In the 1971 British horror film The Beast in the Cellar, two aged sisters, well played by Beryl Reid and Flora Robson, hide their homicidal maniac brother in the basement of their Lancashire home, and eventually give way to panic when said brother escapes from his confinement and goes on a murderous rampage. But, it would seem, this was not the first time that an English sibling had suffered a rough time with a monstrous brother kept hidden under domestic wraps. Thus, 36 years earlier, in G.S. Marlowe’s I Am Your Brother, we find a somewhat similar situation, but on the surface only. Whereas the 1971 film is a fairly humdrum, cut-and-dried affair, with a plainly corporeal human monster, the Marlowe novel is a bona fide head-scratcher … and one in which the titular brother might not even exist! More on that in a moment.
I Am Your Brother was originally released as a hardcover volume in 1935 by the Glasgow-based Collins publishing company, and sporting some nicely faithful cover art by one Rex Whistler. (That first edition was selling for over $1,200 yesterday online.) The book would then go OOPs (out of prints) for no fewer than 79 years, till Bruin Books resurrected it in 2014. Two years later, Valancourt Books would release the novel again, featuring the original cover art as well as a very helpful and highly erudite introduction by Phil Baker. Yes, it was the Valancourt edition that this reader was fortunate enough to nab, among a lot of eight other books from the company’s very impressive catalog. And while I cannot recommend this particular book wholeheartedly, I will admit that it is quite an experience, and surely like nothing that you might be expecting.
Before delving into the manifold weirdnesses that make up this novel, a quick word on the author himself. G.S. Marlowe was born Gabriel Beer-Hofmann in Vienna in 1901, and later worked as a theater director in London and perhaps (details on his life are sketchy) as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Besides I Am Your Brother, his most well-known book, Marlowe also wrote a novel entitled Pictures on the Pavement (1938) and a collection of short stories, Their Little Lives (also from 1938), both books published by Collins. Marlowe, it is believed, passed away in 1971 …the same year as that British film mentioned above.
Now, how to begin describing this book; a book that I’m not even sure I wholly understood? In modern-day Soho, in the heart of London, we are introduced to one Julian Spencer, a pianist and composer who, when we first encounter him, is working in a two-bit vaudeville show. Julian is very much in love with the show’s lead singer, the beautiful Viva Naldi, and aspires to become a renowned symphonic composer and conductor so that the two of them might be married. The young man lives with his aged mother and is an only child … or, at least, so he has always thought. Unbeknownst to him, Mrs. Spencer spends most of her days going to the local Italian butcher and procuring the kidneys, liver and tripe that Julian’s brother, secretly confined in the attic, devours raw! This brother (we are never told if he is a younger or an older brother, or even what his name might be) was apparently the result of some botched scientific experiments conducted by Dr. Hamilton Finnagan, to whose office in Harley Street Mrs. Spencer goes once a month to collect her 100 pounds in what is apparently (there’s that word again; so many things in this book are seeming or apparent, as opposed to being demonstrably real) blackmail money. But this fairly stable situation is suddenly upended when Mrs. Spencer is, uh, apparently killed in a street accident, and when Dr. Finnagan dies spontaneously in his office almost at the same time. On her deathbed, mother Spencer gives the key to her home’s locked attic to Julian, who thus later comes face to face with the brother he’s never met; a “hideous freak, born of sinister scientific curiosity”; a “slimy, shuffling, slithering” monstrosity with “horribly big feet … sharp black claws … wrinkled skin … huge forked tongue darting in and out”; a reptilian horror, sporting “a body with heavy folds.” Thus ends the first section of Marlowe’s book.
In the second, much longer section, Julian becomes a successful composer, and indeed something of a lionized celebrity. Meanwhile, we get to know his former vaudevillian colleagues and observe them at work and play in a wintry Brighton: the stage manager Shark; Coco the clown; strongman Sullivan Kraut, who is also in love with Viva; and Ritornelli, the troupe’s musical director. And we observe Julian as he seemingly begins to go off the deep end, his fantasy world and real world merging to the point that it’s difficult to tell which is which. Ultimately, the composer decides that, in order to marry Viva, he must somehow do away with his brother in the attic … a brother who, it must be said, seems to be fairly sweet, childlike and soft spoken. Unfortunately, attempts via poisoning, drowning and gunshot do not seem (you see … “seem” again) to work. And all the while, Julian appears to be teetering closer and closer to a complete mental collapse…
It should be stated at the outset that potential readers of I Am Your Brother who go in expecting a traditional horror/monster/suspense entertainment along the lines of The Beast in the Cellar will surely be disappointed with what they get in Marlowe’s book. To be brutally frank, this is a hopelessly frustrating novel, especially so for those who demand a clear-cut story line and full explications for every single plot point. No wonder that Baker tells us in his introduction that the book’s critics back in 1935 were “bemused” while at the same time having little idea what the hell they had just read. Even Marlowe tells us at one point “…but of course you can’t understand these lines, these words, their meaning,” and Julian himself says, regarding one of his baffling experiences, “Never mind … it’s all rubbish.” Marlowe employs a very unusual style of writing in this book; I’m not sure what the proper term for it is, but I call it the “present tense” as opposed to the more typical “past tense.” In other words, we get a sentence such as “Julian gets up and walks on tiptoe towards the door” instead of the more traditional “Julian got up and walked on tiptoe towards the door.” The entire book is given to us like that, which is odd enough, but the strangeness doesn’t stop there. Events are depicted is such a dreamlike, off-kilter manner – even those during which Julian is absent – that it’s often difficult to know what’s what. Thus, when Mrs. Spencer has her accident, and when the brother is poisoned and later drowned, the reader cannot be sure what has actually occurred.
