There are few things less Gothic than vigorous physical activity, so the very idea of writing a series of linked short stories that combine the motifs and props of the horror genre with those of sports journalism must surely be the endeavour of an author who hungers for obscurity. The two literary traditions are in opposition and don’t blend at all. Yet Maurice Richardson made the unnatural collision work in the 1940s. More than anything else, his ‘Engelbrecht’ stories are funny, and their oddness never seems awkward. I am at a loss to find much, if anything, to compare them to, either before or after they appeared in the pages of Lilliput magazine and then in a limited edition hardback issued by the legendary Phoenix House.
The Exploits of Engelbrecht is a work of fiction that fitted into no known category back then and has subsequently inspired few imitators. It is perhaps the ultimate definition of a ‘cult book’, a work read by only a small number of people who grow wildly enthusiastic about their discovery and try to spread the word. The word falls mainly on deaf ears but occasionally a new convert will be won, and that is how the cult perpetuates itself, slowly and inefficiently. Some illustrious figures are proud members of this particular cult. The most vigorous, Michael Moorcock, was the one who first alerted me to the existence of Richardson and his book. In one of his essays, Moorcock made the startling claim that no other writer, not even Borges, could much the density of invention of The Exploits of Engelbrecht. In the days before online bookshops it took me many years to track a copy down. I searched in vain in second-hand outlets for a copy. I knew it had been reprinted once, in 1977 by John Conquest, but no bookseller I approached had heard of the title.
On the single occasion I met Moorcock in the flesh I questioned him and learned that the reprint had failed to sell in just the same way the original 1950 edition had. The world simply had no use for such eccentric reading material. Eventually I did manage to secure a battered copy of the first edition. I devoured it and so inspiring did I find it that I ended up writing my own collection of ‘Engelbrecht’ tales, the first of which I impulsively began late one evening in the autumn of 1999, finishing the last one the following summer. Collected together, my stories didn’t find a publisher for another eight years, despite Moorcock’s generous support. My book, Engelbrecht Again, was finally published but sales were not overwhelming. It remains an obscure sequel by an obscure writer to an already obscure original by an underrated genius. Copies are still out there, if you feel like buying one.
But the world is strange. One person who did notice my book was Richardson’s daughter, Celia, who got in touch with me. From her I learned that there seemed to be a slow but significant surge of belated interest in her father’s glorious creation, for instance that a French translation was planned (it has now been published). I already knew that Savoy Books had published a new edition in a deluxe format with extra material and the clever illustrations by James Boswell that had accompanied the first edition, but sales had been poor. Now sales seemed to be picking up. Was something happening? Might literary justice still be done? Was the dwarf surrealist boxer being given the proper chance he deserved at long last?
For that is what the character of Engelbrecht is. A dwarf surrealist boxer. He fights clocks mostly, but is happy to take on anything at all, including arcade machines, zombies; robots, ghosts, krakens, witches and other horrors, and not only at boxing. He will try any sport and he’s willing to stretch the definition of the word to include chess and elopement, and such cultural pursuits as opera and theatre. He is both egged on and opposed by the other members of the remarkable and illogical club to which he belongs. The language of his exploits is reminiscent of Damon Runyon, the special effects come courtesy of Bram Stoker, the humour is half blunt music hall and half sharp anarchic satire, there is a flavour of Saki and Beerbohm, but these factors, allusions and influences are gripped tight by a muscular aesthetic, and the midnight realm of ghosts, ghouls and witches is balanced, most unexpectedly, by the shady world of boxing match fixers and nightclub bouncers.
It is a peculiar blend indeed and its creator, Richardson, was an unorthodox fellow for his time and place. Although he wrote little fiction (his first book was a novel about a female boxer called Strong Man Needed), he didn’t really need to be prolific. With The Exploits of Engelbrecht he invented one of the slyest and driest fantasy worlds yet seen. It is a slim volume for sure, but so rich in humour and imagination and wordplay it seems a much thicker tome. Richardson was essentially a generous writer. He wanted to give you everything and not waste your time while doing so. The fifteen short chapters, which also work as stand-alone stories, relate the activities of the SSC (Surrealist Sportsman’s Club), a society of dubious morals that spends the time it has left between “the collapse of the moon and the end of the universe” taking the concept of the ‘game’ to its logical limit.
A club can’t operate without members, and those of the SSC are as grotesque and astonishing as some of the events they compete in. Most formidable of all, and more than just a little sinister, is the old Id, an “elemental force” who thinks nothing of venturing from his home at Nightmare Abbey to arrange a rugby match between Mars and the entire human race (including all Earth’s dead people), or of playing chess using boy scouts and nuclear bombs as pieces, a game that leads to the annihilation of humanity. Other club regulars include Charlie Wapentake, Nodder Forthergill, Willy Warlock, Badger Norridge, Bones Barlow, Monkey Trevelyan and Lizard Bayliss, the only member not to fall in love with an animal, vegetable, mineral or abstraction each time the season of spring arrives. Centre stage, however, is given to Engelbrecht himself, the celebrated dwarf surrealist boxer.
Surrealist boxers don’t take on human opponents, but do most of their fighting against chronometers and other machines. Engelbrecht has his fair share of those and even bests a malign Grandfather Clock in a match where years rather than money is at stake, but his talents are also called upon to help him deal with almost the whole spectrum of Gothic, electric and purely impossible threats in a style both charming and ferocious. He’s an eternal optimist and it’s his pluck and spirit rather than his fists or footwork that generally make the greatest contribution to his precarious well-being and magnify the reputation of his club. Not that all his enemies are outside the society. Some are his friends. Chippy de Zoete, for instance, the fixer and general bad-egg whose whimsical charm and indefatigability partly redeem the malignity of his schemes. Tommy Prenderghast is another dodgy member, though when he tries to outwit the old Id by setting fire to Gallows Wood during the Night of the Walpurgis Witch Shoot he instantly meets his match.
