August Heat, Books, Coincidence, Death, Destiny, E. F. Benson, Edward Frederic Benson, Feminism, Ghost Story, Ghosts, Ghosts and Jossers, History, Literary criticism, Premonition, Premonitory Tales, Rapunzel, The Devil, The Great War, The Room in the Tower, Vampire, W. F. Harvey, William Fryer Harvey
In 1910, four years after the publication of both E. F. Benson’s “The Bus-Conductor” and Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wood of the Dead,” the young Quaker author William Fryer Harvey would offer the world the latest advance in premonitory fiction: “August Heat,” which is not only the most eye-catching story in Harvey’s maiden volume of short fiction, Midnight House and Other Tales, but which amounts to one of the most original and powerful premonitory tales ever to be written. The narrators of “The Bus-Conductor” and “The Wood of the Dead” linger over philosophical distinctions, regarding their premonitions as little jumping flashes which throw more light over greater, obscured spiritual truths, but “August Heat” is more brutal in both conception and execution, even if its blinding report goes up in a blank puff of smoke.
Befitting a story which is set mostly in a stonemason’s yard, “August Heat” is written with the deft, graceful exactness of words chiselled on a gravestone. This narrative straightforwardness seems to be agreeably modern for 1910, arriving a little before authors such as Saki and Hemingway would earn reputations for severity at the expense of the perceived fussiness and wooliness of the old Victorian fiction. Yet just as the stonemason Mr. Atkinson is simultaneously mindful of the “latest little things” in his trade and a practitioner of traditional craftsmanship, “August Heat” is, for all its novelty, a work of old-fashioned storytelling. Anything modern to the story is qualified by that little drop of the seventeenth century which spreads throughout Harvey’s fiction, that musty, fruity aroma of burning witches and Quaker lore.
In “August Heat,” the artist Withencroft sits down and proceeds to “let my mind wander in the hope that I might chance upon some subject for my pencil,” until he finds himself sketching the features of an unfamiliar man who is apparently condemned to death. Several neighbourhoods away, the stonemason Atkinson has plucked a random name out of the air to inscribe upon a gravestone which will be entered for an “exhibition.” If the first coincidence of the story is that Withencroft and Atkinson respectively happen upon the other’s likeness and name, the second is that they accidentally meet and acquaint each other of the fact.
Withencroft observes that the gravestone in question accurately records his own date of birth, and this sheds a rather ominous light upon the stated date of his death – the day of the story! Furthermore, he has arrived in the yard of a mason whose execution he would have only accurately foretold in the unlikely event of this man being convicted of, say, a murder. Although their foretold doom is seemingly interrelated, Atkinson invites Withencroft to shelter in his home for the remainder of the day of his advertised demise, as departing the yard would increase the “chance of accidents.” We wave off this pair an hour before midnight, leaving them to a “stifling” heat which is “enough to drive a man mad.”
Remarking on the construction of ghost stories in 1924, M. R. James would note that, “It is not amiss sometimes to leave a loophole for a natural explanation; but, I would say, let the loophole be so narrow as not to be practicable.” Harvey has indeed allowed us the possibility of dismissing Withencroft’s experience as a hallucination, or as a sort of mirage which is generated by the August heat. The day should be cooling when Withencroft abandons his room at four, but his account of wandering the streets not “fully conscious” and with “the vaguest recollection of where I went” impresses us with a hazy sense of midday heatstroke.
But this loophole is so narrow as not to be practicable, and a rational explanation of Withencroft’s experience is paradoxically dependent upon an imaginative leap rather than any empirical observation. If one accepts the truth of Withencroft’s narrative, for want of any other means of interpreting it, then it seems that the forces which have intervened in both men’s lives, to spin elaborate and arresting coincidences, are not so much warning of a looming disaster as contriving one. Atkinson’s execution for the murder of Withencroft is apparently preordained, but the forces which are supposed to bring about such an event have been sleeping on the job, and they now have to play catch up.
There is less than a day to go, and neither man knows of the other’s existence. When the pair are finally brought together, the meeting turns out to be friendly rather than murderous. Yet, despite these setbacks, when Withencroft is presented with his own gravestone and potential murderer, he is so tantalised at staring death in the face that he is unable to flee from Atkinson, and the intervening forces have only to wait for the emergence of the mutual suspicion and fear which are necessary to produce the disaster.
“August” can mean “majestic” or “supreme,” and the heat is sovereign in this story, oppressing both men with a sense of overwhelming and inescapable power. If the two men are besieged by a similarly awesome supernatural tyranny, then they merely need to remain friends and they cannot come to harm. Yet this impromptu solidarity will demand a greater sacrifice on Atkinson’s part. He concedes that the more explicit foretelling of Withencroft’s death requires that the artist should be sheltered in his own home, even if this renders his own associated doom increasingly likely.
