Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Grey Ones (1952).

He is one of those names that slip through the cracks.  I'm not sure whether that's because there's something forgettable about him, or because he just wasn't that much of an expert on leaving a lasting impact.  I hope the latter isn't the case, because what I've read of John Bertram Priestley, so far at least, sounds pretty good.  There's still the matter of popular unawareness to deal with, however.  The trouble with guys like Priestley is that everything has to be a first introduction.  However famous he might have been in his own day, that was then and this is now, as the saying goes.  That always means making a new acquaintance is in order, even if the name is very old.  The good news is that there are some out there who are willing to help break the ice.  John Baxendale is one such host.  He does a decent (if not perfect) job in granting the newcomer a good overview of his subject in the introduction to That Other Place and Other Stories.

"J.B. Priestley (1894-1984) was one of the most celebrated and prolific of English writers of his time.  Over thirty novels, as many plays, and a continuous stream of essays, journalism, film-scripts and radio broadcasts kept him in the public eye from the 1920s to the 1970s.  Priestley's novels such as The Good Companions (1929), Angel Pavement (1930), or Bright Day (1946) explore large themes across a broad canvas teeming with characters.  His more concentrated and focused ideas usually became plays.  Short stories were perhaps his least favorite literary form, but he never lacked ideas, and over the years some of them ended up in this form.  Reissuing (That Other Place, sic) in the 1960s, Priestley's publishers gave it a new subtitle, Stories on the Edge of the Marvellous", and that is what they are, thoughtful entertainments with more than a touch of the supernatural.  Priestley once said of the painter Pieter Bruegel that lurking behind the sharply-observed detail of his pictures of peasant life is a "fairy-tale country...poised on the edge of marvels and miracles...feeling a trifle haunted", and the same could be said of these stories: their tales of the uncanny and downright impossible are...set against the sharply-observed detail of ordinary post-war English life, and this is one of their pleasures (v)".

So much for a general outline of the book itself, for the moment.  What about the author?  I think a lot of help in answering that question comes from examining the social background Priestley was born into.  His parents lived their lives in Yorkshire.  What's notable about it that it's almost like an anomaly in its own setting.  Yorkshire was one of the few English townships with an established, and long ingrained liberal tradition running through it.  That meant the author was born and raised in what might be called a germinal open society.  He seems to have been lucky in terms of home life, as well.  His parents seem to have gotten along, and there is no real record of any of the usual details of marital strife, and/or the agonized contest of wills that results from piss-poor parenting.  On the contrary, his folks seemed to have encouraged their son.  As a result, Priestley burgeoning interest in the written arts all stems from an environment capable of fostering such a creative outlet without ever once encumbering or curbing it.

Priestley's Yorkshire background had one other effect on his thinking as an adult.  I have called his social atmosphere a liberal one.  That seems to be true so far as it goes, though just how much of an influence it held over some of the authors political outlooks is perhaps a matter of opinion.  What it all boils down to is the way that some of Priestley's life and thoughts falls into a surprisingly familiar pattern.  In fact, it you were to place him alongside a much more famous writer such as George Orwell, then there is a sense in which you could say it was almost like seeing double.  Both men grew up in a climate where they found themselves first drawn to the allure of Communism, followed by a gradual, growing sense of political disillusionment as the reality of the situation kept pummeling each of them into an acknowledgement of the difference between truth and fantasy.  What's interesting is that they also found themselves turning to the fantastic genres as a means of expressing what they had to say.

In Priestley case, the main ideas that occupied him for the rest of his life are, out of the ordinary, to say the least.  The one flaw in Baxendale's introduction is that he insists on seeing Priestley's life and writings through an ideological lens which the author himself had pretty much given up on by the time the 1950s got off to a start.  Instead, the shedding of one concern seems to have turned his attention to concepts that are perhaps a bit more esoteric and existential.  They were the sort of thoughts that lent themselves easily to the creation of fairy tale countries.  It's a career path of the author's that is never able to sit quite right with the critic.  One gets the sense of Baxendale wishing that Priestley would drop all this romantic tosh and go back to toeing the party line.  If this is the critic's desire, then the obvious irony is that he is several decades too late.  In any case, even if he could have confronted Priestley, I'm sure Baxendale would have come away empty handed and disappointed.  The nature of political disillusionment such as the one John Bertram experienced is very much a concrete illustration of what people mean by such phrases as "burning out the dross".  It is a change of mind, yet what guys like Baxendale seem to have difficulty grasping is that its also like shedding a disused and dangerous skin.

