Quick Reads: The Servant is the taut thriller that time forgot
Oh, Valancourt, you do the Devil’s work—rereleasing hard-to-find classics in a post-Paperbacks From Hell world is a true justification for infernal sainthood. Robin Maugham’s 1948 classic The Servant is a more recent reissue and while not strictly horror, it has a lot to offer fans of the genre. It’s a quiet story of moral degradation, that while in some ways stylistically dated (and so very, very short), is still more than worth a look.
The Servant, being the sort of novella you can read in an uninterrupted hour, does not make for a substantial tome, so Valancourt has seen fit to pad its length with both a foreword and an introduction from the author. Both of these add great context but it’s the author’s introduction that reads as the most chilling—where he recounts the two incidents that planted the seeds of The Servant. Robin Maugham was a bisexual man and both sides of his sexuality led him to his story, where a man’s weakness is exploited until he is little but a shell of himself. The historical context is illuminating, painting Maugham as a revolutionary of sorts, walking a precarious line through his work with its frank discussions of sex.
The novella itself is written in clean prose with perhaps more forward momentum than it needs. It feels as if it was written in one all-consuming session, and it has the energy of a story that just had to be written. The manservant Barrett’s slowly shifting role with his employer is deftly played, but it also happens relatively quickly. That’s not to say that it’s flaws are so glaring or unforgivable that they make for an unreadable or amateurish narrative, but it does feel something like an island—like it was written without genre in mind. The Servant could be a thriller, a horror novel, or a philosophical novel. It could veer into the literary just as well as it could dive into the pulp, but it does neither of these. It treads the line carefully and presents itself as it is.
There is a sense of antiquity, of course, as it features perhaps my favorite of trope-of-a-bygone age—the narrative framing device. The plot largely concerns Barrett and Tony—servant and employer—and their strange relationship of power plays and moral decline. But the story is told by Tony’s friend, Richard Merton, who recounts the story with wit, urbanity, and concern as he watches his friend’s fall from grace. The narrator feels like Robin Maugham’s character surrogate, but it’s a warm, comforting character—and through Robin’s Merton there brings shades of Oscar Wilde, connecting The Servant to a greater tradition of British writing.
This all leads to an undeniably unsettling conclusion, one that would be as fit for a Gothic castle as it would be for a modern apartment. It’s not an overly flashy affair, but it brings the story to a satisfying and disturbing end. The Servant could be seen as a precursor to the quiet horror of the late-twentieth century and perhaps with this reissue, its devotees will grow, and we’ll see it recommended next to The Haunting of Hill House and The White People. Only time can tell, but by making these more obscure offerings available, Valancourt is giving us, the readers, the chance to choose our own canon. With The Servant and others, it’s a chance worth taking.
You can buy The Servant here! While you’re at it, check out some of Valancourt’s other reissues!