It is a pleasant irony that eight years after the publication of “August Heat,” Harvey himself risked his life by performing emergency surgery upon a man trapped aboard a rapidly-sinking battleship. Harvey was subsequently overcome by oil fumes, and his lungs incurred lasting and eventually fatal damage. As in “August Heat,” the lives and deaths of two strangers were destined to be powerfully interconnected, but Harvey’s story at least ended with him getting a medal for gallantry.
The premonitions in “August Heat” are not mechanically transmitted on electromagnetic waves from the future, in the same way that Benson would define supernatural visions as a sort of wireless telegraphy (although the premonitions in his own fiction are rarely innocent); and neither do they merely deliver the sort of prank or stunt, the playful flaunting of otherworldly power, to which Lord Dufferin was subjected in the famous anecdote which relates his escape from the plummeting steam elevator. In “August Heat,” the intervening forces are openly hostile and as mad as Lovecraft’s alien gods. Yet such forces are game enough to pose a fair challenge, and one which tests the characters’ solidarity. Withencroft’s otherwise carefully written narrative ends on a wild note, conceivably announcing the moment when his hitherto stoical ego cracks. We have to trust in the sturdy Atkinson to keep his head if any premonitions are to remain unfulfilled.
THE ROOM IN THE TOWER.
E. F. Benson’s “The Room in the Tower” (1912) is an odd literary hybrid, which explores the possibilities of the premonitory tale within the context of traditional Gothic horror. The narrator relates a recurring dream in which he attends a tea party at the country house of a distant friend, Jack Stone. The dream always concludes with Jack’s mother uttering the words, “Jack will show you your room: I have given you the room in the tower,” before the narrator is delivered to the room in question and he awakens in terror. The narrator experiences the same dream “quite as often as once a month” over a period of fifteen years, during which the characters “got regularly older” and “death and marriage visited this silent family,” until Mrs Stone’s refrain finally issues from a graveyard at the bottom of the garden.
The narrator eventually visits the home of a friend, which turns out to be the very house which is featured in his dream. It transpires that this property had previously belonged to the Stone family. Yet whereas the narrator was observant and apprehensive throughout his dream, once in the shadow of the tower he demonstrates a curious suspension of disbelief, so that “the room in the tower had absolutely no alarm for me… I went to bed, feeling very sleepy and heavy…” In an agreeable irony, the narrator awakens within his nightmare, rather than waking safely from its terrors, to find his bed in the room which he has hitherto only dreamt about. The nightmare can finally conclude for good, and it does so with the arrival of the late Mrs Stone, who is now a ravenous vampire. We consequently learn that she had committed suicide in the room in the tower.
Although it serves very well as a warning of disaster, the premonitory dream is actually a sort of summons to an unwanted romantic tryst. “I knew you would come to the room in the tower,” Mrs Stone enthuses. “I have been long waiting for you. At last you have come. Tonight I shall feast; before long we will feast together.” One may imagine that she has passed years in this tower brooding over the narrator, waiting for his arrival, and bombarding him with invitations to her most intimate chamber through his dreams, until her passion became so agonisingly unrequited that even death could not kill it. If the origins of this passion seem obscure, it should be remembered that the narrator was once the young Stone’s “schoolfellow” and, presumably, although he can no longer remember it, he must have at some point attracted the attention of Stone’s mother, who had then hankered after his luscious teenaged body throughout all of the successive years.
The narrator’s horror at being reacquainted with Mrs Stone most obviously recalls that of the Prince from the antique folk tale “Rapunzel”(which was anthologised by the Grimms in 1812), who climbs to the room in Rapunzel’s tower expecting to meet his beloved, only to encounter the vengeful enchantress Mother Gothel. In the ascent to his own room, the narrator may be as enchanted by the magic of his premonitory dream as the Prince had been captivated by Rapunzel’ song, but in this retelling of the story, the figures of the witch and the maiden are conflated into a monstrous vampiric force, of indiscriminate and blinding femininity. This story will not conclude with a comforting maiden, who mends the Prince’s wounds with her tears. Instead the narrator and his friend John – who at the narrator’s first cry is suspiciously eager to come “running upstairs” to help him – end up naked together, both unmanned and stripped to a childish terror in their flight from the geriatric vampire’s comatose body.
