Read The Best of Gerald Kersh Online

Authors: Gerald Kersh

The Best of Gerald Kersh

The Best of Gerald Kersh

Selected and with a Preface by Simon Raven

CONTENTS
  1. Title Page
  2. Preface by Simon Raven
  3. Neither Man Nor Dog (
    Neither Man Nor Dog
    )
  4. The Devil that Troubled the Chessboard (
    I Got References
    )
  5. ‘Busto is a Ghost, Too Mean to Give us a Fright!’(
    I Got References
    )
  6. Thicker than Water (
    Guttersnipe
    )
  7. The Crewel Needle (
    Guttersnipe
    )
  8. The Queen of Pig Island (
    The Brighton Monster
    )
  9. The Sympathetic Souse (
    Men Without Bones
    )
  10. The White-washed Room (
    Men Without Bones
    )
  11. The Ape and the Mystery (
    The Brighton Monster
    )
  12. The King Who Collected Clocks (
    Guttersnipe
    )
  13. Clock Without Hands (
    Clock Without Hands
    )
  14. Men Without Bones (
    Men Without Bones
    )
  15. The Brighton Monster (
    The Brighton Monster
    )
  16. Frozen Beauty (
    The Brighton Monster
    )
  17. Carnival on the Downs (
    Men Without Bones
    )
  18. Teeth and Nails (
    Guttersnipe
    )
  19. In a Room Without Walls (
    Neither Man Nor Dog
    )
  20. The Oxoxoco Bottle (
    The Ugly Face of Love
    )
  21. Copyright

G
ERALD
K
ERSH
tells stories. Good and bad, long and short, neat, dramatic, bizarre, perverse, scientific,
supernatural
, historical, they have been flowing out almost without pause for the last twenty years. They range from full-length novels, such as the recent
Fowler’s
End
or the celebrated novel-documentary
They
Die
with
their
Boots
Clean,
to little jokes of some fifteen hundred words. In between, there are short ‘novels’ of perhaps 30,000 words, long short stories of 10,000 or 12,000, and a great many short stories of what one might call classical length (4,000 to 8,000). All of them, from the novels proper to the little jokes, have three things in common: they are vigorous, they are inventive (sometimes to a point near lunacy), and they can be read with the greatest of ease.

First of all, then, Kersh’s vigour. This is particularly in evidence when he is describing circumstances of squalor
‘Busto
is
a
Ghost
…’ His phrasing, when he comes, for example, to describe a sleasy lodging house and its verminous inhabitants, has a near-Falstaffian
richness
which he never quite achieves at any other time. Which is not to say that he ever becomes flaccid. He may be careless, he may overplay his hand, he may be
downright
embarrassing; but he is never floppy. And indeed he could not afford to be: for Kersh’s people, whether squalid or not, are always on the go; cheating, drinking, cruising, fornicating, making money or spending their
immortal souls, they live in a world where it is always necessary, for good or ill, to act; and if they – or their creator – lost their vigour for one moment, then they would surely die.

As for Kersh’s invention, this ranges from the
ingenious
devising of trick endings (
The
Sympathetic
Souse
)
to the skilful presentation of phenomena.
Occasional
and brief excursions into Science Fiction (
Men
Without
Bones
)
confront one with tiny yet cosmic horrors, at first sight of no importance in the scheme of things, but disquieting for days in their concentrated malevolence. With ghosts, again, he has a canny knack of persuasian (
Carnival
on
the
Downs
).
But it is with material and familiar freaks (human or otherwise) that he is at his best (
The
Crewel
Needle,
The
Queen
of
Pig
Island
);
for these are ready to hand and need not be created afresh, so that all the force of Kersh’s invention is set free simply in order to
manipulate
them, to organise them to the most cruel advantage and to bring them to the most unlooked-for end.

