Thursday, October 25, 2012

31 Days of Halloween: A.M. Burrage

I love me a good, multi-initialed horror writer: M.R. James, E.A. Poe,  H.P. Lovecraft. And I've been  fond of A.M. Burrage ever since I read his short story "The Waxwork" as a child. While "The Waxwork" isn't his best story -- it's a bit shopworn and predictable from the get-go -- it's still briskly written in trademark Burrage style, and there are some insights into the mind of the struggling writer that make it well worth reading. But more on the critical appraisal in a moment. For now, let me begin by imploring you, if you haven't already read him, to pick up some A.M. Burrage stories today. I recently started re-reading his stuff and I've been thoroughly blown away by his strange tales. 

The really interesting thing about Alfred McLelland Burrage, to me anyway, was that he was essentially an exclusive short-story writer. He hardly wrote any books at all, but poured out insane word counts in short stories over the course of his lifetime. The only really well-known book he ever wrote wasn't even fiction, but it was horror, in a sense: it was called War Is War and was a memoir of his experiences as a solider in WWI, written under the pseudonym "Ex Private X." Burrage indeed served for fourteen months and managed to churn out a short story every month, even in the trenches.

Economic considerations were definitely a factor in his prolificness -- the magazine market was thriving in the first quarter of the 20th century, and as a man who made his living by his pen, Burrage sought to maximize profits by writing more, and faster, and selling more. But he also seems to have been simply addicted to the short story. I love this idea, because I know firsthand how easy it is to become addicted -- especially in the horror genre. It's been said elsewhere, and probably better than I could say it here, how much more suited the short form is to the supernatural story, so I won't re-tread tired facts. But I will agree enthusiastically that there's something exhilarating about the swiftness and mysterious efficacy of the short tale that cuts right to the heart of things. If it were possible to make a living writing short stories, I'd probably try to do it too.

Though honestly, I'm going to have to credit economic factors with at least 90% of his decision to stick to the short form, since he also churned out cheap romances and adventure stories for magazines with names like Modern Boy. Another bit of evidence is this: though comfortably off as a lad, and raised mainly in exclusive British boarding schools, upon the death of his father when A.M. was only sixteen, he was yanked out of school and hit Fleet Street, pounding the pavement looking for publishing work. That he made a living of it is as incredible as the fact that he'd been publishing semi-professionally in boys' magazines throughout his high-school days. His first payday came when he'd won a short story contest at the age of fifteen, with a trifle called "Chums." He was a born hack, and good thing, because he had to support his mother and sister and serve as primary breadwinner well before the age of majority.

Another interesting, semi-tragic thing about Burrage is this: by the 1930s he found himself without a market. The Crash of 1929 absolutely destroyed the paying market for new short stories as magazines either folded or turned to cheaper reprints for content. The buying public wasn't keen on spending their precious little cash on storybooks either: his incredible 1931 short story collection Someone in the Room was remaindered.

The '30s were a dreadful time for Burrage. He barely eked out a living, and agonized over how to support his wife and son. He began writing for markets he had previously spurned as being too low-paying, and even churned out two pulp novels for the frankly insulting fee of 50 pounds each. But he kept on plugging away somehow, and continued writing and publishing short tales, weird and otherwise, until his death in 1956. His last collection, Between the Minute and the Hour, was published posthumously in 1967.

There is a brilliant scene in "The Waxwork," which appeared in 1931's Someone in the Room and was later reprinted in Alfred Hitchcock's 1962 anthology Ghostly Gallery and adapted for his television show, that describes hard-up writer Raymond Hewson looking desperately for work. It is an uncomfortably autobiographic scene:

His clothes, which had been good when new, and which were still carefully brushed and pressed, were beginning to show signs of their owner's losing battle with the world. He was a small, spare, pale man, with lank, errant brown hair, and although he spoke plausibly and even forcibly he had the defensive and somewhat furtive air of a man who was used to rebuffs. 

Hewson pitches an article idea to the manager of the wax museum -- he will spend the night in the Murderers' Gallery and sell the story to an unspecified newspaper. He doesn't know which, exactly, as he's freelancing at present, but "no living editor could turn it down." Hewson doesn't want to do this bit of stunt journalism, but he must:

His soul sickened at the prospect, even when he smiled casually upon the manager. But he had a wife and family to keep, and for the past month he had been living on paragraphs, eked out by his rapidly dwindling store of savings. Here was a chance not to be missed -- the price of a special story in the Morning Echo, with a five pound note to add to it. It meant comparative wealth and luxury for a week, and freedom from the worst anxieties for a fortnight. Besides, if he wrote the story well, it might lead to an offer of regular employment. 

Needless to say, things do not end well for Raymond in the wax museum.

Many would deem this story tame, but anyone who's experienced the anxieties of the freelance writer will be absolutely gripped by the chill horror of failure. 

There are loads more stories I wanted to talk about, but this post has gone somewhat overlong. Instead of summarizing the tales for you, let me suggest instead you seek them out solo and immerse yourself in the eerie stories of this master of pacing and swift dispatcher of exposition. The briskness and clarity of Burrage's works are bracing, working to undercut the sentiment and reliance on tropes that are so often found in them. It's a great balancing act, and he pulls it off nine times out of ten.

If you'd like more biographical info, there is a wonderfully comprehensive blog post about Burrage on George Simmer's Great War Fiction blog, and the introductory essays by Jack Adrian in the Ash-Tree Press collections are extremely illuminating. But to truly appreciate Burrage, again, just read the damn stories. The Ash-Tree Press collections are reasonably priced, and many of his stories are even available online for free. If you like ghost stories and haven't read "Smee," you really must. Don't be fooled by how innocent it seems.

In a sense, Burrage is really the most modern of horror writers: a highly prolific man without a market. I think most of us have at one point felt the frustration of having only one or two viable publications in which to place our stories, many with lower acceptance rates (not to mention pay rates) than the New Yorker. But like Burrage, we must keep plugging on, for the love of the short story.

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