A feminist eye would no doubt discern great significance in the closeting of a hungry female within a lonely room, until her desire could only be released in the world of dreams. The desire unleashed within the narrator’s dreams is not only speedily repressed, but it did not even belong to him in the first place. Meek men will not inherit the Earth: the desiring woman is repeatedly and unsuccessfully buried, and there is no indication that this story concerns a valedictory appearance. Mrs Stone’s “secretly” exhumed coffin is found to be “full of blood,” but the narrator is unable to specify whether the party performed the rituals necessary to lay her to rest. Perhaps she remains unrepressed, forever summoning him to the room in the tower.
GHOSTS AND JOSSERS.
One must wait for A. J. Alan to step up to the microphone before we encounter a premonitory tale which is as fine as either “August Heat” or “The Room in the Tower.” Harvey and Benson would both on occasion resort to the premonition as a plot device in their subsequent fiction: Harvey would portray premonitions sparingly and carefully; whilst Benson’s usage of such a device was lazy and slightly cynical. In stories such as “Corstophine” (1928) and “The Bed by the Window” (1929) Benson leaves one with a sense – which one never acquires from Blackwood, James, or Harvey – of being fobbed off with mutton dressed as lamb. Yet although neither Benson nor Harvey would accomplish anything as original as these first two stories, they would both continue to submit notable premonitory tales.
Benson’s delightfully eerie “Caterpillars” (1912) numbers amongst his best stories, whilst both “Between the Lights” (1912) and “The Face” (1924) are recognisable but still very worthy variations upon “The Room in the Tower,” and they complement it rather like the side panels of a triptych. On Harvey’s part, “Peter Levisham” (1928) is a solid but undistinguished premonitory tale, whilst “Six to Six-Thirty” (1928) succeeds both despite and because of being set entirely in a single room over the space of half an hour. This is perhaps a unique premonitory tale, as the warning may have no supernatural origin, but it may have arisen merely from the strategic timing of the protagonist’s would-be murderers, in phoning for a doctor before they had killed him, presumably in order to muddy the waters for any subsequently investigating authorities.
The Great War hangs over two of Benson’s later premonitory tales – “Through” (1917) and “In the Tube” (1922) – which are apparently intended to fortify any faith in spiritualism which may have flagged somewhat after the nation’s encounter with mass destruction. The spiritualist humbugs in “Through” (1917) successfully warn Margaret Forsyth that her country house is due to be destroyed in a Zeppelin strike, by unexpectedly channelling (hence the title) the spirit of her dead brother Denys. Benson penned several similar pieces – fairytales in which banal and fraudulent spiritualists turn out to have real psychic powers – but “Through” only leads the modern reader to wonder why they should care about the salvation of an aristocratic housewife a few months after 1.5 million men had perished at the Somme. Presumably, however, war-shattered readers were supposed to be heartened by the possibility of dialogue with the recently deceased.
The same cheery message is laid on even more thickly by Anthony Carling, the hero of “In the Tube” (1922), who compensates for his failure to act upon a premonition of Sir Henry Payle’s death (because he may have simply “put the idea into his mind, or, of it was already there, confirm it and strengthen it…”), by instead setting his powers of supernatural perception to the good use of delivering a message of remorse from the dead man to his estranged wife (but, a little ungallantly, not to Sir Henry’s later and more beloved mistress).
Harvey reflects upon the Great War with much greater success in “Ghosts and Jossers,” (1928) in which three little boys unknowingly meet the Devil in a tower called Gander’s Folly. They agree to play the parlour game “Ghosts and Jossers,” in which players are forced to unwittingly spell out obscure words; the boys each lose their “lives” by spelling out the names of faraway places; and, once the stranger has departed, one of the boys idly writes “our names… and the places that did us in” on the wall of the Folly. The revelation of the places may prove more of a curse than a warning, but, needless to say, they are all the sites of future battles in the Great War, and, with the pun resounding, the “Folly” now stands as a premonitory war memorial. The innocence of the children, with their yelp of “Good Old England!,” renders this a story of indescribable sadness. Unlike the spirits in Benson’s tales, these children have had their day, and it would conclude with “ham and eggs and buckets of tea.”
Whilst Benson had demanded that we interest ourselves in the salvation of aristocrats, these boys scoff that the Devil figure may have been a “bishop in mufti” or a “bloated capitalist.” Part of the innocence of “Ghosts and Jossers” lies in the quaintness of its premise: if everybody who died in the Great War had really forfeited their life playing a spelling game with the Devil, then such a personalised destiny would have nevertheless remained a gentler and altogether less diabolical prospect than the war’s industrialised slaughter. But one of the finer and sadder ironies of this tale is that, for all of the séances and ghostly appearances and spiritual warnings which had enlivened Edwardian fiction, nobody had seen the Great War coming.