Sunday, March 03, 2024

Classic Ghost Story Writers: L. P. Hartley

Joseph Losey, dir.: The Go-Between (1971)
[writ. Harold Pinter / adapted from the 1953 novel by L. P. Hartley]

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

This, the opening line of The Go-Between, is certainly L. P. Hartley's most commonly quoted phrase - though it does closely resemble an expression first used by his friend Lord David Cecil in his inaugural lecture as Goldsmiths' Professor in 1949:
Past periods are like foreign countries: regions inhabited by men of like passions to our own, but with different customs and codes of behaviour.
The Fine Art of Reading (1957)

L. P. Hartley (1895-1972)

Amongst all his other achievements as a novelist and man of letters, Hartley is perhaps not so well known as the author of some of the most effective ghost stories of the twentieth century.

Which are the best among them? Well, "A Visitor from Down Under" certainly takes pride of place. "The Travelling Grave" runs it a close second, though. What else? "Podolo", certainly - possibly "Feet Foremost", also.

You'll note that all of these are quite early stories, written, though not necessarily collected, before the Second World War, after which his energies turned decisively towards establishing himself as a novelist of manners, somewhat in the vein of Aldous Huxley or Henry James.

So what is it that makes this handful of stories so outstanding?

L. P. Hartley: A Visitor from Down Under (1926)

Let's start with "A Visitor from Down Under".

The protagonist of the story, Mr. Rumbold, has sat down in the lounge of his hotel to have an apéritif before dinner. After a while, he realises he can hear a voice - "A cultivated voice, perhaps too cultivated, slightly husky, yet careful and precise in its enunciation" - coming from the wall above his head:
‘ . . . A Children’s Party,’ the voice announced in an even, neutral tone, nicely balanced between approval and distaste, between enthusiasm and boredom; ‘six little girls and six little’ (a faint lift in the voice, expressive of tolerant surprise) ‘boys. The Broadcasting Company has invited them to tea, and they are anxious that you should share some of their fun.’ (At the last word the voice became completely colourless.) ‘I must tell you that they have had tea, and enjoyed it, didn’t you, children?’ (A cry of ‘Yes,’ muffled and timid, greeted this leading question.) ‘We should have liked you to hear our table-talk, but there wasn’t much of it, we were so busy eating.’ For a moment the voice identified itself with the children. ‘But we can tell you what we ate. Now, Percy, tell us what you had.’
Obviously a voice on the radio, obviously from some kind of children's hour broadcast. So far, so banal. But as it continues, things begin to seem just a little bit ... off:
A piping little voice recited a long list of comestibles; like the children in the treacle-well, thought Rumbold, Percy must have been, or soon would be, very ill. A few others volunteered the items of their repast. ‘So you see,’ said the voice, ‘we have not done so badly. And now we are going to have crackers, and afterwards’ (the voice hesitated and seemed to dissociate itself from the words) ‘Children’s Games.’ There was an impressive pause, broken by the muttered exhortation of a little girl. ‘Don’t cry, Philip, it won’t hurt you.’ Fugitive sparks and snaps of sound followed; more like a fire being kindled, thought Rumbold, than crackers. A murmur of voices pierced the fusillade. ‘What have you got, Alec, what have you got?’ ‘I’ve got a cannon.’ ‘Give it to me.’ ‘No.’ ‘Well, lend it to me.’ ‘What do you want it for?’ ‘I want to shoot Jimmy.’
After that the games begin. After "Ring-a-Ring of Roses", it's "Oranges and Lemons", with its sinister refrain:
Here is a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!
A child screamed, and there was silence.
"Mr. Rumbold felt quite upset, and great was his relief when, after a few more half-hearted rounds of ‘Oranges and Lemons,’ the Voice announced, ‘Here We Come Gathering Nuts and May.’ At least there was nothing sinister in that."
The game began afresh. This time there was an eager ring in the children’s voices: two tried antagonists were going to meet: it would be a battle of giants. The chant throbbed into a war-cry.
Who will you have for your Nuts and May,
Nuts and May, Nuts and May;
Who will you have for your Nuts and May
On a cold and frosty morning?
They would have Victor Rumbold for Nuts and May, Victor Rumbold, Victor Rumbold: and from the vindictiveness in their voices they might have meant to have had his blood, too.
And who will you send to fetch him away,
Fetch him away, fetch him away;
Who will you send to fetch him away
On a cold and frosty morning?
Like a clarion call, a shout of defiance, came the reply:
We’ll send Jimmy Hagberd to fetch him away,
Fetch him away, fetch him away;
We’ll send Jimmy Hagberd to fetch him away
On a wet and foggy evening.
I think by now we can tell that it's all up with Mr. Victor Rumbold. Whatever it is that he's been getting up to down under, Jimmy Hagberd's coming to deal with him. And, when the visitor finally arrives at the hotel:
‘... take this message to Mr. Rumbold,’ said the stranger. ‘Say, “Would he rather that I went up to him, or that he came down to me?” ’
It doesn't make much difference in the end.

