Herbert Russell Wakefield Essay - Critical Essays

Wakefield, Herbert Russell

Introduction

Herbert Russell Wakefield 1888-1964

English short story writer, novelist, publisher, and civil servant.

Though he wrote in a variety of genres, Herbert Russell Wakefield is remembered principally as one of the early masters of the British ghost story. His tales of the supernatural, in the tradition of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and Montague Rhodes (M. R.) James and concerned mainly with the lives of England's upper classes, were published in a series of collections and were widely anthologized. They Return at Evening (1928), the first of these collections, established Wakefield as a skillful and inventive writer with stories such as “The Red Lodge” and “He Cometh and He Passeth By.” Over the next thirty-six years, Wakefield produced more than seventy-five ghost stories, as well as crime novels, mysteries, and radio dramas. Though he was referred to as “the dean of ghost story writers” by August Derleth, his American publisher, his work has not achieved the fame of other practitioners of the M. R. James school.

Biographical Information

Wakefield was born in Kent, England on May 9, 1888. His father, Henry Russell Wakefield, later became the Bishop of Birmingham, and his brother, Gilbert, was a well-known playwright. Wakefield first attended Marlborough, then went on to take a degree in Modern History at University College, Oxford. While at school he played cricket, rugger, and golf, this last being a sport he would continue throughout his life and incorporate into his story “The Seventeenth Hole at Duncaster.” After Oxford, Wakefield worked as Lord Northcliffe's personal private secretary, traveling abroad with him on numerous occasions, including a trip to the United States in 1913. When World War I broke out in 1914, he joined the Royal Scots Fusiliers and was eventually promoted to Captain. After the war, he began working as an editor at Philip Allan publishers in London and in January of 1920, he married Barbara Standish Waldo, the daughter of wealthy Americans who took a house in London for part of each year. It was while editing the “Creeps Library” at Philip Allan that Wakefield began to experiement with writing horror stories of his own. Wakefield's first two books, Gallimaufry, a light-hearted novel, and They Return at Evening, his first collection of ghost stories, appeared in 1928. Several more collections followed quickly, and in 1930 he left his work in publishing to become a full-time author. By 1935 Wakefield was at the peak of his writing career. In 1936, he was divorced from Waldo. A second marriage to Jessica Sidney Davey followed in 1946. During World War II Wakefield served as an air raid warden. He lost his own home in a Nazi air raid during the last months of the war and lived for the rest of his life in various rented accomodations. After the war he continued to write ghost stories, but his popularity began to wane. Although Arkham House published two more of his volumes in the United States, as well as two additional tales posthumously, American pulp magazines eventually became the only other outlet for his work. Readers in Wakefield's own country lost interest in his writing and by the time he died of cancer in August of 1964, he had become somewhat of a recluse, hurt and embittered by neglect from his countrymen.

