They Return at Evening: H R Wakefield

16 Jul

When Herbert Russell Wakefield’s first collection of supernatural stories, They Return at Evening, was published in 1928, it would not have been apparent to contemporary readers that the book marked the start of a new era. Wakefield’s appearance on the ghost story scene came at a time when many of the great names in the field were nearing the end of their careers as writers of supernatural fiction. M R James, E F Benson and Algernon Blackwood, who had dominated the field, had either published their last new stories or were within a few years of doing so. That his first two collections of ghost stories, They Return at Evening (1928) and Old Man’s Beard (1929) have not been reprinted since is little short of a crime, albeit one that may be partly explained by the popularity of the two anthologies which were published by Jonathan Cape in their Florin Books series, which used many of the best stories from Wakefield’s first three collections. Such neglect places Wakefield in distinguished company: E G Swain, R H Malden, A N L Munby and L T C Rolt are all authors of fine collections of ghost stories, which for many years after their publication were not easily available, and consequently more talked-about than read by ghost story enthusiasts. Wakefield, however, differs from the others in that he wrote several collections of weird tales, over a period of thirty-three years – Messrs Swain, Malden, Munby and Rolt wrote one collection each. They Return at Evening thus marked a turning point – away from the last century and on into a brave new world whose boundaries seemed limitless.

Little is known about H R Wakefield’s life, as he avoided publicity during his lifetime and destroyed many of his private papers and manuscripts shortly before his death in 1964 – only a single passport photograph survives even to show what he looked like. Wakefield was born near Folkestone, Kent in 1888 (although even his year of birth has been the subject of some debate). His father, Henry Russell Wakefield, was to become Bishop of Birmingham, and young Wakefield was educated at Marlborough and Oxford. He was an athletic boy, good at games, and was a lifelong golf enthusiast. He obtained a degree in Modern History from Oxford, and in 1911 became Lord Northcliffe’s personal private secretary. During the First World War Wakefield served on the Western Front and in Macedonia, eventually attaining the rank of Captain. After the war he married and during the 1920s he worked in publishing. Gradually, however, he spent more and more of his time writing, and in 1928 came his first literary success: They Return at Evening, a collection of nine supernatural tales. The collection was well-received, both in England and in America, and naturally enough, Wakefield found himself inheriting the mantle of M R James, whose output of ghostly fiction was almost at an end by 1928. It is not difficult to understand why Wakefield’s stories were so quickly labelled as being in James’s style. Publishers have a natural inclination to compare an author to someone who has successfully gone before, and Wakefield is not the only (and probably not the first) author to have his stories described as being ‘in the style of M R James’. Wakefield’s stories are, however, very much in their own style – there is no indication of pastiche or conscious imitation here – but there are certainly similarities between the two. Both men set their tales in the world they knew: a world of middle and upper-middle class gentlemen (many, if not most, of whom are bachelors), who either have independent incomes or whose occupations are genteel rather than manual; a world of superior butlers and their gentlemen; a world of clubs in the city and houses in the country: a world which has, for the most part, disappeared, and which gives Wakefield’s (and James’s) stories a pleasant glow of nostalgia when read several decades after they were written.

James felt that ghost stories should be set in a time and place not too far removed from the reader’s own experience, and Wakefield upheld this dictum even more than James. His stories are all of their time, and, as a consequence, we find Charlie Chaplin films and cars doing eighty miles an hour in That Dieth Not, and martinis and heroin in “He Cometh and He Passeth By!”: an almost resolute modernity that James seldom, if ever, attempted. References to bootleggers, gold-diggers, and James Elroy Flecker (a popular poet in the 1920s, but almost completely forgotten today) would have made Wakefield’s stories more modern than James’s to contemporary readers, and it is therefore ironic that James’s stories have worn better: their lack of reference to contemporary events has given them a timeless feel, whereas Wakefield’s stories, in many ways, are very much of their age. The reader approaching They Return at Evening expecting ‘Jamesian’ stories, in the truest sense of that expression, is likely to be disappointed: the stories display a distinct lack of hapless antiquarians, cathedral closes, old manuscripts, and Latin and Biblical quotations. Wakefield’s similarity to James is more to do with the style of their stories than with their plots: their work shares a matter-of-factness when dealing with the supernatural, an economy of words, a sense of humour, and a way of combining the supernatural with the mundane. That is not to say that Wakefield did not write Jamesian stories on occasion: The Seventeenth Hole at Duncaster must rank as one of the most Jamesian ghost stories ever written, complete with a smattering of pastiche to serve an as explanation of sorts just when the reader thought that the mysterious event would remain unsolved. Wakefield’s story itself spawned an imitation: L T C Rolt acknowledged that his own story, New Corner, was written in conscious imitation of Wakefield’s.

Wakefield himself based one of the stories in They Return at Evening on a James story: “He Cometh and He Passeth By!” is a recognisable variation of Casting the Runes. The plots of the stories are similar: a practitioner of the Black Arts uses his power to eliminate those who have crossed him, by means of sending them a small slip of paper on which is printed mysterious characters. Death follows in due course, caused by something hideous and only half-glimpsed. The Red Lodge is probably the best known story in the collection, and was inspired by a visit Wakefield paid to a house near Richmond Bridge in 1917. The house had an evil reputation, and while there Wakefield felt himself “oppressed by a fear without a name”. One day, while out in the garden, he glanced up at a row of windows on the first floor and saw “a blurred face at one of them. It was a man’s face, but there was no man in the house”. The story itself is not Jamesian, but it moves the reader along in the brisk manner of James: before the first paragraph – even the first line – is finished, we know that the Red Lodge is an evil house, and there is scarcely a word wasted as we are carried along by the events of the story. It is almost impossible to fault the story in any way: perhaps it should be used as a textbook example for aspiring ghost story writers. It is all the more amazing that this accomplished, assured, and elegant performance was one of Wakefield’s first ghost stories. Probably not since M R James cleared his throat one evening in October 1893 and began reading Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book at a meeting of the Chitchat Society has a more auspicious debut been made in the field of the supernatural short story. Were the malevolence of spectres, revenants and demons to be the yardstick by which to judge writers of supernatural tales, then Wakefield and James would be at the top of the list, with little to separate them. Wakefield’s ghosts, like James’s, show no quarter: they are pure evil, and no genteel spirits need apply. Those who like ghost stories that send a shiver up the spine, and which are best not read at night, will find much to savour in They Return at Evening. A word of warning: read the book in a well-lit room. You will be glad you did!

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