To mark the centenary of Nigel Kneale’s birth we invited his official biographer, Andy Murray to talk about a less well known side of this extraordinary writers’ career; before he went on to redefine television drama, he published a prize-winning collection of short stories – one that has been out of print since the sixties and that Comma is delighted to be bringing back into print this summer: Tomato Cain and Other Stories.
Once he’d written his one and only short fiction collection, Tomato Cain and Other Stories, published by Collins in 1949, Nigel Kneale, left behind a potential literary career and went on to become a revered, influential scriptwriter. It’s hardly surprising, then, that so many people have wanted to get hold of the book. What is surprising is that it’s proved so elusive for so long. An American edition of Tomato Cain was published by Knopf in 1950, with a slight tweak in contents – five stories removed, three new ones added in – and in 1961 Collins issued a UK paperback edition using the same line-up via their Fontana imprint. After that, the collection quietly fell out of print for over sixty years.
The stories didn’t disappear completely. A select handful, including The Pond, Minuke, The Photograph and Oh, Mirror Mirror were anthologized, often cropping up in the likes of the widely-read Fontana and Pan Books of Horror and making an instant impression on many eager readers. In 2014 the Manx Language Society, or Yn Çheshaght Ghailckagh, published a dual language Tomato Cain volume, in English and Manx, comprising just seven of the original tales, namely those with a clear Isle of Man setting. Meanwhile, down the decades, Kneale’s reputation continued to grow and original editions of Tomato Cain had become costly collector’s items. By the time of Kneale’s death in 2006, an original Collins hardback could comfortably set the buyer back a three-figure sum.
As Kneale’s biographer, I was, I explained to myself, duty-bound to get hold of copies of every edition, whenever they became available at a less than eye-watering price. Having read the book and recognised the sheer quality of it, I was keen to see it reissued. I wasn’t alone in that. On a regular basis I was asked by Kneale admirers if I knew when that might happen.
Earlier this year, while collaborating with fellow enthusiasts John Dear and Toby Hadoke on planning assorted Kneale events for the centenary of his birth, we were in direct contact with the Kneale estate – that’s to say, his children Tacy and Matthew. It transpired that they were equally as keen to see Tomato Cain available again. I recommended Comma Press as the perfect home for the project and put both parties in touch. In June, this will come to fruition and Tomato Cain will be back in print at long last.
I’m delighted to say that the text for the new edition has been sourced directly from my own vintage originals, scanned, run through OCR software and polished up. For the first time ever, in fact, the Comma edition will be a truly complete Tomato Cain collection, uniting 32 stories across the UK and US editions, including one additional tale, It Doesn’t Matter Now. This first saw publication, credited to ‘Nigel Neale’, in the monthly journal Britannia and Eve in August 1946. It was never actually included in Tomato Cain, but as a scan of it happened to surface in late 2021 courtesy of Twitter user @SFFaudio, it was decided to include it as a bonus in the name of completion. (Incidentally, my second-hand copy of the original Collins hardback is inscribed ‘To Elsie, who loves Mona’s Isle [ie the Isle of Man], from Raymond, Xmas 1949’, which feels like an extra short story all of its own.)
There’s no way of knowing just yet what contemporary readers will make of Tomato Cain, but I hope that they’ll recognise the strength of these evocative, vivid, canny tales of now-lost communities, alongside the first glimmerings of the intelligent genre-blending that we’ve come to recognise as trademark Nigel Kneale. And I like to think that its appeal will reach both dedicated Kneale converts and indeed all readers who can appreciate a finely-crafted short story.
In her introduction to the 1949 Collins edition, novelist Elizabeth Bowen remarked ‘Nigel Kneale is at the opening of his career; he is still making a trial of his powers’. That proved to be spot-on and indeed those powers were very much in evidence already. There’s plenty of humour here, and plenty of imagination, plus a keen, cool observation of humans and human nature. There’s also his sheer gift for spinning a yarn, which stood him in good stead for the remarkable scriptwriting career he’d go on to have.
Now Tomato Cain and Other Stories has been unearthed from the past and brought back into the light of the present to make a new impact there – and in that respect, it’s become a thematically on-message part of Nigel Kneale’s legacy.
Nigel Kneale’s Tomato Cain and Other Stories is available to pre-order via the Comma Press website here. If you are a bookshop or library interested in stocking this title please get in touch with us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.