Adam Scovell

The Face in the Flames: The Ghost Stories of H.R. Wakefield

December 26, 2020

The smell of burning must have taken on a chemical flavour as the documents were piled onto the flames behind the grating. At least in my mind’s eye, I can see a worn man, a man who has probably seen more than he realistically would have liked to. Piles of ephemera are littered at his feet: letters yellow with age; typed and handwritten manuscripts telling tales of the uncanny; even some photographs of the man himself, as evidence that he had existed at all, he hoped. He is in one sense burning away his identity: an action that suggests, more than anything else, a desire to become a ghost before his time. The man is Herbert Russell Wakefield, the writer of ghost stories, and, judging by the lack of discussion of his work today, he almost had his wish of vanishing fulfilled. As with everything in our age of digital eternal return, however, disappearance is only the first step towards resurgence.

Unsurprisingly, considering the denomination of his name, Wakefield wrote a combination of ghost stories and weird fiction. Like H.P. Lovecraft, M.R. James and E.F. Benson, he wrote short tales of the supernatural, in his case slotted into the everyday lives of his distinctly Edwardian era. Though writing with similar emphasis on personal terror as the writers he followed —James, Machen, Blackwood et al—his writing soon slipped from the public consciousness, falling rapidly out of print and only re-printed a handful of times after the war. Even a collected volume in the 1970s, when the taste for such stories was rife, failed to garner the sort of attention that reprints of similar writers had. Wakefield is notable by his absence, as if his burning cursed future attempts to bring him back from the grave.

He was born in Sandgate in Kent, the third child of his clergyman father Henry Wakefield, the eventual Bishop of Birmingham. He went to boarding school in Wiltshire —Marlborough College, to be exact— before, like many Old Marlburians, entering Oxbridge to study History at Oxford’s oldest institution, University College. Following in the footsteps of Percy Shelley and C.S. Lewis seemed to do little for him, as he spent more time on sports and passing through the college with only a reasonable grade and future expectations. He took his first steps into publishing soon after graduating, working as secretary to the mogul-esque press baron, Alfred Harmsworth, before the First World War brought his career to a halt. Serving in the Royal Scot Fusiliers, he saw action in a number of battles and soon rose to the rank of Captain. Certainly, reading the stories he would soon produce, war sometimes rears its head as causing the disturbed state of his protagonists.

The other pillar of his characters’ lives was suggested by another brutal endeavour: work in the publishing industry. After a stint in America, coupled with a marriage that would fail, he found a home in London and worked his way up the ranks at William Collins, to eventually become a chief editor. His characters are frequently intertwined in publishing and, even more so, in the writing of ghost stories. Because of this, his writing sometimes lapses into something like auto-fiction, spiced up with biting critiques of his industry’s smarminess. By the late 1920s, he had started work on his ghost stories, publishing They Return At Evening: A Book of Ghost Stories in 1928. He would go on to publish several volumes and become a regular name in anthology editions and magazines of weird fiction, producing a vaguely respected body of work that would soon fall into shadow. By the end, he seemed jaded with it all. ‘I’ve written my last ghost story’, he wrote in the introduction to his final volume Strayers from Sheol (1961): ‘I believe ghost story writing to be a dying art.’

So what lay behind Wakefield’s stories? Where did they share likenesses and differences with his contemporaries? And will his spirit be summoned again from the groaning shelves of dusty libraries, or should he be left to rest, with the ashes, in his fireplace?

STROKES AND SHADOWS

In a perhaps apt crossover between reality and fiction, my one and only volume of Wakefield’s stories was gifted to me via a partly fictional character. The fictionally malevolent, but assuredly real and incredibly friendly nonagenarian, Phyllis Ewans —who inhabited my first novel, Mothlight (2019)— left me her collection of macabre books. Among these was one dusty volume of Wakefield’s stories; an original 1932 edition of Ghost Stories printed as part of Jonathan Cape’s Florin Series that boasts being ‘the right size for all times, and the right price for these times’ —that price being 2s. net each. In this series, Wakefield shared status with the likes of Flaubert, Hemingway and Brontë. In his lifetime at least, his status was all but assured.

