Dennis Parry, ‘The Survivor’ (Valancourt Books, 2014)

The SurvivorI received a copy of The Survivor a few months ago as a gift from Mark Valentine, who has penned the new introduction to this, Parry’s third novel originally published in 1940. Mark has written a little about the book on the Wormwoodiana blog.

This handsome reprint is by Valancourt Books and the publisher describes it as ‘a classic story of the supernatural’. That’s an intriguing way to describe this novel, or at least the use of the adjective ‘classic’ is unusual. The Survivor doesn’t strike me as being typical in the sense I’d normally understand the term ‘classic supernatural fiction’: it’s not particularly Jamesian or like anything by, for instance, de la Mare, Machen, le Fanu or Blackwood. The ‘supernatural’ aspect to the story is placed upfront, and quite clinically described by Parry from relatively early on in the narrative; the remainder of the piece takes on quite a different kind of fictional clothing, akin to a period thriller with a race-against-time theme, I think. The events which unfold don’t particularly frighten or chill in that classic sense, and I didn’t really have that delicious sense of creeping dread I get from rereading those authors I’ve mentioned above in the context of classic supernatural fiction. However, I don’t really think that’s Parry’s intention with this novel. I’ll grant you, The Survivor’s revenant is not to be underestimated for the manipulative and cruel way it strives to destroy the family at the heart of the story. The novel’s conclusion also struck me as rather bleak and uncompromising.

The book’s story of spiritual takeover by a ruthless though brilliant doctor, James Marshall—for a tale of vengeful possession is what The Survivor is at its core—is told very well and with great gusto. I imagine parts of this must have been rather shocking for an audience in the 1940s, although to my more modern eyes, I confess some of the cultural references and the eccentricities of the family date the book a little, unsurprisingly perhaps since the ambit of the story is also one of parodying social mores and of railing against certain societal norms.

I hope this doesn’t sound like a negative reaction. I enjoyed The Survivor a great deal and I’m glad to have had the chance to read it: Parry’s writing is dense and articulate, particularly in the early descriptive passages of the winter- and epidemic-stricken fens, and his characterisation is splendid. James Marshall, the powerful, complex, flawed doctor at the centre of the narrative will remain in my memory for a long time as a larger-than-life and close-to-sociopathic ‘villain’, but who has, for all that, flashes of humanity (at least while alive!). There is something cinematic about his brand of cynicism and manipulation.

Mark Valentine makes the point in his introduction that The Survivor is a rarity precisely because it is a successful novel-length tale of the supernatural (how many others can you name?). And I think he hits the nail on the head by positing that “[Parry] has written a modern and ironic ghost story.” I think that’s a truer set of descriptors for this book, rather than classic supernatural fiction per se.

On the strength of the writing here, which is sharp and witty and dosed with a cruel irony, I would like to read more of Parry’s work: there’s no doubt he was a fine prose stylist. This is the first time The Survivor has been republished since its original outing in 1940. Parry had written ten novels by the point of his untimely death in a car crash at the age of 42 and seems to have been largely forgotten after that, which is a pity. An obscure author then, but this is a novel which I’m glad has been brought back to public notice by Mark Valentine and the good people at Valancourt. They state on their blog: ‘If you like intelligent, interesting, out-of-the-way fiction, give Dennis Parry a shot — you might be very pleasantly surprised.’ I think that’s a very fair summation of The Survivor, and one I’ve very happy to echo here.

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