‘The Demon Lover’ by Elizabeth Bowen

August is a strange time of year, especially in the city. It is the listless countdown to the end of summer: leaves droop tired and tawdry on dusty trees; a whiff of something subtly off-key hangs in the air. School holidays bring exodus and an emptying out for a few weeks until a new, brisker season returns: on the Continent, the great urban destinations such as Rome and Paris sensibly shut up shop, ignoring hordes of tourists descending like greenfly onto roses. In culture, August gives a sense of playing truant from reality and from the self, such as in Jacques Rivette’s 1974 film Celine and Julie Go Boating, a cult classic about two young women who swap identities and tumble down a phantasmagorical rabbit-hole one languid Paris summer.

I first saw it at the old Renoir cinema in London’s Brunswick Square, the same August I started my first ‘proper’ job – at the British Library, then part of the British Museum on Great Russell Street. My job, as a researcher on a seemingly endless project to digitise the library’s vast holdings of 19th-century books, allowed me to wander freely among the book stacks and dust motes. Here, on stiflingly hot afternoons, I read prodigiously – and not only three-decker Victorian volumes. At some point I discovered the wartime writings of the Anglo-Irish author Elizabeth Bowen – The Heat of the Day, her superb novel of the Blitz and betrayal – and short stories of forsakenness shot through with horror. 

The most uneasy of these is ‘The Demon Lover’ (1941), in which the backdrop of a bombed-out London sets the scene for a fatal promise extracted during an earlier war. Bowen rapidly creates an atmosphere of claustrophobia and menace: late one sultry August day, with the weather about to turn, a middle-aged woman, Mrs Drover, makes a brief foray to her family’s boarded-up London house in a quiet square to pack up a few essential items before returning to the country where they have been evacuated away from the bombs. Though Mrs Drover is alone, we and she sense that she is being observed by someone, or something: “a cat wove itself in and out of railings, but no human eye watched Mrs Drover’s return”. 

The emphasis here is on the ‘human’. Inanimate objects have taken on the suffering and disappointment of the war years and all is weirdly askew: “in her once familiar street, as in any unused channel, an unfamiliar queerness had silted up.” As “the unwilling lock” on Mrs Drover’s front door relents to her key, Bowen gifts us the entire arc of the story in the last, leaden sentence of its opening paragraph: “Dead air came to meet her as she went in.” The ensuing ghostly tale is as much about the psychological trauma of war (a period of “lucid abnormality” according to Bowen) and the passing of time, as it is conventionally supernatural. In the house – to which only she and a part-time caretaker have a key – a hand-delivered letter awaits Mrs Drover, apparently from the barely known soldier fiancé who has been missing presumed dead since they last set eyes on each other on a gloomy August evening in 1916, exactly twenty-five years before. It curtly reminds her of a promise made, an hour of meeting, an appointment which must be kept. 

In a 1944 postscript to the first publication of The Demon Lover and Other Stories,Bowen explains how in these “between-time stories” “the past discharges its load of feeling into the anaesthetised and bewildered present.” The individual is all but smothered in an atmosphere of confusion and upheaval, where every positive has its reliably sinister negative. Thus Mrs Drover recalls “with dreadful acuteness” the “complete suspension of her existence” during the final days she had spent with her former lover, a passive deferment similar to the annihilating torpor of war. A long impasse has a way of turning against those who cease to be watchful: for, as it turns out most terribly for her: “You have no time to run from a face you do not expect.” 

First published in The Listener, November 1941. Collected in The Demon Lover and Other Stories, Jonathan Cape, 1945 and The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, Vintage Classics, 1999. Chosen by Catherine Taylor, who is a critic, editor and writer. A former publisher and deputy director of English PEN, she has been a judge on prizes from the Guardian First Book Award to the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate and is part of the team behind the new Brixton Review of Books. She is writing a non-fiction book about the dark side of South Yorkshire in the 1970s and 80s. You can read Catherine’s full Personal Anthology here.

‘The Tailor of Gloucester’, by Beatrix Potter

But it is in the old story that all the beasts can talk, in the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the morning ….

