Friday, May 19, 2017

FFB: My Bones and My Flute - Edgar Mittelholzer

THE STORY: An artist accompanies his employer on an excursion into the jungles of British Guiana. Guided by an 18th century manuscript they hope to locate the author's skeletal remains and a buried flute and restore both to their proper grave in order to break a curse plaguing the Nevinson family. The arduous journey is hampered by an invasion of other-worldly manifestations, eerie flute music, and demonic possession.

THE CHARACTERS: My Bones and My Flute (1955) is set in 1933 in a remote portion of Guiana still haunted by the bloody slave rebellion of centuries past. Milton Woodsley, a painter hired to provide landscapes for a lumber company's head office which is currently being renovated, is our narrator. Ralph Nevinson, is the lumber magnate who suggests that Milton travel with him through the jungle to see the lumber mill but he has an ulterior motive. One night Nevinson relates the story of a manuscript he came to own. It was written by a plantation owner whose family was slaughtered in a slave rebellion long ago. The manuscript's author, a Dutch man, swore vengeance on all who read his story and cursed anyone who touches the pages he wrote. The curse will continue until his remains and his flute are found and buried together. Nevinson warns Milton not to handle the manuscript lest he too hear the music of the flute nightly and endure horrible visions. In defiance Milton places his hands on the manuscript. Days later he too is under the curse and is haunted by the flute music and the demons that Jan de Voortman somehow managed to summon in his dark dealings with the occult world.

The rest of the cast is made up of Nevinson's daughter Jessie, a rebellious young woman who taunts Milton and his conservative manner and Nevinson's wife Nell, a shallow pseudo-sophisticate. Each of the women also succumb to the curse -- one willingly and the other inadvertently in her attempt to destroy the ancient papers. The women begin as supporting players in the drama and slowly move to the foreground eventually becoming the focus of the tale when the grey shapes summoned by the flute invade the jungle and attempt to possess the women bodily in order to stop the men from their task.

Rounding out the story is Rayburn, a faithful servant the group picks up along the way. He serves as a reminder of the superstitious Indians of the island and the shameful slave culture of days gone by. Despite his clinging to native superstitions in a ironic touch Rayburn will ultimately turn out to be the most heroic of the group.

ATMOSPHERE: Mittelholzer must have been well versed in supernatural fiction. He alludes directly to Poe as well as the stories of M.R. James. The entire plot of My Bones and My Flute seems to have been inspired by James' love of antiquarian objects, ancient manuscripts, cursed objects and terrifying vengeful creatures. The curse manifests itself in all manner of apparitions and involves all the senses. Beginning with the ominous flute music, our group of four haunted travellers will be later subjected to a menacing grey thing covered in fur, a fog-like mass that invades their shelter, all of which are signaled by a musky stench entirely separate from the smells of jungle vegetation.

The claustrophobic setting of the jungle is enhanced by Mittelholzer's frequent use of animal and insect imagery. Buzzing flies and omnipresent chirruping tree frogs become terrifying sound effects and act as a wildlife accompaniment to the ghostly melody that follows the group to their final destination. It's a remarkable effect, almost like radio theater. Mittelholzer often achieves a creepy cinéma vérité of the imagination in his evocative descriptive technique.

QUOTES: "The right spell? Boy, you are talking like one of these medieval alchemists you read of in old books," chuckled Mrs. Nevinson.

[W]e could sense the quality of eternity threatening us as though it might actually have been a wavering, tangible swathe of silk that kept brushing our cheeks at intervals.

[W]e might as well consider ourselves already as lost creatures who had stumbled off irrevocably into slush and blackness -- into some cul-de-sac, perhaps, existent amid the unexplored dimensions of our cosmos.

...we had moved within range of forces that had nothing to do with the forces with which men are familiar, and we were about to dodge out of reach of normal laws and be gone forever into a new and slitheringly revolting sphere of intelligence.

A few supremely terrifying moments have loomed into being in the course of the lives of most of us -- moments which have produced such a stunning impact that when reflecting on them afterwards we are inclined to wonder whether they were not of deliberate and perverse invention. It was such a moment we experienced now.


THINGS I LEARNED: Two Caribbean mythical creatures are mentioned. The jumbie (also jumbee) is a catch-all word used in Caribbean folklore and superstition to describe all malevolent spirits and demons. The kanaima is an evil jungle spirit who can possess a human soul and drive it to murderous rampages.