There are, to be sure, many such stories of nemesis being visited upon some smug fraudster, but it's the incidental details - such as the fact that the visitor comes to Mr. Rumbold on the top of a London bus, and finds considerable difficulty in paying his fare - which singles it out from the others:
‘Look here, now. Where do you want this ticket? In your button-hole?’

‘Put it here,’ said the passenger.

‘Where?’ asked the conductor. ‘You aren’t a blooming letter-rack.’

‘Where the penny was,’ replied the passenger. ‘Between my fingers.’

The conductor felt reluctant, he did not know why, to oblige the passenger in this. The rigidity of the hand disconcerted him: it was stiff, he supposed, or perhaps paralysed. And since he had been standing on the top his own hands were none too warm. The ticket doubled up and grew limp under his repeated efforts to push it in. He bent lower, for he was a good-hearted fellow, and using both hands, one above and one below, he slid the ticket into its bony slot.
That radio broadcast, steadily getting stranger and stranger, is the real prize of the piece, however. The person who wrote that had some personal demons, I would say, or at any rate found little difficulty in conjuring up such things.

Hermione Lee: Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (2014)

Penelope Fitzgerald, before she took to writing fiction, spent quite a number of years researching a biography of L. P. Hartley. She'd already written a book about her father and three eccentric uncles, The Knox Brothers (1977), as well as a life of the poet Charlotte Mew.

The L. P. Hartley book remained still-born, however, which is a bit of a shame. There are many respects in which she might have been the ideal commentator on the immense oddity of both his inner and outer lives.

It's an open secret that the intense brother-and-sister relationship which is the principal subject of his Eustace and Hilda trilogy is based on his own feelings about his domineering older sister Enid. He was 49 before he dared to publish it, and it made him famous. When he followed it a few years later with The Go-Between, W. H. Auden told Hartley that he was his favourite novelist.

Not everyone was so enthusiastic about his work. After the publication of his first long fiction Simonetta Perkins (1925), Virginia Woolf asked him, "Have you written any more shabby books, Mr. Hartley?" referring to it as "one that might have been written by a man with one foot in England and the other in Venice".

Poveglia (Venice)

