Nightshade and Damnations: by Gerald Kersh

Gerald Kersh's 1969 collection Nightshade and Damnations gathers in one volume some of his best stories, many of which appeared originally in such unpromising publications as Esquire and The Saturday Evening Post. The '69 Coronet edition features an introduction by Harlan Ellison, who describes Kersh, accurately as it turns out, as a demon prince.

The stories are uniformly good. In The Queen of Pig Island a ship's captain finds on a remote atoll the remains of what he believes is an undiscovered race - but all he has found are the bones of a circus of freaks shipwrecked years before, and whose last brutal days of life are pieced together with moving apprehension. The Brighton Monster sees a strange creature captured by English fishermen in 1645 - it looks like a man, but is covered with strange tattoos and speaks an inexplicable tongue; over time the creature begins to degenerate, overcome by sores and a general lassitude that the reader is allowed to identify as radiation sickness. In Men Without Bones two jungle explorers find the remains of an ancient spacecraft and encounter the strange and revolting creatures living in and around it - but are they Martians or are they an undiscovered race of men? Men Without Bones is a fine example of how to restore a tired idea to vigour by powerful writing. The King Who Collected Clocks is another beautifully rendered fable in which a primitive automaton serves the interests of politicians as a clockwork regent. A Lucky Day for the Boar, with its Poe bookends, updates the 19th century master by borrowing his style to demonstrate the substance of 20th century techniques of mind-control and interrogation. And so on. Did I say they were good? They're often brilliant, and this volume culminates in one of Kersh's deservedly best-known stories, Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo?

There are often unfair comparisons with Joseph Conrad in any horror fiction that dares to undertake a travelogue of darkness; yet here the comparison is at its most warranted. Kersh's stories are filled with knowing local colour which he mortifies out of existence, so that instead of moral exactitude were are left exactly nowhere. His horrors are race memories drawn from the past and the future and played out in the present as a collision of science, magic and folklore; hence his scientific natives are as unprepared as his bushmen for the peculiarly bespoke fates which overtake them. There is nothing here that is very surprising or new, but there is much to admire in the way Kersh draws new life from old forms and then mercilessly extinguishes it - and it is the accompanying cruelty that turns his reader's heart to darkness.


  1. I don't think it was the first I'd heard of him, but this great little book was certainly the first time I read him at any length. As you observe, part of what makes him so distinctive is the way he combines potentially ludicrous pulp-SF material with the style and sensibility of a genuine writer; I don't think I'll ever forget my first encounter with "The Queen of Pig Island". I've never read any of his novels (I think Ellison's introduction singles out Fowler's End as the best of them, and possibly one of the best novels in the present galaxy) but apparently they were quite well received in their day, with critics throwing out adjectives like "Dickensian" and "Rabelaisian". It seems that middling popularity can be as fatal to the posthumous reputation as transient bestsellerdom.

    I have a nice fat collection, called unimaginatively The Best of Gerald Kersh, edited by Simon Raven, whose Doctors Wear Scarlet is a rather fine modern vampire novel. The Best Of... includes many of the stories in Nightshades and Damnations, besides my own personal favourite, "The Oxoxoco Bottle", a post-vanishment adventure of Ambrose Bierce which knocks Carlos Fuentes' Old Gringo into a cocked hat. I believe I first saw "The Oxoxoco Bottle", as I first saw Sturgeon's Some of Your Blood, in some Alfred Hitchcock collection or other, which may have been my first inkling that Kersh was worth serious attention.

  2. Hi Philip, thanks. I do agree Kersh deserves serious attention - I think he had a knack of confounding expectations and The Queen of Pig Island is perhaps the best example, the business of the bones used a hook rather than a reveal. He judged this absolutely perfectly and I can't help but wonder if he'd been writing for the pulps, would the editors have insisted on doing it the other way round.

    The fact of his stories being published in Esquire probably deprived him of a genre audience, while the nature of his stories probably deprived him of a mainstream one. It's quite a dilemma and seems to have resulted in a very undeserved fate. I'm not at all sure what happened to the novels - I've never seen one in all my years of haunting second-hand bookstores. Ellison does bemoan Kersh's obscurity in his introduction, which is on the money.

    I haven't read The Oxoxoco Bottle - sounds interesting, so I'll see if I can root out a copy.

  3. Ta very much - I'll read that at the weekend. :]

  4. As to the novels, I think Night and the City got briefly resurrected thanks to a 1990s remake of Jules Dassin's film noir. A few others have been resurrected by Valancourt Books. I don't think any of them are fantasy stories, though; from the little I know, they seem to be grotesque/comic "slice of life" novels, with the occasional thriller thrown in.

  5. And I've remembered where I first heard of him - it was "Comrade Death" in Mary Danby's 65 Great Tales of Horror, about the development of a megalomaniacal arms dealer from humble huckster to world-bestriding supervillain. As a connoisseur of apocalypses, you might well enjoy that one.

  6. Quite an impressive roster of reprints at Valancourt, Kersh and others. I think I will stick to his stories for now, though I'm sure that I have a lurid old paperback of one of his novels somewhere. I think I happened across Corporal Cuckoo in several anthologies, though I don't remember which. Comrade Death does sound rather interesting.