Jan Gordon's 1917 story "The Soul Box" set in British Malaya

In addition to factual articles published in the magazine Land & Water between 1915 and 1919, Jan Gordon also contributed a short story for the 1917 Christmas edition. It was called "The Soul Box" and was set in British Malaya, drawing on Gordon's own experiences in the area.

The Soul Box

The story begins with a Scotsman, Thompson, speculating about wealth to come as he sees grains of tin ore in a stream bed. His reverie ends abruptly when his servant, Ahmat, knocks him out with a blow to the head. Ahmat then ties him up securely before carrying him into the forest.

Ahmat had shared the local stories of demons and ghosts with Thompson:

".. Ahmat told how Hantu Longgak had attacked his mother's sister, so that she ran through the village with foam flying from her mouth as though she were a beaten horse; of the terrible eyes of Jadi Jadian, the were-tiger; of Batara Guru, the old man of the sea ; of Sa Raja Jin, the Black King of all the Genii (or Jinn), who dwells in the heart of the earth with Sang Gadin his bride, and their seven monstrous coal-black sons; of the black Jinn themselves, who inhabit the hollows of the hills, the impenetrable thickets of the primeval forest, and the monstrous fungi of the trees: of the evil dumb demons in the air who catch the good rain in coconut shells, one shell to each drop, that the earth shall not fructify, and against whom the angels wage incessant warfare with their thunderbolts.."

"When Ahmat described to him Hantu Songkei, with his huge nose and eye-sockets stretched so far sideways that he could see all around him, stalking through the forest invisible below the breasts, it was as though the narrative of an eye-witness and carried the same clear note of conviction."

Thompson had responded by describing various powerful western demons and monsters, and then condescendingly and manipulatively convinced Ahmat of the power over these evil beings held by the white man's soul, which Ahmat now wanted to possess, without knowing exactly where Thompson carried his.

With Thompson tightly bound, and Ahmat persistent in demanding to know the whereabouts of the soul, Thompson eventually tells him that it is in his pocket and that you can hear its heartbeat. Ahmat pulls out Thompson's watch and listens to it ticking. He leaves Thompson tied up and then runs, initially full of confidence as the bearer of the all powerful "soul," but later when it winds down and the ticking stops, he is overcome with panic, then drops it, and returns to Thompson who has died in the meantime. Ahmat runs again, now in abject terror as the demons seem to him to close in and he has no defence.

The story captures some of the Malaysian atmosphere with descriptions of the torrential rainfall and the beauty of the sunsets. It also paints a picture of the desolate landscape of the tin mining pits and the edge of the forest (see contemporary photographs here for a visual impression).

"Thompson, tired after day's work, sat with his legs sprawled out upon the worm-eaten arms of the rest-house veranda chair. From his elevated position, for the house was sprung some six feet upon piles, he could see the dim space of cleared jungle, half covered with straggling shrubbery and rank grass, out of which rose the irregular mounds of Chinese prospectors' pits, the moon behind the forest made the flat edge of the trees a black wall, velvety to the eyesight and an impenetrable mystery. From far away came the shrill inhuman wail of the native fiddler at the Japanese brothel, and yet more distant, like the pulsation of some mad heart, terribly monotonous with the crazy monotony life itself, the beat of a tomtom.

Jan Gordon in British Malaya

Jan Gordon in this tale was drawing on his time in the Malay Peninsula as a fledgling mining engineer, a time of broken dreams which led him to return to England in failure, abandoning mining engineering as a career, with the intention of becoming an artist. "Isn't it better to fail at something I like than at something which is uncongenial and unsuitable?" he told himself. "I will go home and become an artist. I am only twenty-five : surely it isn't too late."

In the storey, he recalls the intense tropical rainfall, which he had found oppressive, and conveys some of his own downcast mood as expressed in his 1923 account of this time in "An Experiment in Adventure."

Gordon found that the job he had signed on for involved little mining engineering and seemingly endless watching of the Chinese workers, work he had no talent for: "Every time that he gave an order he felt the instinctive resistance to the order." After a short spell working in a failed speculation to build a road through the forest he took a job on a "properly equipped mine", which he also found tedious: "To kill time he began to draw again." He describes how he would draw continuously for five or six hours and how excited he was when some sketches he sent to a local art exhibition in the nearest large town won a prize. After an accident involving a slope collapse killed one of the Chinese workers, Gordon made the decision to return home.

There is a passenger record for a Mr. G.L. Gordon on 4th August 1904, in the UK and Ireland Passenger Lists, travelling by P&O steamer Manila to Penang. This may have been Jan Gordon, but the "L" is clearly written, so doubt remains.

The statement in "An Experiment in Adventure" that he was 25 years old would imply, if accurate, a return in 1907. In "A London Roundabout" (1923), he wrote, "The trunk which took me out to the Malay, in less than two years followed me back to England," implying an outbound journey after March 1905 if the return was 1907 or a return in 1906 if the 1904 outbound journey is correct. The next hard constraint is his marriage to Cora Josephine Turner on 7th July 1909, Jan being 27 years old at the time.

It can be tempting to read Jan Gordon's semi-autobiographical writings as accurate records, but, while atmosphere and broad brush narratives are sound, the details are typically not. There is no pretence at accuracy in "The Soul Box," but rather a portrayal of mood in the opencast tin mining areas of the Malay peninsula at the beginning of the 20th century.

Some further reading


Grateful thanks to Sophie Smith at York Public Library for her kind assistance in retrieving this story for me.


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