Selected Stories, by Martin Armstrong (1951)

Cover of first UK edition of 'Selected Stories' by Martin Armstrong

In his dictionary, Samuel Johnson defined craftsman as “”An artificer; a manufacturer; a mechanick.” When the first OED was published 150 years later, craftsman was still associated with assembly rather than creation: “A man who practices a handicraft; an artificer, artisan.” And even today, to refer to a writer as a craftsman is to assign him or her to the second class: better than a hack but not so fine as an artist.

One could argue, however, that would-be creators are better off studying the craftsmen than the artist. After all, if artists are few and craftsmen are many, then chances are better that new writers will end up as the latter. And some mastery of craft is required for most lasting works of art. But it only takes a look at a sample of academic syllabi to conclude that “craftsman” is not the label a writer would want if he wants to be remembered and studied in posterity.

Take the example of Martin Armstrong, for example. Armstrong published seven collections of short stories over the course of twenty years, and continued publishing stories, if less frequently, into the 1960s. If he gets much mention today, it’s due more to the fact that he married Conrad Aiken’s ex-wife Jessie and thereby became stepfather to noted children’s author Joan Aiken. None of his novels, poems, or short story collections are in print today and he only earns a mention in the most comprehensive encyclopedias of English literature.

Reviewing one of his collections, critic Norah Meade wrote that, “Mr. Armstrong is a good craftsman. There is a clear, unembellished directness about both his plots and their presentation which makes his characters, his scenes and his intentions readily recognizable at a glance. They are interesting to contemplate, too, and even pleasantly subtle.” You know, of course, there is a “But” coming: “… but he fails to make them significant, either emotionally or intellectually. If the emotional reaction that one gets from a work of art in, any medium is the real test of its value, then Mr. Armstrong is not an artist in the most exalted sense.”

As evidenced by his Selected Stories (1951), however, Armstrong was every bit as successful a craftsman of the short story as, say, Algernon Blackwood or W. W. Jacobs. I use these two comparisons deliberately, as neither ranks on the level of Chekhov, Hemingway, Cheever, or other artists of the short story, but are acknowledged as masters in its genre forms–ghost stories, horror stories, humorous stories, stories of the sea and sailors. Much of Armstrong’s work falls into these categories.

Although a number of Armstrong’s stories have appeared in anthologies of ghost stories, it would probably be more accurate to describe them as spectral stories. In them, his aim is not to spook the reader as much as to remind one how fine is the line between life and death. In the opening story of this collection, “The Inner Room”, for example, an old gentleman knocks upon the door of his neighbor’s cottage. Getting no answer, he cautiously steps in. He calls, but no one answers. He roams the house, looking for his neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Riddle. In their bedroom, he sees something startling:

An old sheet was spread over the bed, completely covering it except for the discoloured pillow at the head, and under the sheet lay a dead body. He realized it in a flash. The dead face, sunk in the pillow, was the only uncovered part of it, but the long concave sweep from the bulge of the chest to the jutting feet was unmistakable.

A moment later, however, the sight is transformed:

Daylight is not a stable thing. Imperceptibly, second by second, it changes, and during the moments he had stood looking into the little room the light had altered, however slightly, and he saw quite clearly now that the bed was empty. The dead face was nothing more than stains in the ticking of the uncased pillow; the bulk of the thorax was a heap of folded bedding under the sheet.

Returning downstairs, he encounters Mrs. Riddle, and they sit in the kitchen for a brief conversation. As they talk, he has an unsettling feeling: “… whenever her eyes met his he was aware of a strangeness in her gaze and felt that they were talking across a gulf of unasked and unanswered questions.”

So was there a body? Was it Mr. Riddle’s? Or Mrs. Riddle’s? Or is the old gentleman himself the deceased? Armstrong leaves the reader to wonder.

Armstrong was also adept at the humorous story, which he could turn to both bitter and fantastic purposes. In “The Camberwell Beauty”, a passing comparison, made in conversation, between a young woman and a butterfly, turns out to have fatal results when a less than fully-witted butterfly collector overhears it. This and several other stories could easily have been raw material for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

In the longest story of the collection, “Presence of Mind”, however, the fantastic side of Armstrong’s humor is best displayed. What starts off as nothing more than a solicitor’s impulsive decision to take a short cut through his neighbor’s private park spirals, through a series of absurd twists, into a nightmare as bizarre, yet comic, as Kafka’s traveling salesman turning into a giant cockroach. But it’s a very English nightmare, for the twists depend upon such names and places as Muggleton Spoffin, ]oshua
Palimpsest, Calceolaria Grove, and Hobbleton-on-Sloke. And, unlike Gregor Samsa’s, the fate of Armstrong’s solicitor is, in the end, no worse that to move “the offices of Pellett, Pellett & Pellett to what he considered a more salubrious quarter of the town.”

If not, perhaps, a masterpiece, Martin Armstrong’s Selected Stories remain, many decades after their publication, durable and entertaining examples of solid mid-20th century short story craftsmanship. Which is no second class distinction.

Selected Stories, by Martin Armstrong
London: Jonathan Cape, 1951

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