I have to confess that I am not a huge fan of Beatrix Potter’s tales – Mrs Tiggywinkle scares me (especially as Theresa May seems increasingly to be morphing into her), Peter Rabbit had much to be fearful of in Mr McGregor’s garden,  and let’s not dwell on the fate of Tom Kitten for too long… but her beautiful Christmas story, the 18th century-set ‘The Tailor of Gloucester’, which appeared in my Christmas stocking (ok, then pillowcase: I was a greedy child) in the year 197-, has always brought a lump to my cynical throat.

The Tailor (a patron saint for freelancers everywhere), tired, poor and under pressure to complete an important commission for Christmas Day – a sumptuous cherry-red waistcoat to be worn by the Mayor of Gloucester on his wedding morning – is laid low by illness and the mendaciousness of his bad cat, Simpkin, who hides the last piece, or twist, of silk thread required to complete the tailor’s task. “No More Twist,” which the Tailor mutters repeatedly in his delirious sleep, is a phrase I find myself coming out with when I feel at a low ebb, or when I think about the consequences of a No Deal Brexit.

The Tailor is saved by a flurry of mice, who strive – secretly, magnificently – to complete the task, and the relenting of Simpkin, who turns out not to be so bad after all. It’s snowy, magical and IT WILL WARM THE COCKLES OF YOUR HEART, as my beloved mum used to say.

First published by Frederick Warne & Co, 1903

Chosen by Catherine Taylor. Catherine is a critic, editor and writer. A former publisher and deputy director of English PEN, she is writing a memoir of Sheffield, is part of the team behind the new Brixton Review of Books, a judge on the 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses and co-host of its monthly podcast.

You can read Catherine’s full Personal Anthology here

‘The July Ghost’ by A.S. Byatt

The story I’ve selected for the summer personal anthology series is not cheerful or with a holiday aspect, so apologies in advance. But it is set in London, during a very hot summer, and here I am, in London, and it is turning out to be a very hot summer.  The story is about a terrible loss, and the emotional paralysis that comes with it: all the more painful because it is set against a ravishing backdrop – a large, almost paradisiacal garden:

It was a lovely place: a huge, hidden, walled South London garden, with old fruit trees at the end, a wildly waving disorderly buddleia, curving beds full of old roses, and a lawn of overgrown rye-grass.

A man, an academic trying to write a paper on Hardy’s poems, “on their curiously archaic vocabulary” rents some attic rooms from a woman he has no connection with; her husband is mostly away. The initial set-up leads one to expect a foregone conclusion, but what follows is profoundly unexpected. The man has recently been left by his lover: he is bereft. Sitting in the garden each day his mind begins to recompose itself: and soon he has a companion – a silent boy of about ten with brilliant blue eyes and an extraordinarily trusting smile, swinging from the apple tree, or lying in the grass beside him.

When he asks the woman who the boy might be, and describes him, right down to his Chelsea football shirt, he taps into a wild grief. The woman’s only child, he discovers, had been killed two years before, knocked down by a car on a hot July afternoon (Byatt’s own son died this way: there is a personal heaviness to the writing). The woman cannot see the boy: she longs to. Neither the man nor the woman believes in ghosts: they agree that they appear to have crossed over into each other’s emotional currents: whether they can find mutual comfort through this is debatable.

The story seems to me to be very Jamesian (both Henry and M.R.) especially as it is a retelling with omissions – the man recounts it to a young American woman he meets later at a party. It is less contrived and curlicued than much of Byatt’s writing: there is a sense of urgent reflection about it. In our family, too, there is a lost child, and although she died in her early 20s, it is – sentimentally or perhaps so as not to dwell on the suffering which took her from us – that as a child I choose most often to remember her, an eternal child in an everlasting summer garden.

