One book from my childhood has always haunted me. Cursed Be the Treasure, by H. B. Drake, didn’t just get under my skin, it crawled inside and gnawed. An “adventure” tale of smugglers and pirates, of guilt and vengeance, it was a cold soak in an alternate reality that I could believe with all my heart.
My mother presented it to me at I’d guess age 10 or 11. Probably it had been in our collection all along. I assumed it was from her own teen years, so in the 1910s. I never knew where my mother came by such things, she seemed to absorb offbeat, peculiar works through some etheric transfer.
Over the years, I remembered little of the plot – just two incidents so horrific that they hung on me like literary albatrosses.
Perhaps five years back, that haunting returned and I felt the need to find that book again – the original had disappeared into the mists of yesteryear. I bought a copy online – a mere $3.50 if I remember rightly – a ratty-spined hardback. I immediately determined not to read it. I couldn’t face the possibility that it would be just another “young adult” monstrosity that had overwhelmed my feeble mind. That would be a gut stab.
But Daniel Reccuito, who compiles, edits, owns, manages and continually re-envisions chiseler.org, asked me if I could do an article about some “unusual” book from the ’20s or ”30s – my pick – for a new side venture. I immediately thought of Cursed Be the Treasure – but “uh-oh, wrong decade.” Yet when I flipped back the creaky cover, I found the copyright was 1928. Again, where and how had my mother come by it? Likely she bought the original for my elder brothers (though neither had mentioned it to me).
I committed to reading it again, with dripping trepidation. And…? It resonates with the “now” of me as solidly as with the “then” of me; it’s left an unusual sense of wonder, a “how can the universe work this way?” that I pooh-pooh in daily life.
Before getting to that: Who was H. B. Drake?
I’ve found minimal online biographical info on Henry Burgess Drake, who had two (at least) parallel careers. Born of British missionary parents in China in 1894, the next to last of seven children, he served in WWI, then taught English in China, Korea (at a Japanese university) and England, sometimes alongside his younger brother, Eric – this bio snippet, an aside to a longer one of Eric, does not mention Henry’s writing. During (or before?) WWII, Henry served in the British Intelligence Corps, “to recruit spies to penetrate Japanese held territory” in China.
Of his alternate existence, fantasy and SF sites note him mainly as author of The Shadowy Thing, which had a strong influence on H. P. Lovecraft. You can purchase a 1928 hardback edition online for $967; I don’t plan to. Beyond that and Cursed, he penned a few sea and other adventure tales (sometimes as Burgess Drake), and a five-volume Approach to English Literature for Students Abroad during the ’40s and ’50s. He died in 1963.
I’ve had little truck with adventure stories. The Conan tales bore me silly – great gnarled nonsense. I recently downloaded a humongous boulder of public-domain fantasy/SF/adventure (many of them novel-length), looking for a simple, non-challenging read. The first four I staggered through were almost malignantly bad – cumbersome slagheaps of adjectives, mostly multi-page descriptions of otherworldly scenery, including, so help me, two travels through nothing – quite literally a void interrupted by different-colored lights. They showed less imagination than an addled exterminator.
It’s turned out that what I was looking for, without knowing, was Cursed Be the Treasure, which harks back to lesser-known works such as R. L. Stevenson’s The Wrecker, about a ship (“The Flying Scud”) in which the adventure is as much inside the narrator as mired in convoluted events wavering beyond the written horizon. I think Drake also took inspiration from Dickens, especially Nell’s wanderings through the countryside with her grandfather in The Old Curiosity Shop. (Though unlike Dickens with his often black and white characters, all of Drake’s emanate shades of moral grey.)
The first-person narrator of Cursed is Tommy, recalling his youth from age 6 to roughly 17, consumed in continual flight with his father from the vengeance of what his father calls Shadow-of-Fear. During their flight, they are briefly “trapped” by a witch-like figure, Bite-in-the-Dark, whom Tommy kills by accident. Then the flight continues, because… who or what is Bite-in-the-Dark, and can the greater Shadow-of-Fear be killed?
Baldly stated, this can sound silly. But it’s written with a riveting intensity of isolation and unfocused fear. His father will run forever to protect Tommy, but does not feel he can, himself, escape the inevitable. And there are also the magically bright summers at the Dolphin Inn, where Tommy investigates the caves and rock ledges of the coast, the supposed refuge of smugglers, uncovering secret passageways leading to… what?
Along the way, he and his father stop at a supposed haunted house. Tommy sees a ghost (does he?) and encounters a skeleton (he does).When his father must leave on for an extended period, Tommy goes to school for the first time – his father’s extensive, intensive knowledge had been enough to meet his educational needs.
Tommy makes friends with Worthing, an older, rule-bound student (who faults Tommy’s adventuresome ways). Tommy invites Worthing for a stay at the house, during which Tommy finds a hidden passage and loses it again. In a later stint at the house, he meets Captain Field and his daughter. She, like Tommy, is traveling alone with her father, and like his father, the Captain is haunted by an implacable enemy.
Why no mother for either of these near-bewitched children? The word “mother” never appears in this tale. For both, the single parent and the single child have always been thus.
From here on, I’ll leave the plot alone, because it’s the method of telling and the near-perfect pacing that make this book, in my mind, close to a masterpiece. Reliving it, retrieving the incidents I forgot through the years, was unlike any other literary experience I’ve had; 70 years between readings, and it holds the same searing chill. And those two remembered incidents that I did recall – I can’t talk sanely about them. The second details perhaps the worst mistake any human being could make.
There’s nothing overtly supernatural in the telling, but the possibility of it hangs like a torn curtain. As Tommy slowly uncovers clues, a more enmeshed tale emerges, tying together disparate elements –almost typing them together. Certain small details don’t quite fit… but not because Drake is lax. It’s because nothing here can be complete, wholly true or fully whole. A “definitive” through line would only cheapen the tale. The passageways by the Dolphin Inn lead to no found end; the lost treasure is truly cursed – through the intertwined vengeance of those who fought and killed for it, and the inescapable guilt with which each must live.
That’s the book, as written. But its effect on me goes beyond the words. It reaches something in me as inescapable as Shadow-of-Fear, like a reflected study of my life. Not Tommy’s flight – the entire tale. I have none of Tommy’s robust, adventuresome spirit… at least not externally. But something of my mind works the way this story works, with the details incomplete, the compounded feeling of guilt, the need for everything to be different, released. It was somehow like I was reading myself.
But a few details….
The novel I’ve been working on for the past couple years (before I reread Cursed) encapsulates a woman in her early 30s:
- • raised by her father, from the ages of 4 to 16
- • haunted by the past and her eerie effects on the present
- • with no direct memory of her mother, though unlike Tommy, the not knowing torments her
- • her name is Jenny; Captain Field’s daughter’s name is Jenny
This litany of congruence rattles my innards.
Did those plot details from Cursed that I thought had been lost remain hidden in the far reaches of my mind?
I don’t think so. On rereading, the early chapters seemed fully new to me.
Are there cosmic associations that exhibit when we least expect them, in the least likely ways?
I think that even less.
I see the world as a grand accumulation of circumstances, ruled by laws that we can never directly experience or untangle as they apply to the minute incidents of life.
Sometimes these circumstances heap in symmetrical piles that can delight or terrify, as did the Dolphin Inn and Shadow-of-Fear for Tommy.
In my case, the dovetailing of this marvelous tale with driving events in my life is an overwhelming gift.
I refuse to question it.