But reading Wakefield in the wake of the writers he openly admired can be a strange experience, like coming upon misremembered echoes and even retellings of other works. In many ways, his stories —at least those I have managed to find— fill a real gap between the fusty, antiquarian world of M.R. James and the weirder, post-Pinter world of Robert Aickman, all horn-rimmed spectacles and Play for Today. Wakefield is a sort of missing link between them, with one overriding concern that partly accounts for the eventual disappearance of his work: the insufferable social milieu that his characters inhabit. Its ordinariness is double-edged, explaining both its strengths and weaknesses. If P.G. Wodehouse had considered more ghastly matters than the wrong tie or an accidental engagement, perhaps his stories might have resembled Wakefield’s to some degree.

A sense of class hierarchy is present onward from the first tale that opens Ghost Stories, “Messrs. Turkes and Talbot.” Like many Wakefieldian protagonists, Bob Fanning is the Oxford-educated son of rich parents who decides, almost on a whim, to go into publishing, where he ‘spends most of his time yawning over typed garbage.’ (Some things never really change.) Though Wakefield’s characters aren’t especially malicious, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for their experiences, and one misses the violent, unforgiving spirit found in James’ work. In “Old Grey Beard,” one of Wakefield’s stranger and more daringly erotic stories, even the image of a sultry, caressing grey beard haunting the dreams of a young woman can’t distract from her intolerable surroundings. The troubled story of April Mariella ends in peaceful contemplation and contentment with her marriage to the ‘bland and innocent’ Mr. Peter Raines; who, having recently left Oxford (again) is about to publish a ‘slim volume of essays’ entitled Constructive Toryism. On reading this, I briefly missed the presence of William Ager, the ghost ready to smash jaws to pieces in retribution from James’ “A Warning to the Curious” (1925).

Another common occurrence to examine before visiting the more attractive elements of Wakefield’s work is his obsession with detailed golfing scenarios. In a number of stories, golfing technique and ability are used to gauge the character for the reader rather than actual characterisation. It’s almost impossible to get away from this world that reminds, perhaps ironically, of the psychotic narrator in Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square (1941). In a Wakefieldian setting —where his golfing prowess would have been enough to secure him social standing rather than continuing to fail socially in his vile circle of Earl’s Court fascist acquaintances, several of whom he eventually kills— Hamilton’s George Harvey Bone could have fared very well.

In “The Red Hand,” Wakefield’s writerly protagonist considers making one of his own characters left wing because ‘Magazine readers hate “Reds” worse than murderers – there were more of ‘em.’  Couple this with the protagonist of “Mr Ash’s Studio”—who, having written 40,000 words, declares ‘as golfers say I “don’t want them back”’— to give us a sense of Wakefield’s world, and his lack of insight in contrast to writers such as Hamilton. The latter understood that the banality of the hateful human elements manifesting in Europe then also enjoyed a few regular rounds on the course from time to time.

Putting aside the golf, the real haunting in these stories isn’t the occasional implied spirit or malevolent creature but often the valets, golf caddies and servants drifting at the edges, who seem to be little more than a nuisance. It’s a dated precedent, but one worth opening up the discussion of Wakefield’s work with, simply to show his modern twinge and blind spots. For, from these everyday elements, there come far more interesting things: Wakefield’s modernity in setting and scenario.