Major Works

Described by August Derleth as the “last major representative of a ghost story tradition that began with Le Fanu and reached its peak with M. R. James,” Wakefield's early works embodied the classic British horror story. His writing grew out of a strong personal belief in psychic phenomena and his insistence that “there are many things in heaven and earth for which we have no explanation.” “The Red Lodge,” Wakefield's first story from his initial collection, They Return at Evening, is based partially on his own experiences at a Queen Anne house near Richmond Bridge. Several suicides had taken place at the house and when the author visited in 1917, he experienced a feeling of “devitalisation and psychic malaise” and saw the blurred face of a man at one of the windows though no one was inside. “He Cometh and He Passeth By,” a dramatic black magic story also from this first collection, highlights Wakefield's continuing interest in crime stories; his character Oscar Clinton was based upon the life of a real-life satanist. They Return at Evening was well received and became a Book-of-the-Month Recommendation in the United States. Two more collections of ghost stories followed quickly: Old Man's Beard (1929)—published in the United States as Others Who Returned—and Imagine a Man in a Box (1931). Old Man's Beard contains the famous “Look up There” in which Wakefield's trademark restraint is evident. The cause of the terror experienced by the characters is never fully revealed, yet the atmosphere of fear is strongly conveyed and readers are left with disturbing, unanswered questions. The second of these books, Imagine a Man in a Box, indicates Wakefield's growing interest in different genres, with just over half of the stories supernatural and the others comprised of science fiction, comedy, and mystery. Two additional collections, Ghost Stories and A Ghostly Company, based mainly on stories from previous books, were released in 1932 and 1935. Wakefield was also experimenting with different genres during this time, including two studies in crimonology, The Green Bicycle Case (1932) and Landru, the French Bluebeard (1936), and three volumes of detective fiction, Hearken to the Evidence (1933), Belt of Suspicion (1936), and Hostess to Death (1938). In 1940 another collection of ghost stories was published, called The Clock Strikes Twelve. This collection seems to be an attempt to return to his earlier style, and Wakefield is at the top of his form in many of the stories, such as “Into Outer Darkness,” the tale of a haunted manor, “The Alley,” another haunted house story, and “Lucky's Grove,” one of his most anthologised stories. However, The Clock Strikes Twelve was to be the last of Wakefield's books ever published in his own country. After the Second World War, two more books were published in the United States by August Derleth (Arkham House)—an American edition of The Clock Strikes Twelve in 1946, and Strayers from Sheol, which did not appear until twenty-one years later in 1961. This final volume contains “A Kink in Space-Time,” in which the protagonist comes face-to-face with his own ghost, and “The Gorge of the Churels,” which is thought to be one of Wakefield's finest stories, reminiscent of scenes in E. M. Forster's A Passage to India. The Churels are the ghosts of Indian women who have died in childbirth yet haunt the gorge “with a view to seizing the soul of some living child and carrying it off to the void to comfort them.” A British family visiting the gorge scorns such a foolish superstition, yet it is their Indian manservant who saves their own child from the very thing they mock.

Critical Reception

Commentators frequently mention Wakefield's lean, elegant prose and understated climaxes which mark his early work with sophistication and produce what H. P. Lovecraft termed “great heights of horror.” Though these stories were likened to those of M. R. James, Le Fanu, and Henry James, some commentators note that Wakefield's style changed over the years, becoming more formulaic. His later tales deal as often with the psychological as with the supernatural, and are weakened by an increasing inclusion of graphic physical violence and ghosts with a voracious appetite for revenge. In the 1930s Wakefield tried his hand at criminology books and detective novels, attempts which may have arisen not only from the desire to be seen as a more serious writer but also from the need to replace income lost due to his divorce from Waldo. Neither the detective novels nor the criminology books achieved lasting success, though Hearken to the Evidence was selected as a Book-of-the-Month-Club Recommendation. In his later years Wakefield became increasingly bitter over the lack of recognition his work received in his own country, and he destroyed many of his private papers and manuscripts, convinced that no one would be interested in them. His death was not mentioned by the British press.

Principal Works

Gallimaufry (novel) 1928

They Return at Evening (short stoies) 1928

Happy Ever After (novel) 1929

Old Man's Beard: Fifteen Disturbing Tales; published in the United States as Others Who Returned (short stories) 1929

Imagine a Man in a Box (short stories) 1931

Ghost Stories (short stories) 1932

The Green Bicycle Case (nonfiction) 1932

Hearken to the Evidence (novel) 1933

A Ghostly Company: A Book of Ghost Stories (short stories) 1935

Belt of Suspicion (novel) 1936

Landru, the French Bluebeard (nonfiction) 1936

Hostess to Death (novel) 1938

The Clock Strikes Twelve: Tales of the Supernatural (short stories) 1940; published in the United States as Stories From the Clock Strikes Twelve, 1961

Strayers from Sheol (short stories) 1961

Ghost Stories (novel) 1976

Best Ghost Stories of H. R. Wakefield (short stories) 1982

Criticism

Times Literary Supplement (review date 22 March 1928)

SOURCE: A review of They Return at Evening. Times Literary Supplement 1364 (22 March 1928): 223.