In Priestley's case, there seems to have been a great deal more compensation waiting from him on the other side.  He may have lost his sense of ideology, though I see no evidence that he ever lost his liberalism, which is very much something else.  It also seems to have been a more profitable ending than the one Orwell wound up with.  Priestley seems to have found a second lease on life with his other passions.  I don't call them newfound, because they seems to have been there from the start, even before getting mixed up in what some people refer to as politics.  I have described them as esoteric, and that is because the way Priestley expresses these ideas in his stories is remarkable for their level of familiarity.  In order to give the best idea of what I'm talking about, perhaps it'll help if we take a moment to look at one of these Stories on the Edge of the Marvelous, and see for ourselves just what was it about that Undiscovered Country that Priestley liked to explore so much.The Story.

Does anyone really know what paying attention is like anymore?  The feat itself is not impossible, however there may be some cases where it takes a bit more effort than usual.  Then again, what is there to pay attention to, and is it even worth it?  For the longest time now it seems as if life has adjusted itself to something we like to call the daily grind.  The days pass, and the seasons they come an go, and the years fall away like leaves.  Was there ever anything like an age of marvels?  Well, anyway, if there was a time when that was the case, it had its final day a long time ago.  That was then and this is now, as they say.  Never mind who they are, the point is nothing ever changes much.  Nor does anything really exciting ever happen.  All you've got is right here and now.  

That's a lesson that Mr. Patson thought he'd learned a long time ago.  It was an informal catechism so ingrained in his habit of being, that it's almost as if he could recite it all by rote, without ever having to pay attention.  So what do you do when something, anything catches your attention?  Granted, getting your attention caught on something is also not out of the ordinary.  Like a love at first sight I'm certain that it happens all the time.  What really matters is whatever the subject or object that draws the mind in, like certain plants can ensnare a fly.  There may be some who are willing to argue that Mr. Patson has got lucky.  At least something appears to be happening to him.  The idea proves little, perhaps, except that it's one thing to observe something out of the ordinary.  What happens when its you whose on the receiving end of the unexplained?

Mr. Patson is by no means the superstitious sort.  Nor is he the type prone to seeing things.  He's never even been sure if he has any real kind of philosophy or outlook on life.  Then again, wasn't it Graham Greene, or someone like it who observed that sometimes those sort of elements just find you out, and not the other way around?  Whatever the case, this is how Patson learned to pay attention.  The curious part is how ordinary the whole thing was, at least to start with.  It was pure chance that Patson wound up having to meet with one particular individual on a regular professional basis.  The individual was the head clerk of the borough where Patson lived.  Being a successful enough business man himself, this naturally meant that Patson was often called in to consult with the clerk on various matters.  

Perhaps it was being forced to spend so much time in the same room with this gentleman that did it.  It's hard to say.  It doesn't appear to have been any one thing, but more an accumulation of facts and figures.  The net result is that sooner or later, Patson began to wonder if the man he was speaking to was even human.  It wasn't just something in the eyes or peculiar mannerisms, though all that played a part as well.  Instead, it seemed to happen like a slow-dawning realization.  One day, out of the clear blue, Mr. Patson payed attention is all.  He soon discovered one of the downsides to it, of course.  It wasn't long after coming to his realization that Patson began to catch hints and glimpses of other things.  Beings like the county clerk who just didn't seem to come off as regular people, but instead were a lot more like unpleasant things wearing human skins.  

They moved and acted in all the right ways most of the time, had to give them that.  It's just that there was always this cut off point where the humanity ended, and the abnormal began.  So there Patson was, a lonely 20th century grey-flannel soul amidst a sea of familiar faces, each carrying the same or similar burdens, and yet crippled by a secret knowledge known only to himself, and no one else.  Mr. Patson, a man who, through no fault of his own, has become the victim of his own alert mind, and the grim discoveries awaiting there.  A secret knowledge which could lead him into the very darkest corridors of his own life.  Just one more question, how can you tell if you are sane?

A Typical Tale of Postwar Paranoia.

