Originally appeared on the Swan River Press website (2012)
Robert Lloyd Parry is a Cambridgeshire based actor and writer. Since 2006 he has been touring a series of one man shows based on the ghost stories of M. R. James around the UK, US, and Ireland. He wrote the introduction for the Swan River Press book Curfew & Other Eerie Tales by Lucy M. Boston. His audiobook Two Strange Tales by Lucy M. Boston, comprising ‘Curfew’ and ‘The Tiger-Skin Rug’ is available from Nunkie Audio. More information on Robert Lloyd Parry can be found at Nunkie Productions.
John Kenny: How and where did you first come across the work of Lucy M. Boston?
Robert Lloyd Parry: I’d heard of her and her children’s books long ago, but not actually read anything by her. My interest in her really began when I wrote to Diana Boston, her daughter-in-law and the current occupant of Hemingford Grey Manor, the house that Lucy moved into and began restoring in 1939. I was looking for suitable venues in my area – near Cambridge – to perform my one man shows based on the ghost stories of M.R. James. Like Lucy, Diana loves showing people round the house and she was very receptive to the idea of my performing there. She also had a particular affection for M.R. James, I think, as her late husband Peter – Lucy’s son – used to read the stories to their children. And then I discovered that Lucy herself had written a couple of really good supernatural tales in the Jamesian vein – ‘Curfew’ and ‘The Tiger-Skin Rug’. I recorded these as an audiobook and it was then that Diana revealed that there was a box with some manuscripts of unpublished ghost stories…
JK: What do you think is the defining feature of her work?
RLP: Well, if you ignore the ‘eerie tales’ – which were written in the 1930s and which I don’t think she ever imagined would be published – there’s no doubt that the defining feature of her work is the Manor House at Hemingford Grey, where she lived from 1939 until her death in 1990. It’s the presence that binds almost all her writing together – in her most successful children’s fiction she called it ‘Greene Knowe’, but made no attempt to disguise it. And it shares centre stage with the author herself in her second volume of autobiography Memory in a House. It really is a remarkable place, and I never tired of visiting there. There’s always some new ancient detail to notice. The core is a 12th century Norman banqueting hall with stone walls three foot thick, but there are additions and accretions from almost every century since. And I don’t care how clichéd it may sound – the place has a palpable atmosphere. You can smell the antiquity. You can feel it in the walls.
JK: There’s a 19th Century painting of Hemingford Grey Manor on the cover of Curfew & Other Eerie Tales under the dust jacket. It looks like the perfect place for telling supernatural tales.
RLP: Yes, I love that painting. It hangs in the dining room at the Manor. It was painted by William Garden Fraser in 1899 – so 40 years before Lucy Boston moved into the house. Fraser was one member of a very talented family who painted scenes on and around the Great Ouse, the river that runs through Hemingford Grey.
You’re right; it does have a wild, eerie, kind of Gothic feel to it which is actually quite different from the impression you get visiting the house today. The unkempt wilderness in which the house stands in the painting was transformed by Lucy Boston into a marvellous garden, in which she cultivated rare rose and irises, and fashioned topiary chessmen. The house is definitely a prime location for the telling of supernatural tales but that’s I think more down to its palpable antiquity than any sinister qualities. It has a much friendlier, more welcoming aspect today.
JK: Of course the tradition of oral storytelling is a lot older than the written word, but it does seem to have withered away. Do you think there’s a demand for this form of storytelling? Supernatural tales do seem to be ripe for this kind of delivery.
RLP: Yes, well it’s a bit of a minority interest today, I suppose, but there is still a strong tradition of oral storytelling, and in the UK, and Ireland I’m sure, there are some very accomplished practitioners – The Crick Crack Club holds regular performances in London and elsewhere and they are always worth catching. They tend to draw on traditional folk tales so there is usually a supernatural or fantastical element.
I think there’ll always be a demand for oral storytelling just as there’ll always be a demand to be enjoyably frightened. It’s a basic form of entertainment. Lucy Boston’s own ghost stores were probably originally conceived as bedtime stories for her son and nephews.
