❉ This collection demonstrates that Kneale was remarkably talented at crafting short stories, writes Andrew Screen.
A few years ago I found the Holy Grail in a charity shop. It was there nestled quietly amongst all the Jeremy Clarkson and Fifty Shades of Grey books. The title, Tomato Cain and Other Stories, leapt out from the other spines and immediately gave me a shock of adrenaline. With trembling hands I took the well-read copy to the till, paid my pound and then tried not run out of the premises.
First published in 1949, and reprinted just once in 1961 as a Fontana paperback, Tomato Cain was a collection of short stories from Nigel Kneale. It was the paperback edition I found that day. Original copies of the book have become increasingly hard to come by as the years have passed and so for aficionados of Kneale’s work, who came to love and know his work as a child of the 1970s such as myself, owning a copy seemed almost as much of a dream as owning your own home. This is now set to change with the collection being republished courtesy of Comma Press in conjunction Kneale’s biographer Andy Murray.
The new edition combines the stories from both the American and British imprints of the book as well as two previously lost tales discovered in dusty post-war short story magazines. Both the original Elizabeth Bowen introduction and a new one by Mark Gatiss are included which, when taken together, give perspectives on how Kneale was perceived at the start of his career and the large legacy he has left us with. Like many collections not all the stories are excellent, but there are enough unsettling atmospheres and mysterious tales for it to stand out from the field. This is a gentler, embryonic Kneale with the supernatural and folklore elements not as foregrounded as his later work such as Quatermass or Beasts, but the material is as equally compelling. As Kneale himself is quoted as saying in the Andy Murray’s biography Into the Unknown “some were in the realms of the fantastic, some were humorous, some were about life in the old days of the Isle of Man.” With this in mind I found myself reading the vignettes of island life in the soft Manx brogue of Kneale himself.
The collection begins with the eponymous short story, Tomato Cain, and already the reader can detect some of the wider themes and motifs that Kneale drew upon throughout his later work. The tale of greenhouse grown tomatoes causing consternation at a harvest festival seeds Kneale’s fascination with old versus new, past versus present as the new-fangled fruit are perceived as a sign of decaying standards. This is followed by the first inklings of the uncanny in Enderby and the Sleeping Beauty but it is with the third story, Minuke, a blueprint for Kneale’s use of the ordinary meets the extraordinary, that the supernatural really comes to the forefront. The tale of a poltergeist ravaged building is told in a beguiling matter of fact way with the eye for character and detail that will later fills Kneale’s scripts. Clog Dance for a Dead Farce is perhaps inspired by Kneale’s early flirtation with the performing arts whilst Essence of Strawberry has a scenario that would not be out of place in a Roald Dahl Tale of the Unexpected. The story was actually adapted for the American anthology series The Web in 1951, making it the very first television production based on Kneale’s writing.
Lotus for Jamie is a vignette about a simple man that becomes more macabre as the tale progresses and ends with a twist that lingers in the mind after reading. The macabre nature of the stories continues with the first person narration of Oh Mirror Mirror and the sublime Jeremy in the Wind with the narrator and his friend, Jeremy, who is a scarecrow. This is followed by God and Daphne, the first story not found in my treasured paperback edition, a concise tale of a small girl’s introduction to the Almighty. The longest story in the book is The Excursion which foregoes any macabre undercurrents to present a delicate study of a day trip out on the Isle of Man and the relationships between the characters. Another tale new to me, Flo, follows. It’s an achingly sad snapshot of a meths drinking dog owner who makes a horrendous decision under the influence. Next is The Photograph which may be familiar to some having been read to BBC viewers by Tom Baker as part of the series Late Night Story in 1978. A family funeral frames The Putting Away of Uncle Quaggin, another tale firmly on the island with character surnames which reflect this; Quaggin, Quine, Kneen. Also set on the island, but steeped in Manx folklore, is The Tarroo-Ushtey which compels the reader with the concise, but so very telling, physical and character descriptions that Kneale was so good at.
