Thursday, August 14, 2014

Spotlight on Dennis Parry's THE SURVIVOR (1940)

If you've never heard of Dennis Arthur Parry (1912-1955) or his 1940 novel of the supernatural, The Survivor, you're hardly alone. As far as I know, Parry doesn't receive so much as a mention in any survey or study of English literature of that period, and even among scholars of occult and fantastic literature, only E. F. Bleiler gives even the briefest of mentions of Parry's book. Even during his lifetime, despite the fact that he published ten novels, most or all of them well received by critics, Parry seems to have been little known. Reviewing his tenth (and final) novel, Sea of Glass (1955), for The Observer, the prolific book critic John Davenport confessed that he was 'ashamed to confess having known nothing of his work before, as he is an uncommonly good writer, with the classic novelist's virtues and other gifts besides'.  

The few of us around the world who have had the good fortune to discover Parry's works owe the discovery to the macabre illustrator Edward Gorey, who in a 1975 interview named Sea of Glass the most undeservedly neglected novel he knew. Coincidentally, Parry shares a number of things in common with his almost exact contemporary, fellow Valancourt author John Lodwick (1916-1959): both were fairly prolific authors of clever, urbane, slightly cynical novels characterized by their incisive, witty prose, and both suffered the same fate: death in an auto accident at age 43, followed by instantaneous and total literary oblivion.

The Survivor (NY: Holt, 1940)

Parry seems to have come from an upper-middle-class background and was well educated, earning a degree in law and qualifying as a barrister, though he ultimately wound up in the civil service after he was rejected for active duty in WWII because of his poor eyesight. His first novel, Attic Meteor (1936), was published when he was 24, and over the next twenty years, nine others would follow (one of them, The Bishop's Move [1938], was co-authored with H.W. Champness).  It would seem Parry dabbled in fiction as a sort of hobby, devoting most of his attention to his career and family.

Parry's penultimate novel (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1954); d/w by Val Biro

The publication history of his third novel, The Survivor, is an interesting one. It was first published in London by Robert Hale in 1940, but it seems to have been dead on arrival. I could locate no reviews in the usual sources (TLS, Guardian, Observer, Spectator), and copies of the edition are almost nonexistent: OCLC/Worldcat locates only two copies in world libraries, and I've only ever seen one copy come up for sale on Abebooks (it sold instantly, before I could buy it). One wonders whether the publisher, Hale, simply didn't market the book correctly, or whether Britain was too preoccupied with WWII to notice it, or if it was just too odd to catch on at the time (quick: name some great British supernatural horror novels published in the early 1940s!)

By contrast, when the book was released in the U.S. in a curiously undated (c. 1940/41) edition from Henry Holt & Co., it was a surprise hit.  It sold well enough that I came across an article indicating Holt was going to budget another $5,000 (quite a lot back then, no doubt) for advertising and was going to issue a second printing. Virginia Kirkus's influential reviews service gave it a starred notice, and other positive reviews appeared from major review outlets in the U.S., comparing Parry's novel favorably with classics like Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Turn of the Screw, and Dracula. (It'd be interesting to know if Hugh Walpole read Parry's book, as Walpole's The Killer and the Slain was a bestseller the following year and also dealt with the theme of possession by a wicked, dead man.)

Mooncalf (London: Hale, 1947) d/w by C.W. Bacon

Without spoiling the plot, The Survivor opens with Dr. James Marshall, a brilliant doctor who has fought and conquered plagues on three continents but who is hated, feared, and despised by all, including his family (with the sole exception of his rather naive niece, Olive).  Marshall is domineering, tyrannical, with a malicious, sharp tongue, and capable of diabolical perversity and inventive methods of sadism.  When he dies -- ironically during a flu outbreak, the one epidemic he is unable to conquer -- everyone breathes a collective sigh of relief. But, Parry suggests, such a larger-than-life character, such a strong, powerful personality, may not be totally destroyed by death, but might somehow live on.  And when Olive begins to show some strange behaviors reminiscent of her uncle, the family begins to wonder whether it's merely her unique way of grieving his loss, or could she actually be possessed by his consciousness? An odd mixture of humorous and rather harrowing scenes ensue, leading up to an unexpectedly sinister conclusion.

In his introduction to the new edition, author, critic, and connoisseur of arcane literature Mark Valentine makes a number of interesting points. One is that Parry's novel is a rarity: a successful novel-length ghost story.  There are plenty of classic short stories featuring ghosts, as well as novellas like James's Turn of the Screw, but a full-length novel concerned with ghosts that manages to maintain the terror and suspense over the course of 250 or 300 pages is uncommon.  Also, Valentine writes:

"[Parry] has written a modern and ironic ghost story. He has the nerve to use his characters to point out the distinction between his approach and those of convention. When they meet to discuss what is happening to them, they rather doubtfully consider, and reject, what they know from 'tales and legends of the supernatural'. One character, evolving a theory, admits it may not be 'any higher than Dracula'. Another 'would greatly have preferred that the supernatural, if it must impinge on her life, should do so in a familiar, old-fashioned style, dressed in a white shroud and accompanied by clanking chains'. This is a knowing, new style of ghost story, blithely acknowledging, but distancing itself from, the stock properties of the past."

Sea of Glass (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1955)

Though it's doubtful that a new edition of The Survivor at this late date will propel it into the canon of classic ghost stories, or that this edition and our forthcoming reissue of the absolutely brilliant Sea of Glass will earn Dennis Parry a spot on the list of major 20th century English novelists, both books are well worth reading and discovering.  If you like intelligent, interesting, out-of-the-way fiction, give Dennis Parry a shot -- you might be very pleasantly surprised.

The Survivor (1940) by Dennis Parry, with a new introduction by Mark Valentine, will be available worldwide in paperback, Kindle, and e-book formats.  Parry's Sea of Glass (1955) is also forthcoming from Valancourt.

Atalanta's Case (London: Hale, 1947) d/w by C.W. Bacon

Going Up, Going Down (1953)


  1. Quite a few editions of books were almost entirely destroyed in the 1940-41 Blitz in London when publishers' warehouses wee burned out. The first English translation of Pavlov and Flann O'Brien's At-Swim-Two-Birds are contrasting examples. If it was destroyed before review copies went out, that might explain its rarity and why The Survivor did not even appear in British literary circles.

  2. Thanks, that is a great point -- it probably was late 1940, so that very well might explain it!

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