DECEMBER 7, 2016
THE ENGLISH DIPLOMAT John William Wall (1910–1989) is best remembered for the fiction he published under the pen name Sarban, especially the pioneering and deeply unsettling alternative history novella The Sound of His Horn (1952), set in an alternative timeline where the Nazis won World War II. His entire literary output was apparently confined to a brief period after the war, penned while he was counsellor at the British Middle East Office in Cairo. Tartarus Press, the leading independent English publisher of fine editions of weird and dark fiction, specializes in limited fine-quality print hardbacks and equally well-produced but much cheaper DRM-free ebooks, and now it has produced a new edition of The Sound of His Horn, adding in the four short stories previously collected in The Sacrifice and Other Stories (2002). Tartarus released these tales for the first time in a print collection, and with Ringstones and Other Curious Tales (first published in 1951) and The Doll Maker and Other Tales of the Uncanny (1953), Tartarus has now released nearly all of Sarban’s published works.
Sarban’s shorter fiction has its curiosities and its charms, not least the author’s luminous and sometimes fantastical descriptive prose, but The Sound of His Horn is by far the most powerfully imagined and most resonant tale he ever produced. Set in a framing narrative about foxhunting in 1949, it opens with the declaration, “It’s the terror that’s unspeakable,” as country gentleman and Royal Navy veteran Alan Querdilion recounts his bizarre wartime experiences as an escaped POW on the run in eastern Germany — experiences which pose an existential challenge to the entire postwar world. Introducing his narrative, he says:
I ought to be able to find out why I went out of my mind for a period, because, don’t you see, that would be the best proof of sanity — not my own sanity alone, but the sanity of all this order that we believe in, the proper sequence of time, the laws of space and matter, the truth of all our physics; because you see, if I wasn’t mad there must be a madness in the scheme of things too wide and wild for any man’s courage to face.
Querdilion’s peace of mind isn’t helped by the fact that Sarban provides no explicit rationale or explanation for his transposition to an alternative timeline. Sarban might have been inspired by H. Beam Piper’s classic 1948 alternative history tale “He Walked Around the Horses,” which riffed off an actual historical mystery: the disappearance of British diplomat Benjamin Bathurst in Prussia in 1809. In Beam Piper’s story, Bathurst has a fit of dizziness while inspecting a team of coach horses, and he finds himself in an alternate universe where the American Revolution failed and the Napoleonic Wars never happened. In Sarban’s account, Querdilion crosses a field illuminated by a strange light, and a shock, possibly from a barrier of “Bohlen rays” erected in the alternate universe, catapults him between epochs and timelines into the vast sylvan estate of Count Johann von Hackelnberg, Reich Master Forester, “in the hundred and second year of the First German Millennium as fixed by our First Fuehrer and Immortal Spirit of Germanism, Adolf Hitler.”
When Querdilion meets Count von Hackelnberg, he finds a very different animal from the scheming Nazi desk-pushers of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, no black-clad Gauleiter but some bizarre figure out of prehistory: “Von Hackelnberg belonged to an age when violence and cruelty were more personal, when right of rule resided in a man’s own bodily strength; such individual ferocity as his belonged to the time of the aurochs, to the wild bulls of that dark and ancient German forest.” The Count’s Schloss is bizarrely atavistic too:
The buildings were all low, half-timbered or built entirely of wood, exceedingly irregular in design, as if the architects had been obliged not to fell a single tree, but to make their plans conform to the shape and site of all the existing glades and open spaces in the area. In some places, indeed, enormous beeches or oaks were actually knitted into the fabric of the buildings.
After some time in the castle as a prisoner-cum-patient in the Schloss, Querdilion is turned loose in the Count’s woods, to be hunted like his other human “game,” where he meets Kit, an English “game-girl” and dissident “Aryan malignant,” whose final self-sacrifice allows him to escape von Hackelnberg and flee back to the (maybe) real world.
Sarban isn’t the first or only author to draw out the atavistic aspects and affinities of Nazism: Ernst Jünger’s On the Marble Cliffs and Michel Tournier’s The Erl-King also spring to mind. In an earlier introduction to the book, Kingsley Amis wrote: “No less plausible is the rural environment, which connects up with those distorted Nazi dreams of an older Germany inhabited by hard-drinking hard-riding barons […] and bands of clean-limbed young Nordic foresters.” What allows Sarban to delve deeper into those atavisms, and endows his work with its originality and visionary power, is actually the author’s sadism.
