Books, E. F. Benson, Ghost Story, Ghosts, HMS Hazard, Literary criticism, M.R. James, Tartarus Press, The Beast With Five Fingers, The Double Eye, The Great War, The Short Story, W. F. Harvey, Weird Fiction, William Fryer Harvey
[The following was originally written for Tychy’s premonitory fiction series, but it ended up on the cutting room floor. Ed]
Although there is scant available biographical information about the Quaker author William Fryer Harvey (1885-1937), and one cannot pronounce with any certainty on his tastes and ambitions as a writer, it seems that he is commonly misclassified as a writer of supernatural fiction. The majority of his tales do not in fact concern the supernatural and some of his weakest efforts are ghost stories. Yet Harvey without doubt landed some good blows for ghostly fiction: “The Beast With Five Fingers” (1919) delivers a brash, jazzy riff upon Le Fanu’s popular classic “Narrative of the Ghost of a Hand” (1863); his later stories such as “The Ankardyne Pew” (1928) and “The Dabblers” (1928) are like skillful pastiches of M.R. James’ tales; whilst that great line from “The Clock” (1928) about “something hopping up the stairs, like a very big bird would hop” sounds like a detail from a better M. R. James story than many of those which James wrote himself.
If this have-a-go approach is perhaps a weakness to be anticipated in an amateur writer, it is one which is amply compensated by the creative freedoms which Harvey had secured through his detachment from the marketplace. Unlike E. F. Benson, who, despite his privileged background, converted himself into a one-man literary factory and was capable of churning out five books a year, Harvey published only ten books in his lifetime, and he accordingly avoided the monotony and deterioration of quality which blights Benson’s fiction.
However much it may dismay modern fans of his writing, Harvey, like James, laboured under the delusion that the world expected greater things of him than ghost stories, and he devoted his energies to medicine and the adult education movement, he served as a Royal Navy surgeon-lieutenant in the Great War, and he was decorated for gallantry in 1918 after performing an emergency amputation upon a man trapped aboard a stricken destroyer (his famous tale about a vengeful severed hand was, incidentally, published a year later.) Tychy can find no record of any torpedo-boat destroyers colliding on 28th June 1918, as the Admiralty reported in reference to Harvey’s medal, but the HMS Hazard went down off Portland Bill on the 28th January 1918 after colliding with the SS Western Australia, and the Admiralty may be alluding with understandable vagueness to this embarrassing disaster.
Although Harvey’s writing recalls James’ later whimsical and restless volumes, which seemed at pains to make every story distinct from the last, Harvey’s ambitions for short fiction are rather at loggerheads with the essentially formulaic construction of ghost stories, that growl of the assembly line which becomes increasingly audible behind Benson’s tales. Harvey may have agreed with James’ contention that the short story is not governed by “broad rules” but informed by “qualities which have been observed to accompany success,” and his own fiction experiments untiringly with narrative structures and offers many examples for one of James’ mind to observe. It may be unhelpful, in the final analysis, to consider Harvey within the tradition of the ghost story, and perhaps he is more at home in the company of writers such as Somerset Maugham and T. O. Beachcroft, who were ambitious for the future of the short story to an extent which may seem faintly alien to modern authors.
Unfortunately, however, Harvey is today championed only by specialists in supernatural fiction. Tartarus Press’ The Double Eye (2009) contains a good critical introduction by Richard Dalby and thirty two of Harvey’s tales, but Dalby had to classify Harvey as “a master of the inconclusive or psychological ghost story,” whilst Tartarus did not think that there was a market for more than 350 copies of their book. Yet The Double Eye was immediately topped by Wordsworth’s The Beast with Five Fingers, which featured a whole forty-five of Harvey’s stories and enjoyed such a print run that one was able to purchase it in Waterstones, although Wordsworth unforgivably excluded Harvey’s superb “Six to Six-Thirty” (1928) and one of his most powerful stories “Ghosts and Jossers” (1928).
Between them, Tartarus and Wordsworth leave a dozen tales unpublished, and there also remains some uncertainty over the numbers. Dalby alleges that Harvey wrote “sixty-four short stories” whilst the Wordsworth introduction mentions “four collections of stories,” but neither of these totals takes account of Harvey’s mysterious 1920 book The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby, which is marketed here as “a volume of connected short stories,” whilst a brief Spectator notice of 1920 describes its “exceedingly ingenious and diverting short stories.” Whatever is in this book nobody knows, but it is presently on sale for over two hundred pounds and the Tychy piggy bank is slowly filling. If I ever procure this volume, its contents will be published on Tychy.
[A detailed but only partial bibliography of Harvey’s short fiction is available here. Ed.]