There seem to be two ways of approaching a story like this.  The first is that of the newcomer.  The second might be called the more or less seasoned familiarity of the genre veteran.  The distinction might sound artificial, however the more thought I've given it, the more I begin to see just how much of a difference it can sometimes make.  To someone who has never encountered a story like this before, Priestley's story might just come off as its own form of private revelation.  At the very least, it is a possibility that will always have to be left on the table for consideration.  To veteran readers and viewers of Horror fiction, this response probably carries the memory of familiarity about it.  That might be about as far as it can go.  The reason for that is because this second type of reader will be able to put the book down, and then maybe ask themselves, "Haven't I seen or read this somewhere before".  The answer is probably yes, most of us have.  I'm going to have to ask this second class of readers to bear with me a bit for that very reason.  While Priestley's story might be an open-and-shut case for some, that's a lot less likely for those who've never heard of writers like Franz Kafka, or the literature of paranoia.

I originally was going to open this part of the review from the second, genre veteran point of view.  I would have started out by noting that the first thing that stands out about the short story is just how familiar its ingredients sounded.  What stopped me is the realization that we are living in an age when a lot of impressionable young pod people will always have the opportunity to shake themselves out of complacency by reading a simple piece of fiction like this.  It's for this reason that I'm going to have to address this article to all those who might be reading Priestley's story for the first time.  If you are one of these readers, then the best thing I can do is bid you welcome to a new-old trope of genre fiction.  I suppose this best place to start then is with the reaction of the new reader, in and of itself.  I don't mean where does it come from, that's a literal open and shut book.  Instead, I'm concerned with what might be called the contents of the reaction itself.  Perhaps a better way of putting it is to describe it as the content in back of the reaction.  Any response to a work of fiction is dependent on the information contained in the story itself.  If that weren't the case, then it's quite likely that storytelling in and of itself wouldn't even exist.  

In the case of The Grey Ones, one of the triggers for the sense of coming across a revelation probably stems from the way Priestley composes his tale.  The entire story is told in an almost uninterrupted monologue style, and we as readers are invited to sit in on the proceedings as they are related to us by the main character, who is also the narrator of the main action.  The veterans in the crowd may complain that we don't spend enough time with the main character to be able to form any kind of investment with his plight.  However, I'm not so sure that's a valid criticism.  I say this not just because the revelation response of first time viewers may point the vets to something that's been overlooked, but also because it's the fundamental nature of short stories to be quicker and more to the point than a novel.  Asking one to be the other is like asking a zebra to try and turn into a giraffe.  Unless there is more narrative potential waiting to be uncovered, then it's impossible for the most part to expand upon a story that lasts no longer than fifteen pages at the most.  For whatever it's also worth, nothing about the topic in question leads me to believe that it could have survived any sort of narrative expansion intact.  It was conceived or dug up as a short story, and that is all it can be.  It cannot be held responsible for not conforming to the posited standards of whatever a novel is supposed to be.

Besides, Priestley is able to put more than enough flesh and bones on the main character just as he is.  We may not know much about Mr. Patson.  We don't even really get his first name, and yet the story he has to tell more than makes up for this.  When we first meet our main character, he could almost pass for one of those old, antiquated mid-20th century cliches.  A middle-aged grey flannel suit perched on a psychiatrist's couch, trying to find the right words to explain his own personal sense of angst.  That's the sort of expectation the image itself is able to plant in our mind, and to an extent, this is precisely what we get.  At his core, it makes sense to describe Patson as a disaffected man.  It's not that he's missed out on things, or that he hasn't accomplished any of the goals he set for himself.  All the bases seem to be covered on that score.  His troubles seem a bit more fundamental than that.  As he tells his analyst in the form of a very blunt question in the story's opening pages.  "Dr. Smith", he asks, "do you believe there's a kind of evil principle in the universe, a sort of super-devil, that is working hard to ruin humanity, and has its agents, who must really be minor devils or demons, living among us as people.  Do you really believe that (34)"?