This may or may not come as a shock, depending on which Sarban story you come across first. Sarban’s short stories come very close in their flavor to the much-lauded strange tales of Robert Aickman. There’s the same surreal narrative ambiguity, the same absence of an explicitly supernatural rationale, and the same postwar haut bourgeois English milieu. Some draw on Sarban’s experiences in Egypt, and when they do, the social setting is decidedly late British Empire. There’s also a smooth, unobtrusively erudite ’30s English style, which elides easily from light, prosaic narratives to flights of fantastic, poetic description. Sarban also often writes best precisely when he isn’t taxing the reader’s patience with an elaborate and overworked setup to explain and justify whatever dominance-and-submission scenario has rubbed his itch.
There are plenty of fantasy scenarios in Sarban’s oeuvre, and some of them close enough to familiar S&M fetishes to be practically clichés. Sarban delved into sadism to power his fantastic imagination, like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Georges Bataille — but far less explicitly. There are plenty of examples throughout his other fictions to demonstrate that this isn’t an occasional, peripheral quirk or foible, but a fundamental focus and motor for his writing. In his story “The Sacrifice,” we have a willing human sacrifice; in “Ringstones” and “The King of the Lake,” we have ponygirls; in “The Doll Maker,” we have a Svengali villain figure who turns girls into dolls, and whose near-victim proclaims “I like being your captive.” Von Hackelnberg’s Schloss is just as elaborate and bizarre as the Château de Silling in The 120 Days of Sodom. Sometimes you wish that Sarban just had the stomach and the honesty to tackle his subject matter directly and write out his dreams as straight Sadean erotica instead of using fantasy and strange fiction as a wrapper and a pretext.
In The Sound of His Horn, Sarban gets that chance. Amis called Querdilion’s reaction to the horrors of this Nazi universe “a hypocritical moral revolt inserted to enable author and reader to retain their self-respect while continuing to enjoy themselves,” but at least it did allow Sarban to write out his predilections “at length and in detail,” in complete harmony with his theme. The sexual undercurrent, alongside the atavistic rural paganism, is woven deeply into his dystopian vision and both fuels and enriches the imaginative detail. The genetically modified Under-Races of the Nazi future, von Hackelnberg’s insane female hunting cat-women selected from “the slave-breeding farms of the Greater Reich,” and the girl prey of his hunts could have come straight out of edgy online BDSM fantasies or out of a version of The 120 Days of Sodom. Nowadays, Sarban would probably be a member of Torture Garden and perhaps a subscriber to Skin Two Magazine; back in 1950s England, he had to find a more veiled and more fruitful, if less fulfilling, outlet for his predilections than the BDSM alternative lifestyle community. (Arthur Machen, native of Monmouthshire, where Sarban retired, is another British writer who managed something similar in his The Great God Pan.)
“The sculptor’s hands will always betray the secrets of his heart,” one of Sarban’s protagonists muses in “The Sacrifice,” and one secret Sarban understood all too well, as George Orwell did in 1984, is the sublimation of pure sadism into the passion for political domination. Totalitarianism may have represented a dreadful guilty temptation as well as an inhuman enemy to Sarban — the Sadean promise of unbridled power, once the province of aristocrats like von Hackelnberg, or the Duc de Blangis, or the Marquis de Sade himself. But Sarban also had the self-awareness and objectivity to identify that temptation in himself, and delineate it, rather than follow D’Annunzio or Ezra Pound and fall victim to it.
If only others could do the same. Because one unexpected and horribly appealing aspect of this new edition of The Sound of His Horn is how topical and timely it is. At the end of the story, von Hackelnberg lets Querdilion go, but with the farewell warning, “Go free this night. Hans von Hackelnberg spares thee now to hunt thee again under another moon!” Sarban doesn’t provide any consoling resolution to prove that our own timeline is the primary, authentic one, and the First German Millennium just an extended dream. Querdilion is haunted by the fear that he could be snatched back into that nightmare realm at any time.
It’s not the truth of physics that Querdilion’s experience calls into question, but the truth of democracy, civic morals, equality, reason, and all the other enduring Western values perennially threatened by brutal, demagogic, charismatic figures like Hans von Hackelnberg — or like certain current political figures. European and American hustings are resounding to the same obscene atavistic dehumanizing impulses given free rein in von Hackelnberg’s demesne, the essential impulses of fascism, which may have already triumphed in Brexit and the Trump campaign. There may be “a madness in the scheme of things,” but there definitely is a madness in the human heart, especially the heart that schemes to dominate others. Sarban penned a warning that the dark passions unleashed in von Hackelnberg’s forests never go away, and may be lying in wait for us in our future — or be running free and unchecked right now in our present. Von Hackelnberg’s fellow creatures may yet hunt us again under other moons.