Sarban: An Initiation into the Work of a Weird Master

John Wall...Diplomat-Turned-Writer

Alexandria, 1966

Mark Valentine’s biography of Sarban, Time: A Falconeris available from Tartarus Press.

Three strange books were published in the early Nineteen Fifties by a man with the pen-name of ‘Sarban’. The three titles, all published by Peter Davies, were: Ringstones and Other Curious Tales (1951), which collected five stories; The Sound of His Horn (1952), a novella; and The Doll Maker, and Other Tales of the Uncanny (1953), a novella and two other tales.

For a long time only a few people knew who Sarban was. It was nearly thirty years before his real name was widely revealed. Even after literary researchers in the 1970s drew more attention to the man behind the pen-name, all that they could say about him was culled from dry public sources or a correspondence punctilious but uninformative. He seemed to be someone for whom these three curious books were a diversion during a conventional career of more outward importance, not to be disowned, but not, either, to be celebrated. Yet this was not so. He wrote, in fact, throughout his life, though not always for publication: and throughout his life, too, he combined diligent study in other languages and cultures and a dutiful competence in his work, with a hidden life of the most extraordinarily rich, detailed imaginings, as powerful and erotic and stark as the most primeval of folk and fairy tales.

While it had seemed that we should never know very much of Sarban’s life, he had in fact kept regular journals for many years and had also written, at his daughter’s request, a detailed chronology of the events in his life. And what he left behind in many pages of unpublished work is in some ways as fascinating as the work he saw published. 

Sarban was John William Wall, who in 1953 was accorded the traditional honour for luminaries of the Diplomatic Service, when he was made a Commander of St Michael & St George. He had earned this recognition by long years defending his country’s interests in the Middle and Near East, stationed, amongst other places, at Jedda, Tabriz, Isfahan, Casablanca, Cairo and Bahrain. His career included many hazardous incidents: his postings were often to volatile regions where his country was far from popular. Though he was reticent about it, he faced riots, coups and revolutions calmly and was a consummate professional in the diplomatic arts. He was also notable for the keen and genuine interest he took in the culture and languages of the people in the places where he served. After a brief time as Ambassador to Stroessner’s Nazi-haven, Paraguay, he concluded his diplomatic career as Consul-General in Alexandria. He retired in 1966, returned to work as an Arabic tutor for the Government communications centre GCHQ in Cheltenham intermittently for six years, and died in 1989.

Paraguay, 1957

Unlike most members of the Diplomatic Service, then and now, Sarban came from a working class background. His father was a railwayman on The Great Central Railway. John William Wall, the boy who became Sarban, was the youngest of seven children, two dying in infancy. All his life Sarban kept his father’s railwayman’s lamp, even explicitly bequeathing it in his will, alongside his regalia and diplomatic gifts such as a Persian saddle, sword, and silver plate.  He was born, on 6 November, 1910 in the small industrial town of Mexborough (“meanly dingy” he described it), in the furthest south of the West Riding of Yorkshire. At the time of his birth, it had a population of about 7,000, mostly housed in rows of somewhat grim brick terraces. The nearest larger town was Doncaster, seven miles away, with its major railway works. It was not very much more prepossessing. However, his father’s family was from farming stock in rural Lincolnshire, just over the border, and his father’s brothers were fairly prosperous yeoman-farmers. The family saw themselves as exiles amongst the working class.  And exile – both physical, as a professional diplomat – and spiritual, as a man who lived in bizarre otherworlds in his imagination – was to be a prevailing theme in Sarban’s life.

Sarban’s most striking book is certainly The Sound of His Horn, with a plot based on the theme of “if the Nazis had won”. It is notable for a very shrewd and imaginatively sound depiction of a Nazidom turned towards feudal hunting and forest laws, extending the Nazi ideology that divided humans into a master race and slaves, regarded as sub-human, and quite literally turning the latter into animals. Certainly his book was by no means the first either to imagine a world after a Nazi victory, or to tell a story of humans used as prey. But in its depiction of human resisters and other captives fitted with animal trappings and left to live wild in boundaried woods, where they are hunted by favoured officials and guests, still has the capacity to shock today.

The novella also has a strong implied supernatural element. In the announcement for the book, Sarban said: “From the windows of Hell many ghosts must have looked on with interest at the building of the Nazi Reich. Had that monstrous fabric of evil ever been completed, the devil himself might have shifted his quarters and staffed the offices of state with his own following. For the post of Reich Master-Forester… there could have been no more fitting candidate than Hans von Hackelnberg, the Wild Huntsman who had become a legend in Medieval Germany.”

Aside from the motifs of victorious Nazidom and the legendary Wild Hunt, however, what compels many readers is the extraordinary (for its time) fetishism in the story.  Kingsley Amis was the first to draw attention to the strong element of erotic fantasy in the work, citing: “The whole notion of hunting with girls as the quarry; the use of savage dogs in the pursuit; the selective nudity of the girls’ costumes; the details of the way they are trussed up before being handed over to their captors; the cat-women, similarly half-undressed but with taloned gloves on their hands…the third set of girls lined up as living candle-bearers”. Peter Nicholls, in a later essay, has a similar evocation: “In scenes of extraordinarily perverse power we see him using naked women dressed as birds for mock prey, and (dressed with iron tipped gloves, and biologically altered so that they are almost more cat than woman) as hunters. Naked women carrying flambeaux cast an eerie light over his banquets.”

Sarban’s other fiction is not so flamboyant, though its submerged themes are often no less powerful. His third and last published book, The Doll Maker, which was published with two other stories, tells of a young woman staying on at her old boarding school, who befriends and is soon entranced by a mysterious neighbour. The quiet and opaline wonder of an English winter; the snug charm of an old country house; the appealing freshness of a young, gentle heroine; hints of sinister mystery, of sorcery from far lands and ancient sources; an engagingly enigmatic and magnetic Svengali of a villain; the book has more than enough to satisfy the longings of any savant of the fireside tale. Sarban clearly absorbed himself deeply in the detail of his story, deliberating each nuance of description, carefully placing each progression of the plot: we see a writer contented in the company of the characters he has created, watching them carefully; a craftsman ever vigilant to sustain the tone and the tension of what he has wrought. Though more subdued in theme than The Sound of His Horn, this book is still the subtle masterpiece of a mature and thoughtful thinker and stylist. These very qualities, however, are those which might cause it to be overlooked in the lee of the vivid and extravagant visions of the earlier book: but I am one of those who consider it his finest work.

Sarban’s literary career seemingly ended with this book, but,  as I reveal in my biography of Sarban, Time, A Falconer (Tartarus Press, 2011), the unpublished and uncompleted writings by Sarban are no less strange than his published work. They include a major fantasy about an alternative world dominated by women, The Gynarchs, and numerous short story fragments that explore the idea of an intermediate sex. They reveal a writer still intently exploring what he has to say, and imagining other possibilities that would remake the world closer to his heart. His ideas are radical – feminist, anti-patriarchal  – but in an offbeat, highly personal way, and some years ahead of their time in anticipating today’s greater willingness to engage with changes in gender expectations and to accept the right to explore different gender roles. These fantasies of his later years are also often as powerfully imagined and lucidly composed as his published books. 

The short tale, “A Christmas Story”, presented here, is from Sarban’s first book, a collection of short stories in the supernatural, Ringstones. Its characters and setting are clearly drawn very closely from the life. In May, 1939, Sarban was appointed Second Secretary at the British legation in Jedda, the Red Sea port, “gateway to Mecca”, in Saudi Arabia. Here he was within the region he knew about, as he noted, from reading T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The posting was different to those he had held before in other Middle Eastern cities. The European community in the city was much smaller – less than twenty – and it was harder to become acquainted with the very proud and private local populace. It was, recalled Sarban, for two-three years, “on the whole a barren and boozy life in an uncomfortable climate”, yet “in retrospect, the fullest and liveliest and at times the happiest years in my Consular career and perhaps in all my life”.

Sarban’s unpublished notes and recollections show that, as in the story, the Christmas round was indeed kept up with enthusiasm by the marooned European diplomats, a little self-consciously perhaps, but as an important link to home. Sarban was to meet several White Russians like those who feature in the story, during his time in the region, for after they fled their homeland from the advancing Soviet forces, they had spread out from their first port of refuge, Constantinople, in the early Nineteen Twenties, and settled wherever they could make a living: Beirut, Cairo, Alexandria, and even as far as Jedda. The story reflects his affection for his time in Jedda while also illustrating well the strangeness of his imagination and his fine literary style.


© Mark Valentine 2011

Mark Valentine is an English author, biographer and editor. Valentine’s short stories have been published by a number of small presses and in anthologies since the 1980s and the exploits of his series character, “The Connoisseur”, an occult detective, were published as The Collected Connoisseur in 2010. As a biographer, Valentine has published a life of Arthur Machen and a study of Sarban. He has also written numerous articles for the Book and Magazine Collector magazine, and introductions for various books, including editions of work by Walter de la Mare, Robert Louis Stevenson, Saki, J. Meade Falkner and others.Valentine also edits Wormwood a journal dedicated to fantastic, supernatural and decadent literature, and has also edited anthologies.

3 replies to “Sarban: An Initiation into the Work of a Weird Master

  1. Excellent work! Sarban is one of the great, if underappreciated, 20th century writers of weird fiction, and his work should be read by all enthusiasts of the genre, in particular his masterpiece Ringstones, which reads like the missing link between Machen and Aickman.

  2. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Maldoror Abroad @ Weird Fiction Review

  3. Like two of the 20th century’s greatest poets, Wallace Stevens and T S Eliot, Ambassador Wall took the difficult emotions of a failing marriage, of a childhood spoiled by a difficult mother, and of (I suspect) the brutal class system favored by the British, mashed it altogether into pulp, and then from that produced the great horror masterpieces to which he signed the name of the triumphantly surviving part of himself — Sarban. Did he understand that supreme emotion, Love, and its possible loss? Absolutely, and he proved that understanding in the bucolic idyll that preceded the climax of “Sound” and made the narrator’s escape so gut-wrenchingly tragic. He also wrote one of the most poetic sentences I have ever heard, a perfectly casual line and yet so resonant, describing an old Roman road as “the rod of dominion laid across the high places of an enemy of the Roman people.” Wow!