Stephen King: Uncollected, Unpublished
by Rocky Wood with David Rawsthorne & Norma Blackburn
Wimsey is a story fragment from the Lord Peter Wimsey novel King worked on in late 1977. The piece is a double-spaced, typewritten manuscript, containing the first chapter, of fourteen pages, and only the first page of a second chapter. Although it has never been published copies of this fragment circulate in the King community.
The attempted novel was the result of both the King family’s abortive move to England and a discussion between King and his editor of the time, Bill Thompson. The discussion revolved around the writing of a novel using the detective character, Lord Peter Wimsey, created by Dorothy L Sayers. More of Wimsey and Sayers later.
The King family moved to England in the Fall of 1977. King was reported in the Fleet News as saying he wanted to write a book “…with an English setting.” The house they settled on was Mourlands, at 87 Aldershot Road, Fleet in Hampshire. Beahm reported that the Kings had advertised for a home, reading: ‘Wanted, a draughty Victorian house in the country with dark attic and creaking floorboards, preferable haunted.’ King’s US paperback publisher, NAL, issued a press release stating King had moved to England to write “…a novel even more bloodcurdling than the previous ones …” Although this does not sound at all like a genteel British detective novel, we can perhaps forgive the publisher’s enthusiasm for its best-selling writer.
Once in England King did not find the inspiration required for an English novel, perhaps explaining the fragmentary nature of Wimsey, but he did begin one of his most famous novels, Cujo during the three months the family remained in the country. One story based in England did result from the trip, however. In mid-October 1977 the King family had dinner with Peter Straub and his wife in the London suburb of Crouch End. This resulted in King’s Lovecraftian story, Crouch End, originally published in the 1980 collection New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and in a heavily revised version in 1993’s Nightmare and Dreamscapes.
Of course, the best result of the England trip may have been the beginning of King’s long and fruitful relationship with fellow author Straub, which has so far resulted in both The Talisman and Black House, with a reasonable likelihood that a third Jack Sawyer novel will be written.
Apparently King sent the fragment of Wimsey to Bill Thompson for review but Thompson’s reaction is unknown. We can only presume it was either not positive or King himself had lost interest in the concept. In retrospect this is likely to have been a good thing. Despite King’s typecasting as a horror novelist, which resulted from Night Shift, The Stand, The Dead Zone and Cujo being the books to follow Carrie, Salem’s Lot and The Shining, it is likely King’s career has been all the more fruitful as a so-called horror novelist than as a so-called detective or mystery writer, along the lines of Sayers or Agatha Christie (although King’s take on Death on the Nile might be interesting, to say the least).
In what we can read of this aborted novel Lord Peter Wimsey and his servant Bunter are on their way, through ‘beastly rain’ to a party at Sir Patrick Wayne’s estate in the country. Wimsey had last met Sir Patrick in 1934. Wimsey and Bunter discuss the foul weather and the death of Salcomb Hardy, which has put Wimsey in a funk. During the trip the two men’s dry sense of humour becomes apparent.
After they cross ‘…an alarmingly rickety plank bridge which spanned a swollen stream…’, Wimsey calls for a toilet stop and, alerted by the contrast to its more solid nature the previous time he had crossed it, looks at the bridge, only to find that the supports had been cut almost through. Somehow this dangerous discovery seems to have enlivened Wimsey, who calls with ‘…more excitement in his voice than Bunter had heard in a long time … he could not remember how long.’ However, Bunter thinks this flash will pass, ‘… gleams of what Wimsey had been and could not even yet deny utterly. It would pass, and he would become the Wimsey that was in this dull aftermath of the war that had made their war seem like child’s play a dreary ghost-Wimsey, distracted and vague, a Wimsey who did too much solitary drinking, a Wimsey whose wit had soured.’
Returning to the car Wimsey states that if the heavy weather continues the bridge will collapse. When they return to the road Wimsey even wonders if ‘Sir Pat’ was not himself responsible for trying to isolate his home from the world, considering in particular his ‘…invitation, renewed so tiresomely over the last month and a half, until we quite ran out of excuses. It began to take on a … a flavour, did it not?’ Wimsey and Bunter begin to consider that Sir Patrick might have a problem ‘…requiring certain detective talents…’ Then, ‘Wimsey said quietly, “I don’t detect. I shall never detect again.” Bunter did not reply. “If I hadn’t been off detecting for the British Secret Service, I … what rot.”’ Apparently Wimsey blamed himself for his wife’s death in the Blitz.
Now their thoughts turn to Miss Katherine Climpson, another of Wimsey’s employees. Wimsey tentatively asks how ‘she’ was and Bunter does ‘… not affect to know of whom Lord Peter spoke’. We discover that Climpson is mortally ill with cancer in a hospital near Wimsey’s Picadilly flat and that he had ‘…gone to visit her himself in the first nine weeks of her stay, but at last he had been able to face it no more. He cursed himself for a coward, reviled himself, called himself a slacker and a yellow-livered slug … but he did not go.’ The slow decline of Climpson was, ‘Too much. Harriet was dead; his brother was dead; even Salcomb Hardy was dead; Miss Climpson was dying and Sir Patrick Wayne, a rich old bore who had been knighted for making himself richer at the expense of thousands of lives, was alive and apparently doing fine. “Is tomorrow Halloween, Bunter?” “I believe it is, my lord.” “It should be,” Wimsey said, and helped himself to a cigarette. “It bloody well should be.”’