I stumbled over many real creatures among the supernatural ones. For the most part they were animals I'd never heard of, but there was one error. Much is made about the terrifying cry of a baboon in the jungle. But that had to be wrong and so I went a-Googling as I usually do. As I thought there are no baboons in Guiana, the Caribbean islands, or anywhere in South America. Mittelholzer meant a howler monkey whose cry sometimes sounds like the better known African baboon. For that reason locals apparently use baboon as a slang term for that monkey species as confusing to wildlife enthusiasts as it might be.

As for the real native fauna: He mentions a strange bird called the hoatzin (also known as the "stink bird") which is indigenous to Peru and Amazonian South America but apparently migrates to the Caribbean islands at times. Candle flies are something like fireflies but look completely different according to Mittelholzer's detailed descriptions. One that gave me some trouble was salempenter. That spelling is archaic and I found it under salipenter when I finally added "lizard" to the search terms. Looks like it's a medium sized reptile resembling an iguana and it's apparently very fast. Salipenter seems to be local patois according to a herpetologist's lecture I watched on YouTube. The real name of this lizard species is tegu. It's also sometimes colloquially referred to as a "bush motorbike". There is also a salipenter snake indigenous to Guiana.

THE AUTHOR: Just because you may never have heard of Edgar Mittelholzer (which I will confess in my ignorance of world Literature) doesn't mean he's obscure. There are multiple websites and pages of information on his life and works. He is well-respected and a noteworthy figure among Caribbean writers though not generally known for supernatural fiction. The bulk of his novels and stories are devoted to explorations of sex, religion and race. His only other novel with supernatural content, Eltonsbrody (1960), has been reprinted by Valancourt Books and I hope to get to it later this year. Those interested in learning more about Mittelholzer's troubled life and his important works should read Caribbean Beat's essay and a brief bio at Peepal Tree Press.

EASY TO FIND? There are multiple paperback reprints of My Bones and My Flute all of them from UK publishers. The most recent one from Peepal Tree Press (2015), a publisher specializing in works by "Caribbean and Black British writers," is probably your best bet. You can definitely get a new copy of that particular edition. For all others you will have to resort to the used book market and some of them are a bit pricey. I found a copy of the Longman Caribbean Writers reissue (1986) because I was drawn to its attractively eerie cover illustration depicting the Nevinsons and Milton trapped in the shack in the jungle (second scan from the top). A first edition (Secker & Warburg, 1955) seems to be genuinely rare as I could find no copies available for sale.

10 comments:

  1. I have wanted to read this one for several years, John. Your fine review just whets my appetite further.

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    1. The new edition from PeePal Tree Press is very popular. I found dozens of reviews of this book when looking for images of older editions. I hope that Eltonsbrody, his most scarce title and rarely mentioned in his bibliography, is just as well told and evocatively creepy as this book is.

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  2. I am not sure I would like this book at all, probably too creepy for me. But it does have some of the best covers I have ever seen. Thanks for this review, John. I may try to get past my aversion to creepy and read it anyway.

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    1. I was thinking of you, Tracy, and your skull/skeleton fascination when I turned up all these different paperback covers. Sorry this isn't your kind of book. It's really one of the best ghost story novels I've read in quite a while.

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    2. I should check with my husband, John. Right now he is reading a lot of ghost stories, but short stories, not novels.

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  3. Yeah, I'm not big on the supernatural coupled with creepy doings. I much prefer fake supernatural used as a distraction for a whodunit. My wants and needs are pretty basic. Ha. (I'm also not keen on books set in the jungle unless it's non-fiction. Don't know why. I absolutely loved THE LOST CITY OF Z by David Grann.)

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    1. Ah well, another anti-ghost story reader. But what's the fictional jungle aversion about? Hmm.... I read Grann's book a couple of years ago and was transfixed. Amazing story. I want to see the movie, but apparently it's paradoxically languorous for such an adventurous, action-oriented story. I'm afraid I might fall asleep. May have to wait for the DVD. That way if I fall asleep I won't embarrass myself in public.

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  4. I guess you do like surreal, John! Despite your compelling review I just...nuh uh. The title's pretty weird all by itself, come to think of it.

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    1. Oh that title! Sure to get a titter or chuckle or two out of a certain type of person. If Seth Rogan and his crowd came across this book and turned it into a movie it would be transformed into something altogether different than what Mittelholzer wrote.

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  5. Another brand new author for me (I always say that ...) - but very glad that the work is comparatively easy to find (always relieved to say that too). Thanks John, as ever in your debt.

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