‘You cannot tell a ghost-story convincingly to a man who is sitting in the sun at half-past nine in the morning.’
Barry Pain, ‘Not on the Passenger-List’ (1915)
‘If you wrote at all,’ sneers one character to another in Barry Pain’s The Octave of Claudius, ‘it would turn out – let me see – a novel with a plot to it, with adventures in it.’ There’s not much doubt which of the two characters has Pain’s sympathy; he never was a fan of pretentious experimentation, as his description elsewhere of an artist makes clear: ‘She had that rare gift – originality without eccentricity – for which eccentricity without originality is so common a substitute.’
Barry Eric Odell Pain was born in 1864, and began his literary career while still a classics student at Cambridge. His work first appeared in the Cambridge Fortnightly, a journal which – the artist Roger Fry later remembered – ‘was got up by Mr N. Wedd, Mr E.F. Benson and myself, mainly in order to provide an outlet for Mr Barry Pain’s writing, for we had acclaimed with enthusiasm his outstanding talent’. When that venture collapsed, Pain found a new outlet with stories in the undergraduate periodical The Granta and subsequently in Punch.
Some of these latter were collected in his first book, In a Canadian Canoe (1891), and thereafter he never stopped publishing. Wikipedia lists some sixty books, the final two coming in 1927, the year before his death.
Over the last fifty years or so, his most widely read work has probably been his stories of Eliza, and his ghost and supernatural fiction, the latter having often been anthologized. Nonetheless, he’s not as well remembered as I think he should be.
Perhaps his problem, as with AG Macdonell, is that he was too wide-ranging in his work to be easily categorized, and not highbrow enough to be venerated. There are some genre pieces, but even they are shot through with elements from outside – principally a lightly satirical outlook that keeps on creeping in.
On his death, obituary-writers drew attention to the warmth of his writing: ‘Pain’s humour was of the school to which Jerome K. Jerome and W.W. Jacobs belonged. It was clean; it hit hard but there was neither malice nor cynicism in it.’ And they argued that he was a serious artist:
Not only did he possess the true humorist’s power of seeing the divergence of individual cases from standard types, but he had at his command a quality of wistfulness, almost of sadness, which distinguished his work from that which aimed merely at farcical results. It was not pessimism, for it was tempered with a constant pride in man’s courage and unselfishness; rather was it the mark of his ambition, as a conscientious artist, to present, so far as he could, the whole human comedy.
The following five books are the best things I’ve read of his. All come from his great years before the First World War; the stuff I know from after the war is less convincing: class delineations, on which he played so well, had changed, and it feels as though he knew that his lightness of touch was more appropriate to the Edwardian era, before the mass-slaughter of the Western Front.
The Octave of Claudius (1897)
‘This is Mr Barry Pain’s first complete novel,’ observed the press, ‘and should arouse some curiosity on that score alone.’ By 1897, Pain was a respected figure in literary London, with five volumes of short stories to his name and the reputation of being a smart young humourist. But, he recalled sometime later, he had been warned by the influential editor of the National Observer that he needed to spread his wings:
In 1891 I received some letters from W.E. Henley in which he advised me to do no humorous work, with the exception of parody, but to devote myself to serious work. I thought then – and still think – that this advice was good, though I have not been able to follow it as closely as I should have wished.
The Octave of Claudius, his first original book – as opposed to anthologies of magazine pieces – was his attempt to do just that, to break out from the ‘humorous work’.
Claudius Sandell used to be a student at Cambridge, one of the brightest of his generation, but he left without completing his studies and now he’s fallen on hard times. He’s quarrelled with his father – and had his allowance cut off – and his attempts to become a writer have resulted in nothing but rejection slips. He is found, literally penniless and starving, lying unconscious in a ditch, close to death, and taken into a nearby house to recover.
It seems his luck has turned. The only question is which way. For his rescuer is Dr Gabriel Lamb, a generous and kindly host undoubtedly, but also one of those deranged scientists who seemed to be so thick on the ground at the end of the nineteenth century. Like Dr Raymond in Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894), he’s seeking a subject for an unspecified but undoubtedly horrific research project. And like the anti-hero of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), he’s obsessed with exploring the ramifications of Darwinian theory.