The second story I've chosen to discuss is one which nicely illustrates the problems associated with being "a man with one foot in England and the other in Venice." It's called "Podolo," and is set on a small island in the Venetian lagoon. So far as I can tell, there is no island called "Podolo", but there's certainly one called "Poveglia" (pictured above):
For more than 100 years, beginning in 1776, the island was used as a quarantine station for those suffering the plague and other diseases, and later as a mental hospital. The mental hospital closed in 1968, and the island has been vacant ever since ...
Visits to the island are prohibited, but various books and articles report on visits by writers and/or photographers. Believers in the paranormal have claimed that Poveglia is the most haunted island, or the most haunted place in the world.
- Wikipedia: Poveglia
What, then, of the story itself? It begins with some lighthearted plans for a visit to the island by the narrator, his friend Angela, and her husband Walter. Walter cries off, as he has business in Trieste, so the other two set off for their picnic together.
The sunlight sparkled on the water; the gondola, in its best array, glowed and glittered. ‘Say good-bye to Angela for me,’ cried Walter as the gondolier braced himself for the first stroke. ‘And what is your postal address at Podolo?’ ‘Full fathom five,’ I called out, but I don’t think my reply reached him.
There are already some ominous undertones in this sunny opening. There's clearly something going on between the narrator and Angela, right under Walter's nose, and getting her away to a deserted spot seems more than a trifle devious on his part. As for their destination:
Until you get right up to Podolo you can form no estimate of its size. There is nothing near by to compare it with. On the horizon it looks like a foot-rule. Even now, though I have been there many times, I cannot say whether it is a hundred yards long or two hundred. But I have no wish to go back and make certain.
The trouble begins shortly after they reach the island. Angela spots a mangy little stray cat, and is determined to catch it and bring it back with them. After a few unavailing attempts to seize it, after luring to her with food, she changes her approach:
‘I tell you what,’ Angela said suddenly, ‘if I can’t catch it I’ll kill it. It’s only a question of dropping one of these boulders on it. I could do it quite easily.’ She disclosed her plan to Mario [the gondolier], who was horror-struck. His code was different from hers. He did not mind the animal dying of slow starvation; that was in the course of nature. But deliberately to kill it! ‘Poveretto! It has done no one any harm,’ he exclaimed with indignation. But there was another reason, I suspected, for his attitude. Venice is overrun with cats, chiefly because it is considered unlucky to kill them. If they fall into the water and are drowned, so much the better, but woe betide whoever pushes them in.
Angela is unimpressed by Mario - and the narrator's - logic.
‘Let’s go and explore the island,’ she said, ‘until it’s time to bathe. The cat will have got over its fright and be hungry again by then, and I’m sure I shall be able to catch it. I promise I won’t murder it except as a last resource.’
I don't think I can say too much more without spoiling the story for you, but let's just say that the narrator dozes off after his meal, and Angela goes off exploring by herself. Their search for her, on the tiny, darkening island, is pretty perfunctory. Mainly because there appears to be someone - or something - else there.
We soon lost sight of each other in the darkness, but once or twice I heard Mario swearing as he scratched himself on the thorny acacias. My search was more successful than I expected. Right at the corner of the island, close to the water’s edge, I found one of Angela’s bathing shoes: she must have taken it off in a hurry for the button was torn away. A little later I made a rather grisly discovery. It was the cat, dead, with its head crushed. The pathetic little heap of fur would never suffer the pangs of hunger again. Angela had been as good as her word.
At this point, Mario rushes up, bundles him into the boat, and starts rowing frantically away from the island. Later on he explains:
‘When I found her,’ he whispered, ‘she wasn’t quite dead.’

I began to speak but he held up his hand.

‘She asked me to kill her.’

‘But, Mario!’

‘ “Before it comes back,” she said. And then she said, “It’s starving, too, and it won’t wait. ...” ’ Mario bent his head nearer but his voice was almost inaudible.

‘Speak up,’ I cried. The next moment I implored him to stop.

Mario clambered on to the poop.

‘You don’t want to go to the island now, signore?’

‘No, no. Straight home.’

I looked back. Transparent darkness covered the lagoon save for one shadow that stained the horizon black. Podolo. ...
Make of that what you will.

It's not that the plot of the story is so remarkable. Just as "A Visitor from Down Under" is a fairly standard vengeful revenant story, so "Podolo" is an account of what you fear might happen if you wander around some haunted old ruins at twilight. But in both cases it's the odd, outré details that count: In "A Visitor" it's the threatening radio broadcast, and in "Podolo" it's the joint, unspoken decision both men, the gondolier and her cavalier servente, make to leave Angela behind on the island.

