The story concludes: ‘Twenty minutes after the rook flew into the old man’s garden, it lay, still warm, under two feet of dark, wet earth.’
For me at least, the story is one that lingers, its sparse, factual end heightening what the novelist and critic Frank Swinnerton, in an introduction to one of Strong’s collections, called the reader’s ‘emotional response’ (possibly enhanced in my case through my secondary education at an abbey school).
Robert Aickman, a noted English editor and writer of supernatural stories, advised readers to scratch the surface of his own fiction to find the content that he considered lay beneath.
With ‘The Rook’, I find myself wondering what else – beyond the surface narrative – might be ‘going on’ in this story.
Is it a metaphor for / portrayal of anti-clerical, anti-establishment feeling: a pot-shot, if you will, at the priesthood from the perspective of a bitter, scoundrelly neighbour? The ordered world of the story’s second half, where one of the priests is engaged in ‘correcting’ the boys’ papers, seems very much in conflict with the random, trigger-happy, even anarchical world, of the first.
Here, Strong seems to be telling us, lie uneasy neighbours – tensions, I suggest, that are part of why this scrap of a story satisfies in the way that it does.
One of its most striking qualities is its modernity.
Further on in the anthology is a story by Aickman, ‘Bind Your Hair’, first published in 1964. Compared with Strong’s tight little tale, Aickman’s (faintly in the vein of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and, admittedly, a very different kind of story from Strong’s) seems rather weak and windy, and, despite some pleasing passages of vivid description, ultimately goes nowhere. Ian McEwan’s ‘Pornography’ (1976) and Martin Amis’s ‘Career Move’ (1992), also included here (presumably as historical snapshots rather than on grounds of quality: neither is particularly good) compare unfavourably with Strong’s story for freshness, each now seeming to me to be museum pieces – a fate ‘The Rook’ determinedly resists. (In McEwan’s case, allowance should be made for his relative youth at the time he wrote his tale.)
As with, say, the writing of Raymond Carver or Rudyard Kipling in a story such as ‘Mary Postgate’ (1915), the achievement of ‘The Rook’ in many respects lies in what is not said . . . in what is suggested or ambiguous. Thought is encouraged on the part of the reader.
For those who can locate a copy, ‘The Rook’ can be found in Strong’s story collection Travellers. This also contains ‘The Seal’, a fragment with a distinctly Carver-like feel. A woman on a Scottish isle watches a seal in a bay, relishing the moment. The magic is broken by the arrival of her partner, who wrecks the scene with his clumsy, obvious words.
It would be wrong to characterise Strong as a writer preoccupied with the supernatural. The title story of Travellers is, for example, a coming-of-age about two cousins who attend a performance by a fading opera singer in a small town in rural Ireland: an undemanding, anecdotal piece, very different from the glancing quality of ‘The Rook’.
In the library where I found, in its English literature section, a solitary volume by Strong, I noticed below it a shelf well stocked with work by Elizabeth Taylor, who also has a story in the Penguin collection. Taylor (1912-1973) is a writer now in fashion, so it seems.
In his notes in the Penguin, Hensher writes that Taylor (settling after ‘a passionate affair with a fellow communist’ to ‘a respectable upper-middle class life’ in the county of Buckinghamshire) was – unlike Strong – often dismissed as a writer during her lifetime, but that her reputation has grown significantly since.
The fortunes of Strong, ‘successful and popular’ in his day, seem to have headed the other way.
How do situations like this come about? Who, I wonder, are the arbiters (of what is fashionable and good) and, more to the point, is their judgment right?
Hensher suggests that the short story – when it comes to more recent and garlanded specimens at least – has lost its way. The chief curse, as he sees it, has been the era of the competition.
In his introduction to the Penguin he states:
‘Not until the rise of literary competitions in the second half of the twentieth century… did the British hit upon a method ingeniously devised to suppress everything that had previously been good about a literary form.
‘The system of competitions replacing a system of commissions, payments, circulation and readers looks tempting as a guarantee of literary quality; no one, however, ever invited, or required Conan Doyle or V.S. Pritchett or Kipling or P.G. Wodehouse to put on a dinner jacket and shake the hand of a retired academic before they could receive a cheque for a short story. They might even have considered the idea somewhat humiliating. Moreover, no competition will ever produce or reward a ‘Silver Blaze’ (Conan Doyle), a ‘When My Girl Comes Home’ (Pritchett), a ‘Wireless’ (Kipling), or a ‘Fiery Wooing of Mordred’ (Wodehouse). It is perhaps no accident that the dullest short stories I read from the last fifteen years were winners of competitions: a lot of the most exciting and interesting short stories, on the other hand, were science fiction, fantasy and horror.’
I don’t think competitions are or have been entirely malign. For one, they give the form publicity and create interest. And well done those who win them. But I think it’s fair to say that some honoured material has seemed a little predictable, even ordinary and that some pieces of writing haven’t really seemed to be short stories at all (even allowing for the elasticity of definitions). We can though, I suggest, also manage without the ‘shock for shock’s sake’ stuff.
Strong’s inclusion in the Penguin collection is, I suppose, a toe hold.
Walter de la Mare (‘All Hallows’, ‘Crewe’, ‘A Recluse’ and more) has nothing in the anthology. While noting the form’s long association with the macabre, Hensher declares himself doubtful of de la Mare’s quality. This seems to me a rather large mistake. The superb short story ‘Wat Pantathro’ by the Welshman Glyn Jones surely ought also to have been here.
To be fair though, a collection such as this is perhaps doomed to disappoint through the exclusion of someone.
During his lifetime and up to (so it seems) the 1970s many of Leonard Strong’s works underwent multiple re-prints. Brothers, a novel, appearing in forty-three.
Thankfully, the likes of independent publisher Tartarus, have taken an interest in Strong, publishing in 2009 and still in print, The Buckross Ring and Other Stories of the Strange and Supernatural.
But the wider decline of Strong’s name seems to me a loss, and a sad one.
Strong was, wrote Frank Swinnerton in his introduction to Travellers in 1947, ‘one of the outstanding story writers of our day… unrestricted in his zest for and familiarity with the seizable hour in every life, every experience, to whatever class and type such life and experience belong.’
The seizable hour.
Yes, that sums it, doesn’t it? That moment that’s at the heart of perhaps the very best short stories.
It’s there, I think, in ‘The Rook’. A story worth reading – if you can find it.