And if, thirdly, you doubt me when I say Kersh is easy to read, then I shall merely invite you to examine this selection of his work. It is made up of what I myself
consider
to be the best of all his short stories published
between
1939 and 1960. I have included one ‘little novel’ of some 22,000 words (
Clock
Without
Hands
)
and three stories of just over 10,000 words. But if Kersh is a good stayer, he is nevertheless better over the shorter
distances:
most of the stories in this book are between 4,000 and 8,000 words, and it is in these, I think, that he is to be found at his most vigorous, Rabelaisian, readable,
inventive
and bizarre.

S
IMON
R
AVEN
       

O
NE
day I asked Adze if he had ever known what it feels like to have a friend. ‘I have had a friend; one friend, once,’ he replied.

‘Whom you loved?’

‘Loved?’ He paused. ‘Well, yes: whom I loved.’

‘A woman?’

Adze sneered. ‘A woman!’

‘A man, then.’

‘Man?
T foo!
Men are dust and ashes.’

‘Not a child, I suppose?’

‘Children!
Ptoo!’
He spat. ‘People are weeds, and children are the seeds of weeds.’

‘I should have guessed,’ I said. ‘Horse or a dog.’

‘Horses and dogs are as bad as men. They
like
men! They
admire
men! Fools!
Ketcha!

He seemed about to burst with pent-up scorn.

He was silent for a while; for as long as it takes to smoke a cigarette he said nothing. There was always an oppressive and threatening quality about the silences of Adze. They made you think of wildernesses of broken stones; there was death and desolation in them. Then he laughed, and his laughter was short and harsh, like something splitting in a bitter frost. ‘Friend!’ he said ….

Friends are for cowards. You have friends because you are afraid to be alone. You value your friends because they are a kind of mirror in which you see reflected the
best-looking aspects of yourself. Friends! And as for women, bah! What is there in a woman that a man should lose his head over her? A woman is impossible to live with. She is always talking. You support her, and she expects you to be devoted to her body and soul. She smells. She gets fat. She whimpers like a pup, that she is all yours … and the moment your back is turned her lover comes out from under the bed. Listen to me. I am a very old man. I have known a lot of men and women, but never any to whom I could offer love or friendship. No, I am alone, me! Yes, I have known everybody, high and low, in all parts of the world … in fine houses and in gutters, on mountains and plains, in forests and on the sea, but I have always been alone, alone with myself.

Always, except just once. This was more than fifty years ago. I left Russia from Vladivostok, working on a stinking ship that sailed for the South Seas down past the Sea of Japan and the Riu-Kiu Islands. The name of the ship was
The
Varvara.
The captain was a pig, and the crew were also pigs. The purpose of the voyage was to trade among the Islands. We had tobacco, beads, hatchets that would not cut, and some barrels of alcohol. This rubbish we intended to exchange for such things as pearls – because our white women loved to hang their necks with these little white sicknesses out of the bellies of oysters, and the South Seas are full of pearls and other nonsense.

Well, it was an unlucky voyage. Before we were out of the Sea of Japan we hit a storm, and the ship was rotten and the cargo was badly stowed, so that we were in a bad way when the winds died down. Everybody said that it was madness to go on, but the Captain swore that he would put a bullet into the guts of the first man who
might dare raise a voice. I did not care. I had a feeling that, whoever died, I should live. So we repaired
The
Varvara
as best we could and went on. And so we came to grief. Do not ask me where we were, because I do not know. Another wind came, howling like a devil out of hell, and it seemed to smash us like a bomb. The end of the matter was, that the crew, pigs and fools that they were, gave up hope. They cracked one of the bottles of vodka, and drank it out of their cupped hands, as the ship foundered. They died singing of sweet kisses,
blue-eyed
maidens, and love in the meadows, while the sharks were crowding round them like Society ladies around a millionaire. That was the end of them. Good. But the Captain, as I foresaw, had taken care of himself. He and the first mate got into the one remaining boat. Needless to say, I got in with them. They had half a mind to toss me out, only there has always been something in my face which makes men think twice before playing such games with me. The sea was heaving, but growing still now. Our little boat went up in the air like a cork and then down again between cliffs of green water. Yes, the sea is very powerful. The last I saw of our ship was a kind of scum of bits of wood. Good. Then I was alone with the other two men in the boat, and they were fast asleep exhausted. So I slept too. That was just before dawn. I awoke with the sun on my face. It was like the open door of a blast furnace when they let out the molten iron. The Captain awoke too, and said: ‘Open that locker behind you and pass me the water.’