She (it is implied) is the trouble-maker; she is the one who has insisted on hunting through all the crevices of the island for the small but viciously feral cat, despite Mario's warning that "It has been put here on purpose." And whatever she finds there is far beyond her powers, just as it turns out, unfortunately, to be equally beyond theirs.

It's a dark, rather nasty story, which leaves a bad taste in the mouth. But it's also an almost perfect illustration of M. R. James's doctrines on the best way to inculcate fear:
Let us be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.

L. P. Hartley: The Travelling Grave (2017)

I'd like to go on and analyse some more of his stories: "The Travelling Grave" itself, in particular, not to mention the haunted house story "Feet Foremost", but I hope that I've said enough to persuade you that L. P. Hartley was a haunted man, and therefore a haunted writer.

Not everyone can combine the two conditions, and his later work does not really maintain the fierce intensity of these early stories. His Complete Stories is a fascinating book, however: well worth reading from cover to cover by anyone who has the time or the inclination.

Though perhaps, as many of his stories imply, you'd better make time. The life you save may be your own. Even if it involves sacrificing a cat-killer - or (for that matter) a coffin-collector, or a few of their business associates - along the way ...

"Drawing on exclusive access to unpublished private papers, this is the first biography of novelist Leslie Poles Hartley, covering his life and work from his childhood at Fletton Tower, Peterborough, his relationship with his mother, his experiences in the Great War, his homes in Venice, Bath and London, and his struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality."

Henry Lamb: L. P. Hartley (1938)

Leslie Poles Hartley

Books I own are marked in bold:

  1. Simonetta Perkins (1925)
    • Included in: The Complete Short Stories of L. P. Hartley. Introduction by Lord David Cecil. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1973.
  2. The Shrimp and the Anemone. Eustace and Hilda Trilogy I (1944)
  3. The Sixth Heaven. Eustace and Hilda Trilogy II (1946)
  4. Eustace and Hilda. Eustace and Hilda Trilogy III (1947)
    • Included in: Eustace and Hilda: A Trilogy. ['The Shrimp and the Anemone,' 1944; 'The Sixth Heaven,' 1946; 'Eustace and Hilda,' 1947]. 1958. Introduction by Lord David Cecil. London: Faber, 1979.
  5. The Boat (1949)
  6. My Fellow Devils (1951)
  7. The Go-Between (1953)
    • The Go-Between. 1953. The Modern Novel Series. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1966.
  8. A Perfect Woman (1955)
  9. The Hireling (1957)
  10. Facial Justice (1960)
  11. The Brickfield (1964)
  12. The Betrayal (1966)
    • Included in: The Brickfield and The Betrayal. 1964 & 1966. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1973.
  13. Poor Clare (1968)
  14. The Love-Adept: A Variation on a Theme (1969)
  15. My Sisters' Keeper (1970)
  16. The Harness Room (1971)
  17. The Collections: A Novel (1972)
  18. The Will and the Way (1973)

