Thursday, 2 April 2015

A Fire of Driftwood ~ D. K. Broster

A Fire of Driftwood: A Collection of Short Stories was published in 1932 by William Heinemann Ltd, a decade before Broster's more well-known volume Couching at the Door, which I wrote about a couple of months ago. A Fire of Driftwood is split into two sections, with the first having nothing supernatural about it. The second section is the one of interest here, as it contains: 'All Souls' Day', 'The Promised Land', 'Clairvoyance', and 'The Window'.

In 'All Souls' Day', Mildmay Fane narrowly escapes death after being attacked and left for dead by the Chevalier de Crussol and his henchmen. Believing that his friends have forsaken him, he turns to a life of vice and is about to follow a path which would lead to ruination when he is visited by a ghost from his past.

In 'The Promised Land', Caroline Murchison and Ellen Wright are visiting Siena. Ellen has dreamed of visiting Italy for decades, but the presence of her overbearing cousin Caroline, who is forever arranging things and won't leave her side for a moment, is threatening to ruin the entire trip. Desperate to visit Florence alone, without her cousin's constant talking, knitting and interfering, Ellen is willing to do just about anything for a moment's solitary peace. It is a tale of obsession and desperation, and the effect of both on everyday reality. And to my mind, regardless of the fact that there is no supernatural element, it is the best story in the book.

In 'Clairvoyance', Edward Strode is an expert on Japanese swords and has recently acquired a new specimen for his collection, but there is some doubt concerning the authenticity of the tsuba (sword guard). Cynthia Storrington is a seventeen-year-old guest of Strode's daughter, and it turns out that she's a sensitive and susceptible to hypnotism. So, Mrs Strode persuades her husband to have the girl 'willed' to examine the sword, with its live blade, and determine if the tsuba is genuine or not... with devastating results. I found this to be a very clever tale. And, as researching Japanese art and history was my day job for a number of years, it was of particular interest to me personally. Given that most English country houses had weaponry of one sort or another pinned up somewhere when this story was published, I can't help wondering how many people read it, glanced up at the sharp-edged artefacts displayed around their own homes, then vowed never to touch them again.

In 'The Window', Romilly is determined to see inside the long uninhabited and sadly neglected Manoir de Boisrobert in Normandy. Having volunteered to fight in the Great War, he finds himself not far from the isolated old manoir and decides to finally achieve his goal. Having no key, he breaks into the empty house and, being an artist, decides to paint a picture of one of the rooms. He imagines how the room would look furnished and full of people. And eventually, he begins to feel that the room truly is occupied... by people who resent his presence. Wanting to allow some air into the room, he attempts to open one of the windows, and ends up on his knees with his arms imprisoned beneath its lower sash... unable to move or escape.

A Fire of Driftwood in fine condition, with a dust jacket, costs around a hundred pounds ($150 approx.), but generally speaking copies don't show up with the jacket all that often. A fine copy without the jacket costs about fifty pounds. Three of the tales - 'The Promised Land', 'Clairvoyance', and 'The Window' - can be found in Wordsworth Editions' Couching at the Door, which costs a mere £2.99.

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