Valancourt Books, 2016
originally published 1935
Returning to short-story form once again, last night I finished Night-Pieces, a lovely little book of eighteen tales by Thomas Burke. Burke is quite well known for his Limehouse Nights, but Night-Pieces is my introduction to this author. It comes at a good time in my reading life -- I've been reading different books on this year's Booker Prize longlist and my brain is completely befuddled. What better way to unwind than by picking up a Valancourt book? And this one was definitely aaahh inspiring -- it's a mix of stories that include crime and the supernatural -- I mean, really. What more could I ask for?
I was drawn in right off the bat with the first story, "Miracle in Suburbia," where a young man is commissioned to retrieve a certain object. Reluctant to do so, even for the huge amount of money he's being paid, the younger man is convinced when the older man offers him his full protection. This is a story with a great twist, and really set the tone for the good things that were about to come my way.
And come my way they did. One thing really sticks out here -- in every single story that's in this book, somehow landscape, be it urban or rural, has some sort of role to play either actively or passively, with most of these stories taking place on London streets. It's very clear that Burke has some sort of affinity with and love for this city; a brief look at other books by this author reveals titles that include The Streets of London, Rambles in Remote London, Nights in London, etc. And as I read through each and every story that played out on these streets, I found myself visualizing them, which is a sign of a good writer. A second and very important thing is that Burke seems to know the darker side of human nature quite well, and this becomes very obvious in pretty much every story in this book.
From "Miracle in Suburbia" the book moves through seventeen other little tales -- presented here without any spoilers, just appetite whetters:
"Yesterday Street," in which a man roams through the streets of his childhood with unexpected results, followed by "Funspot," where the name of a particular street holds enough fascination for a money collector that he conjures up a story built around it -- a tragedy, "Something out of the inkwell of Beaudelaire or Poe, or De Nerval." "Uncle Ezekiel's Long Sight" is another good one. Let's just say that if you wait until your elderly uncle dozes off, life might just get better all around for everyone. Another nice quirky twist is found in "The Horrible God" where a man who "isn't easily scared" is frightened out of his wits by the feeling he's being followed and that a strange, disembodied voice is talking to him. "Father and Son" finds a son at odds with his dad and desperate after dad cuts off his pocket money. One very much in keeping with themes I look for in my reading is "Johnson Looked Back" -- a truly creepy story that takes the reader into the alleyways of the city that "hold fear more firmly than open streets" as a man makes his way toward an abandoned house. "Two Gentlemen" plays on the idea of honor and obligation between friends that Young Fred finds useful. And then we come to one of my very favorite stories at the midpoint of this collection, "The Black Courtyard," where a man finds himself fleeing from "fear of a courtyard thick with darkness, deaf to noise, and alive only with the eyes of blind houses" that serve as witness. To what I won't say, but yikes. This is a really, really good one.
Continuing on, "The Gracious Ghosts" may help you if your house happens to be haunted; then, with "Jack Wapping" we get an interesting little story of a day in a working-class man's life. This one to me fits within its historical time frame quite nicely -- a bit more on the political side but still well done. Back to crime once more with "One Hundred Pounds," where Granpa should have really placed his faith elsewhere. And then we come to another story I just loved, "The Man Who Lost His Head." The moral of this story is be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. This one was outstanding. Once again moving into the crime zone we come to "Murder Under the Crooked Spire," followed by my favorite story of the entire book, "The Lonely Inn." To me, this one steals the entire show with its delightful eerieness that creeps up ever so slowly until BOOM - gotcha. I happened to be reading this one during a huge thunderstorm which only amplified the creep factor. "The Watcher" is up next, and really, it's just one of the saddest little stories in this book, although very dark and atmospheric. I can't say anything about this one without giving it away, so I'll just move on to "Events at Wayless-Wagtail," another one that won't allow even the briefest brief. And last, but by no means not least, "The Hollow Man" closes the book on a high note of creep factor when one old friend seeks out another and finds himself unable to leave.
All in all, Night-Pieces is a fantastic collection that any lover of old British tales should read. While it's definitely a mixed bag where genre is concerned, it ends up not mattering one whit since they all seem to blend nicely together here because of Burke's atmospheric writing style. Then, of course, there's the added bonus that with only one exception, all of these stories center around the streets of London and as noted on the back cover, "that immense city's dark back alleys, shadowy courts, and mysterious houses."
I hadn't read a Valancourt book for some time now, and this one I chose at random from my shelves while looking for something I knew would be good. I wasn't wrong. Once again, Valancourt delivers. I ought to throw roses at their feet or something for the books they publish. Kudos and keep up the great work.
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