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Not Exactly Ghosts

Today we’re back in supernatural fiction mode, so we’re focusing on Javanese theatre and the Foreign Office. Obviously. Our feature piece is on the rather neglected author Sir Andrew Caldecott. This happened a bit by accident, as usual. Not long ago we interviewed Mansfield Dark, and we mentioned shadow puppetry. Imagine my surprise therefore (as they used to say) when I was flicking through Caldecott and came across a scary story of his about, yes, shadow puppetry. I love these serendipitous discoveries, except when I have to clean them up afterwards.

(I learned the word serendipity from Dr Who on the TV, of all places. Jon Pertwee used it, I think, to the lovely Katy Manning.)

by Bassano, half-plate film negative, 7 October 1947
by Bassano, half-plate film negative, 7 October 1947

Sir Arthur Caldecott (1884 – 1951) was a British colonial administrator in the early part of last century. He seems to have been a decent chap and a popular man locally wherever he served, known for an unusual ability to negotiate settlements between different ethnic groups. His History of Jelebu (in Malaysia) is crammed with folklore, genealogies, inter-tribal relationships and numerous references to previous British administrators misunderstanding local terms and customs. Much of his knowledge came from time spent directly with the local tribes:

“The Dato’ Penghulus of Jelebu liaye continued in unbroken line from the rule of Moyang Salleli to the present day. The law of succession is that the office should rotate among the three loaris berundang in the following order: Ulu Jelebu, Sarin and Kemin. The inclusion of the last two communities must have been the outcome of a pakat, as Ulu Jelebu provided the first four penghulus in succession.”

It’s not exactly known when he wrote his creepy stories. There are suggestions that at least some were written while he was posted out East in the 20s and 30s, but his first collection Not Exactly Ghosts didn’t see print until 1947. The second, Fires Burn Blue, came out in 1948. Unfortunately he died three years later.

He is often described as ‘Jamesian’ in style, but we feel that only a few of his stories fit that description. He does reference parsons, old texts and historical events in a Jamesian manner, certainly, and shares a distanced quality. David Stuart Davies cites both M R James and Algernon Blackwood as influences.

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Caldecott brings his own quiet humour to the table, however, and an approach which is almost tongue-in-cheek sometimes. The title of the first collection, Not Exactly Ghosts, is a very accurate one. He deals in possibilities and suppositions, even in the consideration of an entirely parallel world, rather than proven manifestations or creeping hairy things. In some of the stories, you cannot be sure if you have witnessed a supernatural occurrence or not. It may have been madness, a mistake, or the susceptible mind.  A Victim of Medusa is a short story which illustrates this perfectly.

We suspect that their relative lack of popularity is down to that evasive nature – he doesn’t necessarily define his chills with the immediacy of other ghost story writers. Sometimes the only true monstrosity is human behaviour, above and beyond any supernatural element (though there are scary moments).

The stories are intelligent fictions with interesting characters. An added bonus is that Caldecott’s endings are often surprisingly low key, something which he uses very effectively. He is a master of wry asides and observations. This, for example, from Quintet, where a man’s trousers stand up and walk to the door:

“Markson used to say that his first feeling of intense uneasiness, almost of fear, suddenly gave way to the sharp realisation that they were the only trousers he had with him; and that, if they eloped, he would be a semi-nudist.”

Let’s deal with the Jamesian aspect first, and cite the two obvious stories, A Room in a Rectory and Christmas Reunion.

A Room in a Rectory could easily be mistaken for a piece by old M R himself. It delves into church and clerical history, with remnants of dark practices, and introduces the Bishop of Kongea, a fictional country based on Caldecott’s experiences of Malaya and Ceylon (see later). It should work for any lover of James’ style.

Christmas Reunion is more famous than Caldecott’s other stories due to the fact that it is specifically based on a note by James in his ‘Stories I have tried to write‘ essay (1929).

“There were possibilities, too, in the Christmas cracker, if the right people pull it, and if the motto which they find inside has the right message on it. They will probably leave the party early, pleading indisposition; but very likely a previous engagement of long standing would be the more truthful excuse.”

Caldecott takes this on directly and writes such a story. The fun is that he mentions M R James in the story itself and one of his characters supplies the above passage as part of it. It’s quite nicely done.

Of the non-Jamesian stories, three or four stand out. Branch Line to Benceston is an unusual tale about one worried man and two lives which we can’t discuss further without spoiling it. It is well worth reading, though. Sonata in D Minor is an essentially a study of two married people punishing each other unpleasantly, and is interesting for its twists. And the music is a crucial element.

There is, as far as we know, no such thing as Siedel’s Sonata in D Minor, or the disturbing recording of it named in the story, but in another one of those strange moments, we came across a Sonata in D Minor performed by Siedel. Heinrich Biber was a post-Baroque composer who wrote his Mystery or Rosary Sonatas in the 1670s, and Annegret Siedel is a contemporary performer. We were mildly spooked.

In Due Course is the story which introduces shadow puppetry. We had to have it in because of its details on Javanese shadow plays.

“They had been cut in thick buffalo hide and elaborately painted in gold, silver, crimson, saffron, brown and indigo; but on one side alone, the being left polished but bare: for a shadow drama is watched from both sides of a stretched sheet – one one side, spectators see the painted surfaces of the figures against the white cloth and in the full glare of footlights; on the other, the clear-cut shadows of them projected against the cloth.”

There is no doubt that Caldecott must have seen wayang kulit (shadow puppets) out east, and yet as far as we’re aware, modern wayang work is only viewed through the screen, as outlines, rendering the painting on the figures purely ornamental. But then we’re into longdogs, not complex Far East performance arts, so what do we know?

javanese

Anyway, if you like shadow shows, praying mantises and strange poetry, then give the story a go.

Poetry seems to have been a particular interest of Caldecott’s, because it crops up in a number of his tales. Much is dark and story-related, but it is, we feel, important to share this one-off with you:

To a Jelly-fish

Out of proper respect for you, Sir,

I shall call you Mr Medusa

(A name that I took

From our animal book);

Gentlemen in Debrett or Kelly

Don’t have names like Fish, A. Jelly –

The other aspect of Caldecott worth mentioning is this matter of Kongea. Six of the stories are set in Kongea, and while they have an inevitable colonial air about them, some are very effective. They reflect something of Caldecott’s understanding that ‘things are different there’. One of the more horrible of these stories is Grey Brothers, especially because it is either a study of insanity or something far more worrying.  Kongea, drawn from Malaya and Ceylon, is treated throughout both collections as entirely real, with numerous mentions of it.

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So there. A neglected author, well worth a look. We would love to link to the many editions of his works in print, but we can’t because they don’t exist, so you’ll have to settle for second hand. You can still get used copies of the Wordsworth double collection fairly cheaply.

And next time, we try to find an unknown Czech horror poet who hasn’t been translated and a breed of sighthound that no-one’s heard of and no-one likes. Total obscurity beckons…

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