  19. Stories:

    1. The Island (1924) [NF] [TG] [CSS] [CMS]
    2. Talent (1924) [NF]
    3. Night Fears (1924) [NF] [TG] [CSS] [CMS]
    4. The Telephone Call (1924) [NF]
    5. St. George and the Dragon (1924) [NF]
    6. Friends of the Bridegroom (1924) [NF]
    7. A Portrait (1924) [NF]
    8. A Sentimental Journey (1924) [NF]
    9. A Beautiful Character (1924) [NF]
    10. A Summons (1924) [NF] [WW] [CSS] [CMS]
    11. A Visit to the Dentist (1924) [NF]
    12. The New Prime Minister (1924) [NF]
    13. A Condition of Release (1924) [NF] [WW] [CSS]
    14. A Tonic (1924) [NF] [WW] [CSS]
    15. Witheling End (1924) [NF]
    16. Apples (1924) [NF] [WW] [CSS]
    17. The Last Time (1924) [NF]
    18. A Visitor from Down Under (1932) [KB] [TG] [CSS] [CMS]
    19. The Killing Bottle (1932) [KB] [TG] [CSS] [CMS]
    20. Conrad and the Dragon (1932) [KB] [TG] [CSS] [CMS]
    21. A Change of Ownership (1932) [KB] [TG] [CSS] [CMS]
    22. The Cotillon (1932) [KB] [TG] [CSS] [CMS]
    23. Feet Foremost (1932) [KB] [TG] [CSS] [CMS]
    24. Podolo (1948) [TG] [CSS] [CMS]
    25. Three, or Four, for Dinner (1948) [TG] [CSS] [CMS]
    26. The Travelling Grave (1948) [TG] [CSS] [CMS]
    27. The Thought (1948) [TG] [CSS] [CMS]
    28. The White Wand (1954) [WW] [CSS]
    29. Witheling End (1954) [WW] [CSS]
    30. Mr Blandfoot's Picture (1954) [WW] [CSS]
    31. A Rewarding Experience (1954) [WW] [CSS]
    32. W.S. (1954) [WW] [CSS] [CMS]
    33. The Vaynes (1954) [WW] [CSS] [CMS]
    34. Monkshood Manor (1954) [WW] [CSS] [CMS]
    35. Up the Garden Path (1954) [WW] [CSS]
    36. Hilda's Garden (1954) [WW] [CSS]
    37. The Price of the Absolute (1954) [WW] [CSS]
    38. Two for the River (1961) [TR] [CSS] [CMS]
    39. Someone in the Lift (1961) [TR] [CSS] [CMS]
    40. The Face (1961) [TR] [CSS] [CMS]
    41. The Corner Cupboard (1961) [TR] [CSS] [CMS]
    42. The Waits (1961) [TR] [CSS] [CMS]
    43. The Pampas Clump (1961) [TR] [CSS] [CMS]
    44. Won by a Fall (1961) [TR] [CSS]
    45. A Very Present Help (1961) [TR] [CSS]
    46. A High Dive (1961) [TR] [CSS]
    47. The Crossways (1961) [TR] [CSS] [CMS]
    48. Per Far L'Amore (1961) [TR] [CSS] [CMS]
    49. Interference (1961) [TR] [CSS] [CMS]
    50. Noughts and Crosses (1961) [TR] [CSS]
    51. The Pylon (1961) [TR] [CSS] [CMS]
    52. Mrs Carteret Receives (1971) [MCR] [CSS] [CMS]
    53. Paradise Paddock (1971) [MCR] [CSS] [CMS]
    54. Pains and Pleasures (1971) [MCR] [CSS] [CMS]
    55. Please Do Not Touch (1971) [MCR] [CSS] [CMS]
    56. Roman Charity (1971) [MCR] [CSS] [CMS]
    57. Home Sweet Home (1971) [MCR] [CSS] [CMS]
    58. The Shadow on the Wall (1971) [MCR] [CSS] [CMS]
    59. The Silver Clock (1971) [MCR] [CSS]
    60. Fall In at the Double (1971) [MCR] [CSS] [CMS]
    61. The Sound of Voices (2001) [CMS]
    62. Mrs G. G. (2001) [CMS]
    63. The Stain on the Chair (2001) [CMS]

    Short Story Collections:

