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Monday
Apr212014

Crooken Sands

I am quite happy to report that according to the intergalactic weapon known as Google, the eponymous town of this story does not seem to exist. Why should I be so pleased? Because there is something wholesome about wholly devised fiction unfettered by the necessity of deferring to historical fact or, much more egregiously, of drawing its power from it. Admittedly, this sounds like a distinct paradox since what feeds fiction – real faces, real tones, real words, real emotions – is undoubtedly derived from the banalities of the everyday. The difference is that first-rate fiction tilts objects, obscures gestures, and drowns out voices to achieve the maximum aesthetic effect.  Some mechanized minds might interrupt at this point and spout off a long German word which they claim, with some pomposity, has 'no equivalent in English'; others, even less original, will drone on about a mysterious 'circle of thinkers' collectively summoned as the Russian structuralists, a name which always reminds me for some reason of a mechanical brassière. The truth is that these 'circles' invariably involve no thought whatsoever, being simply staffed by backslapping mediocrities huddled together like prepackaged ballot boxes, so their reinventions of many a wheel should not distract the discerning reader from his enjoyments. And in a lovely little work like Crooken Sands, we do not wish to be distracted at all.

Our protagonist is a certain Arthur Fernlee Markam, whom I ought to describe in extenso as his image will prove to be a monument amidst the plot's wafting winds. Markam is an English merchant ("essentially a cockney") whose abiding dream is "to provide an entire rig-out as a Highland chieftain." Markam is also a dutiful husband and father of three, if by dutiful one understands that while he needs his space and quiet every evening after a long and profitable business day, he buys his family all the best clothes and appurtenances so that they may join him in the glorification of their social status ("The prosperity of the business allowed them all sorts of personal luxuries, amongst which was a wide latitude in the way of dress"). Readers of these pages will know what I think of such persons, and they will also know what fate tends to befall them. In any case, Markam, as stereotypical a Philistine as one could possibly find in the annals of literature, decides that his crowning achievement as a man of culture is to don the tartan of a clan to which he has never belonged and parade around a Scots fishing village in full regalia. Some faint apprehension, however, prevents him from simply borrowing the Royal Stuart pattern – probably the only one Markam could ever distinguish from a pincushion. Instead, and just as appropriately, he orders for a "pretty stiff" check a custom design:

Mr. Markam foresaw difficulties if he should by chance find himself in the locality of the clan whose colours he had usurped. The MacCallum at last undertook to have, at Markam's expense, a special pattern woven which would not be exactly the same as any existing tartan, though partaking of the characteristics of many. It was based on the Royal Stuart, but contained suggestions as to simplicity of pattern from the Macalister and Ogilvie clans, and as to neutrality of colour from the clans of Buchanan, Macbeth, Chief of Macintosh and Macleod. When the specimen had been shown to Markam he had feared somewhat lest it should strike the eye of his domestic circle as gaudy; but as Roderick MacDhu fell into perfect ecstasies over its beauty he did not make any objection to the completion of the piece. He thought, and wisely, that if a genuine Scotchman like MacDhu liked it, it must be right—especially as the junior partner was a man very much of his own build and appearance.

"The MacCallum," by the way, is neither a pub nor an inn, but the "junior partner very much of" Markam's "build and appearance"; almost as importantly, the sartorial deputy also speaks "with a remarkable cockney accent." Markam makes his purchase but does not "take his family into his confidence regarding his new costume" as he could not be certain that he would remain "free from ridicule." Once at the sands, Markum does indeed insist on wearing his outfit and his children laugh their necks red about it. A tableware accident invites more mockery from his wife, and it is at this point that Markum, by all indications pig-headed in that manner particular to smug, clueless boors, decides that on all outings henceforth he and his martial dress shall not be parted.

That our description has barely passed the first page of the text of Crooken Sands is cogent testimony to Stoker's foresight. The story ambles at an easy pace – almost as a metronome of Markum's aimless strolls near and around the village cliffs – and concludes at precisely the same speed, although by then our (and our English merchant's) pulses are beating noticeably faster. Without slipping into sly hints at the story's arc, one would do well to brush up on one's Scots, both the tongue and the nomenclature, before tackling this tale. And while I generally abhor dialect as a stooge-like conceit of the uninspired author, a cat's paw to generate some ancient truism from infallible rustics, it earns its place here. In fact, the very likelihood that Markum does not quite fully comprehend the local speech seems to heighten the danger in which he soon finds himself. What sort of danger? Well, one of the sorts you associate with 'sands,' although perhaps not the first that comes to mind. Thus during the plight – it does become a plight for more than one reason – of our Mr. Markum, we may find ourselves recurring to Kipling: "He may be festooned with the whole haberdashery of success and go to his grave a castaway." If that be his besetting sin, then surely we can forgive him.   

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