‘My work is not ordinary; it is on a higher plane. The time has come for man to hasten his own evolution. For the slow, crude modifications of Nature, he must substitute his own thoughts, his own researches,’ Lamb explains. ‘I see – yes, in my mind’s eye, I actually see – this new humanity. It walks erect cringing to no mystery. It hold the keys of life or death, of heaven and hell. It is the master of its own fate.’
And, like all such would-be benefactors of humanity, he cannot be bound by conventional morality: ‘the loss of life to one individual is nothing, as compared with the gain to the race.’
As Claudius gradually recovers, Dr Lamb offers him a way of expressing his gratitude for having been saved from certain death. Claudius will be given eight days of freedom – and eight thousand pounds to ensure that he can do whatever he wishes – at the end of which period, he will become Lamb’s property, without any say in how, or whether, he lives or dies. With nothing to bind him to this world, Claudius accepts the deal.
And then he falls in love.
It’s a neat version of the Faustian pact that works because the threat – though vague – lurks menacingly in the shadows of the story, allowing Pain to play out what is effectively a social comedy in the foreground.
Or, at least, I think that’s the case; certainly, it feels to me that there’s a menacing undertone. Looking through the contemporary newspaper reviews, however, the majority opinion seemed to be that this is simply a comedy.
‘It is a singularly thrilling story, impossible to lay down, but the chief merits and the chief charms of the book lie in its humour, its satire, its subtle studies of character, its vivid description and its brilliant conversations,’ said one reviewer. ‘The plot is thoroughly preposterous and as thoroughly amusing,’ suggested another. And a third added:
Mr Barry Pain has written such successful short stories that the usual doubt was expressed whether he was capable of sustained effort. The Octave of Claudius certainly gives him an immediate place among the brighter and lighter novelists without a purpose except the pleasant one of charming us out of ourselves.
The only real doubt was whether the comedy wasn’t perhaps a little tasteless: ‘The Octave of Claudius may appear to many readers a rather flippant satire on serious subjects, scientific and social.’
There were very few who took it in any other spirit. ‘It would be difficult to find a gloomier, a grimmer or a better written romance,’ was a rare exception. ‘It is excellently written, but its motive is over morbid, its execution is overcharged with touches that distress and do violence to the feelings.’
There are certainly some very funny lines. I like the dryness of Cladius’s early attempt to become a novelist: ‘He was learning how to write – he was surprised to find there was so very much to learn.’ And I love the economy of writing that shades in character so effectively: ‘Mr Wycherley put on a light tweed suit; he had bought it and paid for it, but it did not look in the least as if it belonged to him.’
There’s also a character, an old university friend of Claudius, who seems to exist simply so that he can be mocked for his fashionable pretensions:
‘One is so young, you know, when one is young,’ he said. He was fond of saying that kind of thing; it was not difficult. He knew if he only adopted the form of the epigram, a humble and stupid world would always give him credit for the point of it.
Even so, I still don’t see it as primarily a comedy. Perhaps it’s to do with expectations. Contemporary reviewers knew Pain only as a humourist and so came to the book looking for humour. Whereas I came to it out of chronological sequence, without that expectation, having read some of the later works in other fields. And because it’s from the late 1890s, from the same period as Wells, Machen and Stoker, I’m half expecting darkness.
In any event, we’re mostly in agreement, the late-Victorian critics and I, that this is a fine book.
It was also the only one of Pain’s stories to be filmed, as A Blind Bargain (1922), a Sam Goldwyn picture directed by Wallace Worsley and starring Lon Chaney as both Dr Lamb and his hunchback assistant. The latter character was not in the original, and indicates that the emphasis was changed to make it more explicitly a horror movie – well, if you’ve got the genius of Chaney available, you would, wouldn’t you? The film was released in Britain in 1923, with the strapline: ‘A fiercely arresting story dealing with the attempt of a maniac doctor to deflect the course of heredity.’
