Book review., Books, British Empire, Curse, E. F. Benson, Fires Burn Blue, Ghost Story, Ghosts, Imperialism, Kongea, Literary criticism, M.R. James, Malaya, Not Exactly Ghosts, Possession, Sir Andrew Caldecott, Supernaturalism
There are two volumes of Sir Andrew Caldecott’s short stories, Not Exactly Ghosts and Fires Burn Blue, which were published respectively in 1947 and 48. They are only readily available today in Wordsworth’s 2007 amalgamated edition (which is entitled Not Exactly Ghosts). These are “not exactly” ghost stories due to Caldecott’s noticeable evasiveness whenever he is required to depict a ghost. Just two probable apparitions of dead people appear in the whole collection, and the first is disguised in a Santa costume. Instead, the supernatural’s modus operandi is generally either possession or else the corruption of sanity and morale which comes from being placed under a curse. The supernatural in these stories is not only distant but surprisingly materialistic, and it seems to have a policy of infiltrating our world in the guise of innocuous household objects.
The collection begins with “A Room in a Rectory” and the traditional haunted room, but we soon proceed to specific items of furniture. “Autoepitaphy” features a haunted writing desk and “Cheap and Nasty” a haunted kitchen stove. “Whiffs of the Sea” and “Quintet” both revolve around haunted pictures. In “Sonata in D Minor” there is a haunted gramophone record and in “Seated One Day at the Organ” a haunted mirror. In “Seeds of Remembrance” it is the flowers that are haunted. In “Branch Line to Benceston” it is the fire escape. Venturing outdoors in “The Pump in Thorp’s Spinney” we encounter a diabolical hydraulic pump, and in “Whiffs of the Sea” an ill-omened sea buoy. Most of the remaining stories deal with loose odds and ends, such as a cursed sapphire (“Fits of the Blues”), possessed pairs of trousers (“Quintet”) and a haunted calling-book (“A Book Entry”).
Reading Not Exactly Ghosts is occasionally like rummaging through a toybox. Javanese puppets play a pivotal role in “In Due Course,” whilst the boy of the story is treated to an inspection of stuffed tropical insects. If the praying mantises which bedevil this tale resemble gleaming, glamorous clockwork toys rather than natural creatures, the demonic spiders in “Grey Brothers” turn out to be models which are made from coconut shells. The demon eyes in “Under the Mistletoe” are made from car reflectors. “The Pump in Thorp’s Spinney” begins with a passage of possibly Caldecott’s best writing, a detailed and indulgent account of a small boy’s obsession with a toy water pump. “What’s In a Name?” chronicles another boy’s potentially psychic affinity with a pet rat.
Within this context, the otherworldly train network in “Branch Line to Benceston” is strangely reminiscent of a toy train set. “Christmas Re-union,” the most openly Jamesian of Caldecott’s ghost stories, regales us with an “original” Father Christmas: a vengeful ghost who dispenses gifts to a Christmas party, prior to bearing away his victim. This has hints of the Krampus myth, in which Christmas is the Day of Judgement in microcosm, but Caldecott’s Santa here combines the roles of the beneficent Father Christmas and the implacable Krampas, the gatherer of wheat and the burner of chaff. With his fund of toys and poems, this Santa could also serve as a caricature of Caldecott himself (Santa’s performance, like Not Exactly Ghosts, is interspersed with amateur verses). Curiously, once the ghost is identified, the horrified parents do not confiscate the children’s toys, even though it is unclear from where in this world or the next they have come from.
The preoccupation with material possessions in Not Exactly Ghosts might invite us to saunter down the tempting analytical lane laid out by Sigmund Freud, in his 1927 essay “Fetishism.” But, to transfer our footsteps to the highroad of common sense, Caldecott’s writing could more plainly reflect the experience of living through wartime. During the “make do and mend” culture of WW2, material things were valued far more than they ever had been by middle-class consumers. Furniture and commonplace objects became literally irreplaceable, and so their working lives had to be extended indefinitely. It is easy to imagine how people in these circumstances might become more conscious of the histories of the objects around them.
Nonetheless, Caldecott has to stretch pithy anecdotes about sticks of furniture to encompass portrayals of hysteria and madness. Stylistically, his stories are not often energetic enough to accommodate this stretch. When moments of drama cannot be avoided, as in the first record-playing scene in “Sonata in D Minor,” they come across as wooden and unrealistic. For our own part, it is hard to rouse strong emotions about these stories. They are typically as well written as ghost stories can get without being in any way distinguished. “Failure” seems altogether too severe a judgement, but this review is concerned with whatever milder quality has come to be instead attached to them.
Caldecott is a prime example of the Edwardian or post-Edwardian amateur writer; he is a literary cousin of MR James and Leslie Harrison Lambert, men with lofty careers in elite professions who entertained the masses in their spare time. James did this mostly at Christmas; Lambert occasionally became AJ Alan in the evenings; whereas Caldecott took to ghosts and thrills after his retirement from the imperial civil service. He had served at the bedside of Britain’s expiring empire and, in 1947, there was something about the worn-out format of the Jamesian ghost story which must have appealed to a worn-out imperialist.
