A guy called Gerald


© Valancourt Books


And here’s another re-posting ahead of, and appropriate for, Halloween…


Often, the fame and popularity won by writers during their lifetimes seem to evaporate with, or soon after, their deaths.  Once they’re gone, they’re forgotten too.  I’m thinking of writers from the 1920s, 30s and 40s like Edgar Wallace, Hervey Allen, Lloyd C. Douglas and James Hilton, who were massively popular in their day, but are practically forgotten in the 21st century.  Come to think of it, names that were ubiquitous on the bestseller racks in bookshops and newsagents when I was a kid, like Harold Robbins, Morris West, Leon Uris and Alistair MacLean, seem to have disappeared into the mists too.  Everyone was reading their books in the 1970s but I can’t imagine anyone reading them now.


To this list of forgotten writers, we must add the British (later American) author Gerald Kersh, who was clearly prolific and popular.  His Wikipedia entry credits him with 20 novels and 20 collections of short stories, plus ‘thousands of articles in different publications’, published between 1934 and his death in 1968, but he seemed to drop off the radar at the moment he died.  A few years ago, I began to hear his name because a number of writers I admire, like Anthony Burgess, Angela Carter, Michael Moorcock, Ian Fleming and Harlan Ellison, thought highly of him.  But all traces of his work seemed to have vanished.  When I asked about him in bookshops, my inquiries would draw a blank.  Even in bookshops run by clearly knowledgeable people, like Transreal Fiction in Edinburgh and Whitie’s in my hometown of Peebles, nobody had heard of him.


However, several of his works have now been republished by Valancourt Books, who’ve won praise from the Times Literary Supplement for their efforts to “resurrect some neglected works of literature… and make them available to a new readership”, and I was able to order copies of his 1958 novel Fowlers End and his 1968 collection Nightshade and Damnations while I was in the UK a while ago.  I couldn’t find, though, a reasonably priced copy of his 1938 crime thriller Night and the City.  This is the book that has probably come closest to ensuring a legacy for Kersh, because it was filmed in 1950 with Richard Widmark and again in 1992 with Robert De Niro.


I’ll leave aside Fowlers End just now, which Anthony Burgess rated as one of the great comic novels of the 20th century – which doesn’t surprise me, because it’s the sort of sprawling, baggy, rumbustious and verbose book that Burgess himself loved to write.  Let me talk instead about Nightshades and Damnations, a collection of eleven of Kersh’s short stories selected in 1968 – shortly before he died – by none other than celebrated American science fiction and fantasy writer Harlan Ellison.  In the introduction to the collection, Ellison makes the sadly misplaced prediction that “He is leaving a legacy… that has influenced, and is still influencing, generations of younger writers.”  Actually, last night, I watched Dreams with Sharp Teeth, the 2008 biographical documentary about Harlan Ellison, and I noticed that during the end-credits Kersh was in a list of people Ellison wished to ‘thank’, along with Ray Bradbury, Franz Kafka and Edgar Allan Poe.


Some of the stories in Nightshades and Damnations are rather brilliant.  There are horror stories like Voices in the Dust of Annan and Men Without Bones that, with their science fictional overtones, are reminiscent of, and as good as, the work of H.P. Lovecraft.  The Brighton Monster, a tale mostly set in the 18th century and one that begins as an out-and-out horror story, also uses a science fictional twist.  It takes a sudden and admirable turn into the present day – well, post-World War II – that makes it horribly relevant.


Bone for Debunkers is a tale of forgery that’s worthy of Roald Dahl, while The Ape and the Mystery and The King Who Collected Clocks are extravagant historical fantasies incorporating Leonardo Da Vinci and clockwork automata respectively.  And The Queen of Pig Island is an elegant, surreal and ultimately tragic tale of what happens to some human circus-sideshow attractions when they survive a shipwreck and have to establish their own self-contained society on a desert island.


Best of all is Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo, in which the narrator is Kersh himself, travelling on a wartime transatlantic troop ship when he meets the titular Corporal Cuckoo, who claims to have been born in the 16th century and to be immortal.  The story suggests a grisly downside to being immortal, which is made grislier when the person is a bit stupid and unimaginative and hasn’t thought the implications of being immortal through properly.  It’s a theme that was picked up by Robert Zemeckis’s 1992 movie Death Becomes Her.


While other writers have vanished from popular consciousness because, well, their writing wasn’t terribly good and wasn’t designed to stand the test of time, Kersh’s work has, refreshingly, not dated at all and still constitutes a good read.  On the other hand, that work has suffered the misfortune of simply being out of print for a very long time.  Let’s hope that Valancourt Books will help bring the achievements of Gerald Kersh back, deservedly, into the limelight.


From wikipedia.org

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