Where next for Theodore Roscoe’s tales of small own life in upstate New York? Well, how about some Suspense?
“If a drum can beat by itself, anything can happen!” might sound like the sort of problem to confront The Three Investigators, and to a certain extent I don’t think that’s entirely accidental (anachronism aside, of course). Roscoe’s fourth story to feature the denizens of Four Corners plays out from the perspective of Bud Whittier — I don’t know if that’s his name or just a nickname, it’s never made clear — the 12 year-old son of the town sheriff, and so has about it very much the air of what I’ve come to classify on this blog as a Juvenile Mystery. The focus is much more on how the events affect the young man, and how he stands on the threshold of an adult world just beyond his understanding, far more than it does on crime and detection, or on the end result of this story being a surprise. Roscoe wants you to know where this is going, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
We begin with Bud trespassing on the roof of the woodshed that abuts the house where Joe Sleeper lives with his wife, Carrie. Sleeper plays the bass drum in the Four Corners marching band, a consummate showman whose prestidigitation with his drumsticks is unparalleled…
[Joe made] an art of drumming, juggling the sticks, drubbing the thing, and making it sound almost alive. Today most boys are discussing short-wave reception and airplane motors. In those days the ambition of a boy (in Four Corners, at least) was to help Joe carry that big drum in a concert or a parade.
Joe’s vigorous drum practice can be heard across the town night after night, and on this particular night — “a night so black the stars must have turned to coal” — Joe Sleeper’s bass drum is indeed booming across the night air as Bud watches…the only concern being that Joe Sleeper isn’t the one playing it. In fact, no-one is playing it. Propped in the corner of the room, visible through the window that Bud can see from his position atop the woodshed, can be seen “a drum booming under no visible drumstick”. And menace is afoot…
Roscoe plays up this menace well, rooting it in a child’s fear of the unknown, with Carrie Sleeper acting as something of a medium for a small circle of Spiritualists in the town:
They would sit in her parlor, listening to the voices of the Departed and things like that, all holding hands with the lights out. It was said Mrs. Sleeper’s dead father often returned and prowled the house with his hemstitched throat, talking just as loud as he used to before he incised his gullet with his own hand.
Thus the Sleeper house is already seeped in eldritch horrors, and this ghostly drumming is to young Bud just another reason to be afraid of the place, long before “the Sleeper Horror” unfurls itself on the denizens of Four Corners. Fear of that impossibly-sounding drum will mix with fear of discovery — being the sheriff’s son, it’s understood that his father will take a dim view of this trespassing — and, as the fears of the townsfolk multiply following the vanishing of Carrie Sleeper, so the youthful mind of our narrator will become swamped with confusion and terror enough for several lifetimes.
In keeping with Roscoe’s apparently self-imposed brief for this series, however, this story is about much more than simply getting an explanation for the ghostly drumming. The world which these kids occupy — in one wonderful scene, Bud goes from friend to friend to try and find someone else to take his place as drum-bearer at the imminent competition, and they all have names like Wart Baxter and Leopard Smith, recalling The Mob from the magnificent Home Sweet Homicide (1944) by Craig Rice — must coexist with the adults who actually make Four Corners an operational town, and while Bud isn’t being drawn from the former into the latter, there’s undeniably a sense of his increasing awareness of what is going on in the latter while mired in the former’s concerns.
Why, for instance, when it was Mrs. Sleeper who’d disappeared, did Myrtle Dockstader’s name keep echoing out of the conversations which made unquiet little pools of talk up and down Main Street?
Bud understands that Myrtle isn’t part of the Sleeper menage and doesn’t share Carrie’s interests in Spiritualism (“Lem Renfrew once said maybe the spirits she was interested in were a different kind, the kind Joe was interested in, the kind you could put down your throat. And that was funny, because the only thing I’d ever seen Joe put down his throat was whisky.”), and yet he understands, in a way he cannot quite grasp, that there is something the town finds remiss about the friendship Joe and Myrtle share. He also stands on the cusp of understanding the attitude of the town in the way that, on one particularly eventful night, “Micah Appleby, deaf as a post [and] Aunt Sue Dingerman, blind in one eye” are among the many who see and hear disruptions to the calm fabric of things which will whip the town into a sort of mob frenzy.
The vanished Carrie — “present in Four Corners…as she hadn’t been in a lifetime of visible occupancy” — will become a haunting presence for the townsfolk and some ingenious, if simple, explanations will be offered to explain this, to the extent that even the Big Competition at Brockton (very much the Shelbyville to Four Corners’ Springfield) is forgotten in their insistence for answers. However, for Joe Sleeper, for Bud Whittier, and doubtless for the town at large, the competition looms unavoidable on the horizon, and all the threads will come to a head there, where Joe’s magnificent drumming could be the difference between victory and ignominy (curse the Midvale Memorials, “the only town boasting a glockenspiel”), and where the frenzied, fervid fever dream will eventually end up as you’ve always known it would. Roscoe is clear about this: the crescendo of this composition is somewhere that the reader has been anticipating for quite some time.
The competition scenes are astonishing. You can feel the heat of the crowd, the desperate earnestness of the competitors, and the stark, freezing fear of our narrator as he stands forever on the verge of a horror he desperately yearns to understand while his unconscious mind no doubt kicks against knowledge.
That drum was on my mind like a ten ton weight, an oppression I could neither drop nor escape…my knees were turning to water, my hands seemed icy, the drum was back-breaking, colder and colder…
There’s a delirious fancy like something fashioned by a madman in the closing stages here, the slow build of tension and questions pointing in one inevitable direction, the reader’s tolerance stretched to the limit because, to borrow Hitchcockian parlance, we’re anticipating the bang we’ve been listening and waiting for since the problem first coalesced in our minds. And when it breaks, it’s glorious. Bud will never be the same — see the wry final line of the undertaking — and suddenly you realise how much you’ve looked passed because of what you were focussing on in the distance this whole time. I don’t know if you’d call it a clue per se, because despite the youthful analogy of the sheriff with Sherlock Holmes this isn’t a story of detection, but there’s one clue I managed to sail past completely, possibly because it was delivered so close to one of the best lines in this entire collection and I was grinning to myself while Roscoe did his work. Nevertheless, I missed it and the experience was all the better for it.
This change in focus from the big picture — even when it’s a small picture, as last week — shows real skill on Roscoe’s part, and while his tone veers a little wildly between that of youthful naiveté and grown-up vocabulary, this is another exemplary piece of short story plotting and world building. Yes, it’s the longest tale in this collection, but it’s also the most ornate thus far, and the extra time is more than worth spending being drawn in to Roscoe’s world.
The Four Corners stories by Theodore Roscoe
‘Ghoul’s Paradise’ (1938)
‘The Man Who Hated Lincoln’ (1939)
‘There Are Smiles That Make You Happy’ (1939)
‘Stay As Sweet As You Are’ (1939)
‘Ghost on Lonesome Hill’ (1941)