To write horror, at least when adhering to the classical method of M.R. James, you must always begin with a shiver of unease. The aesthetic climax is not a fruit which you will locate somewhere on this great tree that you have grown – it is instead the pip which will make the whole tree. In “Stories I Have Tried To Write” (1929), James rehearses the process of commencing a horror story. He has a number of scenarios which are not yet plots. They involve a creepy encounter on a train, “the touch on the shoulder that comes when you are walking quickly homewards in the dark hours,” the poisoned Christmas cracker, and so on. Unfortunately for James, these ideas had previously “refused to blossom in the surroundings I had devised for them.”
The pip for “Up At The House” was a scenario which had run in my mind for several years. There is a dinner party at a country house. There is faraway breaking glass – a burglary! The low-grade aristocratic diners summon the police, who arrive and unpack themselves like a nest of Russian dolls. There is the glamorous Chief Inspector in his tux and his stolid subordinates. They have secured the house, but for now, with the burglars at large, the dinner party must remain where they are. Suddenly, one of the partygoers fields a discreet call on their mobile phone. The caller’s voice is scrambled but the callee can still make out the frantic chant, “they are not real policemen!” The line goes dead.
The partygoer bundles away their mobile phone and glances around to see if they have been observed. What should they do next?
For me, this produces a tingle of the required voltage. I know that there is not enough coldness in my writing to really make a success of such a scenario. Once I have put my characters on their feet and I have twisted their heads to make them talk, they tend to prattle all over the horror. What has been of tremendous help, however, is to have a literary critic as talented as Ombhurbhuva walking so publically into the scenario’s gaping trap. “Clichés uttered by policemen are not comfortable,” Ombhurbhuva warned back in December, when objecting to the series’ apparent slide into cliché.
Ombhurbhuva is one of these Catholics you sometimes meet who have slid into mysticism. I knew one once who thought that Thomas Merton had been electrocuted in his shower by the Vatican’s secret agents to prevent him from coming out as a Buddhist. Why do you never encounter a Protestant who has developed a sudden hankering for esoteric fourth-century Himalayan verses? Well, I don’t especially wish to restart the Troubles, but it’s probably because Protestants are just too sensible. If history is herding all of us educated Western people into atheism, then Ombhurbhuva is one of these nimble sheep that has leapt past the shepherd’s outstretched hands, into an unexpected direction. But it is all capriciousness!
He is also a talented literary critic. Why should I repeat this statement after his interpretation of “Up At The House” shows less nous than the puzzling of schoolchildren over Of Mice and Men? He has made the elementary mistake of commenting on the joke before he has heard the punchline. He has made the category error of comparing Tychy’s middlebrow merriment to James Joyce’s steeply more highbrow “The Dead.” There are exaggerated pauses over not-really clichés on the surface of the prose, whilst he has deliberately unseen the innovation of the format. He has misidentified Tychy as a Catholic and on the question of stylistic influence he has got the wrong Catholic (it should be Waugh, not Chesterton).
Far from being in thrall to familiar, sticky rituals, as Ombhurbhuva would have it, the most significant part of any discernible Catholic trend in modern literature demands sternly, “Get behind me, cliché!” The combination of the hardboiled and the gorgeous in Ronald Firbank’s prose might today resemble the result of a bizarre mating between Ernest Hemingway and Oscar Wilde. Yet Firbank, with Waugh as his keenest student, had developed a narrative fervour of unique force, an unerring automatic swerve away from the contrary pole of the clichéd. Each sentence lays out a perfect string of pearls and there is never any gasp of horror over a glimpse of plastic.
I wish, of course, that I could say the same about my own prose. But I recommend Ombhurbhuva to you because there is in the end the very same swerve in his writing. His literary criticism – indeed all of his writing on any topic – is gibberish but the prose is always exquisite. So exquisite, in fact, that his website has gone some way to restore my ever-ailing faith in blogging. The articles are miraculously concise; every idle sentence is dribbled with mesmerising exactness. Maybe if you binge on meditation, which is like hard drugs but without the alcohol and socialising, then your frazzled brain can come to author prose such as this. Anybody who is serious about writing, on the internet and in the twenty-first century, should make themselves a student of this website, its format, and its prose.