When phrased in such black and white terms, the most normal, initial response is to ask whether or not you're over-painting the situation?  To be fair, on an inherent level, the second question is a lot more balanced on the whole than the first one.  There just seems to be this internal safety mechanism we all have that (at least when it's functioning properly) keeps telling us it's probably not a good idea to explore those kinds of avenues too much, at least not if you don't want to get lost in your own private, mental labyrinths.  It appears to be a sanity saving mechanism as much as anything else.  The funny thing is how those same off-kilter ideas keep cropping up, time and again.  I don't know if this is strictly a Modern Age phenomena, or whether folks from the time when we all lived in either a forest, countryside, or desert had the same problem.  I almost want to say its a modern phenomenon.  While the older peasant oriented cultures never had it easy, even in the most dire straits, there was a remarkable sense of keeping ones head, even in the midst of instability.  The kind of paranoia most of us are familiar with now (perhaps a bit more often than any of us really like, or are comfortable with) just seems to be the product of an age of individualism.  None of that ever really seems to have got started until somewhere at or about the middle of the 19th century.

I'm not saying I'd trade my sense of individuality for any of it.  That's sort of the point of Priestley's story.  The main character has become the latest in a long line of self-aware characters in the tradition of paranoia fiction.  Other such luminaries include Josef K, Dr. Miles Bennell, and almost every major character in a film by Alfred Hitchcock.  If it's a question of what sets Mr. Patson apart from any of these others, then I suppose that has to be found in the way his imaginary eyes were opened.  He didn't just wake up with inquisitors at his door who won't explain the charges against him.  Nor does he believe any of his relatives are imposters in disguise.  I almost want to say the way it comes about is through a display of mordant wit on the part of the author.  Priestley has his protagonist meet with the story's outsider through the sheer annoying convenience of marriage.  You can't help but imagine the author with tongue firmly in cheek when he has the protagonist claim that "I know at least a dozen of 'em.  My own brother-in-law is one (40)".  When it comes to levity such as this in what is ostensibly a work of Horror, the author is always walking a tightrope.  A lot of Horror can depend on the skill the writer has in his ability to send shivers down the spine.  Introducing humor into the proceedings is always a gamble that depends on several factors, including the ability to avoid too jarring a contrast in tone, as well as the more complex issue of whether the artist is even all that good as a joke teller.

I think Priestley is able to pull this particular card play off, more or less.  Let's take a look at how he handles this particular punchline.  This is how Priestley continues on from that blunt statement.  "Well, I'd wondered about Harold for years," Patson tells us of his brother-in-law.  "I'd always disliked him but I never quite knew why.  He's one of those chaps who don't seem to have any center you can understand.  They don't act from any ordinary human feeling.  They haven't motives you can appreciate.  It's as if there was nothing inside 'em.  They seem to tick over like automatic machines.  Do you know what I mean, doctor (40-1)"?  I think what Priestley means with this bit of dialogue is pretty clear enough.  The opening line is almost a continuation of the joke.  By the third sentence, however, the speaker's words begin to shift onto the ground that is a lot more serious in its meaning.  The description of the brother-in-law as someone without a center is the first time Priestley sounds a note of effective unease.  It's like a low, dull, barely audible undertone was introduced onto an otherwise placid looking soundtrack.  Moving on to the fourth sentence reveals skill and storytelling economy once again.  Harold doesn't seem to act from normal human sentiments.  The volume of unease has been turned up another notch.  By the time we reach the  eighth and ninth passages in the dialogue, the undertone is now perceptible, and if the author has done his job, a lingering note of doubt and misgiving should be pretty well established at that point.  It's a note Priestley now has to maintain throughout, building and adding onto it as he goes along.

From what I've seen and read, he does more than just a pretty good job at it.  Priestley was never a just a one genre author.  He seemed to have an innate desire not to limit himself to a single format.  This resulted in him trying his hand at different types of stories throughout his career.  It's a credit to his natural talents as an artist that he didn't just crash and burn like some many others who tried the same thing.  One of the great pitfalls of genre authors is knowing not so much where to draw the line, as figuring out where that line has drawn itself on them and their creative abilities.  A writer like John W. Campbell was good at creating and pioneering the sort of interplanetary fantasies with a thin veneer of technical overlay that Sci-Fi is still known for.  However, the one thing you will never find in any of his works is a well developed sense of humor.  This is largely because the author never seemed to have much of one himself in real life.  As a result, it's rarely attempted in his stories. 