In 1907, Caldecott had joined the Malayan Civil Service straight from Oxford and, after jobbing his way up the bureaucracy, he was appointed Colonial Secretary of the Straits Settlements (which included Singapore) and High Commissioner for the Malay States in 1934. Caldecott was fortunate to live through a historical period in which it was relatively easy to be a conscientious imperialist. According to the historian Robert Heussler, Caldecott was one of several “outspoken advocates of Malay rights” in the reformist administration of Sir Cecil Clementi, and he also wanted to see more native officers in the Malay Civil Service. Still, this did not prevent him from being, in Heussler’s words, “a shrewd calculator of the coordinates of success,” and from ensuring that his progressive values harmlessly complemented his own career advancement.
1935 saw Caldecott appointed Governor of Hong Kong, and over a year later he had hopped another few places across the board to become Governor of Ceylon. Here, Caldecott’s belief that the natives should have more responsibility harmlessly complemented his own notion of himself as a powerful, responsibility-delivering governor. The historian A. Jeyaratnam Wilson, writing in 1988, calls Caldecott “unsuspecting and unimaginative” – unsuspecting because the subsequent discrimination against Ceylon’s Indian Tamil minority, which stoked the Sri Lankan civil war, can be potentially blamed upon the decisions taken by the architects of the dominion’s independence (though Caldecott, incidentally, was a Tamil speaker). John O’Regan, who authored the entry on Caldecott for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, takes perhaps a more realistic view when venturing that, “Ceylon owed to him much of her trouble-free progress towards the independence which she attained in 1948.”
One might theorise that the ghost stories which were written after Caldecott’s retirement would allow long-suppressed anti-establishment instincts to finally run rampant. After all, MR James appears to have written his own ghost stories in a spirit of masochism, in sending out little versions of himself, or mini representatives from his antiquarian class, to be thrillingly manhandled by vengeful relics. James tales thus provide mock or alternate-reality “warnings” in which mouldering things are allowed to reassert their right to remain undisturbed. Anybody who is looking for equivalent game-playing in Caldecott’s fiction, however, will be disappointed. His tales are Jamesian in their format but not modernist in any other respect. His liberalism, or rather his realism, about the colonial transfer of power served a broader, more conservative ambition to see as much of the status quo as possible survive the empire. There are no rustling natives and nothing, in fact, to make the confident imperialist shudder and reflect upon the transience of all things.
Caldecott’s imperial stories are set in the fictional Far Eastern colony of Kongea and initially this narrative device might seem like a dubious one. Named after an international border of the pre-1920 de-nationalised zone between Germany and Denmark, Kongea is an entirely depersonalised country. Of course, self-contained fictitious countries appear in novels by Ronald Firbank and Evelyn Waugh, mostly as a way of indicating that the author cannot be bothered to engage with a real nation. Nevertheless, Kongea is pretty obviously Malaya, the colony where Caldecott had spent the first two thirds of his career. The blogger Nina Zumel is wrong to identify the portrayal of Kongea as “no doubt based on Caldecott’s experiences in Ceylon.” For one thing, this colony is introduced in “In Due Course” with Malayan place names.
In Kongea, time has been frozen at a point prior to the Second World War, and this conflict, along with the totalitarian ideologies which had helped to cause it, never darkens Caldecott’s writing. Though Malaya was still a crown colony in 1947 (finally achieving full independence a decade later), there is conceivably a wistful rebuke to its postcolonial agitators woven somewhere into Not Exactly Ghosts. Compare the bloody chaos of the Far East during and after WW2 to the garden peace and calm of Kongea beforehand. The project which unites and underlies Caldecott’s stories is ultimately that of conferring the kind of suburban innocence seen in PG Wodehouse’s fiction upon this colony.
We might feel frustrated that Caldecott did not draw upon his long and fascinating career to author realistic accounts of colonial life. If only, we might think, his fiction could be more communicative. The ghosts are seemingly in peril of misting up the rose-tinted spectacles, but the whole point of the ghosts is their smallness. In these stories, Kongea’s generically “native” beliefs are confined safely to the private sphere, and the injustices which its ghosts and curses rectify are isolated to episodes of personal or local history.
The English stories within Not Exactly Ghosts recall EF Benson’s Spook Stories (1928), which lovingly pawed over an array of English country houses as if they were jewels. The ghosts in these stories usually only ever petition the living to correct ancient neighbourhood wrongs. Caldecott at times seems to be reassuring himself that he has rediscovered Kongea in England. Alec Judeson from “In Due Course” imports Javanese paraphernalia to the unambiguously English community of Tillingford, but not the Malayan curse which one might assume has been practically guaranteed by his earlier visions of a phantom mantis. Instead, the story’s demonic forces are unleashed by an English spiritualist. Judeson’s blameless Javanese shadow puppet is superimposed over the English landscape and mistaken for an English bogeyman.
