Metcalfe, John 1891-1965
METCALFE, John 1891-1965
PERSONAL: Born in 1891, in Heacham, Norfolk, England; immigrated to the U.S., 1928; died, July 31, 1965, in London, England; married Evelyn Scott (a novelist), 1930. Education: Attended St. Felix College, Felixstowe, Suffolk, and Nelson's School, North Walsham, Norfolk; University of London, B.A. (philosophy), 1913.
CAREER: Freelance writer, c. 1925-65. Military service: Served in the Royal Air Force in World Wars I and II.
The Smoking Leg and Other Stories, Jarrolds (London, England), 1925, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1926.
Spring Darkness, Constable (London, England), 1928, published as Mrs. Condover, Boni & Liveright (New York, NY), 1928.
Arm's-Length, Scribner (New York, NY), 1930. Judas and Other Stories, Constable (London, England), 1931.
Brenner's Boy, White Owl Press (London, England), 1932.
Foster-Girl, Constable (London, England), 1936, published as Sally: The Story of a Foster-Girl, Scribner (New York, NY), 1936.
All Friends Are Strangers, Nicholson & Watson (London, England), 1948.
The Feasting Dead, Arkham House (Sauk City, WI), 1954.
My Cousin Geoffrey, Macdonald (London, England), 1956.
SIDELIGHTS: British writer John Metcalfe is remembered for his many wistful stories featuring aging, alienated protagonists. However, explained a contributor to Who's Who in Horror and Fantasy Fiction, "Metcalfe has carved himself a special niche in the horror field for his skilful and bizarre short stories." His most famous contribution to the realm of horror fiction is probably the title story of his first collection, The Smoking Leg and Other Stories (1925). It tells the tale of a deranged British doctor in Bengal who tries to smuggle a cursed ruby—reputedly the stolen eye of an Indian idol—back to England by burying it in the leg of an Indian seaman, with a good-luck charm to counteract the malign influence of the gem. "The doctor, deservedly, ends up sliced in two," stated a Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural writer, "and the native, after many seagoing mishaps, winds up in London at the office of the doctor's old med-school friend, the ruby's intended recipient. Disaster comes in the form of a rosy column of devouring light' when the London physician, himself a drunk, attempts to remove the jewel." Another story, "Nightmare Jack," also uses the idol's-eye motif, although the Penguin Encyclopedia contributor, because of Metcalfe's somewhat turgid style, called it "particularly slow going."
"The manifestations of the supernatural in Metcalfe's stories," declared Brian Stableford in the St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost and Gothic Writers, "are rarely overtly menacing but their sheer peculiarity is such that they build up a unique sense of unease." "Mr. Meldrum's Mania," published in Metcalfe's second collection, Judas and Other Stories (1931), for instance, tells the story of a man convinced that he has an invisible beak growing out of the center of his face. On his way down from his psychiatrist's office, he changes into the ibis-headed Egyptian god Thoth—"to the horror of several other passengers," wrote the Penguin Encyclopedia contributor. Brenner's Boy, Stableford explained, "is a short story closely akin to those in Judas and Other Stories, in which the horrid behaviour of a child who turns out to be a ghost stirs up murky resonances within the relationship of the couple with whom he comes to stay." "Metcalfe's narrative uses dreams, snapshots, and a faultily remembered conversation to disquieting effect," the Penguin Encyclopedia contributor concluded. Metcalfe's novella The Feasting Dead was only published after years of rejection. It "involves the son of a military man whose behaviour becomes puzzlingly troublesome; in this instance the change is correlated with the boy's association with a French servant he first encounters on an exchange visit to Auvergne," Stableford continued. "When the boy's father investigates the background on his unwelcome guest he finds that the man is supposedly dead, and concludes that he is now un epouvantail"—a French scarecrow or bogeyman. However, "Metcalfe's literary career, like that of his American wife, Evelyn Scott, suffered a marked decline after some initial success," wrote Stableford; "they ended their lives in desolate poverty."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1986.
St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost and Gothic Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Who's Who in Horror and Fantasy Fiction, Elm Tree Books (London), 1977.*