Another good example is H.P. Lovecraft's technical difficulties with mere dialogue.  The few times he tries to hold a conversation in his texts, the results can sometimes come off stilted and hackneyed.  The best example of this still remains a farmer's description of the titular "Colour Out of Space".  It's supposed to be this big penultimate moment in the story, yet Lovecraft's lack of skill with regional dialects, or any proper sense of artistic back and forth,comes off a lot less natural than he might have intended sometimes.  The irony is that when Lovecraft is at his best with dialogue is when he is letting it be a story-length monologue.  The best examples of what I mean can be found in "The Statement of Randolph Carter", and "Pickman's Model".  Priestley seems to have suffered none of the drawbacks of either of the two writers mentioned above.  Nor was he hampered by dabbling outside the box.  I think there is one central reason for this.  No matter what genre Priestley turned his hand to, it was always united by one, maybe as much as two centrals concerns.  The first might be called the problem of disenchantment.  Like a lot of authors in the Modernist era, Priestley seems to have been conscious that a lot of fine, upstanding citizens of the 20th century were suffering from a sense of disconnect.  It's a common theme that crops up here and there in the novels and films of the period in which Priestley and a host of other authors tried to find ways of realizing this condition on the page or screen

This seems to have been one of the reasons why Priestley was able to make a more or less productive and working career for himself from the 30s all the way to the late 60s.  Taken together, those decades seem to have been kind to any ink stained wretch who was able to play the existential angst game pretty well, and Priestley seems to have been better at playing it than most.  He doesn't seem to be as much of a household name as T.S. Eliot.  Yet the two authors do seem to be making their way through the same neighborhood on some creative level.  Their stories and poems are populated with figures who labor under the sense of a time that is out of joint, coupled with a desire to see things somehow put back in order.  Priestley's main inspiration seems to have been to find a way of taking that basic, Eliotic scenario, and transferring it to the novel format on an equitable paying basis.  He seems to have gotten a pretty good mileage out of that scenario too, if 20 novels, and a surprisingly productive number of 23 whole theatrical stage plays is anything to go by.  It's as a playwright that Priestley is still remembered today, and it was this sense of literary Modernism that shares part of the responsibility for that.  Bear in mind, I just pointed out this was just one half of the equation that accounts for the sense of unity Priestley's work.  

The other was an overwhelming concern with the problem of time.  That's the best way I can describe a theme which is so complex that it requires having to review an entire book dedicated to the topic at some future date.  For now, all I can do is to state that an imperfectly expanded definition of this second aspect of Priestley's career was his lifelong fascination with waking life, the dreaming state one encounters in sleep, and the possible role that time (or a possible lack thereof) might play in all of it.  That is by no means a straightforward sentence, and I think an apology is owed on some level.  The trouble is that saying it's a topic that Priestley found interesting is underselling the point by an almost comical margin.  The truth is his concern with dreaming and time seems to have been there even before he got his big break as a professional playwright.  The roots of this interest seem to trace back once more to his upbringing.  Priestley's family was apparently liberal enough when it came to learning that he was allowed to pour over whatever quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore that caught his attention.  It must have helped that Priestley seems to have had the mental habits of a natural reader, as he took to books and writing as if both were natural extensions of his life.

One book in particular helped to jump-start his interest in time and dreams.  It was called An Experiment with Time, and its author was J.W. Dunne.  This book acts as something like a keystone text in Priestley's life.  It was like a wall of ideas for his mind to bounce off of, or well of inspiration which acted as a springboard for his imagination.  Priestley found Dunne's theories about an observer's dream state, and its possible relation to time (or to be more accurate, to the perception which is labeled as time) fascinating enough to more or less adopt them on both a deliberate and unconscious level as the main, shared background element to all his works of fiction.  This grants a sense of shared thematic unity to the most disparate plot elements, as the subject matter of one play veered off and away in a different direction in the next novel.  It is this time and dreaming element that holds it all together.  It was also able to leave a definite stamp on the generic atmosphere or tone to the kind of stories Priestley became famous for.  Even his most mundane and realistic looking projects are found to have this same otherworldly quality to them.  What results is a lifetime of telling stories that in many ways act as textual precursors to the kind of thing Rod Serling would later go on to make famous in The Twilight Zone.  This sort of helps explain his sure hand in a story like "The Grey Ones".  In a sense, Priestley spent his entire life writing Gothic novels of one sort or another.

