Nigel Kneale is best known now for his novels and screenplays featuring the alien-battling scientist, Dr. Quartermass, but his first book, the collection Tomato Cain and Other Stories was considered remarkable enough to merit a foreword by Elizabeth Bowen:
Within the last few years, readers have become less shy of the short story. That this form of fiction is also a form of art had fairly long ago been recognised; what is more important, from the point of view of popular favour, is that the high potential of entertainment in a good collection of stories may now be seen. There exists, too, a growing body of people who no longer turn to a book in search of “escape” but are genuinely interested in writing—who value craftsmanship and react to originality. To such readers, the short story—in its present rather fascinating position half-way between tradition and experiment—must particularly appeal.
The experimentary story-writer, lately, has in fact been given a good deal of rope: that the best use has invariably been made of this I cannot say. There has been a danger that, because of its literary privilege, the short story might fall under a certain literary blight, and become an example of too much prose draped around an insufficiently vital feeling or a trumped-up, insufficiently strong idea. The declared reaction against plot —as constraining, rigid or artificial—was once good up to a point, but possibly went too far: the fact that a story must be a story was overlooked. There are now
signs of an equally strong (and, I think, healthy) reaction against plotlessness. Of this Nigel Kneale’s stories are symptomatic.
Indeed, in one sense, these tales in Tomato Cain show a return to the great main stream of the English story tradition—with which one associates Kipling, Wells, Saki, Somerset Maugham. When I say that Nigel Kneale’s stories have plot, I mean that they make their effect by the traditional elements of invention, tension, a certain amazement and, ultimately, surprise. Like his great predecessors, he is impersonal, not using his art either for self-expression or exhibition. His art is the art of narration—the world’s oldest. He knows how to rouse interest; and, which is still rarer, knows how to hold it. He is adept to giving a situation a ?nal twist. These Tomato Cain stories vary in quality, as stories in any collection must; but, personally, I ?nd the author guilty of not one single story which bogs down.
The writer of stories of this type must be bold; he disdains the shelter of ambiguity; it is essential that each of his pieces should come off. He is gambling—in an honourable sense, for are not Kipling, Wells, Saki, Somerset Maugham gamblers also?—on the originality of his imagination, on his power to grip, on the persuasiveness of his manner of story-telling. It might be too much to say that all the world’s classic stories have had an element of the preposterous about them; one might safely say that any memorable story carried something which had to be put across. A part of the fascination of Nigel Kneale’s story-telling is that he takes long chances ; a part of the satisfaction of it is that in almost all cases he justifies the risks.
This writer is a young Manxman. He has grown up in, and infuses into his stories, an atmosphere which one can cut with a knife. He is not dependent on regionalism—not all of his work has an Isle of Man setting—but it would appear that he draws strength from it: his work at its best has the ?avour, raciness, “body” that one associates with the best of the output from Ireland, Wales, Brittany, and the more remote, untouched and primitive of the States of America. He turns for his inspiration to creeks in which life runs deep, to pockets in which life accumulates, deeply queer. Is the Talking Mongoose a sore subject with the Isle of Man? That interesting animal—of which the investigations of the late Harry Price never entirely disposed—might well be the denizen of a Nigel Kneale story. Has he not made frogs avengers; has he not made a deformed duck a tragedian?
In far-of days [he says, at the opening of “The Tarroo-Ushtey”] before the preachers and the school-masters came, the island held a good many creatures besides people and beasts. The place swarmed with monsters. A man would think twice before answering his cottage door on a windy night, in dread of a visit from his own ghost. The high mountain roads rang in the darkness with the thunderous tiffs of the bugganes, which had unspeakable shapes and heads bigger than houses; while a walk along the seashore after the sun had set was to invite the misty appearance of a tarroo-ushtey, in the likeness of a monstrous bull. . . . At harvest-time the hairy trollman, the phynodderee, might come springing out of his elderberry tree to assist the reaping, to the farmer’s dismay; for the best-intentioned of the beings were no more helpful than interfering neighbours. . . .
This is the background atmosphere of one group of Kneale’s stories; call them the local pieces. “Tomato Cain” itself, “The Excursion,” and “The Putting-away of Uncle Quaggin” have (for instance) a naturalism not unworthy of Maupassant : the supernatural never raises its head, but eminent human queerness is at its height.
It is the function of every emerging writer to create, and stamp, his own universe. This Nigel Kneale has done. In his universe, love, in the sentimental or social sense, plays almost no part; but the passions stalk like those island monsters. Like the unfortunate bungalow in “Minuke,” his characters are wrenched and battered and heaved up. What is remarkable, given the themes of many of the stories, is that the writer so seldom—if, indeed, ever ?—crosses the bounds into extravagance; his forte is a sort of control, restraint. His Quiet Mr. Evans, tale of an injured husband’s revenge in a ?sh-and-chip shop, threatens at one point to approach in horror H. G. Wells’ “The Cone,” but the last twist gives a pathetic-ironic end. It would be fair to say that his children and animal stories, with their focus on suffering
(e.g. “The Photagraph,” “Oh, Mirror, Mirror,” “The Stocking,” Flo,” and the semi-fantastic “Curphey’s Follower”) most dangerously approach the unbearable. It may, however, be found that Nigel Kneale knows how to relax any too great realism at the saving moment.
To the sheer build, to the something better than ingenuity of the best of the stories, attention should be drawn. “Peg” and “Bini and Bettine” would seem to me to be masterpieces in a genre particularly this writer’s own. This is a ?rst book: Nigel Kneale is at the opening of his career ; he is still making a trial of his powers. To an older writer, the just not overcrowded effect of inventive richness, the suggestion of potentialities still to be explored, and of alternatives pending, cannot but be attractive. That the general reader will react to Nigel Kneale’s stories, and that the perceptive reader will relish
what in new in his contribution to ?ction, I feel sure.
Bowen’s comparison of Kneale and Maugham proved prophetic, as Tomato Cain went on to be selected as the Somerset Maugham Award winner for 1950. It’s been out of print for decades, but if you can read Scots Gaelic, you can find it in print as Paart Dy Skeealyn Elley in a translation published in 2014.