Pagan, by W. F. Morris


Pagan (1931) is by W.F. Morris, the author of Bretherton: Khaki or Field Grey?, that slightly mad yet highly enjoyable novel about a British officer who, while suffering from amnesia, becomes a general in the German Army. Morris is one of those ex-soldier novelists for whom the war is always the main theme, and the touchstone by which other experiences are judged. He also had an imagination attuned to the Gothic, and his books shun easy credibility in order to explore wild and strange possibilities. They will not be to everyone’s taste.
Pagan begins in 1930, in the Vosges mountains (near France’s Eastern border) where Charles  Pagan and his friend Baron are enjoying a walking holiday. They are ex-officers (or ‘two old crocks from the Great Fracas’, as they call themselves) and become intrigued by a local mystery. In the vicinity of an inn, a strange figure is seen:

‘It only turned half towards me,’ went on Pagan slowly and abstractedly, ‘and I am sure it did not see me. But I naturally expected to see a face in profile – nose, chin and all that. But I didn’t – it was just a dark blunt blob like – like an ape. But it was as big as a man.’

There are local legends of a haunted battlefield, and Pagan and Baron become determined to investigate when they find they have been locked in their bedrooms at the inn – maybe to keep them from the monster.
They discover the truth, of course, and I’ll just say that it it has to do with the war. The tone of the book changes from light fiction to something more serious as various characters are faced with disturbing moral dilemmas. They all behave well. (I think the implication is that the war has taught them to behave well.)
I won’t say more, because I don’t want to give spoilers on this one, even though readers experienced in war fiction will guess the book’s secrets early on.
It’s by no means a perfect novel. The coincidences are glaring, and the facetious dialogue of the early chapters is more heavy than amusing, but the book is enjoyable, and very interesting as a period piece. I took this book on our cottage holiday in Derbyshire last week. One day the rain came down incessantly; the dog took one look at the weather and refused to budge out of the front door. Pagan was just the thing to keep me happy.
This is one of the novels recently republished in the Casemate Classic War Fiction series, an excellent enterprise that I should have mentioned here before. Earlier publications included Philip Macdonald’s Patrol and Gristwood’s The Somme, as well as Morris’s Bretherton. I’ve just ordered another Morris, Behind the Lines (1930), apparently about an officer who goes AWOL to avoid disgrace. And I also like the look of The Whistlers’ Room by Paul Alverdes, about a ward for throat injuries in a German hospital. This is a series to watch.

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