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

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

Lex Talionis by Russell Kirk

Tim Kirk
Art by Tim Kirk

lex ta·li·o·nis

ˈleks ˌtälēˈōnis,ˌtalē-/
the law of retaliation, whereby a punishment resembles the offense committed in kind and degree.
Lex Talionis was written by Russell Kirk and first appeared in the Whispers II compilation. In addition to the magazine, Whispers published several hardcover books with Doubleday that were both collected stories from the pages of the magazine, as well as new stories. This tale by Russell Kirk is one of those new stories added to the hardcover.
Russell Kirk is incredibly famous. He is incredibly famous as an American conservative political theorist, who happened to also write horror fiction in his spare time. From Wagner’s tone in the intro to this story it seems like Kirk rarely wrote genre fiction, but when he did it was great and coveted. Wagner seems like a career criminal lucking into the score of this story with his buddy Stuart Schiff, editor of Whispers.
Fitting because this story read to me like a hardboiled noir. We follow Eddie, who seems to be recently out of jail. He was originally trained as a Catholic monk, but fell on hard times and into a life of crime. Atoning for his sins, he walks the streets of an unnamed city at night waiting for a sign from above. He mentions after being released from jail that he thinks of his last name being Cain. We get a sense that he sees himself as having some sort of righteous mission after leaving imprisonment to atone for his sins. (Hmmm, Kane walking the Earth? I wonder why Wagner liked this story?)
The city Eddie walks fits the tropes of a hardboiled, nameless American city. Buildings and parking lots are abandoned, the result of failed ‘urban renewal’, everything closes at sun down, churches included. That is of course except for the bars, the bars that are littered with the down and out and the criminal. Kirk is really getting in some of his political ideology with the state of things in this section. It is at one of these bars that Eddie bumps into former jail mate Butte. Butte was a bully that ran things to a certain degree on the block and is surprised to see Eddie. The last time he saw Eddie he had put him in an incapacitated state in the jail hospital.
Butte decides to bully and threaten Eddie into robbing an abandoned house with him. The family was recently murdered and a fortune is just sitting in the basement for the taking. Eddie sees this as a message from God and follows along.
I felt like Kirk expertly balanced me on the razor blade of uncertainty with this story. Is this a story of gritty noir with a constantly escalating plot, or is this going to be a horror story of a chosen one of God (Eddie) becoming a retributive hand against the sinner (Butte)?
Lex Talionis is the longest story in the collection and one of my favorites so far. It almost feels like this could be turned into a pulp novel series about the exploits of Eddie Mahaffy, now Eddie Cain. I would read it.
And for anyone keeping track, below are all the saints that Eddie prays to before his night on the town with Butte.
John Bosco: patron saint of illusionists
Gregory the Great: patron saint of musicians, singers, students, and teachers
Rose of Lima:patroness of the Americas,the first person born in the Americas to be canonized as a saint
Augustine of Hippo: patron saint of brewers, printers, theologians, the alleviation of sore eyes
Francis de Sales: patron of writers and journalists
Mary, Mother of Christ
Joseph the Worker: patron saint of workers, husband of Mary, mother of Christ
Thomas of Cantebury: aka Thomas Becket, saint and martyr
Elizabeth Seton: patron saint of seafarers, first saint of the United States