Regrettably, no copies of the film have survived, but the British critics liked it well enough. It ‘grips and holds the imagination from beginning to end’; it was ‘brilliantly acted, and produced with a perfection of detail in which no observer, however well informed, will be able to detect a flaw.’
Just one last quote from a review of the original book: ‘Claudius sells himself to Dr Gabriel Lamb,’ said the Morning Post, ‘much as a Chinaman sells himself as a substitute for a criminal condemned to capital punishment.’ I have no idea what this refers to.
Despite The Octave of Claudius, Pain remained primarily known as a humourist. Particularly popular were the characters who told of their lives in episodic form in Punch, The Strand and other magazines, and were then collected in book form: characters like the eponymous hero of Diary of a Baby (1907), the domestic help Mrs Murphy (1913), the jobbing gardener Edwards (1915), and the anonymous layabout in Me and Harris (1916).
Much of this work, regrettably, has dated quite badly. Which is not to say they’re entirely dead affairs; there are still some beautifully deadpan gags, as witness Mrs Murphy on honesty: ‘Use it with discretion, same as I have done, and don’t make too much of a hobby of it, and you won’t go far wrong.’ Or Edwards on the medical profession: ‘I has a great respect for doctors. It’s wonderful how little harm they does, considering the opportunities they gets.’
But the only comedy that really still lives (unless I’m missing something) are the chronicles of Eliza and her husband. They were also Pain’s most popular characters, spinning off into a series of sequels: Eliza’s Husband (1903), Eliza Getting On (1911), Exit Eliza (1912) and Eliza’s Son (1913).
Throughout these stories we never learn the name of Eliza’s husband (the narrator), but we follow him in some detail as he pursues his dull, unadventurous career as an office-worker in the City, and his dull, unadventurous domestic life in suburbia. The comparison that is most often made is with George and Weedon Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody (1892), and there’s little doubt that this was the inspiration for Pain’s creation. There’s the same element of comic irony, of the narrator revealing himself to be a pompous, ignorant, socially awkward fool, while believing himself to be the embodiment of common sense and moral rectitude.
But Eliza’s household is, I believe, funnier even than that of Charles Pooter. And I’m not alone. Terry Jones, in his introduction to a 1984 collection, makes the same claim, and comic writers of the calibre of Arthur Marshall, Keith Waterhouse and John Betjeman lined up to endorse the stories.
Much of the strength comes from Eliza herself, a superbly rich character who we only glimpse through her husband’s clumsy attempts to understand her. He, obviously, does not recognize that she is cleverer, wiser and more astute than he is, has a better sense of humour, and displays a lack of respect for authority (principally his authority) that is the mark of an independence of spirit to which he will never aspire. If you think of her as the Edwardian Sybil Fawlty, forever irritated by an incompetent, preposterous and self-absorbed husband, you wouldn’t be far off the mark.
The comic treatment of marriage that reaches its height in the Eliza stories, was a familiar theme in Pain’s work, breaking out in the most unlikely places. This is from one of his ghost tales: ‘A woman will generally take advice from any man except her husband – because he’s the only man she really knows.’ Maybe it’s worth noting at this point that Pain himself was married to Amelia, the daughter of a German-born portrait painter Rudolph Lehmann, and the author of at least one novel, Saint Eva (1897, originally published with a frontispiece by Edward Burne-Jones), though her biggest successes came with Short Plays for Amateur Acting (1906) and More Short Plays for Amateurs (1908).
Underneath the comedy of Eliza, though, there’s a certain sadness, a sense that the life of middle-class matrimony has a deadening effect on a spirited woman, that – like Sybil Fawlty – she’s wasting her life with the wrong man:
She has lost [writes her husband] the silly playfulness which was rather a mark of her character during the period of our engagement, and if this is due to the sobering effects of association with a steady and thoughtful character, I am not displeased. She herself says it’s the work, but the women do not always know. Possibly, too, her temper is more easily ruffled now than then when I point out things to her.
And towards the end of the saga, a darker note intrudes as their son takes up the narration for the final volume. He’s a deeply unpleasant creation – a rare thing in Pain’s writing. Obsessed with the monetary value of everything, he’s the nightmare continuation of his father without any of the redeeming naivety, the follies having turned to selfish cynicism. ‘Ma says there never was a boy like me since the beginning of the world,’ he notes, ‘and she doesn’t seem altogether pleased about it.’
