blogger and podcast host Jose Cruz and commenter John both tipped me off to the existence of Hartley's horror fiction, each recommending a different story -- Jose offered up "W.S." and John went with "Podolo" -- which was enough for me to get on the case.
This time, I did something that I'd like to do before writing about any author with whom I was previously unfamiliar, which was I went ahead and familiarized myself with him, to the extent I could, with all the other reading I had to do. The truth is, any time I find myself writing a post the introductory paragraphs of which can be summarized as "I don't know much about this person, but I read two short stories so I'm now qualified to say the following..." I feel like kind of an ass. With this project this is sometimes unavoidable, but there's a certain amount of what I call "being a poser" here. But I committed myself to reading Hartley early enough that I was able to at least read The Go-Between, and while this post isn't going to be about that novel, let me tell you, it's pretty terrific. It is, in fact, one of the finest novels of any kind I've read this year. It's about a twelve-year-old boy, whose middle-aged self is narrating the events, and the summer he spent at the impressive country home among the family of one of his school friends, falls in love with his friend's older sister, who, along with her lover, use the boy as a pawn/messenger to facilitate their affair. This is ultimately disastrous, and while the sister (who is engaged to a viscount) and her lover (a farmer who lives nearby) do have a great deal of affection for the boy, but they're also selfish and a bit stupid. As is the boy, seeing as he's twelve. Anyway, it's a wonderful, suspenseful, funny, devastating novel, superbly controlled and about as sharp about childhood emotions, and childhood in general, as anything I've read outside of Dickens. And interestingly, Hartley's interest in the macabre, or the occult, isn't completely absent from The Go-Between. Not that the novel could be mistaken for a horror or Gothic story by any means, but the boy does consider himself, in his youthful ignorance and innocence, as something of an occultist and magician, based on how he once dealt with a couple of bullies, or thought he did, not considering the influence of coincidence on the whole situation. There's a bit more, too, and my point is only that knowing that Hartley attacked this sort of material much more directly elsewhere, I found that element in The Go-Between rather interesting.
So what about those macabre stories, anyhow? They're excellent, is what. I read three -- the two recommended by Jose and John and oneother -- and very much wish I could have found the time to read more. The three I went with are rather short, for one thing, and it would have been great to be able to get around to at least one that, as far as number of pages goes, has a bit more heft, such as "The Killing Bottle" or "The Cotillon" or "The Traveling Grave." Still, the titles I went with did end up offering a gratifying variety and intriguing range of horror fiction ideas.
To begin with, there's "W.S.", which I get the sense is one of Hartley's more famous horror stories. It begins like this:
The first postcard came from Forfar. 'I thought you might like a picture of Forfar,' it said. 'You have always been so interested in Scotland, andthatisonereason why I am interestedin you. I have enjoyed all your books, but do you really get to grips with people? I doubt it. Try to think of this as a handshake from your devoted admirer, W.S.'
The person who received this postcard is a novelist named Walter Streeter. Several more postcards will arrive in the course of this story, and passive-aggressive criticism of the notes will increase to the point that they become actually, though vaguely, threatening. Discover who is sending these postcards and how dangerous this person actually is takes up the bulk of this story, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the bulk of the story is taken up by wondering about it. Streeter takes practical measures along these lines, but never any extraordinary ones, and it's clear early on that the answers will come when the man or woman behind the postcards chooses to show himself. Which will be soon enough, as each postcard is sent from a location that is geographically closer to Streeter than the last one.
The fact that the postcards are signed "W.S.", and these initials are shared by Walter Streeter, will not be lost on anyone reading this story, and Hartley doesn't expect it to be. In fact, he deals with it, in that Streeter notices and considers the possible psychological implications, on the story's second page. So it's in the air the whole time, without the reader being annoyed that Hartley is trying clumsily to pull a fast one. What's most unusual about "W.S." is how important Streeter as a writer is to this whole situation. The person stalking him loads each postcard with obnoxiously coy literary criticism, but we're in no position to consider if he or she has a point. Streeter is, however, and he takes it seriously. Among the questions he's forced to ask himself are how complacent he's become towards the creation of his characters, and even the moral implications of the creation of some kinds of villainy within his fiction. As the horror of "W.S." comes to a boil, it also becomes a furious rebuke by a writer to...let's say, a kind of petulant criticism that lacks self-awareness. Let's say that.
Next I read "Three, or Four, for Dinner." Set in Venice, it's about two Englishman, Dickie and Philip, who, as the story opens, are drinking -- Dickie much more heavily than Philip -- in preparation for taking a gondola across the canal to meet with an Italian gentleman neither of them have met, but who, through another party, they've been assured can get them into some interesting places generally closed off to, or simply completely unknown by, most tourists. This isn't leading where you might think -- Count Giacomelli, the somewhat mysterious Italian gentleman, is not going to lead these two unwary men into some hideous secret Venice underground full of sexual violence or illegal hideous creature boxing matches or whatever. This story is something else entirely.