What this means for The Grey Ones is a story that is able to cover a great deal of familiar territory while also being very much its own thing.  We follow along as the protagonist monologues the plot for us.  It chronicles his adventures in slowly having his eyes opened to what's going on around him.  It's a process that will be very familiar to fans of movies like John Carpenter's They Live, or even a relatively obscure, and very similar short-story by Stephen King entitled "The Ten O'clock People".  Readers or viewers familiar with either of the latter two stories may come away feeling underwhelmed by the way things shape up in Priestley's take on the material.  However, I'm not so sure how fair that is as a judgment call.  All the writer was able to uncover here was just enough material for a simple short story.  What wound up on the page appears to have been all he could get from his imagination.  That it should take him just so far and no more is not a just cause, in and of itself, for crying foul, or labeling the story a bad one.  Before any judgment like that can made, the first thing to do is to read the whole thing through and see how it shapes up as a finished product.  

I think Priestley is able to hit the kind of target the story was going for.  It's nothing as big as Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers, or John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos, however it doesn't have to be for the kind of effect it needs to get across.  As it is, the story allows Priestley to display his skills as a builder of literary suspense.  The author builds his edifice one detail at a time, allowing one half-glimpsed clue or hint to build upon another, until the kind of picture begins to form that is just unsettling enough to keep us turning the pages to find out what happens.  It all leads the protagonist to an out of the way hotel, one of those once grand luxury palaces that have since gone to seed, like a blighted Arthurian castle.  From there, we follow him until he is able to make his way to a good spot for eavesdropping on what he presumes to be a meeting of a whole room full of grey ones.  More than this would lead us into spoiler alert territory.  What I can say that this is the moment where Priestley has to place all his card on the table and turn them face up.  I know I found the final results interesting, and entertaining enough to be able to say that it won me over.  Mileage will vary, of course, however for the story he has to tell, I think the writer from Yorkshire proves he has enough talent to hold his own with the big league players in the Horror genre.

Conclusion: A story good enough to be troubling.  

f it's a question of whether or not I think the story is any good, then the answer is simple.  There is enough skill and interest baked into the story to force me to give it a passing grade, and call it genuinely good.  Priestley has a sure hand for the Horror genre that allows him to meet its demands and supply a story that I'd have to say is well worth the read.  In some ways, that's the easy part.  So far in this essay I've covered the short story just as story.  I haven't gone much into the real heart of things.  I've said nothing yet about the themes that exists in back of Priestley amusing lie, and which undergird it and help give it its dramatic weight.  There's probably a very good reason for that.  It could just be that the more I thought I about what story was getting at, the more nervous I got.  Now some of you reading this might be wondering what there is to get upset about just a simple, entertaining short story?  Does it cross any taboo lines?  Well, the answer there is kind of interesting.  On one level, that of mere story, the answer is no, of course not.  Priestley's strengths in this genre (based on what I've read so far) all tend toward the more indirect approach of H.P. Lovecraft's Weird Tales ethos.  

The horror is present, yet implied.  The door is open a crack just enough to catch a glimpse of the monster, and then the rest is left up to the imagination of the viewer or reader.  Priestley seems to be very good with the less is more approach to Horror writing, on that score.  If that were all, however, I'd have to worry a lot less about what to say next.  It's on the second thematic level that the trouble really starts.  Perhaps the most sensitive way to approach the issue is to go back and look at the story itself.  We are confronted with the situation of a man telling in all sincerity that the society, the very world around us, is under threat from the evil machinations of a giant conspiracy.  That bare bones plot description is yet another moment where it helps to keep in mind the two types of responses that such an idea can generate, even if only in a work of fiction.  A veteran of the genre (one whose experience in this kind of story goes back as far as about the late 70s, let's say) will take one look at that idea and admit it could have at least some dramatic potential.  Then they'll ask what's the big deal.  Why get so worked up about it?  The question is fair enough from their vantage point, yet I do wonder if that's just part of the equation.  