From Sugar and Other Stories, 1987, and also collected in The Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories, ed. Susan Hill, 1990) Chosen by Catherine Taylor. Read Catherine’s Personal Anthology here

‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’ by Angela Carter

‘It seemed December still possessed his garden. The ground was hard as iron, the skirts of the dark cypress moved on the chill wind with a mournful rustle and there were no green shoots on the roses as if, this year, they would not bloom. And not one light in any of the windows, only, in the topmost attic, the faintest smear of radiance on a pane, the thin ghost of a light on the verge of extinction’.

Not strictly a Christmas story, but for some reason fairy tales seem to have more resonance at this time of year. Angela Carter’s clever, sensual update of 18th-century French classic  ‘La Belle et La Bête’ from her 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber owes more to its (female) originators and popularisers than to any Disney adaptation. The story of the merchant (in Carter’s version, a debt-laden lawyer with a broken-down car) who steals the single white rose he promised his daughter from a mysterious wintry garden, incurring the wrath of its leonine owner, and a forfeit – a reluctant agreement that Beauty will become the companion of the Beast – has several troubling interpretations. In Carter’s hands, Beauty, rather than simply being a chattel of her father, responds to the strange, enchanted world of the dignified and passionate Beast and discovers her own emotional and sexual awakening in the process.

First published in The Bloody Chamber and other Stories, 1979. Also available in Burning Your Boats, Carter’s collected stories, Vintage Chatto & Windus, 1995. Chosen by Catherine Taylor.

‘Deux Amis’ (‘Two Friends’) by Guy de Maupassant

I’ve gone for Maupassant as my first choice. probably because this is the first short story I remember really sticking in my mind, and it’s therefore acquired a kind of nostalgic perfection.  To my great satisfaction  I was the only member of sixth form to receive a detention (I misremember the reason) and was locked by my A-level French teacher alone in a classroom for two hours one Friday afternoon. Before escaping via the window, I read this deceptively simple, gallant story of two old friends who meet again by chance during the Franco-Prussian war and the 1871 Siege of Paris. Reminiscing about the fishing trips they used to take together, the men obtain leave to do so one more time. Their excursion is interrupted by four Prussian soldiers and what ensues,  despite the patina of propaganda and nationalistic pride, is a story of quiet bravery, the desperate losses of war on both sides and the sheer bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

(First published 1883. Also published in A Parisian Affair and Other Stories, Penguin Classics, 2004. Translated from French by Sian Miles)

‘The Bloody Chamber’, by Angela Carter

The 1984 film The Company of Wolves, based on Carter’s stories, had a big effect on me as teenager and led me to her writing. The opening salvo from her first short-story collection, published in 1979, is typical of her baroque, joyous subversion of the fairy tale – while also making significant points about the shifting balance of sexual power, desire, disgust and how the two often disturbingly collide. In this interpretation of ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’, a young ingenue is married off to a rich Maquis, who, after their wedding night, leaves her alone in his isolated castle on France’s  bleak Atlantic coast  with a set of golden keys and one proviso – do not open THAT door. The prose is gorgeous, full of a perverse longing and indefinable sorrow: ‘Time was his servant, too; it would trap me here, in a night that would last until he came back to me, like a black sun on a winter morning’. This being Carter, the ingenue is not so innocent of course, and has a gun-toting vengeful mother to boot. All the better to eat you with, my dear…

(From The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, Vintage Classics, 1995)

‘The Lame Shall Enter First’, by Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor died of lupus in 1964  at the age  of 39; this story was published posthumously a year later in the collection Everything that Rises Must Converge.Like William Faulkner , Carson McCullers and a host of others, O’Connor wrote in the Southern Gothic tradition, populating her work with grotesque characters, violent incident  and moral debate. I also have lupus; on diagnosis I identified as a shadowy Flannery O’Connor, one without the writing talent or the peacocks (she famously kept many exotic birds), an atheist in thrall to O’Connor’s rhapsodic Catholicism. In this story, a father refuses to empathise with the grief of his young son who has recently lost his mother. Instead, he offers his charity to a manipulative homeless teenager, with tragic consequences for the child. It’s unsettling, unsentimental and never fails to make me weep and rage.

(In Complete Stories, Faber and Faber, 1990)