Reputation is fleeting. During his lifetime Hugh Walpole (1884-1941) stood high among the most popular writers in the English-speaking world and was particularly esteemed for his generational saga, “The Herries Chronicles.” From the start his books were greatly admired, so much so that the fledgling author was taken under the wing of no less than the master himself, Henry James. Gregarious and immensely likable, Walpole eventually counted Joseph Conrad, Arnold Bennett and, a bit later, Bennett’s sometime critic Virginia Woolf among his good friends. During several lecture tours of the United States, he regularly drew the kind of crowds that, in an earlier generation, had come to hear Charles Dickens.
Nowadays, though, Walpole’s fiction gluts the shelves of used bookshops, and he is largely remembered — if at all — for three reasons, each of which would have surprised him. In his lifetime, he provided the model for the social-climbing Alroy Kear, who is mercilessly satirized in Somerset Maugham’s witty masterpiece “Cakes and Ale.” Then after his death, he became the subject of Rupert Hart-Davis’s exceptionally entertaining “Hugh Walpole,” subtitled in one reprint: “a remarkable portrait of a man, an epoch and a society.” From it we learn that Walpole worked for the British propaganda office in Russia at the time of the 1917 revolution and that in 1925, at Bayreuth — where he’d gone to hear his former protege Lauritz Melchior sing in “Parsifal” — he shared a box with a weeping, rather down-at-the-heels Wagnerite named Adolf Hitler: They met several times and even dined together. Having just now reread Hart-Davis’s book after many years, I still rank it among the best literary biographies of the 20th century.
But what is the third reason that Walpole is remembered, at least by some? Quite simply, he produced a small handful of superior psychological shockers and ghostly tales. As John Howard notes in his introduction to the Valancourt reissue of “All Souls’ Night,” Walpole was a master of mood, uncanny atmosphere and the quietly chilling vignette. His stories are carried along, too, by an exceptionally easygoing and seductive narrative voice, what the costive Henry James described as his acolyte’s enviable “flow.”
First published in 1933, “All Souls’ Night” collects most, but not all, of Walpole’s supernatural short fiction. It opens with “The Whistle,” a wonderful tear-jerker about a servant and his mystical bond with a powerful dog, proceeds to “The Silver Mask,” in which middle-aged Sonia Herries finds her settled life overturned by a devilishly handsome but insidious young man (who is more than a little reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s talented Mr. Ripley), and then follows that conte cruel with the much-anthologized shape-shifter story “Tarnhelm” and two ghostly tales about wives who come back from the dead: “Mrs. Lunt” and “The Snow.” All these are excellent and “The Silver Mask” an absolute masterpiece, so eerily inexorable in its development that it should be as famous as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
Many of Walpole’s stories do feel distinctly autobiographical. The protagonist or narrator is often an author, sometimes he is looking for an “ideal friend” — Walpole himself was gay — and sometimes the plot reflects the jealousies and psychological complexities attendant on the literary life. Walpole was obviously obsessed with the price of success. “Mrs. Lunt” starts this way:
“ ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ I asked Runciman. I had to ask him this very platitudinous question more because he was so difficult a man to spend an hour with than for any other reason. You know his books, perhaps, or more probably you don’t know them — ‘The Running Man,’ ‘The Elm Tree,’ and ‘Crystal and Candlelight.’ . . . Such men do fine work, are made but little of in their own day, and perhaps fifty years after their death are rediscovered by some digging critic and become a sort of cult with a new generation.”
That hinted-at anxiety about literary merit grows even more overt in “The Tarn,” included in “Tarnhelm: The Best Supernatural Stories of Hugh Walpole” (from Britain’s Tartarus Press). Two writers have known each other since their youth, but while one, Foster, has become a celebrated writer, the other, Fenwick, has fallen into obscurity. Walpole tells the story from Fenwick’s point of view, probing a hatred that has festered over many decades, ever since Foster’s novel “The Circus” stole the glory that should have gone, in Fenwick’s opinion, to his own overlooked masterpiece, “The Bitter Aloe.” But at last, here in the lonely Lake District, retribution is at hand. Some bonds, however, prove indissoluble.
Not all of Walpole’s “weirds” are horrifying or macabre. For instance, “Mr. Huffam, A Christmas Story” — found in the Tartarus collection — offers a sentimental variation on “The Silver Mask.” This time the mysterious stranger who invades an upper-class household charms everyone with his exuberance, love of life and genial storytelling powers:
“And, as Mr. Huffam told these things, all these people lived before your eyes, the pompous mistress with her ear-trumpet, the cook’s husband who had a wooden leg, the second footman who was in love with a pastrycook’s daughter. The house of the young page-boy took on life, and all the furniture in it, the tables and chairs, the beds and looking-glasses, everything down to the very red woolen muffler that the footman wore in bed, because he was subject to colds in his neck.”
Mr. Huffam, as the reader soon guesses, once bore another and far more famous name.
Although Walpole is hardly in the Dickens class, his tales are always smoothly, reliably enjoyable. That’s not meant to sound like faint praise. Start reading “The Little Ghost” or “Major Wilbraham,” and after just a few sentences you will find yourself relaxing into the story, as you might into an Adirondack chair or Pawleys Island hammock. This may not sound like much until you remember: Summer Is Coming.
Michael Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and is the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”
More by Michael Dirda:
A Book of Stories
By Hugh Walpole
Valancourt. 226 pp. Paperback, $16.99
The Best Supernatural Stories of Hugh Walpole
Chosen and introduced by George Gorniak
Tartarus. 363 pp. £35 (roughly $52)