Subtitled Eighteen Strange Stories, this collection of contes cruels contains idiosyncratic character studies that blend elements of the fantastic with occasional humor and diabolical whimsy. The central theme connecting most of the tales is fully fleshed out in the title story. The narrator is a classical pianist whose career has run aground. Alone, with his mind failing, he spends his last days haunted by memories of a wretched and abused childhood in Scotland. He is disturbed to learn that a mysterious “Other”—a presence that resembles him and pursues its own independent life—is dogging his steps. The narrator strangles the figure and burns him as an effigy on Guy Fawkes Day. At the end of the story, the Other confronts the suicidal pianist in his chambers.
Most of John Keir Cross’s characters are likewise haunted by reminders of their own failings, thwarted hopes, and obsessions. The range of these characters extends from stunted bureaucrats (the sanitary engineer of “Liebestraum”) to failed artists (pianist John Spencer in “The Other Passenger”) to frustrated lovers (Julia the spinster in “The Glass Eye,” Felix the tobacconist in “Esmeralda,” and James Gemmell the lonely widower in “The Lovers”).
In addition to these serious tales, there are, to be sure, several sardonic, Grand Guignol fables in a style most readily associated with Roald Dahl and John Collier. These include “Petronella Pan,” about a mother so obsessed with her beautiful baby that she goes to every length to keep it forever young—in appearance, if not in mind. The last image is of the child in the stroller reading Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927). “The Last of the Romantics” concerns a public hangman who takes spectacularly appropriate revenge against his wife’s lover. “Miss Thing and the Surrealists” depicts an artist’s studio filled with the body parts of a murdered lover. “Music When Soft Voices Die . . .” features a protagonist who spends his last days beating on drums made from the skull and skin of his unfaithful wife. In “Coleur de Rose,” a pair of “rose-colored spectacles” turn out to be blood-spattered glasses.