Review: The Smell of Evil / Author: Charles Birkin / Publisher: Valancourt Books / Release Date: January 7th, 2014
Sir Charles Birkin (1907-1985) was an aristocrat and Old Etonian as well as an occasional horror story writer, and this collection, first published in 1965, has a distinctly lordly quality to it, for good or bad.
The volume concludes with a science fiction story, but the majority of the pieces are of a twist-in-the-tail type akin to Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected. Their theme is the pettiness and ugliness of human nature – which might make for a certain monotony, if it weren't for the variety of backdrops that the tales enjoy. The rocky coast of Cornwall is the setting for a gruesome murder mystery; there's a nasty tale that takes place in WWII Germany in the shadow of the concentration camps; the South Seas crop up twice, most interestingly in The Interloper, about a colony of lesbians who serve up rough justice to a sailor who washes ashore.
In addition, two of the stories have memorable theatrical settings. Ballet Negre concerns an African dance company that makes highly creative use of voodoo (zombies got talent?), and The Cornered Beast takes us behind the curtains of a seedy freak show.
Even when it originally appeared back in the mid-'60s, The Smell of Evil must have felt out of step with the times, steeped in the values and milieus of an earlier era (despite occasional jarring references to jukeboxes and televisions). Birkin's attitudes to race and class are unlikely to endear him to modern readers, and some of his plots run along fairly predictable lines. Yet for all that, he's an impressively smooth and urbane writer, positively dripping with sang froid, and if your tastes lie in old-fashioned tales of the macabre, then this is one lord who should definitely leap to the forefront of your attention.