I’ve been trying to keep up with my weird fiction reading while I’ve been working on my physics textbook, though it’s been pretty hard to read a major work considering I spend most of my evenings doing research for the text. Under these circumstances, a collection of short stories was the ideal solution, and I recently received Wordworth’s collection of the works of W.F. Harvey, entitled The Beast with Five Fingers, after its most well-known story:
It took a curious amount of time for me to receive my copy. Although it was listed as available on Amazon for nearly a year, the order was continually delayed and I only got the book a couple of months ago. Hopefully whatever issue they were having has been straightened out now.
The book blurb refers to Harvey as “an unjustly neglected author of supernatural tales”, which is technically true, but a little misleading: though he did write a significant number of supernatural stories, the bulk of his work is better described as mystery/murder stories. I found his work reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe and Roald Dahl; though he does not quite achieve the darkness and creepiness of those masters, there are a number of great stories and genuinely unsettling moments (as I was reading Harvey, I kept referring to him in my mind as “Roald Dahl-lite”).
William Fryer Harvey (1885-1937) was an English author from a wealthy Quaker family who earned several degrees in medicine and wrote fiction in his spare time. There is very little information about him online, mostly copied from Wikipedia. I managed to find his obituary in The British Medical Journal, Vol. 1, No. 3988 (Jun. 12, 1937), p. 1233, and I quote it below in its entirety:
We regret to announce the death on June 4 of Dr. William Fryer Harvey at the age of 52. From Bootham School, York, he went to Balliol College, Oxford, taking the M.A. in 1910, and the M.B., B.Ch. in 1917 after further medical study at Leeds. He had joined the Quaker train ing camp at Jordans in August, 1914, and went with the first detachment of the Friends Ambulance Unit to Flanders. On graduating in medicine he took a commission as temporary surgeon lieutenant R.N., and two days before the armistice was awarded the Albert medal for saving life at sea. This act of bravery was the risking of his life to operate on an engineer trapped in the wrecked and flooding engine room of a destroyer. Dr. Harvey was dragged out unconscious from the effect of oil fumes and never fully recovered from the strain. He acted for a time as Warden of the Fircroft Working Men’s College at Selly Oak, Birmingham, but had to abandon this owing to a breakdown of health. For some years he lived at Weybridge and devoted himself to literary work; in 1935 he moved to Letchworth.
The Friend’s Ambulance Unit was a volunteer ambulance service founded by Quakers that saw service in WWI and WWII. Dr. Harvey was a genuine war hero in his volunteer service, performing an emergency amputation to free a trapped engineer in a flooding destroyer. His heroism was costly, however, and caused permanent damage to his lungs. His writing career may have been bolstered by his ill health, and he produced four collections of stories: Midnight House (1910), The Beast with Five Fingers (1928), Moods and Tenses (1933), and Twelve Strange Cases (1951), the latter published posthumously. Much more information can be found in the excellent introduction to the Wordsworth edition. Another website suggests that Harvey was influenced at an early age by the writings of Edgar Allen Poe, an observation consistent with my own impressions. He also wrote a childhood memoir entitled We Were Seven (1936), which seems to have been well-received; from the Sydney Morning Herald, October 3, 1936,
At first sight, “We Were Seven” appears to be just another of those tiresome books of reminiscences of childhood in the Victorian era, commencing, as it does, with the first memory of father, and embellished as it is with album photographs of the seven in the ugly garments of the times. But there are two interesting peculiarities about this book: First, the author, Dr. William Fryer Harvey, has won his literary reputation as the writer of eerie stories; secondly, the family described — whether his own or not — was a Quaker family. From ghosts to Quakers and children at a bound! The book will probably be too quietist in tendency! But it is not. Against the somewhat dull background, Dr. Harvey makes all the little incidents of childhood exciting — nursery games, outdoor fun, school, holidays, birthdays, Christmas, and so on. He has also included many spirited crayon drawings by the autobiographer, which do more than pages of description to bring back the atmosphere of the family and the period.
Adults may do what they please, but children do not change. Their thoughts follow the same paths to-day as they did in the latter part of the last century. When Dr. Harvey describes the difficulties of young minds in making sense of certain scriptural phrases, or hymns, or lines of secular verse, he might be speaking of children of any age. When these seven discover a strange window in their large rambling house, and getting on the roof find a dim skylight to it, which shows a white form beneath, which must be the body of Mrs. —-, and then learn after all that it is the bath in the bathroom, what reader does not remember similar disappointments of his own adventurous childhood? The sole difference is that the modern child is “mechanically minded” and a little more practical.