I’m not so sure about Eliza’s son – he lacks the charm of his parents, and too much warmth is lost from the narrative – but in the first volumes there is comedy of the highest order. Much of it concerns the attempts by Eliza’s husband to make little improvements, refinements and efficiencies in the running of the household, all with the guarantee of failure. And there’s a lot of bickering, represented by our narrator as a woman’s inability to follow basic logic.
This is my favourite exchange, the kind of thing that Laurel and Hardy might engage in during one of their ‘That’s a good idea – tell me that again’ routines:
‘Eliza,’ I said one evening, ‘do you think that you are fonder of me than I am of you, or that I am fonder of you than you are of me?’
She answered, ‘What is thirteen from twenty-eight?’ without looking up from the account-book.
‘I do think,’ I said, ‘that when I speak to you, you might have the civility to pay some little attention.’
She replied, ‘One pound fifteen and two, and I hope you know where we are to get it from, for I don’t. And don’t bang on the table in that silly way, or you’ll spill the ink.’
‘I did not bang. I tapped slightly from a pardonable impatience. I put a plain question to you some time ago, and I should like a plain answer to it.’
‘Well, what do you want to talk for when you see I am counting? Now, what is it?’
‘What I asked was this. Do I think – I mean, do you think – that I am fonder of me – no, you are fonder of I – well, I’ll begin again. Which of us two would you say was fonder of the other than the other was of the – dash it all, you know what I mean!’
‘No, I don’t, but it’s nothing to swear about.’
‘I was not swearing. If you don’t know what I mean, I’ll try to put it more simply. Are you fonder than I am? There.’
‘Fonder of what?’
‘Fonder of each other.’
‘You mean is each of us fonder of the other than the other is of – of the each?’
‘I mean nothing of the kind. Until you muddled it, the thing was perfectly clear. Well, we two are two, are we not?’
‘Of course I know that, but –’
‘Wait a minute. I intend that you shall understand me this time. Which of those two would you say was fonder of the other than the other was of the other, or would you say that each was as fond of the other as the other one was? Now you see it.’
‘Almost. Say it again.’
‘Would you say that in your opinion neither of us were fonder of the other than both were of each, or that one was fonder of the other than the other was of the first, and if so, which?’
‘Now you’ve made it worse than ever. I don’t believe you know what you mean yourself. Do come to supper and talk sense.’
That’s from the first book, which sold very well and, according to the press notices, was a particular favourite of the troops in the Boer War:
For, besides being amusing, it is of handy size for Tommy’s pocket, and Tommy on service never has much room to spare. Large consignments of this book have been sent to the Cape and the interior. One officer alone writes that he has given away fifty copies of Eliza within a couple of months.
Maybe this is what a reviewer had in mind when he said it was ‘the very thing to laugh over on a hot afternoon under a tree’. Or even, in another review: ‘the little book is a bright example of its class, and may be specially commended for inclusion with the cap and pipe in the pockets of intending travellers.’
Surprisingly, given that it has proved Pain’s most enduring work, some of the critics were unimpressed: ‘It is the sort of thing that has been done often before,’ wrote one, concluding that it’s ‘not as amusing as Mr Pain’s work usually is.’ Others agreed: ‘Mr Pain has humour, but it is painfully thin in Eliza.’ By the time of his death, though, the enduring quality of the books was apparent: ‘Eliza at least is sufficient to give her modest, unassuming creator a secure place among English humourists.’
There was a television adaptation of the stories in 1992 with John Sessions and Sue Roderick, but it didn’t really work. Not because of any failings by the actors, but because this sort of humour depends so much on a first-person narrative: everything has to be viewed through a single character if the jokes are to work. Otherwise it’s just a domestic sitcom. And Eliza is much more than that: as with all great comedy, this is about the fallen nature of humanity.
