The Man Who Could Work Miracles, The Supernatural Tales of H.G. Wells
The Triumph of Night and Other Tales by Edith Wharton
Tarnhelm by Hugh Walpole
The long winter evenings we’re experiencing (at least in the northern hemisphere) are perfect for reading – or re-reading – some of the classic authors of supernatural and macabre tales. The four authors I’m recommending for your fireside entertainment are better known for their mainstream writing, but all penned a substantial number of supernatural stories. Some of them are among the best ever written.
Dipping first into our large purple volume The Collected Macabre Stories of L.P. Hartley (Tartarus Press 2005), reminds me of researching Hartley’s substantial oeuvre of short stories and realising that I had found an author – well known outside the supernatural genre for his perfectly realised novel of English Edwardian childhood, The Go-Between (1953) – who was no dilettante in our area of interest. Hartley was one of the first to introduce a strong psychological element to his macabre stories, and he is also one of those rare writers who can use a rather sardonic sense of humour to good effect (see ‘The Travelling Grave’ and ‘The Killing Bottle’). But he also took the traditions of the ghost story very seriously, calling it ‘if not the highest . . . certainly the most exacting form of literary art’. Stories such as the extraordinary ‘The Pylon’ and ‘The Crossways’ amply demonstrate Hartley’s range and versatility, and I am convinced that this collection represents one of the most impressive achievements of twentieth-century macabre fiction.
That remarkable polymath H.G. Wells was another English writer who more than dabbled in the supernatural. Admired by Jeorg Luis Borges, Wells’ shorter speculative works range from the borders of science fiction (‘The Plattner Story’, in which a fourth dimension is conceived as a realm of the dead), to the boundaries of outright horror, as in ‘The Strange Orchid’, and to the frontiers of fantasy in ‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles’. ‘The Door in the Wall’ is a perfectly conceived and faultlessly executed exercise in a character’s desperate longing for a once-glimpsed paradise. In Wells’ work, genres soon come to mean very little. He had an immensely creative imagination, and is arguably at his best when conceiving an unusual idea and following it through to its end.
Among her many literary achievements, U.S. writer Edith Wharton was the first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize (for her mainstream novel The Age of Innocence) in 1921. She also wrote an impressive body of supernatural short stories, many of which were collected together in the last year of her life in Ghosts (1937). Like Walter de la Mare and her friend Henry James, she is adept at evoking uncannily convincing atmospheres and characters. Her story ‘Afterward’ is a model of craftsmanship and skilful characterisation. E.F. Bleiler has described Ghosts as a ‘landmark volume in supernatural fiction’. Our Tartarus volume Triumph of the Night (2008), adds several more stories to those collected together in the earlier book.
Hugh Walpole had a deep and abiding interest in the supernatural and consistently incorporated macabre, mystical and supernatural elements in his work throughout his writing career. Like L.P. Hartley, his supernatural stories exhibit a markedly modern understanding of the psychological, and it is this that allows his more traditional ghost stories, such as ‘The Little Ghost’ and ‘Mrs Lunt’, to retain their power. Our raison d’être as publishers can be said to rest on his view that: ‘ . . . the creator who relies more upon the inference behind the fact than upon the fact itself, more upon the dream than the actual business, more upon the intangible world of poetry than upon the actual world of concrete evidence, this kind of creator will come into his kingdom again.’