As Sir Patrick’s house approaches the brakes fail and their Bentley crashes (Bunter, still in character, laconically comments, “We appear to have lost all braking power, my lord”). Chapter One ends at this point.
In the aftermath of the crash and the beginning of Chapter Two Wimsey wakes and calls for Bunter. At this point what we have of the story ends.
Although Wimsey is relatively short there are a number of interesting facts to report.
Sir Patrick Wayne’s estate is seven miles from Little Shapley, England. If the bridge collapsed, there was only one other road, barely a cart track, out of the estate. Wimsey and Bunter were driving to the estate on 30 October 1945 (“is tomorrow Halloween?”), less than six months after the end of the Second World War in Europe.
The only details of note that King provides us with about Wimsey himself are that he was formerly a detective with the British Secret Service, that his wife Harriet Vane Wimsey had died during the German blitz and the reader’s presumption that the elder Duke of Denver was Wimsey’s brother.
Wimsey’s nephew, the current Duke of Denver (‘Jerry’) had visited Sir Patrick Wayne’s daughter until she had become engaged to another man. Jerry had served in the RAF during the Battle of Britain and was one of the relatively few survivors of that action.
Katherine Climpson seems set to be an important character in the novel. She ran Wimsey’s typing bureau, was unmarried, and was dying of cancer in a hospital on Great Ormond Street, London. Salcomb Hardy, who had recently died of a stroke, was a crime reporter and heavy drinker. Wimsey read his obituary in The Times.
King adopted a style for Wimsey that is indeed very English in tone, including a rather dry tone of exchange between Bunter and the title character. It is clear that King was quite capable of delivering in this style, as one might expect from a premier novelist. In one passage, as Bunter pulls the car over for a comfort stop, he reminds his employer, “If you would not take it amiss, my lord, your heavy overcoat is one the hook directly behind you. I’m afraid of the effects of the rain might be on that worsted.” In another Wimsey says, “Let’s go back to the car, Bunter, before we take a chill,” in the best of British aristocratic tones of the 1940s.
Wimsey is mentioned as a literary character in both Bag of Bones and Apt Pupil. Adding this to the fact that King attempted a Wimsey novel leads us to speculate that King is probably a fan of the Wimsey series. King listed Wimsey’s creator, Dorothy L Sayers, as one of the authors he most admired during an interview for The Waldenbook Report in late 1997.
Sayers’ character, Lord Peter Wimsey was immensely popular in the 1920s and 1930s and the books are still read avidly today. The BBC made two successful television series based on the character, starring Ian Carmichael and Peter Haddon in the lead roles, and there were also 1935 and 1940 movies based on two of the novels.
The fourteen novels and additional short stories were all published in the 1920s through the early 1940s and feature Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, the younger brother of the Duke of Denver and a World War I veteran. His manservant is Bunter. An avid rare book collector, Wimsey develops a penchant for investigating crime, often assisting Detective Inspector Charles Parker, his brother in law. Sayers’ imaginary life of Lord Peter ends in 1942, with Wimsey married to Harriet Vane and the father of three sons. From the Author’s Note in Thrones, Dominations we know that he served in Military Intelligence in World War II.
It seems that King has been faithful to the Wimsey mythology, as we would expect. He has Wimsey married to Harriet, although he extends the mythos by having her die in the Blitz. He also has Wimsey serving in the British Secret Service during the War, linking the note of his serving in Military Intelligence. Readers will conclude from the text that he is the uncle of the current Duke of Denver, which is the way Sayers had it.
Sayers herself was acquainted with a number of the literary circles of her time, being a friend of T S Eliot and C S Lewis. She was a figure of some controversy, having had a child out of wedlock in 1924 and being accused of anti-Semitism in her writing. Apart from the Wimsey and Vane stories (Harriet Vane was also an amateur detective), which set her up financially and which she then retired from writing, she also wrote religious essays and plays in an orthodox Anglican manner; and translated some of Dante’s writings. Interestingly enough, she also translated the Song of Roland from the Old French. That work is an anonymous Old French epic, dating to the 11th Century and is regarded as the first of the great French heroic poems known as chansons de geste. Born in 1893, Sayers died in 1957.
King has continued to show an interest in crime and detective stories and has presented his Constant Readers with a limited but quality selection, including The Fifth Quarter, Man with a Belly, The Wedding Gig, The Doctor’s Case and Umney’s Last Case. The Colorado Kid, King’s novel, published in October 2005 was specifically written for the publisher, Hard Case Crime, which has revived ‘the storytelling and visual style of the great pulp paperbacks of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s’.