Let's now turn to a post-millennial audience member, one whose entire worldview is more confined from roughly at or near the time when the sky fell out of New York, and right up to the present moment.  In the words of Bob Dylan, that's "a lot of water under the bridge, a lot of other stuff, too".  Some of it is downright nasty.  A lot of it is still going on.  This sector of the audience has had the unfortunate privilege of seeing what looks like reality itself being stood on its head and turned upside down.  I think the irony is somewhat compounded for the genre veterans in a way.  For the longest time, all of us have grown up being told by parents, teachers, and public figures that everything was just so.  Certain things where not just out of bounds, they were also downright impossibilities.  It was maintained as a series of unspoken, fundamental maxims that it was unthinkable that reality could ever be anything so outlandish as to deviate from the neat and ordered picture we had painted of it.  To think otherwise, it was assumed, was to believe in fairy tales.  Then the last few years have happened, and we seem to have been living in a children's storybook ever since.  Or maybe the truth is we've always lived in a forest of enchantments of various kinds, and we just pretended there were no dryads (or other things) in the trees in order to help take our minds off the glowing eyes peering down at us from the tops of the branches.  Also bad things have a way of happening to anyone foolish enough to stray off the path.

It all reminds me of something Stephen King once said way back in a 1980 book-length study called Danse Macabre.  He was talking about another story, yet it was one very similar to the kind Priestley has to tell.  The book was Jack Finney's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and while in the course of unpacking that too little neglected story, King muses how it resonates with the society of his time period, and frame of reference.  He says that both book and movie can seem reassuring to a society that is worrying that a lot of the catastrophes and social changes appear to be happening at random.  That something like Invasion of the Body Snatcher can serve as a kind of macabre comfort food for the way it which it suggest that there is indeed a larger sense of purpose, design, or method to the madness.  I won't bother to spell it all out, it can still be read in the current re-release edition of King's study.  You're free to go and pick up a copy and see for yourself.  I almost want to insist on it, in fact.  I suppose a lot of the reason for that is because I'm curious how King's words sound to a reader of the present moment (however long that lasts).  From my own (very limited) perspective, I have to say it comes off as the irony of an author telling us more than he knows.  I'm inclined to the idea that there is a lot more purpose than random to the kind of phenomena he describes.  It just seems to be more a question of sorting what's good and bad about it.  Where does the chaff end, and the wheat begin, in other words.

That probably doesn't even begin to make sense, and I apologize for being so vague.  I suppose we're all in the beginner's stage of trying to sort a lot of things out.  That includes (I suppose?) an obscure, paranoid, story of otherworldly invasion by a half-forgotten British author.  The best way I can tackle the subject is this.  J.R.R. Tolkien was notorious for insist that people not read any one-for-one political allegory into his stories.  I think it is just possible for the same to apply to Priestley's story.  All I think I can add is that what I believe is kind of the unspoken point of the tale.  At its' heart, what Priestley seems to be getting at with his story is a warning about ideology in general.  He seems to make a distinction between various types of isms, or politics in general, as distinct from democracy proper.  The entire story is really the words of a former fellow traveler whose had the ideological blinders pulled from his eyes.  The writer of the mid-50s is a very different man from the naive young radical of the Roaring 20s.  A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then, a lot of other stuff too.  This makes The Grey Ones, at least up to a reasonable point, what Priestley has learned since then.

In some ways, it can be taken as a look into what is left after someone has cast off whatever ideologies he has previously held onto.  All that remains, Priestley seems to be saying, is an incipient paranoia.  I think a lot of what he went through or had to put up with in his youth left the author very aware of how easy it is for some people, and maybe even whole societies to fall under a bad influence.  The story then appears to be a chronicle of the negatives effects those influences can create.  Indeed, one of the unspoken strengths is that Priestley chooses to close things off on is a lingering note of ambiguity.  This strikes me as a wise enough choice, at least in this case.  It means the author knows enough about where to draw the line between fact and fiction.  Many others out there don't seem so lucky.  I don't know how such individuals will take a story like The Grey Ones.  Stephen King once wrote that if push came to shove, he could see how violence in fiction can act as a gateway drug for unstable minds.  I also recall reading that a person cannot see whatever they want in a work of fiction, only whatever they are capable of.  Priestley seems to have been smart enough to know both where a lot of those potential shortcomings stem from, and what they can lead to.  It's with these fail-safes in mind that I think I can give his short story a recommendation.  It might not be everyone's cup of tea, though it is good enough on its own merits. 

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