Thursday, February 18, 2010
THE BEST GHOST STORIES OF H. RUSSELL WAKEFIELD
Sorry for the long break. I've had a wild month...work pressures, the death of an aunt, and the back-to-back blizzards that hit the DC area that caused the work pressures to get even worse. And I'm reading a lot of random stuff that doesn't quite qualify for this blog, and doing some other writing here and there.
So...anyway...getting back to Wakefield.
This collection, from Academy Chicago, is a great sampling of Wakefield, and far better than the collection I reviewed earlier. It's got a brief biographical note at the beginning, and samples work from various stages of Wakefield's career.
It opens with his first published story, "The Red House," which is reportedly based on a real-life haunting. It's basically a chronicle of a family that rents the titular house, only to slowly fall prey to the ghosts that haunt it. This story pretty much sets forth a lot of Wakefield's themes...the supernatural that is not easily categorized and understood, and that is rarely defeated. Often, in Wakefield's stories, the supernatural evils win at the end, or else the main characters are lucky to escape with their lives. The ending of "The Red Lodge" is a great, memorable thump that will linger in the reader's mind. It's no surprise this is regarded as his best work and is frequently anthologized.
"He Cometh and He Passeth By" is a kissing cousin to M. R. James' classic "Casting the Runes," both of which have a central character locked in a black-magic struggle with a Crowleyesque figure. This time, it's the oddly-named Oscar Clinton, who has a habit of using sorcery to kill anyone who gets in his way, even in minor ways. The main weakness in reading this today is that Wakefield's either too prudish or too snobbish to really hint that much at Clinton's depradations. He takes drugs, and at one point makes an offhand remark about how his practices may require him to "sleep with a Negress." The shock! The horror! Is that as far as it goes? I guess perhaps that would have been disturbing at one point, but not anymore. Of course, he's dealt with using the same principles as how M. R. James dealt with his Karswell, and it's hard not to see the inspiration.
"Professor Pownall's Oversight" is a rather average tale of ghostly revenge...until the closing pages which put an entirely different aspect on it and give it a nice ambiguity that's rather inventive. Next is a longtime favorite of mine, "The Seventeenth Hole at Duncaster." The manager of a seaside golf course deals with a series of gruesome deaths at the newly-developed seventeenth hole, that may be the result of an ancient evil that's been disturbed. A touch I really liked is how the main character has dreams that announce the deaths...he hears a tolling bell, then an evil voice announcing, "Sacred to the name of Cyril Ward, who screamed once in Blood Wood," and then is followed by "a discordant chorus of vile and bestial laughter." No reason is given for the premonitions, they just happen, which I found to be marvelously unsettling. (I first read this decades ago, in an Arkham House anthology entitled WHO KNOCKS?, and illustrated by Lee Brown Coye.)
The next two, "Look Up There" and "Blind Man's Buff," both cover haunted-house territory. Again, it's never specified what's haunting these houses, or why. They're simply haunted by something incredibly evil that you simply need to stay away from, period. "Look Up There" tells us a tale as a flashback from a traumatized survivor of a ghostly holocaust in an evil mansion. "Blind Man's Buff" is basically the arrogant citified owner of a country house being confronted by the forces that inhabit it.
"Day-Dream in Macedon" is a wartime tale of psychic visions and presentiments. "Damp Sheets" demonstrates Wakefield starting to sink into a pattern, a nasty person being the victim of ghostly revenge; in this case, a ruthless woman who murdered her husband's wealthy uncle.
"A Black Solitude" is a return to haunted-mansion territory, but is a cut above because Wakefield gives his narrator real personality. Told by a staffer for a nouveau riche businessman, managing the stately home he purchased, it's a usual tale of a haunted room, with hints of black magic practiced in ages past. And interestingly, it includes another Crowleyesque figure, although this time actually well-meaning and sympathetic. It's resolved a bit too quickly but also throws in some wartime realities that give it a bit of oomph.
"The Triumph of Death" is quite nasty, in which a malignant woman tortures her servant by forcing her to deal with the ghosts in her house...but there's no real motivation other that just hatefulness. "A Kink in Space-Time" is a variation on the doppelganger formula, and "The Gorge of the Churels" is a Wakefield rarity, an almost charming, Kiplingesque story of Brits in India who take a native servant along to mind their child while on a picnic in a haunted location. And, of course, it's the Wise Native and the Ignorant Imperialists, but ends happily. It's also rare for having a supernatural force that's clearly defined and understood.
"Immortal Bird" is more supernatural revenge, but interestingly presented as diary entries from a man who might have committed murder...or else the ghost thinks he did. Or else he's just going insane. The last story, "Death of a Bumble-Bee," is also probably the last story Wakefield ever wrote. One of the few undestroyed stories found after his death, it's really not very good. The wife of a wealthy publisher is having visions of a ticking bomb under her house. Is it the curse of a man whom she rejected? Or is she aware of an unexploded bomb from the war, forgotten under the house? Does it matter? Far too much of it is spent on mundane details of her comings and goings that it's hard to get caught up in it.
But, overall, this is a good sampling of Wakefield's work, and truly is some of his best stuff. It's out of print, but keep an eye open for it.