Herbert Russell Wakefield Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.