Chains has an Eighteenth Century setting and deals with the issue of slavery in the format of first person narration. This is a topic Kneale returned much later in his career when he unsuccessfully attempted to get Crow, the story of a Manx slave trader, into production on the back of his success with the anthology series Beasts. Together with the more macabre stories in the book it shows that Kneale’s interests that influenced his output were already fully formed early on. An air of melancholy pervades Mrs Mancini which opens with a spinster’s relationship with a pet parrot which mimics he deceased husband before morphing into a study of hardship and loneliness. The eerie and uncanny is very much present in Curphey’s Follower where a man is followed by a grotesque looking duck which leads to deadly consequences. Kneale then pushes his experimentation with first person narration further with The Terrible Thing I Have Done, an odd and difficult to grasp tale set in Ancient Egypt.
Quiet Mr Evans portrays drama and adultery in a Welsh chip shop whilst Tootie and the Cat Licences is a tale of a village with an abundance of felines that has a local bully problem. A particular stand out for me is Peg, a snappy portrait of a lonely phantom figure in post-Blitz London with a zinger of a last line which throws the entire story into an altogether different context. The air of uncanny continues with Zachary Crebbin’s Angel, a strange tale of an old man recounting his encounter with a heavenly visitor. Bini and Bettine again draws upon Kneale’s flirtation with the performing arts whilst The Stocking perhaps foreshadows Kneale’s later Beasts episode During Barty’s Party. The aquatic horror of The Pond, where a taxidermist gets his comeuppance, is possibly one of the most widely republished stories having featured in several horror collections. This contrasts with the almost philosophical They’re Scared, Mr Bradlaugh where the rational minded character Ralph addresses his auntie on her death bed about her faith. The story contains one of the most simple and effective descriptions of watching a person die I have read. The earthly and the unearthly is juxtaposed in The Calculation of N’Banbwe when a mannered ladies group take tea and discuss a strange tale from Africa. Nature Study features a teacher whose iron rule and discipline of her students immediately resonates with anyone who was a product of the 1960s and 1970s school system. The collection ended in my Fontana paperback on a superlative note with The Patter of Tiny Feet which is an effective tale of a haunting. The nature of the spirit is given a very Knealian twist which is still unique. The final previously collected story of Charlie Pearce and the King which is written in thick Northern dialect and is no doubt influenced by Kneale spending some of his childhood years in Lancashire.
The volume closes with two previously uncollected stories. Billy Halloran presents the reader with a hit man haunted by voices in his head and inner demons whilst It Doesn’t Matter Now is about a judge on his 90th birthday being accosted by a convict he wrongly imprisoned decades before. Both are written with an exquisite economy. Andy Murray ends this edition with an informative and pleasing editorial after note which chronicles the history of the various imprints of the book and a chronology of the individual stories both in print and other media.
There is much to enjoy here and, if nothing else, this collection demonstrates that Kneale was remarkably talented at crafting short stories. The prose is precise and targeted, something that is reflected in his television scripts, and the stories are always surprising and entertaining. It really is a shame that Kneale never pursued the format, but at least this breakthrough material is now widely available for those who have never been lucky enough to discover a copy in a charity shop. I can think of no better way to mark the hundred years since Kneale’s birth than for his work to blossom and convert new readers to his sardonic, mischievous prose.
❉ ‘Tomato Cain And Other Stories’ by Nigel Kneale was published by Comma Press, 28th July 2022. ISBN: 9781912697656. RRP £14.99. Click here to order via commapress.co.uk/
❉ Publication of Tomato Cain coincides with Nigel Kneale’s centenary and a year-long series of events including a season at BFI Southbank, London.
❉ Andrew Screen writes on things film and television by night and by day is a SEN practitioner with thirty years’ experience. He has written for Action TV and was editor of the magazine’s website for several years. His work has been published in Creeping Flesh Volume 1 and 2 (Headpress), The Sapphire and Steel Omnibus (Pencil Tip Publishing) as well as Horrified Magazine. His guide to Nigel Kneale’s Beasts is forthcoming from Headpress in 2023. Twitter: @aneercs