A Christmas Story, Books, Christmas, Edwardian Literature, European Bison, History, Horror, Jeddah, John William Wall, Literary criticism, Mammoth, Masseyev, Poland, Ringstones and Other Curious Tales, Russia, Russian Revolution, Samoyedic Peoples, Samoyeds, Sarban, Siberia, Vodka, Woolly Mammoth, Zubrowka Vodka
John William Wall, who wrote under the name “Sarban,” published his first volume of fiction, Ringstones and Other Curious Tales, in 1951. Ringstones may initially seem like a belated work of Edwardian literature which had ended up adrift in the mid-twentieth century. The nom de plume “Sarban” suggests a little brother of Saki – the former is Persian for “camel-driver,” whilst the latter is the name of a reclusive Brazilian monkey (although Wall’s pseudonym was actually chosen by his publisher [pg55]) – whilst in common with his fellow wily Yorkshireman W.F. Harvey, Sarban’s horrors bubble gently beneath a dry, homely prose.
Perhaps we should frown at the old-fashioned Sarban lingering beside the Edwardian fireside in a comfortable armchair, with the ghosts of a previous literary generation, rather than acting his age. In a letter to Mike Ashley, Sarban himself claimed that he began writing in the “vein” of H.G. Wells and Walter de la Mare, whilst Sarban’s biographer Mark Valentine distinguishes the “likely influences” of such essentially-Edwardian stalwarts as John Buchan and P.G. Wodehouse. Yet Sarban actually acquaints the very worthy storytelling of Edwardian fiction with the unruly narrative experiments which would characterise later, “postmodern” literature. The result is not a nostalgic retreat into history, but a great deal of mischief-making at the expense of established tradition and apparent “influences.”
The collection begins with a snigger. As Jerome K Jerome once quipped, “Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories… It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.” Instead of being told around M.R. James’ immortal fireside to an audience of breathless bachelors, however, Sarban’s “A Christmas Story” has got lost in the inhospitable desert outside Jeddah.
A parcel of drunken British diplomatic staff are attempting to celebrate Christmas – they dress up in homemade costumes, haunted by the “lingering memory of Yuletide mummers in England,” but the natives cannot recognise “anything more comic than usual in our appearance.” We may protest that this Christmas Story does not seem to be very Christmassy, and it may take a while to recognise that the holiday antics of a traditional English Christmas have been transplanted into the sort of dark, desert town where Mary and Joseph reputedly sought shelter on the first Christmas Eve.
As in that sleepy town of Bethlehem, “by nine or ten at night the dark sandy lanes were deserted but for pariah dogs and families of goats settled with weary wheezings to doze the still, close night away.” The carol singers traipse from household to household, just as Mary searched for room in an inn, but this lot are crassly oblivious to the poverty around them. The conventions of the traditional Jamesian ghost story are also discarded – Masseyev’s story is not shared around a roaring fireside, but whispered in a discreet corner of an otherwise noisy party.
The loneliness and homesickness which the narrator must assuredly feel remains bravely unmentioned, but it roams about like an animal to find its reflection in two successive images of utter dejection. The White Russian Masseyev broods over the (virtually) extinct European bison: “They are all gone now. There were a few in the deep forest of Lithuania until the Revolution. The Tzar preserved them.” The narrator himself recalls seeing a bison in London Zoo, which he refers to by the more feudal-sounding “Regent’s Park.” The ruined old-world grandeur of the “huge, tired, solitary beast” is compared to the gaping proles who try to feed it “monkey-nuts.”
Masseyev’s subsequent story of the mammoth is at least a little more festive, although the Winter Wonderland of Christmas tradition has become a direful killing field, albeit one still decorated with “little fir-trees like Christmas trees.” This landscape gobbles up the mammoth as if it was a gigantic turkey. Or perhaps the agonies of this fat lump, watched by “six little men dressed all in skins,” suggest an elf coup d’etat against Santa. But this story is conceivably more mindful of the original Christmas message. When the fallen airmen demand to know what meat the Samoyeds are feeding them, they are doubtlessly suspicious that it may be human (“Samoyed” is Russian for “self-eater.”) Yet it transpires that the Samoyeds and their Russian guests are not being saved from starvation by the body of any mere mortal, but by the remains of a mammoth whose sacrifice echoes the destiny of Christ.
Almost everybody mentioned in this story, whether man or beast, is out of date. The singing diplomats are exiled from the old world, and they now form a sort of human scum, floating harmlessly on the top of dark and hugely inexplicable societies – a detachment symbolised by Masseyev’s aeroplanes, which circle aimlessly over the desert (and which he himself has given up flying). Masseyev is exiled to a desert nation which could not be more unlike Russia, his companion was executed by the Bolsheviks, the Samoyeds were dispersed after the Revolution, whilst the mammoth, who materialises at the climax of the tale in the manner of a spectre from a traditional English ghost story, is actually making a final appearance rather than returning from the dead:
“…it was drowning there on the dead Arctic edge of the world where there was neither forest nor field, land nor water, sun nor snow, but only an interminable chaos of cold between day and night, and there was no ear in all the world or in all time to understand its pain. Something that time had forgotten was drowning there, alone, in the gulfs of the freezing dark.”
Whatever is the meaning of this mystifying symbol, which grimly struggles to reconcile Christ’s tragic destiny with the holiday spirits of his birthday? When surprised within “A Christmas Story,” the mammoth’s tragedy is unexpectedly hilarious. We may or may not be able to empathise with a drowning mammoth, but in a Christmas story with only a gratuitously indirect reference to the nativity, the death of the mammoth has replaced the birth of Christ as the true meaning of Christmas. And the tidings are not of comfort and joy, but of pure woe! Or rather, the darkness of Winter – which Anglo Saxon peoples have historically appropriated Christmas to combat – has now triumphed in the least likeliest of circumstances: at a drunken party, in the roasting desert heat.
The mammoth is not a supernatural creature, but merely a lost one, and perhaps Masseyev has to resort to a mammoth because his first beast did not quite hit the desired target. Not only has the European bison departed Russia, as Lithuania and Poland, where these animals had lived, have equally skedaddled. Masseyev’s beloved “Zubrovka” is today marketed as a Polish vodka. The Russians have to content themselves with a monstrous, shapeless creature lost in the snow, except that the mammoth is associated foremostly with the indigenous Siberians, who keep to themselves rather than actively subscribing to Russian rule.
Masseyev’s “white” Russia is now lost in history, and as remote as the memory of snow in the desert. If “A Christmas Story” ends with the partygoers squinting up at Canis Major, the indication is surely that this sorry tale has, like Masseyev’s country or the Vice-Consul’s pidgin Latin, gone to the dogs.
[See here for more information on Sarban’s fortunes in the world of E-publishing. On the topic of “weird fiction,” Tychy previously reviewed E.F. Benson’s Spook Stories and took on Laird Barron’s zombie hordes. Ed.]