JK: I presume it was you that brought this selection of unpublished stories to the attention of Swan River Press. What was the reaction like?
RLP: Hmmm. I might have to refer you to Brian for that one. I can’t quite remember how and when I told him about the unpublished stories. I can only imagine that he was pretty excited about it and that the decision to publish was not a difficult one for Swan River Press to make once Diana Boston had given permission. It’s not everyday you come across an unpublished cache of supernatural tales by an esteemed writer.
JK: Objects feature quite often, in the stories gathered in Curfew & Other Eerie Tales, as the nexus for supernatural manifestation; a bell in ‘Curfew’, a desk in ‘The Italian Desk’, a rug in ‘The Tiger-Skin Rug’. But that manifestation is usually subtle, could in fact be entirely a product of the main characters’ imaginations.
RLP: Yes, the cursed antique does seem to be a favourite motif of hers, and I think this shows the debt she owes to M.R. James. I think the bell in ‘Curfew’ is unambiguously and actively malevolent – what happens to the Uncle at the end of that story surely happens to his flesh, rather than in the imaginations of the narrator or any of the characters, although of course Boston brilliantly leaves it to her reader’s imagination to guess at the details of what has happened. ‘The horrible mad banshee sound of the maid having hysterics in the kitchen’ is a brilliant touch, I think, and Boston’s description of the bell’s ringing and the figure in the shrubbery, shows what a first class descriptive writer she was.
‘The Tiger-Skin Rug’ is a different proposition I think. It’s definitely worth noting that Boston in her manuscripts first entitled it ‘An Asylum Story’ – I think its current title was added by Philippa Pearce when she first published the story in an anthology, several years after Boston’s death. When I read it now, I imagine it as a kind of insane confession, a monologue delivered by the narrator from the confines of a loony bin, maybe a kind of Ancient Mariner figure. It reminds me a bit of the film of the Robert Graves’s story ‘The Shout’. And yes, the question remains, is he mad? Come on, surely none of that stuff happened? Did it…?
JK: The story ‘Pollution’ is an interesting one, in that it prefigures to an extent our modern concerns with pollution and the environment in general. What do you think Lucy Boston would make of our current situation?
RLP: I think she’d have deplored it. She already did in the 1930s when her husband and she lived on the edge of Runcorn and were acutely aware of the corrosion of Cheshire countryside by increased industrialization. Peter, her husband, was an aggressive and persistent letter writer to the nearby petro-chemical factory.
I think she was very sensitive to noise pollution too. She adored the manor for its ancient quietness, but was not very optimistic about its preservation. It’s funny, because I tend to view Hemingford Grey, the village, and the Manor today through rather rose-tinted spectacles – it’s easy to look upon the place as a rural idyll, a quintessential old fashioned English village, untouched by the present. But it isn’t of course. Behind the birdsong and sound of boats on the river is the constant roar of the A14, one of the most troublesome, congested, dangerous roads in the country. In fact, don’t get me started on the A14…
JK: ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’ uses the framing device of a narrator relating a story he’s heard from a third party. It’s a device not used much in modern fiction, but extremely effective in supernatural fiction. Why do you think this is so?
RLP: Not sure. Perhaps it allows us to suspend our disbelief that bit more – the narrator isn’t burdened with the need to convince the reader that fantastical occurrences happened to them at first hand. But then again, first hand accounts in supernatural fiction are just as common and effective, I’d have thought. For me the best two stories in this book, for instance – ‘Curfew’ and ‘The Tiger-Skin Rug’ – are written in the first person.
JK: It’s a shame Lucy Boston never wrote more ‘eerie tales’. Why do you think this is the case?
RLP: I agree. I’m sure she had more like those inside her. Some of the later children’s stories have eerie elements – An Enemy at Green Knowe in particular. But I suspect she might have been discouraged by the original audience for her ghost stories. I came across an interview with her recently in an old book when I was browsing in Cambridge market. She was asked whether she’d ever considered writing anything other than children’s books. She talked for a bit about her poetry and then said, “I used to write ghost stories to amuse my son. They didn’t.”