I wonder if the tale of “the body of Mrs. —-” is an early indication of Harvey’s proclivity towards the macabre!
But what of the stories of W.F. Harvey? I found them all well-written and intriguing, though a number of them lacked significant “punch”. When he’s good, though, Harvey is quite good. His stories are a mixture of supernatural tales and more conventional psychological/murder tales, and a few stories that are delightfully ambiguous in their characterization. One of the charms of Harvey’s stories is that it is usually not possible to tell from the story’s introduction what kind of tale it will be!
His psychological stories are not typically as “nasty” as those of Roald Dahl and Edgar Allen Poe, but they are also typically much more subtle. There is rarely a conclusive denouement of the tale, only lingering suspicion that something truly horrible has happened and vague hints as to the nature of that horror. This is clearly intentional, and the lack of closure to the tales makes them that much more unsettling.
Of his supernatural stories, Harvey’s most famous is The Beast with Five Fingers. It is an undeniable classic, about a man who is tormented by the disembodied and animated hand of his deceased relative. If this sounds like a familiar idea, it should: it was the inspiration for the original movie The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) and the version remade by Oliver Stone, The Hand (1981), and probably Thing from The Addams Family and every other disembodied limb in horror (hmm… I sense an upcoming horror blog post). On a first reading, I found the story very weird — the main character responds very oddly to the presence of the animated hand, immediately going on a hunting expedition to capture it and seeming almost more annoyed than horrified! This reminded me, though, that Harvey’s imagined response is perhaps just as plausible than the generic horror movie “scream-and-run-away” response — we don’t actually know how someone might respond to unspeakable supernatural horror, after all! (I’ve often thought that Ash in Evil Dead II had the most believable response in any horror film.)
The Wordsworth collection is filled with many fascinating stories; a small sampling:
- August Heat. Harvey’s other famous supernatural tale. The protagonist dreams of a man sentenced to death for murder, and is drawn to find the man in real life. He finds that the man has been thinking of him too, and they meet on a day so hot that it is hard to think clearly…
- Mrs. Omerod. The narrator tries to help an elderly couple free themselves from the burden of their odious house-servant, Mrs. Omerod. The servant, however, is not without her own resources. This is a subtly nasty tale.
- The Dabblers. Three men discuss school children and the manner in which childish traditions get passed from the elder to the younger students. Their conversation leads them down a rather dark path.
- The Follower. An author, brainstorming new ideas, concocts a horror story about a reclusive scholar and his assistant who live nearby. An unexpected visit by said scholar ends the story idea, but raises many unsettling questions in its wake. The editor of the Wordsworth edition, D.S. Davies, notes of this story that “the perceptive reader will find [it] one of the most unnerving stories in the book.” I readily agree with this assessment.
- Dead of Night. Mr. Digby, member of the hospital board, ends up in his own hospital after a late-night accident. His trip teaches him more about the workings of the hospital than his years on the board, and more than he would have wanted to know.
- The Star. This one is a charming little anecdote about astronomers, the scientific process, and scientific rivalry. Being a scientist, I found it especially amusing.
The end of the Wordsworth collection consists of the complete collection of Twelve Strange Cases. “Cases” here refers not to criminal cases, but to medical cases — each tale is a doctor or nurse narrating an unsettling experience encountered in the course of performing their duties. These are perhaps my favorite stories of the entire collection, and quite a pleasant surprise; the plots here are more subtle and more twisted than Harvey’s earlier work (though one story, The Vicar’s Web, is a clear rewrite of his earlier Unwinding). I single out Atmospherics and Ripe for Development as tales that really show the twisted side of the human psyche.
One thing I found myself wondering while reading Harvey’s work is the influence his religious upbringing had upon it. One story in particular involves a man who comes to believe that he has been used as a murderous tool by a divine power, perhaps God himself (I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you which one). This is especially shocking because Harvey was raised a Quaker, and Quaker beliefs include active nonviolence. A story about God using a man as a tool for murder must have been an especially disturbing conceit to Harvey himself.
In the end, I really found Harvey’s work to be intriguing. On a first reading, it didn’t necessarily impress me, but I find myself returning again and again to think about the implications about a number of his stories. That is about the highest compliment I can give to an author: he made me think. Wordsworth deserves much praise for making William Fryer Harvey’s body of work available for a modern audience.