Someone was in the gallery. Someone had pulled the cord attached to one of the blinds, and it had rolled up with a snap. Someone must be in the gallery, for a second blind did the same. Someone must be walking round the gallery, for one after the other the blinds sprung up, letting in the moonlight.
In David Stuart Davies’ introduction to this collection of short horror stories by W.F. Harvey, he mentions that the author was one of a stalwart few amateur writers who followed the example of M.R. James in composing their spine-chillers in their spare time. Unfortunately they received the acclaim of James, whether in life or posthumously.
One of the great pleasures, to my mind, of reading is discovering a little-known book or author forgotten by the literary establishment. This particular edition of Harvey’s writings was published by Wordsworth Editions’ specialist imprint Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural. Like Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks, Wordsworth appears to be giving second life to book titles long unpublished, presenting them to a hopefully curious modern readership.
Take the example of the eponymous story. Contemporary readers with their memories of Charles Addams’ The Addams Family strips (and later television show and Barry Sonnenfield directed movies) would no doubt recall the image of a disembodied hand scampering around a house. Was ‘Thing’ inspired by Harvey’s story? From there we move on to Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead 2, where Bruce Campbell’s hero Ash finds himself in a situation equal parts comical and horrifying, re-enacting Three Stooges plate smashing routines with his own possessed hand. To this day ‘Give Me Back My Hand!’ still makes me chuckle.
Could these pop culture icons be descended from this little-known book? There’s a strong case to be made that they were.
As it happens The Beast with Five Fingers appears to take its own inspiration from the relatively modern curiosity of Braille reading. Eustace Borlsover witnesses his blind uncle practice automatic writing during their visits. As he watches, the twitching hand begins to address him in curious messages, hinting at a separate intelligence well versed in the Borlsover family history. When Eustace receives the embalmed hand of his uncle following his death, he is convinced something untoward has happened. Though the spidery writing that commanded this strange act be performed is identified as having being written by Adrian Borlsover, the request itself is macabre to be out of keeping with the gentle nature of his uncle. Then when the package arrives Eustace and his secretary Saunders are confounded to discover that the hand is still alive.
Despite the grotesque scenario, Harley averts the gaze of the reader during the more bleak passages, with the causes animated hand’s increasingly tattered appearance left to the imagination. The story itself carries off the feat of maintaining that the hand obeys physical laws, insisting that its abilities are explicable and not the result of pure supernaturalism. The final lines can be seen as either a mockery of this insistence on finding scientific laws beneath all phenomena, or a confirmation that our understanding of nature’s laws is simply too narrow.
My second favourite story within the collection is the fantastic The Habeas Corpus Club, which in common with the contemporaneous A House-Boat on the Styx by John Kendrick Bangs proposes an after-life for fictional characters. Harley distinguishes his tale by having the characters belong to a club for fictional murder victims, whose deaths provided the catalyst for the adventures of the protagonists. This short tale sets up the rules of this quasi-afterlife and then ends with a brilliantly comic final line. Definitely recommended.
Throughout this collection a studied formality is held to. Acts of extreme violence, or horror are lightly described and the heroes maintain their stiff-upper lip despite all adversity. Double Demon has a madman cheerfully accept his committal to an asylum; Across the Moors has a ghost describe the moment of his death simply as ‘lightning ran down my spine’.
I have often thought this approach to horror preferable to the overt gore of modern novels, as it not only leaves much to the imagination, but forces the writer to contend with a delicate suggestiveness, manipulating the mood of the reader in a far more subtle manner.
So consider Harvey to be an amateur of the original sort, someone who wrote for the pleasure of it, who elicits much pleasure from those that share his enthusiasm.