Even weirder things transpire with the many total strangers whom Julian bumps into. A music company employee, a coffin maker, a tailor, and a hardware store owner all seem to be aware of the intimate details of Julian’s life, and of his intentions regarding his brother. In his shop, the coffin maker tells Julian that he (the coffin maker) and his brother had started their business in … 1810! And that his brother had died rather young … two days earlier!?!? Later, a prospective buyer of Julian’s flat puts on a new face and reverts to being that tailor again! In what can only be described as a fantasy sequence, Julian goes to an upper-crust party and enters into some kind of Alpine wonderland with his host’s wife, Lamenta (a wonderful name, that!). Later on, Viva finds the mute Lamenta inexplicably sitting in Julian’s living room. Oh, I could go on and on with the oddball bits of mystification, but perhaps you begin to get the idea.
And then there is the matter of that confounded brother in the attic. Is he objectively real, or just a figment in Julian’s own attic; the one north of his eyebrows? There is no way to tell, and vexingly, Marlowe seems to want to have it both ways. Arguments for the brother’s concrete reality are Mrs. Spencer’s purchases of all that offal meat, her discussions with Dr. Finnagan concerning the monstrosity, and her calming talks with the brother while Julian is absent. On the other hand, is it credible that Julian could possibly have been unaware of a sibling’s presence in the room above him for so many decades? Other clues as to the brother’s nonexistence are Julian’s flatly telling a reporter at one point “I have no brother” (although he is hardly a reliable source of information, granted!), the fact that the so-called brother cannot be poisoned or drowned, the fact that nobody sees the brother when he is chasing Julian through the streets of Soho, and the fact that the brother manages to somehow enter the gated sanitarium where Julian is being examined. Thus, a definitive conclusion regarding said brother is virtually impossible to achieve here, and as that reporter tells Julian, “without your brother … the whole story doesn’t make sense, and every story has to have some sense, doesn’t it, Mr. Spencer?” Perhaps Phil Baker puts it best in his intro, when he tells us that the book…
…is too lyrical and florid to be reducible to a pseudo-clinical picture of schizophrenia. Its fugues often seem to be more than the protagonist’s hallucinations, while not being real either: they are like objective correlatives for the underlying feelings of a given moment; extemporisations where the book takes flight into further riffs on a theme; dramatisations of what is going on in some alternate reality with its roots in Julian’s state of mind but its flowerings more diffuse and surreal…
Whew! Got all that?
As you can see, this is not an easy book to wrap one’s head around. It is beautifully, maddeningly, frustratingly written, full of bizarre imagery, though hardly my cup of tea. Don’t be expecting any explanations as to the brother’s origin, or Dr. Finnagan’s initial involvement, either. But do expect other kinds of details … reams of seemingly useless and pointless details! Thus, we get descriptions of the ads hanging in display in the train that Julian is riding; descriptions of the audience members in the theater at which Julian is performing; descriptions of ordinary people walking down the street. These incessant, seemingly random bits of detail left me half impatient, while the other half of me was being dazzled by the impressiveness of Marlowe’s language. Perhaps the novel might be said to function best as a word picture of 1930s London, a pageant of life therein, and indeed, the title of Julian’s triumphant musical performance is “A Symphony of London.” And, of course, the novel is apparently (that word again) an impressive portrait of a slowly crumbling mind. But unlike another novel that I recently read featuring a mentally unstable lead character, Ernest G. Henham’s wholly enjoyable (and understandable) Tenebrae (1898), Marlowe’s book is something of a labor to get through.
And yet, I don’t wish to give you the impression that the book is wholly without selling points. During the course of it, we do (irrelevantly) get to know the various members of Julian’s former vaudeville troupe fairly well, and they are a colorful bunch. The author’s description of Julian’s symphony is brilliantly carried off, its various movements corresponding to different elements of the great metropolis. The scene in which Julian goes with a casual pickup – a middle-aged blonde woman – back to her apartment is very well done, as is the sequence in which he attempts to bring some London streetwalkers home for his brother. The novel grows increasingly phantasmagorical as it progresses, the buildup of staccato-cut scenes of mind-boggling bewilderment serving as a neat reflection of Julian’s escalating madness. And Marlowe surely did have a way with bizarrely phrased descriptions, such as the vaudeville dancing girls with “skirts made of the same material as the straw-wrappings of expensive port-wine bottles,” Dr. Finnagan’s “Adam’s apple moving up and down, like the strange liquid in a blood-pressure apparatus,” Coco the clown looking “like his own after-birth,” and a matronly sort at a party Julian attends, “a short heavy-set woman who looks like a bolster on pigs’ feet.” And I also love Julian’s statement summing up his own life; a statement that many others, I have a feeling, might identify with: “Life is a grand show if one is not miscast – hideous makeup, hideous part I had…”
So yes, a frustrating read, shot through with brilliant writing and sequences of borderline psychedelic absurdity. If you do venture into this one, please know that a good street map of London will prove handy, and do have your Google machine ready to look up all the 100-year-old product names scattered throughout. And oh … some more points off for one gratuitous use of that blasted “N word.” I Am Your Brother is a book that I half enjoyed and half actively disliked; a perfect 2½-star book if there ever were one. I don’t regret having experienced it, but also breathed a sigh of relief when I finally made it to the finish line. It’s quite a ride, but brother, can it ever give you a headache in your own personal attic!