Wednesday, 26 April 2017

All Souls' Night ~ Hugh Walpole

Sir Hugh Seymour Walpole (1884~1941) was a New Zealand–born British novelist, critic, and dramatist. He was educated at King’s School, Canterbury, then at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he studied history. He was one of the most popular and prolific writers of the first half of the 20th Century, and he was close friends with Virginia Woolf, Henry James and A. C. Benson. He worked on films in Hollywood for a time, and even had a bit part as the vicar in the 1935 production of David Copperfield. He has, however, been rather neglected since his death.

All Souls' Night was published in 1933 by Macmillan and Co. It contains: 'The Whistle', 'The Silver Mask', 'The Stair-case', 'A Carnation for an Old Man', 'Tarnhelm; or, The Death of my Uncle Robert', 'Mr. Oddy', 'Seashore Macabre. A Moment's Experience', 'Lilac', 'The Oldest Talland', 'The Little Ghost', 'Mrs. Lunt', 'Sentimental but True', 'Portrait in Shadow', 'The Snow', 'The Ruby Glass', and 'Spanish Dusk'.

'The Whistle' is a poignant tale about the almost mystical relationship between an unfulfilled chauffeur and an unwanted Alsatian dog. 

In 'The Silver Mask', lonely, middle-aged spinster Sonia Herries finds her usually predictable life knocked entirely out of whack by the persistent attentions of a handsome but insidious young man. This is a wonderfully sinister tale.

'The Staircase' is told from the perspective of a small, and immensely insightful, Tudor manor house. If there's one thing that a house cannot abide it is to be shabbily treated, so it has always disliked its current ruler, Henrietta Candil, a sly, greedy, selfish woman for whom saving money is a sensual passion. And a house can only stand by and watch the doings of a selfish and interfering human being for so long; it must eventually act. A wonderful story, and a warning to all who treat their homes badly. This is one of my favourite tales.

In 'A Carnation for an Old Man', elderly Richard Herries, 'one of the loneliest souls in Christendom', is travelling in Spain with his sister Margaret and their friend Miss Felstead. Usually content to submit to the will of his sister, he has become rebellious and discontented and begins slipping out to explore Seville on his own.

'Tarnhelm; or, The Death of my Uncle Robert' is the most well-known tale of the collection. In it, a young boy is sent to Faildyke Hall to spend Christmas with two uncles, one of whom is nice while the other, Robert, is very odd indeed. Usually prohibited from entering the Grey Tower, where Uncle Robert resides, the boy is one day invited in and told the story of Tarnhelm, a magical skull-cap that can transform its wearer into any animal he wishes to become.

In 'Mr. Oddy', young writer Tommy Brown belongs to the kind of literary set for whom everything old is out of favour. But Tommy's tastes aren't entirely fashionable, and during a visit to a bookshop he encounters a mysterious elderly gentleman called Alfred Oddy and the two strike up a friendship.

In 'Seashore Macabre. A Moment's Experience', a young boy, on a visit to Seascale with his family, comes to regret following a wicked-looking old man.

In 'Lilac', Frederick Anstey, having popped the question, almost drives himself to distraction as he waits to know if his beloved Lily Brocket will agree to marry him.

'The Oldest Talland' is an old lady of mythical age, who has ruled her family with absolute tyranny since time began. Despite the fact that she is unable to speak, nobody has ever dared challenge the ancient despot. That is, until Mrs Comber comes to call, giving the old lady's daughter the opportunity to seize control of the household.

In 'The Little Ghost', a journalist is haunted by the loss of a very dear friend. In an attempt to overcome his grief, he decides to visit Glebeshire, where he is haunted by an actual ghost, as much in need of comfort and companionship as the protagonist himself.

In 'Mrs. Lunt', Runciman regrets agreeing to spend Christmas in Cornwall with Robert Lunt, a fellow writer, from the moment he sets foot inside his house. Lunt is eager to please and cannot do enough for his guest, but there is something not quite right about both the man and his household. I'll say no more.

'Sentimental but True' involves the same Mrs Comber who appeared in 'The Oldest Talland', and it too is set in the fishing village of Rafiel. Like 'The Whistle', it is a tale about the bond between an unwanted dog and an unfulfilled and lonely human being. The location, Rafiel, seemed so familiar to me that I was sure I knew it. I did some checking, and it turns out that I do. Rafiel is in fact based on the lovely fishing village of Polperro in Cornwall, which Walpole does a fantastic job of portraying. Mrs Talland provided a clue, as there is a Talland Hill in Polperro (very steep it is too!). I holidayed there as a child, and Hugh Walpole rented a cottage there from 1913 to 1921.

In 'Portrait in Shadow', 'K' and his aunt, who is a mere five years his senior, travel to Spain together for a holiday. There, they encounter the charming Ramón Quintero, which is how the trouble all begins.  

In 'The Snow', the second Mrs Ryder simply doesn't measure up to the first, and very much dead, Mrs Ryder's expectations of what a good wife should be. 

In 'The Ruby Glass', eight-year-old Jeremy Cole's life is disrupted by the arrival of his Poor Cousin Jane. Even his dog, Hamlet, abandons him in favour of the newcomer. If there is an odd one out in this collection, then this is it. That's not to say that it's not a good story; it's simply very different from the others.

'Spanish Dusk' is a tale of unrequited love during a young man's first visit to Spain with his father.

'All Souls' Night' is one of my favourite collections. Walpole proves that you don't need a ghost to make a story creepy, and that human beings are entirely capable of tormenting each other without the need for supernatural intervention. His stories may not always be frightening, but they are always extremely well written and very enjoyable. Settling down with this book is like cuddling up to an old friend, albeit a sometimes creepy one.

A fine copy of All Souls' Night, with its dust jacket, costs about £100 ($150) at the moment. Copies usually turn up in less than fine condition, lacking the dust jacket.

Last year, Valancourt Books published a paperback edition (shown on left), with an introduction by John Howard, and that is available for £11.99. Valancourt Books also published an excellent audiobook version