The interchangeability of England and Kongea is elsewhere evident in the stories “An Exchange of Notes” and “Final Touches.” In the former, a vicar has to “remedy a division of his parishioners into two camps,” those of native villagers and incoming “daily-breaders” whose “mental landscape remained essentially urban.” In the latter, the modern village of Boldrington is still haunted by an “old feud” between two families who “never vote the same way at elections, or at village meetings.” Yet these English disputes are most likely modelled on Caldecott’s experiences in Malaya and a glance at Heussler’s British Rule in Malaya (1981) supplies the details:
Towards the end of the twenties officers who had been disturbed by what they saw as a widening gap of understanding between the British and many of the younger men – Malay and other – began to ponder ways of bringing the races together again. Malays, Chinese and Indians who had been to Europe for higher education, somewhat ironically, were the ones who seemed most disaffected.
Heussler finds that the solution was to set up Rotary Clubs and that Caldecott was the first president of the Kuala Lumpur club. The clubs “opposed cliquiness, issuing tickets with place numbers at each meeting so that one never knew whom one would be seated next to at table.” Note that Caldecott’s consequent stories are not moulding English community disputes upon ethnic or tribal ones. The Rotary Clubs were responding to an estrangement within the colonial elite, which Caldecott could quite easily transplant from one middle class to another.
If “Decastroland” can be compared to the fiction of EF Benson, it is unfortunately not to Spook Stories but to Benson’s Mapp and Lucia comedies (1920-39). Kongea provides the same landscape of petty artistic snobbery as Tilling, the Sussex hometown of these warring ladies (and observe the reiteration of this name in “In Due Course”). From O’Regan’s contribution to the ODNB, our author sounds like a bit of a Lucia himself: “Artistically gifted, Caldecott painted, was a skilled pianist, [and] had a happy talent for light verse…”
If I can put my finger upon what is so unique about Not Exactly Ghosts, it is Caldecott’s disinterest in mining Kongea for melodrama and superstition. Native treasures, plucked from their rightful places by grasping white hands, impel dark forces such as the goddess Vahrunda (who is mentioned in three of the stories) to dabble tastefully in revenge. Far from plumbing the depths of Cthulhuian darkness, Kongea’s goddesses exhibit Lucia’s knack for subtle, genteel manipulation. And as when Lucia schemes against Mapp, Vahrunda is always sure to have polite society on her side.
“Light in the Darkness” and “Fits of the Blues” both portray the traditional native curse, but the potted horror of these stories derives from the way in which their curses are eerily condoned by the imperialist system. The meddling Martin Lorimer, the victim from the first story, has been already rendered an outcast amongst the imperialists due to his “disregard for Kongean religious sensibilities” and he is an “object of disapproval” in the European Club. The villain of the second story, Dudley Lenbury, commits a similar imperialist faux pas when stealing a divine jewel. Once again, Lenbury cannot look to his own class for comfort when the curse strikes: “They would quite likely have insisted upon a return of the stone to Kokupatta for reimmersion in the lagoon and have written him off as an unprincipled and untrustworthy agent.” That such a sentence could have been written about the British empire, without any ostensible irony, is indeed a marvel.
The Colonel Kurtz of “Grey Brothers,” the unspectacularly-named Hilary Hillbarn, is similarly cast out of colonial society. Kongean superstition, however, maintains a neutral attitude towards Hillbarn, neither cursing him nor offering any encouragement. The Governor thinks that Hillbarn’s delusion is based upon an old aboriginal legend, but we can surely recognise his giant spiders as coming straight from MR James’ “The Ash-Tree” (1904). Hillbarn’s hammy, cod-medieval “manifesto,” with its “Hounds of Death, high-kennelled in the hills” is more Victorian Gothic than authentically Kongean. The spiders in Hillbarn’s hut, fashioned as they are from coconuts, seem to be a deliberate allusion to Fred Heatherton’s cheerful song “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts,” which had been written a few years before in 1944. The increasingly anti-dramatic trend in this horror story is now complete.
If the colonial Governor in “A Book Entry” is carried off by a curse from his violent past, Kongea characteristically had him down as a “bad ‘un.” The Governor and his rude doctor do not fit into colonial society and everyone is glad when he leaves. His wrangle with the witchdoctor “U Nomi” is more of a private grievance than a clash of civilisations, and in fact Kongea only provides a setting for a supernatural drama which has been scripted overseas, in a vaguely African rather than a vaguely Far Eastern colony.
Caldecott may have personally endorsed Malayan self-determination, but his stories imagine a world in which dissent and strife issue exclusively from the past. The present, in his fiction, is serenely perfect, and only ever occasionally disturbed by lingering historical injustices. Unfortunately for Caldecott, he was writing about a present which no longer existed even for his own class. Malaya, the most piteous ghost in his fiction, is not on stage. It is the theatre itself.
As we have seen, these neat, unemotional ghost stories can still viably, and even cleverly, dramatise a complex mix of feelings about British imperialism. But the format of the Jamesian ghost story was getting tired and it only seemed more tired when surprised in a tropical climate. Later writers, such as Shirley Jackson and Robert Aickman would have to confront the need to take greater liberties with the format, narrative, characters, and atmosphere of the modernist ghost story.
[The MR James Podcast recently discussed the theme of materialism in ghost stories in light of James’ “The Malice of Inanimate Objects.”]