If you’re looking for an offbeat comedy, try Russell H. Greenan’s genre-crossing novel, The Secret Life of Algernon Pendleton. I’d call it a cult classic, except I’d never heard of it before this summer. Published in 1973 and recently reissued by Dover, it’s not quite horror, not quite a mystery. Think Shirley Jackson crossed with James Thurber.
I was spellbound by the quirky humor. The middle-aged narrator, Algernon Pendleton, lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, which he describes as “an overstuffed town (50,000 souls) which is enclosed on three sides by the city of Boston.” His great-grandfather A. Edward Pendleton was an eminent Egyptologist who looted treasures from the Pharaohs’ tombs–and not everything ended up in museums. Al lives alone now in Great-grampy’s house, surrounded by antiques and invaluable Egyptian artifacts.
When Al needs money, he nips over to Boston to sell one of the treasures. The Turkish antique dealer Mahir Suleyman wants the Egyptian funerary statuette, but quibbles about documentation and fakes: where is the tag? Al gets a good price after he says he’ll try another dealer.
When Al gets home, Eulalia, his “friend,” nags him about money. Al will lose the house if he doesn’t find a lot of cash soon. She advises him to “throttle” 89-year-old Aunt Beaty, who owns a few miles of the Maine shoreline. And she says he’s “a child” not to understand the efficacy of this act.
Does Eulalia seem insane? Turns out she is a talking Worcester porcelain pitcher. Yes, Al is completely loco. After suffering a brain concussion as a lieutenant in the Navy during World War II, he developed the “gift” of understanding the language of inanimate objects. The philodendrons in the yard scold him, and that gets on his nerves…
Al is genial, but he’s not what you’d call trustworthy. His old college friend, Norbie Hess, arrives with a suitcase full of money and a fatal heart condition. Eulalia thinks a mercy killing would be a good idea. And then there’s Madge, “a lady archaeologist” who arrives one day wanting to read all of Great-grampy’s papers and snoop around the house. Al is very attracted to her, but Madge defends herself ably from his advances.
Like Shirley Jackson, Greenan has a gift for creating horrific characters in outlandish situations. Greenan’s narrator Al isn’t quite as eerie as Cassandra in Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but let us just say they have one or two things in common.
Greenan owned an antique shop in Boston before he became a full time writer. And turns out The Secret Life of Algernon Pendleton was adapted as a movie in 1997. He is apparently best known for his first novel, It Happened in Boston?, reissued by Modern Library in 2003. Let’s hope I can find it at the library.