[In the following review, Wakefield's first collection of ghost stories, They Return at Evening, is favorably reviewed.]

Mr. Wakefield in this collection of ghost stories [They Return at Evening] provides a pleasing variety in the activities of his spectral characters. In “The Third Coach,” for instance, he permits an anticipatory revelation of a railway accident to prove invaluable in a rogue who is able to make use of his knowledge to secure the removal of an ungrateful hussy who seeks to blackmail her former partner in crime for the benefit of a...

(The entire section is 283 words.)

Philip Allen (review date 18 October 1928)

SOURCE: Allen, Philip. A review of Gallimaufry. Times Literary Supplement 1394 (18 October 1928): 761.

[In the following review, Allen reviews Wakefield's Gallimaufry unfavorably by using words from one of the author's own characters.]

The word gallimaufry, so Mr. Wakefield informs us, is described in the New English Dictionary as a “hotch-potch” or “ragout.” Thus the reader is early informed [in Gallimaufry] that it is not Mr. Wakefield's intention to write an orthodox novel, with plot, climax and characterization, but rather a hotch-potch of conversations and incidents meant chiefly to amuse. The ambition may sound humble enough, but to...

(The entire section is 245 words.)

New York Times Book Review (review date 24 May 1931)

SOURCE: A review of “Mr. Wakefield's Tales.” The New York Times Book Review n.s. (24 May 1931).

[In the following review, the critic compares Wakefield's Imagine a Man in a Box unfavorably to the works of Saki and A. E. Coppard.]

In Mr. Wakefield's previous books of short stories he was astute enough to concern himself exclusively with the realm of the occult and displayed considerable skill in that chosen field. In his new collection [Imagine a Man in a Box] only two stories of the thirteen are based on the supernatural, and it must be stated at the outset that this shift in emphasis is an unhappy one for the author's reputation.

...

(The entire section is 420 words.)

Times Literary Supplement (review date 9 November 1933)

SOURCE: A review of Hearken to the Evidence. Times Literary Supplement 1658 (9 November 1933): 777.

[In the following review, the author gives a synopsis of Wakefield's Hearken to the Evidence.]

Lady Tarnhorn's husband was a troublesome invalid and her senior by many years; moreover—although presumably a faithful wife—she was known to have inspired other men with infatuation. In spite of these circumstances no suspicion at first attached to her when her husband died of arsenic poisoning, because one of the infatuated young men confessed to murder, swore that she had known nothing of his plan and then committed suicide. With that, no doubt, the tragedy would...

(The entire section is 266 words.)

H. R. Wakefield (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: Wakefield, H. R. “Why I Write Ghost Stories.” In The Clock Strikes Twelve and Other Stories, pp. 3-6. Ashcroft, British Columbia: Ash-Tree Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, which was originally published as Wakefield's introduction to the 1946 Arkham House edition of The Clock Strikes Twelve, the author presents his personal belief in psychic phenomena as the basis for writing his ghost stories.]

Dr Montague Rhodes James, who wrote the best ghost stories in the English language—but not the very best one, which is “The Upper Berth”—said that such tales were meant to please and amuse. If he meant to imply by this dictum that they are just...

(The entire section is 1608 words.)

J. I. M. Stewart (essay date 22 September 1978)

SOURCE: Stewart, J. I. M. “Of Supernatural Causes.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 3990 (22 September 1978): 1056.

[In the following essay, Stewart gives a negative opinion on the Wakefield tales collected in The Best Ghost Stories.]

The author of these weird tales (orthodox ghosts are rather scarce in them, but supernaturally occasioned fatalities abound) was born in 1888, the son of a future Bishop of Birmingham. Educated at Marlborough, where he distinguished himself in cricket and rugger, and University College, Oxford, where he played golf for the University, he became personal private secretary to Lord North cliffe in 1911, and later fought on the Western...

