YBHS IX: ‘The Propert Bequest’ by Basil A. Smith

Propert Bequest
Art by Stephen Fabian

‘The Propert Bequest’ by Basil A. Smith has one of the most wonderful stories about how it came around to being included in the collection. This is the kind of story that I find incredibly exciting. ‘The Propert Bequest’ originally appeared in Basil A. Smith’s first collection The Scallion Stone (1980) published by Stuart David Schiff and his Whispers Press. Basil A. Smith was an entirely unknown author at the time, his only published story being ‘The Scallion Stone’ which was seen in the first Whispers Anthology in 1977. What makes this story so unique is that Basil A. Smith passed away on December 9th, 1969!

So how did these stories make it into print and Wagner’s anthology? It all traces back to Year’s Best Horror Stories Alum Russell Kirk. In the biography Russell Kirk: American Conservative¬†by Bradley J. Birzer it implies that Kirk meeting the rector of Holy Trinity, Micklegate, York in 1949 was a transformative experience. This rector was one Basil A. Smith. In addition to being an influence on Kirk’s spiritual life, Smith shared with him his love of the English ghost story. Holy Trinity, Micklegate was said to have its own ghosts, Wagner states in his introduction “The church itself, with its twelfth-century nave, was reputedly haunted by apparitions whose silhouettes passed against a great stained-glass window.” Today the stories tell of three main ghosts at Holy Trinity; A nun who was murdered protecting the church, and a mother and child looking for reunification after being buried separately during the time of the plague. It seems Smith gave Kirk a nudge in the direction of writing about the supernatural.

Years later after the passing of Basil A. Smith, Kirk was able to acquire the manuscripts

Fantasy_Newsletter31-01
Art by Stephen Fabian

of stories, Smith had written over the years for his own enjoyment. Kirk being a writer now and having a publishing relationship with Stuart David Schiff of Whispers Press showed the papers to him. ‘The Scallion Stone’ was published first as a short story and then the hardcover collection The Scallion Stone was published in 1980 just in time for Wagner’s collection. When the collection was released initially it got good reviews in a few of the genre magazines. In Fantasy Newsletter #31 Douglas Winter says “these tales are written with uncommon charm, authenticity and an ephemeral Jamesian eeriness that should delight the connoisseur of the antiquarian ghost story.” Sadly years later in a letter to Wagner Schiff states “I wish I had the money to risk on another Smith-type title, but unless I get a PW or LJ review, I cannot make money on a book.” It’s the harsh reality of the publishing business, many wonderful writers aren’t always profitable, especially if not seen by a specific group of folks.

Storywise, ‘The Propert Bequest’ has been my favorite read so far. I agree with Douglas Winter that Smith feels very influenced by M. R. James. The story involves an old Priory that has been converted into a library featuring many old and rare books. Through the eyes of antiquarians, we learn some of the books may involve occult writings and a shadowy person or group is trying to get their hands on them. It has plenty of gothic elements mixed in, including family secrets and secret passages. The climax very much reminded me of the climax of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, oddly also published in 1980 (Italian). This is the longest story in the book measuring to 45 pages almost 1/4 of the entire collection. My only criticism of the story was I felt ahead of the characters at certain points, however, I did not see the reveal of the shadowy shape seen flittering in the library coming. I have my own theories about it and found it a bizarre and fresh take.

I was happy to learn about Smith and sad to learn about the small output. I’m glad Schiff took the chance on publishing his work and can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of¬†The Scallion Stone.

Next: ‘On Call’ by Dennis Etchison