The Memoirs of Constantine Dix (1905)
In the early 1970s, Hugh Carleton Greene – the former director general of the BBC – edited a series of anthologies of early detective stories, starting with The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. The concept was picked up by Thames Television for two very fine series. Had there been an alternative anthology from the other side of the tracks, titled The Rivals of Raffles, then surely Constantine Dix would have been the first name on the Contents page.
Dix is a lay preacher who works in the East End, trying to put criminals and ex-prisoners on the path, if not quite of righteousness, then at least of respectability, finding them work and persuading them to be honest citizens. Unavoidably in the course of his mission, he hears from time to time of potential crime scenes, an account of – for example – a woman possessed of a fine diamond necklace, who also has woefully inadequate security at her country house. And, reluctant to let such opportunities pass, he takes advantage of this sort of information to do a bit of burgling himself.
Because he, like Raffles, has two very separate identities. ‘I am a good preacher,’ as he puts it, ‘but I am a very good thief. Theft happens to be the thing I do best. I have studied it, and I am fond of it. It gives me great satisfaction to note the blunders that lead less intelligent criminals to their destruction, and the way in which I avoid those blunders.’
He has modest aims, never going for the big showy heist, content instead to take easy pickings where he can. He carries no burglary tools with him, no indication of his hidden trade, though he does have an exploding cigarette, his get-out option in case he ever gets caught.
‘I have been a man of double life,’ he admits cheerfully enough, ‘but each side has been sincere and genuine.’ And that’s a large part of his charm: he is thoroughly committed to the cause of saving criminals. Indeed, he has a strong sense of natural justice and his own – slightly selective – moral code. He just can’t quite help himself when it comes to thieving.
Following the lead of E.W. Hornung’s prototype, Dix tells his story in episodic form, each chapter a separate exploit, some resulting in success, some in failure. It differs, however, in that there’s no sidekick, no Bunny Manders, to provide an alternative perspective. It’s rare in this field to have the protagonist tell their own story, and it’s probably a mistake.
This being Pain, there are inevitably some good gags to be had. Here, for example, is a woman who has been writing a family history for a very long time: ‘She is still engaged on this laborious and monumental work, which promises to give almost as much trouble in the reading as it has done in the writing.’
And there are some sly digs at detective fiction. ‘The success of the detective depends in stories on his remarkable acumen and his still more remarkable luck,’ says Dix. ‘In real life the detective depends less on his own brilliance or on thousand-to-one chances than on a well-managed organization.’
And talking of real life, I wonder whether the idea of writing from the viewpoint of a jewel thief has its seeds in an incident reported in the papers in 1900:
The Metropolitan Police are engaged in investigating a jewel robbery which has been perpetrated at Hogarth House, Bushey, the residence of Mr Barry Pain. The house is about two hundred yards from the police station. The robbery took place while Mr and Mrs Pain were away from home, the only occupants of the house being the servants. When Mrs Pain returned about five o’clock she found the dressing table in her room in a state of confusion, and a jewel case was lying on the table open and empty.
An alternative, rather more jokey, account added a crucial detail:
No rarer or more graceful compliment can be paid to a literary man than a carefully arranged visit from burglars. This must be Mr Barry Pain’s consolation in the loss which has befallen him. During the temporary absence of Mr and Mrs Barry Pain from Hogarth House, Bushey, the gardener noticed a couple of well-dressed men leaning against the doorway, and passed by, thinking ‘they had called on business’. They had. On his return Mr Pain found that they had completed their business. Mrs Barry Pain’s jewels had disappeared.
There was no reported sequel to this incident, which rather suggests that the police failed to apprehend the ‘well-dressed men’.
Constantine Dix was well received and successful. ‘Dix narrates his adventures very tersely,’ noted a reviewer; ‘he offers no apology, and he asks for no forgiveness.’ There doesn’t seem to have been any concern at the time that this might all be just a little bit, well, immoral, as a source of enjoyment. ‘Very ingenious and amusing, highly entertaining,’ wrote a critic.
It helps, of course, that you know he can’t get away with it, and that by the end of his adventures, he’ll be contemplating whether to light that exploding cigarette. Which also means, very regrettably, that – unlike Raffles – there are to be no further exploits.