  20. Night Fears (1924) [NF]
    1. The Island
    2. Talent
    3. Night Fears
    4. The Telephone Call
    5. St. George and the Dragon
    6. Friends of the Bridegroom
    7. A Portrait
    8. A Sentimental Journey
    9. A Beautiful Character
    10. A Summons
    11. A Visit to the Dentist
    12. The New Prime Minister
    13. A Condition of Release
    14. A Tonic
    15. Witheling End
    16. Apples
    17. The Last Time
  21. The Killing Bottle (1932) [KB]
    1. A Visitor from Down Under
    2. The Killing Bottle
    3. Conrad and the Dragon
    4. A Change of Ownership
    5. The Cotillon
    6. Feet Foremost
  22. The Travelling Grave and Other Stories (US 1948 / UK 1951) [TG]
    1. A Visitor from Down Under
    2. Podolo
    3. Three, or Four, for Dinner
    4. The Travelling Grave
    5. Feet Foremost
    6. The Cotillon
    7. A Change of Ownership
    8. The Thought
    9. Conrad and the Dragon
    10. The Island
    11. Night Fears
    12. The Killing Bottle
  23. The White Wand and Other Stories (1954) [WW]
    1. The White Wand
    2. Apples
    3. A Tonic
    4. A Condition of Release
    5. Witheling End
    6. Mr Blandfoot's Picture
    7. A Rewarding Experience
    8. W.S.
    9. The Vaynes
    10. Monkshood Manor
    11. Up the Garden Path
    12. Hilda's Garden
    13. A Summons
    14. The Price of the Absolute
  24. Two for the River (1961) [TR]
    1. Two for the River
    2. Someone in the Lift
    3. The Face
    4. The Corner Cupboard
    5. The Waits
    6. The Pampas Clump
    7. Won by a Fall
    8. A Very Present Help
    9. A High Dive
    10. The Crossways
    11. Per Far L'Amore
    12. Interference
    13. Noughts and Crosses
    14. The Pylon
  25. The Collected Short Stories of L. P. Hartley (1968)
  26. Mrs. Carteret Receives (1971) [MCR]
    1. Mrs Carteret Receives
    2. Paradise Paddock
    3. Pains and Pleasures
    4. Please Do Not Touch
    5. Roman Charity
    6. Home Sweet Home
    7. The Shadow on the Wall
    8. The Silver Clock
    9. Fall In at the Double
  27. The Complete Short Stories of L. P. Hartley (1973) [CSS]
    1. Simonetta Perkins (1925)
    2. The Travelling Grave and Other Stories (1951)
    3. The White Wand and Other Stories (1954)
    4. Two for the River (1961)
    5. Mrs. Carteret Receives (1971)]
    • The Complete Short Stories of L. P. Hartley. Introduction by Lord David Cecil. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1973.
  28. The Collected Macabre Stories (2001) [CMS]
      From the Introduction to Lady Cynthia Asquith’s Third Ghost Book
    1. A Visitor from Down Under
    2. Podolo
    3. Three, or Four, for Dinner
    4. The Travelling Grave
    5. Feet Foremost
    6. The Cotillon
    7. A Change of Ownership
    8. The Thought
    9. Conrad and the Dragon
    10. The Island
    11. Night Fears
    12. The Killing Bottle
    13. A Summons
    14. W.S.
    15. The Two Vaynes
    16. Monkshood Manor
    17. Two for the River
    18. Someone in the Lift
    19. The Face
    20. The Corner Cupboard
    21. The Waits
    22. The Pampas Clump
    23. The Crossways
    24. Per Far L'Amore
    25. Interference
    26. The Pylon
    27. Mrs Carteret Receives
    28. Fall In at the Double
    29. Paradise Paddock
    30. Roman Charity
    31. Pains and Pleasures
    32. Please Do Not Touch
    33. Home Sweet Home
    34. The Shadow on the Wall
    35. The Sound of Voices
    36. Mrs G. G.
    37. The Stain on the Chair

  29. Non-fiction:

  30. The Novelist's Responsibility (1967)

  31. Edited:

  32. Essays by Divers Hands. Volume XXXIV (1966)

L. P. Hartley: The Collected Macabre Stories (2001)

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