Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Robert Hichens -- three of three -- The Folly of Eustace and Other Satires and Stories


Stark House Press, 2024
224 pp


I've finally come to the last of the three volumes of Hichens stories I'd set out to read,  and to my very great surprise there isn't one supernatural or even supernatural-ish tale in the bunch. As ST Joshi notes in his introduction, the stories here "exhibit the broad range" of Hichens' writing "outside the realm of weird fiction." While it doesn't quite fit with the general intention of this section of my reading journal,  I've decided to go on and post about this book here anyway, since I had intended these latest three volumes as a unit.  All of these stories are centered around women and the men in their respective orbits. 

The title story definitely sets the tone for what is to come.   At the young age of sixteen, Eustace Lane had chosen which mask he would wear in life.  As the author notes, 
"Some men deliberately don a character in early youth as others don a mask before going to an opera ball.  They select it not without some care, being guided in their choice by the opinion they have formed of the world's mind and manner of proceeding." 
His idea was that he would take on the world as a buffoon, to be worn in the "great masquerade." He had overheard a master at Eton describe him as seeing "the peculiar side of everything with a curious acuteness," with life presenting itself to him "in cariacture."  From the moment he made his choice, he began a "pilgrim's progress toards the pages of Vanity Fair," believing that the men featured in that magazine were "celebrated because they were preposterous."  He begins to act the part, and becomes the talk of London. Unfortunately, he doesn't quite understand that most masquerades eventually end. Irony of all ironies to be found here.  My favorite story is incredibly short but says all that it needs to.  In  "A Boudoir Boy," twenty-something, self-proclaimed decadent Claude Melville remarks to his friend that is "impossible to be young," noting that he was "middle-aged at ten," and now he's done everything he "ought not to have done."  His friend has just the ticket -- his sixty-four year old aunt would be perfect for teaching him "the art of being young."   Off to the countryside in Northamptonshire he goes, where he'll spend the week, and to his surprise, the aunt decides that she would like to learn to be decadent.  And so, the lessons begin ...  "The Lift" is downright ghastly, and sort of underscores the majority of the stories here.  In Naples, the narrator becomes acquainted with a man he calls "The Potentate," who was "a Brazilian, a doctor, a publicist, journalist, politician, millionaire."  He was also a "friend of presidents," and had "been instrumental in overthrowing governments and placing his nominees in positions of autocratic power."  On the narrator's first sight of this man, he barely noticed the Potentate's wife, since his "strong personality" had "practically effaced her," along the lines of a "small plant" being effaced by a "mighty rock" ... "meekly sproutiing in its shadow."  The Potentate refers to her as a "package" which has ruined his life and which he has to drag all over the world, complaining loudly about her lack of understanding any language except Portuguese. He also threatens to kill her, which the narrator finds appalling.  But the true horror of the situation is impressed on the narrator only while he and Mrs. Potentate are stuck in an elevator together.  

While the book is different from those I've read by this author so far, as always, the stories, including the ones I haven't mentioned here, are fascinating, not simply for a look at the times, but also because, as Joshi so appropriately notes, "Human character never changes very much from century to century."  And even though Hichens does not use the vehicle of the weird/strange tale to do so here, the stories in this book continue his work in examining human nature and the troubled souls that fill a society.  Pay careful attention to the women in this volume -- what they actually communicate speaks volumes, even if, as in (as just one example) "The Lift," the male of the species can't always seem to understand them.  While the stories are short, there is some bit of patience required by the reader because of  style, but as I'm so fond of saying, getting to the heart of the story is well worth the time.  

My many thanks, once again, to the fabulous people at Stark House.