More about H. Russell Wakefield

22 Jun

H. Russell Wakefield (1888-1964) is one author whose work has been pretty well overlooked, despite the fact that he is a fine and accomplished writer of supernatural horror stories “some of which rank alongside those of M..R. James, with whom he is sometimes compared,” as one critic noted.

During his lifetime Wakefield published some seven collections of stories, stories that are largely about “vengeful ghosts.” The last collection he published was called “Strayers from Sheol.” It appeared
in 1961 and it bears the imprint of Arkham House. Since then other compilations of his published and unpublished work have appeared, but none of these collection are complete in any way.

Indeed, three unpublished stories of interest and quality have turned up. They are comfortable, old-fashioned ghost stories, with just the right mixture of four ingredients: atmosphere, character, mystery, and
fear. Here are a few words about these three newly discovered stories.

“Blowing a Black Solitude” has the great period feel of the interwar years when Great Britain was still a force to be reckoned with. It is narrated by the private secretary of a publisher (Wakefield himself served in that capacity to the press baron Lord Northcliffe) who is invited to spend time at the publisher’s country home. Here he discovers that there is a room that no one enters. Indeed, in the past, no one ever slept in the same room twice. On the first opportunity to present itself, the narrator enters the room and is struck with the sense that “one was being observed by someone unseen.” Indeed, this proves to be the case, so rather than issue a Spoiler Warning, I will simply say that there are thrills and chills aplenty when someone does spend a night in the dark room. (For all that, I cannot resist quoting one short passage in which the narrator
concludes: “One cannot defeat Death, but one can become what is loosely called an Evil Spirit, a focus for the concentration of destructive energy, and, in that limited sense, Undying.”)

“A Crystal Pause” is one of those stories that is doubly interesting because it is inextricably tied to an incident or an event. The double interest of this story lives in the personality of the impressionable
narrator who visits old Eton College and in the event that occurs to him there that had to do with the Great War. Suffice it to say that this story should be read (and reread) on the eleventh of November, the day society honours its War Dead … who may not be quite as dead as we assume them to be. Not always are things (recalling the title of this atmospheric story) “crystal clear.”

“A Meeting off the Manacles.” The casual conversation that takes place amid the deck chairs on the promenade deck of an ocean-going vessel leads to unexpected revelations and consequences in this substantial and engrossing story, rich in characterization and in its glimpses of high society. What happens aboard the Melpomene is for the reader to discover for himself or herself. All I will say is that one of the
passengers avoid the vessel is a Professor and he has this to say: “There are a myriad things in the Cosmos that are, and for ever will be, inexplicable.” (Along the way the narrator explains what “the Manacles” – and they are crucial to the story and to its final, six-word sentence.

Three unusual – and hitherto unpublished – stories from the typewriter of the master ghost-story teller: — H. Russell Wakefield. — John Robert Colombo


3 responses to “More about H. Russell Wakefield

  1. Christopher Roden

    July 5, 2010 at 11:32 am

    It is absurd to comment that ‘none of these collection [sic] are complete in any way’ because, of course, they are complete in as much as they are either (1) as originally published or (2) enhanced by additional stories which were never collected in Wakefield’s lifetime. It is equally absurd to comment that Wakefield’s work has been ‘pretty well overlooked’: Richard Dalby led the revival of interest in Wakefield’s work with his BEST GHOST STORIES OF H. RUSSELL WAKEFIELD (John Murray, 1978), and a reprint series of all of Wakefield’s known short stories was undertaken by Ash-Tree Press from 1995 onwards. That series not only reprinted the non-supernatural tales included in IMAGINE A MAN IN A BOX, it also incorporated all the previously uncollected Wakefield stories which had appeared in magazines or anthologies.

    When SEVENTEEN previously unknown and unpublished Wakefield stories were unearthed by Peter Ruber in the Arkham House files, they were published by Ash-Tree Press as the collection REUNION AT DAWN. With the addition of this volume, Ash-Tree had therefore published every Wakefield story known of at that time.

    The unearthing of a further three stories by Wakefield is, of course, of great interest, but to belittle the work of others by heralding the importance of the find is really nothing other than insulting. And, of course, until Wakefield aficionados are given the opportunity to read and assess the stories for themselves, the opinion of one or two people involved in the find are really of little import.

  2. John Robert Colombo

    July 6, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    Response to Christopher Roden:

    There is no complete collection of Wakefield’s stories in existence, and no omnibus volume of his collected stories will ever be complete. Ground-breaking scholary work on his oeuvre has yet to be attempted, none the less accomplished.

    If you read only pulp or popular literature you may think Wakefield is a name to conjure with, but anyone who reads “The New York Times Book Review” and “The Times Literary Supplement” will draw a blank when his name is mentioned. Where are the mainstream publishers who have issued collections or selections of his fiction?

    Every discovery of his new work is to be hailed. “And, of course, until Wakefield aficionados are given the opportunity to read and assess the stories for themselves, the opinion of one or two people involved in the find are really of little import.” I have quoted this passage with disbelief, and wonder if it could have emanated from the computer of Christopher Roden who usually shows better judgement.



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