Sunday 4 September 2022

Book Review: Tomato Cain and Other Stories by Nigel Kneale

Being one of British television's most innovative, forward thinking and fiendishly skilled writers, Nigel Kneale needs little introduction to the readers of Curious British Telly. However, whilst we're all familiar with Quatermass, The Stone Tape, The Woman in Black and, ahem, Kinvig, Kneale's 1949 collection of short prose entitled Tomato Cain and Other Stories is less well known. But this lack of recognition is less an indicator of quality and more a matter of circumstance, for Tomato Cain and Other Stories has been out of print for over 60 years. Luckily, 2022 has seen its pages (and a few bonus features) resurrected by Comma Press.

2022 marks the centenary of Kneale's birth and it's fair to say he would have been as pleased as punch with this re-release of Tomato Cain. Not only does it bring two lost stories to the table - Billy Halloran and It Doesn't Matter Now - but also an introduction from Mark Gatiss, one of the world's top three Kneale fans (alongside Jon Dear and Andrew Screen). Whilst you should never judge a book by its cover, Tomato Cain is blessed with a brand-new design, one which is packed full of vintage charm and could have easily tumbled out of the mid-20th century. Finally, Andy Murray is on hand to provide a handful of notes on the stories.

The 33 stories contained within, of course, come from a Kneale who, although clearly above the average writer, is still developing his style and themes. There's nothing here which you could argue is equal to his most celebrated works, but their constituent parts are all at work here, clearly on an exciting and evolving path to rare heights of storytelling.

Known for his mastery of the supernatural and the unknown, Kneale tackles these here with relish in the unnerving, if a little rudimentary, tale of a poltergeist in Minuke and an early glimpse at the horror of Beasts in the downright chilling taxidermist-horror of The Pond. A curious uneasiness seeps into many of the stories too, with Lotus for Jamie producing an unusually beautiful combination of tragedy and charm, one built on themes of innocence and rebirth which sears itself into the reader's mind. The central figures of the stories here are often the recipients of misfortune, with Flo being a fine example where Kneale weaves in multiple tragedies which unfold through a drunken haze before a final suckerpunch of a revelation.

Most notable in Tomato Cain, and less so in his later television work aside from Murrain, is Kneale's dedication to the foibles of small communities. Raised in Douglas on the Isle of Man throughout the 1920s and 30s, Kneale found himself subject to the social consequences of small populations in remote circumstances. As such, the minutiae of this grounding comes to the fore in many of the stories featured here. The title story, Tomato Cain, is a fine example of mankind's dedication to pride, pomposity and duplicity with hilarious results, a mood which also bubbles to the surface in The Putting Away of Uncle Quaggin with meticulous plotting. Quiet Mr Evans, meanwhile. takes the gossip of village life in an aggressive direction before the denouement arrives and falls into a forlorn sense of loss.

Not everything works in Tomato Cain, some of the stories have a tendency to depart the mind almost as soon as they are finished, with Clog-Dance for a Dead Farce being an example where the tale is little more than serviceable and fails to hold its own against the rest of the book. Nonetheless, Tomato Cain and Other Stories contains numerous gems of storytelling which are embellished by a deliciously masterful and meticulous level of detail. Kneale's true genius may not have begun making waves until The Quatermass Experiment aired four years later in 1953, but Tomato Cain and Other Stories serves as a fascinating hors d'oeuvre for what lay ahead.

If you're on Twitter, then I'm currently running a competition to win a copy of the book over at:

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