(The entire section is 838 words.)

Jack Sullivan (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Sullivan, Jack. An introduction to Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story From Le Fanu to Blackwood, pp. 1-10. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1978.

[In the following essay, Sullivan provides an overview of the English ghost story from Le Fanu to Blackwood, focusing primarily on the writers who have received little attention.]

In the past ghosts had certain traditional activities; they could speak and gibber, for instance; they could clank chains. They were generally local, confined to one spot. Now their liberties have been greatly extended; they can go anywhere, they can manifest themselves in scores of ways. Like women and...

(The entire section is 3977 words.)

Jack Sullivan (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Sullivan, Jack. “Ghost Stories of Other Antiquaries.” In Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood, pp. 91-99. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1978.

[In the following excerpt from Chapter IV of his book, Sullivan looks specifically at ghost story authors who wrote in the tradition of M. R. James, especially Wakefield.]

The publication of M. R. James's Ghost Stories of an Antiquary set in motion a spectral procession of tales about confrontations between antiquaries and beguilingly far-fetched horrors: in E. G. Swain's “The Place of Safety,” the Vicar of Stoneground Parish is visited at night by an order of...

(The entire section is 3531 words.)

Bill Collins (review date July-August 1983)

SOURCE: Collins, Bill. “The Best Ghost Stories of H. Russell Wakefield.” Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Review 16 (July-August 1983): 54-5.

[In the following review, Collins writes about Wakefield stories collected in The Best Stories of H. Russell Wakefield, favorably comparing the majority with works of M. R. James, but describing a few as pointless and anticlimactic.]

H. P. Lovecraft offered the opinion (in Supernatural Horror in Literature) that “we must judge a weird tale … by the emotional level which it attains at its least mundane part,” that “atmosphere is the most important thing.” Fair enough, but Lovecraft didn't write ghost...

(The entire section is 808 words.)

Ben P. Indick (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Indick, Ben P. “H. Russell Wakefield: The Man Who Believed in Ghosts.” In Discovering Classic Horror Fiction 1, edited by Darrell Schweitzer, pp. 73-93. San Bernardino, Cal.: The Borgo Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Indick explains supernatural and horror fiction as two unique entities and deals with the ways in which Wakefield's work encompasses both.]

There is a gulf between Supernatural and Horror fiction; it is sometimes bridged, but the entities nevertheless remain unique. In today's world, where power and violence appear to have overcome taste and subtlety, the Supernatural per se is in eclipse. Its sister, Horror, albeit in the form of...

(The entire section is 8540 words.)

Stefan Dziemianowicz (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Dziemianowicz, Stefan. “Old Man's Beard.” All Hallows 13 (1996): 69-71.

[In the following essay, Dziemianowicz reviews Wakefield's second collection of ghost stories, Old Man's Beard, noting specifically the author's use of humor as a narrative device.]

Old Man's Beard, H. Russell Wakefield's second collection of ghost stories, was first published in 1929. Its American edition was retitled Others Who Returned, no doubt to echo the title of his first collection, They Return at Evening, which had enjoyed modest success the year before. However, the reader who picked up the second volume on the strength of impressions made by the...

(The entire section is 1274 words.)

Barbara Roden (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Roden, Barbara. An introduction to The Clock Strikes Twelve and Other Stories, pp. ix-xxii. Ashcroft, British Columbia: Ash-Tree Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Roden gives an overview of Wakefield's writing career, discussing his possible motivations for attempting not only the ghost stories for which he is best known, but other genres as well.]

When H. R. Wakefield's third collection of original fiction, Imagine a Man in a Box, appeared in 1931, its author had left the relative safety of a steady job in publishing in favour of earning a living solely from his writing. He must have known from his experience as a publisher that such a step was a...

(The entire section is 4875 words.)