The fact that no one has ever adapted Constantine Dix for television or radio seems like a terrible missed opportunity. He’s a superb character who deserves to be much better known. And, of course, he’s out of copyright now as well.
The Exiles of Faloo (1910)
Where do you go when you’re a gentleman, but Britain has become too hot to stick around? When the police are on your tail and about to pounce, or when your dastardly behaviour has driven you out of society? Well, one option that might present itself – but only if you know who to ask (and what to ask them) – is the South Sea island of Faloo.
It’s very remote, a long way off the beaten path of travellers, let alone of law enforcement officers. Which makes it an ideal location for the Exiles Club, founded some ten years ago as a place where, so long as he can cover his bar-bills and his gambling debts, the middle-class reprobate and the high-society fugitive will be made to feel welcome, and where discussion of past misdeeds is frowned upon.
This does mean, of course, that your fellow members are not necessarily the crème de la crème. After all, they’re men who have ‘left their country for their country’s good’. Or, as one of them puts it: ‘We represent the dead-beat section of the conquering races.’ But there is at least an endless supply of servants and young women, and there is a decent waiter – the latter being an Englishman who has also been a little ‘indiscreet’, to the extent of seeking out an overseas position.
But the tranquillity of the retreat is disturbed by two figures. The first is Smith, a native of Faloo and the hereditary king of the island. He’s applied for membership of the Exiles Club, the first non-white so to do, and the existing members recognize the symbolism of what he’s doing. ‘We have a certain amount of prestige among the natives, and we cannot give away prestige and keep it,’ argues one of them. ‘Our action in elevating Mr Smith would be read by the natives as a concession made from fear. He would be exalted and we would be debased.’
But King Smith has his eyes set on more than this. He resents the presence of Europeans in the South Seas altogether, and he has ambitions to create a free state for the indigenous people, ‘that Faloo should become a refuge for them from the deadly effects of civilization, that in the future no white man should ever be allowed to set foot there … All he asked was Great Britain’s guarantee that in Faloo the island people should be left absolutely to themselves, to live their own life in the old way, and so escape the racial destruction that was coming swiftly upon them.’
In this aspiration he finds support from the second disruptive figure, an unlikely and unwelcome visitor from England. Wilberforce Lechworthy (and what a name that is!) is an enlightened industrialist, the paternalist sort who provides all possible amenities and protection for his workforce; he is also a Member of Parliament and a newspaper proprietor (his paper loses money, but he doesn’t mind: ‘he said more than once in public that he ran it in the service of Christ’).
Having recently retired, Lechworthy has embarked – along with his niece – on a tour of the South Seas, during which he had hoped to write a pamphlet on missionary work in the region. Unfortunately, the reality of what he’s seen so far has simply left him shocked: ‘He had found that the teaching of Christianity had involved too often the teaching of much that was worthless in European civilization and positively dangerous when transported to these islands.’
Now he has stumbled upon Faloo and, in conversation with King Smith, he finds himself in support of the man’s proposition. For Lechworthy believes that the British Empire is already too big: ‘We have too much – territorially, we’re gorged,’ he explains. ‘We have done enough grabbing for unworthy ends. We have become a byword in that respect.’
In short, then, this is a satire on colonialism. And it’s the best thing of Pain’s that I’ve read, a genuine lost masterpiece. There’s a romantic subplot, there are good action sequences with an insurrection against the Club, and there’s a subtle political satire that has aged remarkably well.
It’s not just the obvious, explicit argument, as when reference is made to ‘the dangerous influences of white civilization’. It’s also the character detail. Even Lechworthy, that admirable Christian liberal, can’t help but fall victim to his own prejudices, despite himself: ‘He found himself at times regarding these pleasant, brown, graceful, unthinking creatures rather as some new kind of pet animal than as human beings; and, finding himself in this attitude, repented of it.’
And there are some lovely, very English observations on human society along the way:
The societies that are to be permanent grow without plan, much as a coral island grows. The schemed Utopia never lives; it leaves no room for compromise and becomes pot-bound; it guards with wise foresight against numberless events which never happen, and the unforeseen blows in and kills it.