MODERN SPIRITS

In trying to find a summation of Wakefield’s stories, the best template I could find was in highlighting their likeness to the darker films of Ealing Studios, notably its chief portmanteau horror Dead of Night (1945). With an array of short segments of varying quality, they all explore that same Edwardian world; from club performers to tweed-wearing upper middle-class in cottages. If that film’s own particular golfing segment, featuring the equally Wakefieldian Charters and Caldecott, represents the lesser aspect of his work, then its incredibly effective final story —involving a cursed ventriloquist’s doll— captures the atmosphere of Wakefield’s better work. There’s little doubt that, despite some passing resemblances to M.R. James’ stories, Wakefield’s are almost defiantly more modern. His worlds have little in common with the fusty, hallowed realms of James’ scholarly dons, with Lovecraft’s ancient evils or with Machen’s excavated eeriness. Wakefield is even postmodern in regards to his relationship with James, referencing his stories overtly several times, including in my volume’s “Nurse’s Story,” which has the following exchange between a young child and a nurse:

‘”And you read too many of those ghost books. That James, he gives me the creeps!”

“Oh, I love them, Nurse; especially, “Oh whistle and I’ll come to you!”’

In a number of stories, Wakefield’s modernism manifests uniquely in the presence of that most dreaded of Jamesian elements: sex. As James wrote in one introduction to a volume of ghost stories, he found writers who brought sex into ghost stories frustrating. ‘They drag in sex, too,’ he wrote, ‘which is a fatal mistake; sex is tiresome enough in novels; in a ghost story, or as the backbone of a ghost story, I have no patience with it.’ This may also explain why James was so cautious in regards to praising Wakefield’s work. In the same introduction, he suggested of Wakefield and They Return at Evening that he ‘gives us a mixed bag, from which I would remove one or two that leave a nasty taste. Among the residue are some very admirable pieces.’ It’s impossible not to understand what James is really talking about here, slipping into the exact same tactile language that Wakefield’s more affair-filled, quietly seductive stories use. We know what that residue is.

In “Mr Ash’s Studio,” the narrative is almost sleazy. A writer —of ghost stories, of course— rents a studio in which is housed the painting of a woman regularly covered in bizarre red moths that attack on sight. It turns out later that Mr. Ash, the partying artist and previous owner of the studio, was eventually betrayed by the woman in the portrait, who married another man in Surrey. Scandal is suggested as far worse a manifestation than demonic insects. Equally, many stories have some elements of sexuality: affairs are rife and middle-class; tense and simmering like David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). Women are sometimes presented as the femmes fatales of noir novels; glamorous but deadly, proportioned to the male gaze but ultimately to its detriment. Wakefield’s modern acceptance of melodramatic sexuality adds as much of a slight edge to his stories as anything else.

ORDINARY DREAD

Nor was Wakefield confined to this urbane and modern form of horror. He also ventured into more typical old worlds that other writers of his stripe inhabited. In “The First Sheath” (1940), the strangeness resides in the almost clichéd, tradition-ridden English village where, as one of the story’s narrators suggests, ‘there are maypoles, of all indecorous symbols, and beating the bounds, a particularly interesting survival with, originally, a dual function; first they beat the bounds to scare the devils out, and then they beat the small boys that their tears might propitiate the Rain Goddess.’ It’s almost the norm for this form of weird fiction to, at some point, paint villages as housing secrets, cults and violence; so much so that Wakefield’s stories in this vein, while accomplished, are hardly essential or new. (It’s a form that really should be left for history, such is its overuse even today.)

It’s Wakefield’s unusual, modern domesticity that frames him best. “The Cairn,” for example, follows a pair of interlopers looking to climb a semi-fictionalised escarpment in the Lake District. Despite the locals warning against climbing it when snow is scattered on its terrain —due in part to some unnamed and suspect creature reminiscent of Maupassant’s Horla— an unfortunate climb does take place. But rather than getting straight to the action or taking time on place and setting —a common feature of the form— Wakefield spends more time building the character of the naïve climbers. The main one, Pat Seebright, ‘made an easy £10,000 a year in his father’s stock-broker’s firm.’ His life is laid out to the reader in all of its tedious detail, yet the effect is wonderful. Pat’s climbing partner is less successful but, interestingly, Wakefield implies an amorous relation between them, expressed in part by having the pair fall in love with the same woman as a substitute. The modern lives of these city slickers aren’t merely an excuse for their naivety, but often take up the sort of detailed space that’s usually reserved for malicious history, ancient folklore and local superstition. Wakefield finds the modern everyday just as interesting and as suffused with curious detail.