On the way across the canal, Dickie notices something strange floating in the canal. This turns out to be a corpse, which the two men haul on board, despite the protests of the gondolier. Once ashore, there's nothing much left for Dickie and Philip to do about the dead man, so they leave him to the Italian gawkers and gondoliers, who leave the body wrapped and propped up inside the gondola landing stage. While waiting -- and drinking -- in the restaurant for their increasingly late Italian dinner guest, Dickie has an idea for a prank on their serving boy:
'Listen,' said Dickie, in a thick, excited undertone. 'Wouldn't it be a lark if we sent this lad down to the gondolaand told him to ask the chap that's resting inside to come and dine with us?'
'A charming idea, Dickie, but I doubt whether they understand practical jokes in this country.'
'Nonsense, Phil, that's a joke that anyone could understand. Now, put on your thinking-cap and find the appropriate words. I'm no good; you must do it.'
'We don't want to be four at dinner,do we? I'm sure the Count wouldn't like havingto sit down with a -- a drowned rat.'
'That's absurd; he may be a man of excellentfamily; it's generally the rich who commit suicide.'
'We don't know that he did.'
'No, but all that's beide the point. Now just tell this boy to run down to the jetty, or whatever it's called, give our message and bring us back the answer. It won't take him ten minutes. I'll give him five lire to soothe his shattered nerves.'
So this they do, and the boy comes back to inform him that the gentleman will be happy to join them.
"Three, or Four, for Dinner" is a fairly delightful story. It's creepy, but lightly so. It's really not so much a horror story as it is a ghost story, which might sound like I'm saying "It's not a sandwich, it's a hoagie," but I've said before that of all the horror subgenres, the ghost story is the only one where the supernatural element can be benevolent, or at least not malevolent, and it can be this while keeping within tradition, rather than by consciously upending everything. Ghost stories, curiously, are able to achieve a level of uneasiness simply by putting a ghost in the room. You can't do that with a vampire. You can't have one guy say to another guy "I'm a vampire. Bleh!" and then not do anything else, and still expect your readers to feel a chill run up their spines. The writer of ghost stories can somehow manage this, and Hartley does so brilliantly, and very classically. However, this is not necessarily what I would call the primary draw of "Three, or Four, for Dinner." The primary draw is Dickie and Philip, their conversation, their drinking, Dickie's somewhat charming Ugly Englishman-isms, and how Hartley depicts their evening, particularly the bored conversation of two men waiting for a third who refuses to show up, which in this case moves the plot along. It's great as a story first, and almost only tangentially as a ghost story. But it's great either way.
Finally we have "Podolo." The shortest of the three stories I read for today, it actually pairs off nicely, but also not without some discord, with "Three, or Four, for Dinner." "Podolo" is also set in and around Venice, and I like to think its events occur within no more than a day or two of those depicted in "Three, or Four, for Dinner." The discord comes from the fact that "Podolo" is a good deal darker and more disturbing than that other Venice-set story. It's about a man, our narrator, who is taking his friend Angela on a day-trip expedition to a little island called Podolo (in this way, the story also pairs off well with Stephen King's "The Dune," though the pairing doesn't do King any favors). Angela's husband can't accompany them, and the exact relationship between the narrator and Angela isn't entirely clear, though I think a simple friendship is all that can be inferred. Anyhow, the narrator's motives for choosing Podolo, the island, as the destination for their day out are unclear. It was his idea, and he knows Angela has already romanticized the place sight unseen, but he wonders what her reaction will be to Podolo's "inhospitable shore littered with broken bottles and empty tins." But they go, and when they get there -- by Gondola, rowed by a man named Mario -- the first thing Angela sees is a starving cat. She immediately showers the poor animal with pity, though we eventually will have reason to find her pity disingenuous when her attempts to feed and catch the animal -- presumably to save it -- are met with feline outrage, Angela proclaims that she will try to catch and save it one more time, and, failing that, she will smash it to death with a rock. For its own good, you see.
Added to this bizarre hunt, which neither our narrator nor Mario want anything to do with, is the island itself, a cold and forbidding place, made more so by nightfall, and environment both the narrator and Mario wake to after having dozed, for some time, during Angela's weird and sinister cat hunt. When they awake (the narrator, from a disturbing dream), Angela hasn't returned, and Mario sees a dark figure that he's positive is not Angela moving about Podolo. Worried for Angela's safety, the two men go after her. For the rest, you can read it for yourself, but I will say that in this case Hartley is writing yet a third kind of macabre story. This is the kind that depicts certain events clearly while leaving them inexplicable, and the whole sequence of events, from the narrator choosing Podolo as a destination, to Angela's strange and uncomfortable obsession with the cat, to the dream, to what happens on the island (and what happened to Angela?), left me with an overall sense of "Podolo" as an evil little vignette whose message, if you want to call it that, is that some terrible things might happen to you for no reason. This is perhaps my favorite kind of horror story, as the best of them create an environment of terror and strangeness and wickedness within the world as we know it. Turn the wrong corner, or cross the wrong canal, or any canal at the wrong spot, and you're in a horror story, and perhaps the reason none of us believe it's actually possible is because nobody who experiences it is able to come back and tell us.
Anyway. L. P. Hartley's one of my new obsessions.