The Waxwork: A M Burrage

17 Sep

A M Burrage was the type of man who might very well have walked out of one of his own stories. He commenced yarn-spinning as a boy of fifteen at St Augustine’s, Ramsgate, writing stories of school life to provide himself with pocket money. Since then he won his spurs as one of the most popular of magazine writers – everything he did had charm and reflected his own romantic spirit. Dorothy Sayers was the editor at Victor Gollancz for anthologies of ghost and horror stories, which included tales by Burrage. In one of her letters she said of Burrage’s story The Waxwork, a piece beyond the nerves of the editors, “what you say about The Waxwork sounds very exciting, just the sort of thing I want. Our nerves are stronger than those of the editors of periodicals, and we will publish anything, so long as it does not bring us into conflict with the Home Secretary.” Happily of Burrage, as a result of being featured in one of Sayers’ anthologies, The Waxwork (click to read!) became one of his best-known stories and it would grab the attention of the film companies several times down the years, even becoming an episode in the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Several questions remain unanswered about his personal life. It is unclear whether he was still supporting a family, or whether he spent the majority of his money on alcohol, or whether he chose to conceal his true fortunes from those around him. Perhaps most incongruous is the apparent absence of a wife; though his death certificate indicates that he had one, listed as H. A. Burrage, he seems never to have mentioned her to anyone else.

Alfred McLelland Burrage was born in Hillingdon, Middlesex on 1st July 1889. On his father’s side writing already ran in the family’s blood as both he and an uncle were writers of the then very popular boys’ magazine fiction. By the age of 16 Burrage had joined them as a published author, but he had ambitions to write for the adult market too. From 1890 to 1914, prior to the mainstream appeal of cinema and radio the printed word, mainly in magazines, was the foremost mass entertainment. Burrage quickly became a master of the market, publishing his stories regularly in a number of outlets. There is little documented about Burrage’s childhood and education but it is known that he began selling stories while he was still at school and made his name in 1925 with Poor Dear Esme, the (for the time) extraordinary tale of a schoolboy who masquerades as a girl in a female-only public school. At the start of the Great War Burrage was well established but in 1916 he was conscripted to fight on the Western Front. He continued to write during these years, documenting his experiences in the classic book War is War by ‘Ex-Private X’. For the remainder of his life Burrage was rarely printed in book form but continued to write and be published on a prodigious scale in magazines and newspapers. His supernatural stories are, by common consent, some of the best ever written. Succinct yet full of character, each reveals a twist and a flavour that is unsettling, sometimes menacing but always disturbing.

Burrage continued writing until his death in 1956, and continued to be prolifically published. Indeed, the Evening News alone published some forty of his stories between 1950-56. Though his name is not often remembered in lists of prominent writers of his time, or even its genres, Burrage’s ghost stories are highly regarded by critics and fans alike, while his life story tells us much about the trials and stresses placed on authors during and after the Great War, and on soldiers returning from that war. His reluctant acceptance that the money was in the magazines while the esteem was in the poorly-paying hard covers, and his persistence as a writer, speak of a determined man, doomed to circumstance yet living as best he could. In ending, A M Burrage wrote a few sentences which sum up two things. Firstly his love for his son Simon (who sadly passed away in October 2013 and was a great and passionate advocate for his father’s works) and secondly his succinct reasons for writing:

To Julian Simon Field Burrage, who at the moment of writing will soon achieve the great age of four. From somebody who loves him.

Most of these stories were written with the intention of giving the reader a pleasant shudder, in the hope that he will take a lighted candle to bed with him – for candle-makers must be considered in these hard times. Some have already made their bow from the pages of the monthly magazines. The best have, quite naturally, been rejected.

3 Responses to “The Waxwork: A M Burrage”

  1. Von September 17, 2017 at 8:13 am #

    Hi are all of Burrages stories available in a book.

    • ghostcities September 17, 2017 at 8:29 am #

      I haven’t found a single volume with all of his stories but on kindle the ‘A.M. Burrage Classic Collection’ is a nine-book series of virtually everything he ever wrote.

      • Von September 17, 2017 at 8:38 am #

        Thanks for that I will look it up and purchase it on kindle.

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