Here are some critical quotes, taken from the advertising of the time:
‘It is a brave tale, written with immense spirit and great skill.’ – Daily Telegraph
‘A sound and finished piece of work.’ – Globe
‘The most satisfactory story Mr Pain has yet written … Told with irresistible humour, penetration and good sense.’ – Daily Graphic
‘The grip of the story never slackens, its strange setting is extremely attractive, and the characters are wonderfully alive.’ – Morning Post
An Exchange of Souls (1911)
And, finally, we’re back where we began, with a mad scientist, in this instance a Dr Daniel Myas, who’s obsessed with the moment of death and with the nature of the soul. Indeed, as the title suggests, he’s trying to swap souls between bodies.
In another frame of mind, Pain could have gone for the comic treatment here, a variation on F. Anstey’s Vice Versa (1882). But his model is actually another classic of the 1880s. As a reviewer of the time noted: ‘The author has to a certain extent drawn his inspiration from Stevenson’s gruesome narrative of Jekyll and Hyde.’
This is undoubtedly the case, even down to the accommodation. Like Jekyll, Myas lives in a house with doors opening onto two different streets, one from the front of the house, the other from the laboratory at the rear – providing a neat physical metaphor for a split personality. Rather nicely, though, Pain situates his story in a working-class part of Fulham, allowing him scope to depict the moral respectability of the community, while also giving Myas the chance to buy access to subjects for his studies.
Myas is a properly arrogant megalomaniac, with contempt for other scientists and medical practitioners, and pretty much everybody else as well. But as the narrative develops, it becomes less of a sci-fi shocker and more of a slightly ruminative ghost-story, with an atmosphere towards the end that’s reminiscent of M.R. James.
The majority of Pain’s fiction employs a first-person narrator and, even here, he can’t help but use the device for some neat touches of comic irony. Compton, our guide on this occasion, first encounters Myas at a dinner party in France, and his reaction sketches his own character far more effectively than it does the person he’s observing:
Until he spoke to me, I thought that Myas was a Frenchman. His necktie was aggressively French. It was bulgy and droopy and black silk. He used a little gesture. He had been speaking French to my hostess, and with a perfection that in an Englishman was almost unpatriotic.
Worse, when Myas subsequently turns up in London, ‘He looked more abominably French than ever’. Compton is riddled with these prejudices and opinions. ‘I dislike tears,’ he observes to himself, as the mother of Myas’s female lab assistant cries over the fate of her daughter. ‘I have the feeling, which is perhaps rather selfish, that people should not weep when I am present.’ He’s also unimpressed by drag acts:
I have occasionally seen, when for my sins I have been taken to a music hall, a performance which is, I believe, intended to be amusing and funny – the impersonation of a woman by a man. It is a thing which always disgusts me. The more cleverly it is done, the more loathsome it is.
Myas, on the other hand, slips in some slightly incongruous celebrations of high living. This is him on Britain’s golden age in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries:
It was an age of beef and beer, and it was also an age of courage and inventions, which is precisely what one would have expected. Pitt drank his two bottles of port, went into the House of Commons, and spoke magnificently. There was oratory in those days, and there was consequent enthusiasm. The modern member of Parliament sips barley-water and stutters statistics, mostly wrong, and national enthusiasm is at a low ebb.
H.P. Lovecraft was evidently a fan, using the story’s central theme of spiritual possession in ‘The Thing on the Doorstep’ (1933) and The Shadow Out of Time (1935). But this is much more subtle than that might suggest. Pain was a very experienced writer in his creative prime at this point, and even in what purports to be a chiller, there are depths and understated undercurrents. And, as the narrator Compton learns of his own terminal illness, Myas’s researches are gradually placed in a wider context, and the book finally turns into a reflection on mortality:
I suppose that to some extent a similar change goes on in all of us. The tissues of the body waste and are renewed. The personality changes with it. What has the child of six in common with the man of sixty that he subsequently becomes? Was the miracle that Myas tried to effect any more wonderful than that normal miracle which is going on every day in all of us?
also available in the neglected novelists series: