I suppose one would have to be intrigued by an inn called the Blue Bat, for reasons that should be obvious, even if the story is set in 1934 England. What was happening in 1934 England, you might ask? For one thing, the British Empire, whose zenith was the first half of the nineteenth century, was nearing its demise. The colonies, protectorates (a comically poor choice of words), and other dependencies which had lived only for the glory of a cold and distant isle, had begun their unshackling; a monarch unlikely to distinguish a Ghanaian from a Jamaican was relieved by a local leader who could sort whole cities by tribe; and the ways of the West, the onus of the paleface invader, were shed in order to embrace what had always been the way there, in those specific corners of the world whose peoples had survived, "utterly at peace with the forest that sustained and sheltered them." We note that "forest" could be replaced by "mountain," "river," "village," or simply "lifestyle" and yield the selfsame conclusion. Which is a fine way of explaining the perplexity of a man known widely and appropriately as Congo Bill.
Our tale begins and ends among bloodsuckers – perhaps that already gives away too much – as well as with British anthropologist William Clack-Herman. Professor Clack-Herman, henceforth Congo Clac–, I mean Congo Bill, has the misfortune of enduring a mosquito's lust and the attendant frailties. After a great ordeal of a 'cure,' Congo Bill returns to the Empire's home base "haggard and thin," and, although still young, now availing himself of a walking stick. He is met by his shocked wife Virginia, "a tall, spirited woman with a rich laugh and scarlet-painted fingernails," and his son Frank, nine years old and, regarding otherwise shocking phenomena, restrained and skeptical beyond his years. Almost immediately, fickle chance lures them to the Bat, which merits its own interlude:
It was a warm day, and in the sunshine of the late afternoon the cornfields of Berkshire rippled about them like a golden sea; and then, just as Virginia began to wonder where they would break the journey, from out of this sea heaved a big inn, Tudor in construction, with steeply gabled roofs and black beams crisscrossed on the white-plastered walls beneath the eaves. This was the Blue Bat; since destroyed by fire, in the early Thirties it boasted good beds, a fine kitchen, and an extensive cellar.
A very extensive cellar, I may add – but we are getting ahead of ourselves. The only other tenants at the Bat turn out to be Ronald Dexter, "a gentleman of independent means who had never had to work a day in his life," and Dexter's butler, a wizened, God-fearing man by the name of Clutch. Clutch will both live up and down to his name during the course of our tale, but that is to be expected of English elderly butlers who "have seen many strange things" in their "long lives":
Clutch was running a small silver crucifix with great care along the seams of his garments. A curious-looking man, Clutch, he had a remarkable head, disproportionately large for his body and completely hairless. The skull was a perfect dome, and the tight-stretched skin of it an almost translucent shade of yellowy-brown finely engraved with subcutaneous blue-black veins. The overall impression he gave was of a monstrous fetus, or else some type of prehistoric man, a Neanderthal perhaps, in whom the millennia had deposited deep strains of racial wisdom – though he wore, of course, the tailcoat and gray pin-striped trousers of his profession.
Dexter sighs at Clutch's superstitions – but then again, the young spend an inordinate amount of time sighing at the old. So when we also learn that Ronald Dexter and Virginia Clack-Herman have long since been acquainted thanks to, of course, "consanguinity," or a "rather tenuous blood relationship," we understand malarial Congo Bill will now be set aside, at least for a wild night or two, while the kissing cousins consolidate their very mutual interests. What we do not understand is why the local patrons of the Bat, "farm laborers ... fat, sallow people, many with a yellowish tinge to their pallor" set the crucifix-toting Clutch at ill ease.
Once upon a time tales like these were termed, appropriately enough, "penny bloods," although their dry style was miles away from McGrath's lucid streams. His unusual literary debut possesses a ghoulish magnificence well superior to the subject matter, some of which is vowed to such perversity as to be better left forgotten. That is not to say, however, that there is no pathos in the plight of the Clack-Hermans, who are at one point associated, perhaps unfairly, with "members of the upper classes" (the double-barrelled surname might have had something to do with it) and then with "the fall of the Roman Empire." The narrative overcomes one of the worst opening lines you will ever read, as well as the thin pun on what courses through those same upper class members' veins, to provide the reader with a most harrowing experience, even when young Frank unravels his own macabre thread. Congo Bill could not, you see, completely forsake his beloved Africa and the utopia of the pygmies who saved his soon-to-be miserable life. As a token of that continent's unique fauna, Congo Bill imports (how this would be allowed now with quarantines is not ours to imagine) a colobus monkey in a cage that will become its coffin. The monkey is intended for Frank but will, in many ways, come to embody the anthropologist who thought that an endangered primate would thrive in England just as it had lived out its peaceful existence under its birth trees. Frank befriends the daughter of the inn's proprietor, a widower and another one of those sallow, wheezing beasts with beady stares, and the children get along nicely if in the way that children neglected in equal measure always seem to hit it off. Should it then strike us as coincidence that the taxonomic name for this monkey is colobus satanas? Let's just say that once you've seen the cellar, you may wonder about the beds and kitchen.