The tone of the stories is a curious mix of Gothic and science fiction, but an avant-garde Gothic and an absurdist SF, a voice that simultaneously lampoons much of the atmosphere found in those genres while making a genuine contribution to both. Richardson has placed his tongue firmly in his cheek, but then he has proceeded to bite it off with molars sharpened on the grindstone of profundity. There are messages about optimism and anti-cynicism here, but they are inherent in the spirit of the exploits rather than spelled out in the text. The book delivers what many visionaries only advocate, acting like a tonic on the reader.
Having said that, there is a sense of unease lurking behind a few of the exploits that makes the exuberance feel like a guilty pleasure. The Id is a cosmicomic tyrant and his methods can be inarguably evil. Shouting to himself in the Silence Room at the clubhouse is the least of it. Hunting politicians with hounds and ghouls is surely forgivable, but what about shooting players dead for the crime of fumbling a ball, or feasting on pickled organs from the Royal College of Surgeons’ Museum? But that’s the point of the Id, who prefers rules to morals, and bending those rules when a grand wheeze requires it. Engelbrecht is the only one you might care to trust with your life, though not your soul, in any physical contest.
But for those who can find only a sour taste in the blood, sweat and wormcasts of contact sports, there is the refuge of high culture. Try a night at the Plant Theatre. Just be aware there are hazards here too. An attempt by the New Forest to perform King Lear has already lasted for 5000 years and the final scene still isn’t in sight. The problem is that Plant Drama is apt to be a bit slow and “even a relatively fast worker like mistletoe, convolvulus, or bamboo, playing in a light Coward type comedy, can take three months over a proposal.” And Dog’s Opera isn’t much safer, not with the addition of Chippy de Zoete’s bag of cats. As for politics and romance, Engelbrecht’s canvassing and winning of the spare seat in the Monkslust constituency is achieved at the cost of returning civilisation to the Stone Age, while his efforts to elope with a cuckoo clock have dire consequences for Badger Norridge when it strikes twelve and releases not a cuckoo but a hungry pterodactyl.
The James Boswell illustrations from the 1950 edition, eight in all, are works of genius and an audacious attempt to convert Richardson’s ideas into pictures. Boswell drew scenes in the style of other artists. These illustrations are easily good enough to be hung in the myriad rooms of the SSC and the joke is that Boswell pretends that is where they now are. What relationship existed between Richardson and Boswell, if any, is unknown to me. Boswell clearly remains highly respected in certain quarters. A decade ago I strolled into the Tate Gallery in London to pleasantly kill some hours and found an exhibition devoted to his drawings.
As for Richardson, perhaps there is a curse on him. The curse of being ignored by subsequent generations. Maybe it has something to do with the time he was invited to Aleister Crowley’s house for a curry. Crowley tried to intimidate Richardson with a pantomime of occult chants, hypnotic stares and sinister chuckles, and when these didn’t work he resorted to slipping extra spoonfuls of chilli powder into his guest’s meal. Anything to make his guest perspire! That ploy failed too. It seems now that Crowley played his trump after Richardson left, casting a spell of invisibility on the man’s fiction. It remains fresh but can’t be seen.
Since then, a few good magicians have fought back, hoping to reveal its outline by showering praise on it, in much the same way that space heroes in the pulps threw tins of cosmetic powder at undetectable monsters from Uranus. It hasn’t worked, but maybe the praise hasn’t yet settled properly. After all, the area to be covered is bigger than could have been anticipated. The shoulders of Engelbrecht are too broad for his homuncular body. Besides, the true target is his heart, wider and more slippery than sunken continents. Consider that J.G. Ballard was a devoted fan and his extolment shifted few copies when the book was republished. It’s not always the case that wild, wise and funny work is successful. Far from it!
Despite the excellence of Richardson’s creation of Engelbrecht, the character that made the deepest impression on me is the Id. He is nasty, powerful and unpredictable. Satirical but oddly sentimental, he looks somewhat like Alfred Hitchcock and acts a lot like a supernova. His favourite protégé isn’t Engelbrecht but the spirit of the game, any game, provided it features a strange doom. Strange, yes, and hilarious. One of the many triumphs of this book is its devastation of Gothic clichés. There’s no longer any need to worry about the seriousness of ghouls, living skeletons, witches, warlocks, nightmare abbeys or hippogriffs with snakes for manes who bite their riders in the Grand Cosmological. The next time a demon appears by the side of a reader of this book, it is certain to be laughed back to Hell or challenged to an afternoon of cricket. For in The Exploits of Engelbrecht, Richardson leads a cross country race over the landscapes of the Gothic imagination and few dark truths or rotten shadows survive the pounding. It’s exhausting and refreshing.
Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He currently shares his time between Britain and Kenya. His first book, Worming the Harpy, was published in 1995, and since that time he has published more than forty other books, eight hundred short stories and numerous articles, and his work has been translated into ten languages around the world. His fiction is generally fantastical, whimsical and inventive. His most recent book is Mombasa Madrigal and Other African Escapades. A lover of paradoxes, he incorporates them into his fiction as entertainingly as he can.