|Artwork: Vincent Chong|
"I first met Kate Farrell on Monday March 5th 1984 at a place called Petyt Hall, hard by Chelsea Old Church in London. I know this for a fact because I kept a diary, and for that matter still do. It was the first day of rehearsals for a major national tour of Garrick and Colman’s play, The Clandestine Marriage in which we were both playing supporting roles to such theatrical luminaries as Joyce Redman, Roy Kinnear and Sir Anthony Quayle. Kate Farrell, or Kate David as she was then, was a bright young character actress with a gift for friendship and a sharp, humorous eye for the follies of her fellow actors. I, of course, had no idea then that I was encountering a future mistress of macabre fiction, the Countess of the conte cruel; but I thought I could detect in her a good sport, a “trouper” to use the old theatrical term, and I was right. Did she herself at the time have any intimations of her great literary destiny? I think not.
During the long tour of a play indelible friendships are forged, and sometimes indelible enmities. With Kate, happily, it was the former. 1984 was the year that Margaret Thatcher took on the miners and, as we made our way round England, the head of the company Anthony Quayle, expressed the pious hope that our tour to all four corners of the nation would help heal the great “North-South divide” that was being much talked about at the time. How Sir Anthony imagined that the performance of an 18th century comedy about aristocratic misalliances could oil the troubled waters of class hatred I do not know. Kate and I both thought that the idea was b – well, shall we say, a little far-fetched. We shared a distrust of that mixture of grandiosity, sharp practice and slightly glib bonhomie of which Sir Anthony was capable. A group of us, including Kate and myself, shared digs whenever we could. There were parties and laughter and gossip; we heard reports of Thatcher’s war with Scargill and the miners, but it seemed a world away.
After the tour there was a West End run at the Albery Theatre and my friendship with Kate continued when that came to a close. Over the years we kept in touch. I began to devote more time and effort to writing. The theatre is a fickle mistress and life took both Kate and I in different directions. One day, perhaps, she will tell us of her experiences with the infamous Chuckle Brothers, but at some stage show business ceased to beckon for her as well. She too began to write and she sent me some of her stories.
I am generally wary of commenting on other people’s unpublished manuscripts. What if they are no good? How does one gently tell a good friend that the writing of fiction is not for them? The stories Kate sent me were “His Family”, “Mea Culpa” and an early version of “My Name is Mary Sutherland.” I read them and I must admit my first reaction was one of immense relief: they were good, really good. No disingenuous words of faint praise were needed. I was impressed by the extraordinary assurance of the writing. Purple passages, wearisome clichés, vague and inconsequential digressions, indeed any sign of the amateur, all were entirely absent from her engrossing narratives. I should have known: Kate had always been the most professional of actresses; she was bound to be professional in whatever she took up.
But there was something much more important even than professional competence in her writing. She had a voice: crisp, shrewd, unsparingly honest, and rather elegant, despite the decidedly macabre subject matter. The people in her stories lived: they were vivid, recognisable; you might be unfortunate enough to meet them. You heard their voices and they seemed disturbingly familiar. The story telling was often uncommonly ingenious and surprising, as in “Mea Culpa,” but the ingenuity was not just for show; it always had a purpose. I advised Kate to send some of her stories to Charlie Black, for inclusion in one of his splendid Black Book of Horror anthologies. He accepted them without hesitation, as I was sure he would, and the rest, as they say, is her story.
As you have probably just acquired this book what more need I say, really, except that you are in for an exceedingly entertaining and thought-provoking time from one of the most accomplished and original writers of macabre fiction alive today? If by any chance, you have not yet bought it, and are browsing through its pages, then what are you doing reading this introduction? You just have to go to the first paragraph of any of the stories here, and you will be hooked, but before you do, save yourself the discomfort of reading this book while standing up and probably pressed for time in a draughty bookshop. Buy the thing – it is exceptionally reasonably priced – put it in your pocket, go back home, make a cup of tea (or something stronger if you prefer) settle yourself in a favourite armchair and start reading.
You have done that? Congratulations! My job is done. But just in case you need a little further encouragement, let me say this. What distinguishes Kate Farrell’s work is the extraordinary accuracy and vividness with which she sets up her situations. She has an eye for detail and an outstanding ear for the way people think and speak. It is far from fanciful to see this at least partly as the product of her experience as an actress. In the theatre, a natural faculty for observing one’s fellow human beings is trained and honed. Listen to the narrator of “Waiting”. If you don’t know someone like that personally, you will have certainly heard her talking just behind you on a bus at some time. The intonation, the accent, the understanding, and the lack of it, are all so true to life. But the people Farrell evokes are not all from one social stratum, or one nation. Here is an ancient and corrupt Irish Priest (“The Way the Truth and the Life”), here is the wife of a notorious Argentinean dictator (“Las Cosas Que Hacemos por el Amor”), or the two Spanish schoolchildren in “The Efficient Use of Reason”, and they are all done with the same conviction, the same ruthless accuracy. Farrell’s eye is not heartless, but it is unclouded by any kind of sentimental affectation; her horrors emerge from what we sometimes call the commonplace. Very occasionally she touches on the supernatural, but when she does she does it superbly as in one of my favourites among her stories “A Murder of Crows” which shows that she can do an uncanny rural atmosphere with grim poetry as well as anyone. It is the gift of every worthwhile writer in this genre to make us realise that just beneath the surface of the banal and ordinary, there yawn great abysses of wonder and terror. I don’t know quite why this realisation, in the hands of a writer like Farrell, should be so thrilling, enjoyable even, but it is. There is not a dull page, not a dull sentence in And Nobody Lived Happily Ever After.
And now, I suggest you waste no further time on studying this introduction, and embark at once on the seriously exciting business of reading Kate Farrell.