I did so; that is to say, I passed him one of two
water-kegs
in the locker, and also took out a little barrel of biscuits. He and the mate drank like fishes, and then handed me the keg. I also drank. Then we ate some
biscuits. The sun rose higher. We lay and gasped. There was only half a gallon of water left in the keg, and the devil knew where we were. I said nothing. The day passed, and then the night, and then another day. The keg was drier than bones in a desert.

‘The other keg,’ the Captain said.

I looked at him, and said: ‘There is no other keg.’

At that, they looked at each other like criminals in a cellar when they hear the police kicking down the door, and a sort of despair came down upon the mate, and he put his face between his hands and wept – only he was too dry to have any tears left. The night was a hundred years long, and the next day came like a flame-thrower, and the mate went mad, and jumped overboard, and the sharks were very pleased to see him. And the Captain raved and gasped and, for the first time in his life, cried for water. Then he too went. He thought, all of a sudden, that this blue sea was some stream or other where the women of his village used to go and do their washing, and leaned over the side of the boat. Sharks have a habit of leaping up and snatching. They leapt up. They snapped. His name, if I remember rightly, was
Avertchenko
. But who cares?

So I was alone in the boat. I used the keg of water that I had hidden, sip by sip, and ate the biscuits. I do not mind being alone. I do not enjoy company. But then being imprisoned in that little boat, rising and falling and rising and falling, with nothing left but a sky like a house on fire, and a sea that covered the whole world … why, then, suddenly it seemed to me that I wanted
company
. I never felt like that before, and perhaps it was the sun that made me feel so. I kept looking out of my
burnt-up
eyes, and seeing nothing but this damned emptiness
everywhere, this rotten emptiness for fire and salt …. and it seemed to me that a hole had been bored in my chest, and some of this silence and emptiness had leaked into me.

I lay like this for days, drinking my water drip by drip. And then I was down to the last pint of water and the last biscuit, and also the last thread that held me to the world. In one day I knew that I also would start
singing
and babbling about snow and grass and trees. But I broke this last biscuit, determined to keep alive as long as I could, for it is a man’s duty to save himself. I broke this biscuit, I say, and a cockroach crawled out. I watched it. It ran across my hand, dropped to the bottom of the boat and tried to find a place to hide. I followed it with my eyes, put out a finger and headed it off. It crawled up my finger, ran up into my palm, and stayed there, doing something or other with its feet. I put up my other hand to shelter it from the sun, and there it stayed. I made crumbs of a little biscuit and – devil take it – I actually moistened these crumbs with a finger dipped in water. I wanted that cockroach to stay with me. I wanted it to stay alive. Yes, of all created things, that thing is the only one which I w r anted to live with me! It made me feel that the whole world was not dead, and that, somehow, there was land beyond the sea, the salty and murderous sea.

So the madness that was coming on me went away, and the night came with cooler air; and still the cockroach rested on my hand, which I did not dare to move for fear of frightening it away; and that night passed quickly until it cracked – my last night – cracked like my last biscuit and let in the dawn. And for the one time in my life, just for an instant, I felt that I also was small and
resting as it were in the palm of some hand powerful enough to crush me.

I looked over the water; it was calm as glass, and saw a sail. It belonged to a Norwegian clipper-ship, but I was too weak to signal. My head went round and the
darkness
fell down, and I knew nothing more until I tasted water, and found myself lying on a deck looking up into the face as round and red as the sun, the face of a man with a yellow beard. There were men all around me, all offering me clothes, blankets, food, drink, sympathy. But I looked at the palm of my hand. The cockroach was gone. I had been lost and alone on an empty sea in an empty boat for forty days and forty nights. But when I saw that my cockroach was gone, then, for the first time in my life, I felt lonely.

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