R Chetwynd-Hayes, Britain’s Prince of Chill

14 May

Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes (1919-2001) was known as ‘Britain’s Prince of Chill’, and his numerous collections of genteel and humorous ghost stories filled the shelves of almost every public library in Britain during the 1980s. In 1989 he was presented with Life Achievement Awards by both the Horror Writers of America and the British Fantasy Society. Ronald’s tales of terror are often notable for a disarming sense of humour, which the author readily admitted that he could not help. “I’ve always got this terrible urge to send the whole thing up. It just slips in, I have never been able to stop it.” However, his skill as a horror writer also resided in his ability to bring new perspectives to familiar themes. Not only was he happy to write about such genre standards as ghosts, demons, ghouls, vampires and werewolves, but he delighted in making up his own bizarre monster variations that managed to stretch the imaginations of both author and reader alike. This ability to create new creatures is perhaps never more evident than in his most famous book, The Monster Club, in which he set out ‘The Basic Rules of Monsterdom’. In the 1970s and ’80s Ronald produced a further twelve original collections of ghost stories, which were aimed principally at the library market in Britain. These books proved to be extremely popular, and Ronald was always proud of the fact that each year he was one of the highest earners of the annual Public Lending Right (PLR), based on the number of times an author’s books are loaned out from libraries in the UK.

R Chetwynd-Hayes was born in the West London suburb of Isleworth, the son of a movie-theatre manager. The young Ronald appeared as a schoolboy extra in a number of pre-War British films, including A Yank at Oxford (1938) and Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939), and he developed a life-long devotion to the moving pictures. Following his parents’ death, he was fostered during his early years before going to live with his grandmother and then his Aunt Doris. After fighting in World War Two, Ronald joined the furniture department at Harrods. He lived in a basement flat in Richmond for many years until his Aunt Doris died, when he moved into her house at Hampton Hill. Throughout this period Ronald read voraciously and, soon convinced that he could do better himself, he began writing his own stories – everything from romances to his favourite genre, historical fiction. Despite infrequent success, along the way he garnered numerous rejection slips from periodicals and book publishers. “I used to try to write the great novel,” he once lamented. “Try to be another Bronte. But, of course, nobody wanted to publish it. Then when I looked on the bookstalls and saw all these supernatural titles, I thought that was obviously the market to aim for. I’d always been interested in the supernatural anyway.” In fact, his first published work was a science fiction novel, The Man from the Bomb, in 1959 but with a published book finally under his belt, the author followed it in 1964 with a novel about reincarnation, The Dark Man.

By the late 1960s and early ’70s he had started selling short stories to such anthology series as the infamous Pan Book of Horror Stories and the Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories. The next few years were highly productive for Ronald. Not only was he turning out multiple collections with titles like Cold Terror, Terror by Night, The Elemental, The Night Ghouls and Other Grisly Tales and Tales of Fear and Fantasy, but in 1973 he had also taken over editorship of The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories from fellow horror writer Robert Aickman. “In those days, everything to do with the supernatural sold,” he explained. “At one time I had six volumes with my name on them in bookshops.” Four of Ronald’s stories were adapted in From Beyond the Grave (1973), featuring an all-star cast that included Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasance and Diana Dors. A film version of The Monster Club, aimed mainly at children, was then released in 1981, again boasting an impressive cast that included Vincent Price, John Carradine, Patrick Magee and Britt Ekland. Unfortunately, The Monster Club was poorly distributed in the UK and was eventually released direct-to-television in the USA. Over the years, however, its reputation has continued to grow, and a recent DVD release has only cemented its position as a cult favourite amongst some viewers. Although he died in 2001, the posthumous popularity of the film would have pleased Ronald greatly. He often stated that he was writing for posterity and that he hoped his stories would continue to entertain new generations after his death:

“I’m writing for the future. I hope in a hundred years’ time some editor will find one of my old books and decide it will fill up a gap. And so I shall live again. In that respect, I suppose being a writer is very much like being a vampire…”

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