In many of the stories I’ve read, he doesn’t even contend with such rural settings, affirming his horror in what could be called urban folklore. In “Used Car,” an old American car turns out to be imported from Chicago and the final resting place of several gangsters and a double-crossing floozy. The upper-class family of buyers and their driver begin to replay history, lapsing through time warps into the final moments of murder, feeling as if they are being choked. Outside of self-published ‘real’ ghost story volumes, the closest thing I’ve come across to this outlandish but effective story is in hearsay, regarding the missing Nigel Kneale episode of the BBC science-fiction anthology series Out of the Unknown. “The Chopper” (1971), as Kneale called it, was haunted —and an unfortunate Patrick Troughton contended with the spirits of the bike’s previous rider. That, however, was in the early 1970s, when such modern quirks had fully established themselves; commonplace items and accoutrements of day-to-day life then normalised enough to be deployed in stranger fictions.

Wakefield wrote “Used Car” in the early 1930s, before cars were so dominant in public life. It shows, to my eye at least, that he had a unique understanding of stranger day-to-day aspects, and how new technology had the overt potential to slip into the weird and the terrifying. There are few writers of the post-war years who, because of this, do not owe Wakefield in some way for his Victorian —even Dickensian— capacity for being terrified and questioning of the cursed machinery that popped up in the twentieth century, to be lapped up with increasingly misplaced affection.

SALVAGING THE ASHES

So, what to make of Wakefield’s legacy? Though for a time mentioned alongside the writers he admired —even put on a par with them, and suggested as being the successor to their devilish and enjoyable evils— his stories are in far less standing now. Even writers specialising in exhuming these types of forgotten figures have referred negatively to his work for its seeming mediocrity, often unfairly so. Perhaps there’s something uniquely eccentric in his stories that doesn’t translate well.

Wakefield’s characters are often artists or writers, and the way they are characterised evokes images of Bloomsbury sets and earlier pre-war bohemia. In his noted classic, “The Red Lodge,” an artist takes his family away to help with his work, only to succumb to strange visions and hauntings. The creative process is painful to Wakefield. The sheer amount of stories involving the publishing industry and struggling writers is too long to list. Yet this is when Wakefield is at his most biting and witty. In “The Red Hand,” for example, we follow a writer in first person as he returns to the draft of an incomplete ghost story. The way the story is constructed is almost a dramatisation of a real-time edit, far more experimental in quality than other ghost stories of the period. It’s only when the dreaded red hand of his narrative finally breaks from his page onto ours that the strangeness of the story becomes truly apparent.

Wakefield can’t help but allow his criticism of the industry to come through, reminding us he was the man who burned as much evidence as possible of his own life. Of course, some does still exist, including the occasional photograph. ‘He had a conscience. In his dirty little way he was an artist. But never would he write again…’ as he writes in “The Red Hand.” His honesty is almost too sharp to bear. Reading my old volume of Ghost Stories around October, I once again pictured the burning face in Wakefield’s photographs behind the grating of a fireplace. Sometimes it’s best to honour the wishes of writers and accept their wish for disappearance. In Wakefield’s case, I can’t help but instinctively stretch out a hand in reflex toward the fire and grab a clump of those still-warm, smouldering ashes of work and life; hoping to maybe conjure in a circle of words the standing of a lost, sometimes flawed, but ultimately innovative writer of pleasing terrors.


Adam Scovell is a writer and filmmaker from Merseyside now based in London. He completed his PhD in Music at Goldsmiths in 2108. He has written for the BFI, The Times, Financial Times, Little White Lies, and the BBC, among many other outlets. In 2017, his first book Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange was published by Auteur and University of Columbia Press. In 2019, his first novel Mothlight was published by Influx Press. His latest novel, How Pale The Winter Has Made Us, was published this year by Influx Press.