noble character without being thought at the same time a prig—no easy ambition

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