Considering William Sansom's short fiction was once widely anthologized in frighteningly titled story collections (e.g., London Tales of Terror, Ghosts in Country Houses, The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, as well as several installments of The Pan Book of Horror Stories), with a novel named The Body, readers already acquainted with his better known, more diminutive, phantasmal forebears, could understandably conclude that Sansom's first novel The Body was likewise macabre. Honest mistake, that. And perhaps also disappointing for those mystic connoisseurs of the obscure with a taste for Sansom's peculiar style of understated extravagance -- a style similar to yet not quite as distilled as that of those refined denizens of the fin de siècle, nor as baroque as the later Lovecraft crowds he was often lumped in with (peruse any of the table of contents of one of the dozens of anthologies Sansom contributed to in order to better see my point) -- who naturally approach the The Body expecting the same disquieting ambiance of his eerie short stories. But the worms and the flesh's imminent decay, from which chilling wisps of (of what?) might soon materialize and emanate in sun dappled shadows in the woods, are absent. Such ghastly expectations are soon dashed, reading The Body.
|1959 Penguin reissue of Sansom's first novel|
Yet somehow, The Body has survived, barely, since its publication in 1949, even enduring decades of being out of print; survived largely, I suspect, because of both the reputation of William Sansom's short stories and on the hard won approval of Anthony Burgess, who included The Body in his influential 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 (published in 1984) and wrote, in part, about it:
"Sansom's ear, matching his eye, renders the idioms and rhythms of post-war lower-middle-class English with a frightening exactness. The final image that emerges in the self-tortured brain of the husband is of the human body growing old and unsavoury -- the broken toenails, the rough skin, the bad breath -- and the sexual urge as a kind of insentient insanity. It is what the sharpened eye is led to observe at last and it leads, in its turn, to a kind of resigned philosophy. By a paradox, Sansom mines into the human spirit by staying on the surface."
The surface of my tattered 1959 Penguin Books copy of The Body has sure seen better days. The cover, in fact, is held on by scotch tape. Who knows for how many years it languished, in the dust and dimly lit glory, on a long crowded shelf at the late great Acres of Books in Long Beach before I salvaged it, thanks to Anthony Burgess, in 2008, just before the store closed. The Body remained out of print until Faber and Faber reissued it in 2011. I believe it's worth the steep price to obtain, or I'd be happy to send you my copy.