Last updated: 06 November 2008
Dylan Thomas' uncompleted coming-of-age tale, with semi-autobiographical themes.
This collection was published posthumously in 1955. It comprises three short stories which were initially intended to be the opening chapters of a novel, and 20 short stories produced early in Thomas' career.
These individual stories represent a period in his prose writing during which he rejected conventional use of form and language and experimented with a style designed to echo the workings of the subconscious mind.
The first three stories were originally published together under the title Adventures In The Skin Trade, and were to have been developed into a semi-autobiographical novel. Thomas rejected the idea after criticism from his publishers, but he originally intended to write a sequence of events in which his main character reached a stage of maturity by shedding a series of metaphorical skins.
Thomas' character ("Call him Samuel Bennet") leaves his home in South Wales to pursue a career in London. He sets out with an attitude of reckless, nihilistic purpose but encounters a nightmarish city.
In Four Lost Souls, London is a seething mass of "streets and houses and traffic and people", and all that the people want are "love and beer and sleep". Thomas reveals his conflicting emotions concerning a city which is populated by lively and humorous people but is ultimately lacking in spirituality or a higher purpose.
This view of London is complemented by the other short stories in this collection. Thomas uses streams of images to examine the dark undercurrents of the human mind. The result of this technique is that these early stories have more in common with his poetry than his later prose. In Prologue To An Adventure he describes a city where there are "loud electric faces and the crowded petrols of the wind dazzling and drowning me".
This London is similar to the one described in Adventures In The Skin Trade, but the effect of an overwhelming confusion of people and things is created not with straightforward description but with a series of surprising metaphors.
The final three stories in the book - The Vest, The Followers and The True Story - mark a transition in Thomas' approach to writing fiction. The narratives are initially very conventional but each tale has a bizarre and sinister twist.
In The Followers two boys are spying on the cosy domesticity of a young woman and her mother when a disembodied voice asks, "Why are those boys looking in the window?" This more restrained use of the surreal draws attention to the supernatural forces simmering just below the surface of society.
Adventures In The Skin Trade is a fascinating collection because it brings together three very different styles in Thomas' prose writing. It is possible to trace the gradual development in his technique and also to examine the startling ways in which he tackles familiar themes.