Although The Travelling Grave was first published by Arkham House in 1948, most of the stories it collects had already appeared in LP Hartley’s British collections Night Fears (1924) and The Killing Bottle and Other Stories (1932). It was reviewed (if that’s the right word for a piece in the publisher’s own magazine) in the Arkham Sampler for Spring 1924:
“Mr. Hartley’s book can be recommended especially to those readers who like to be led casually into a setting and story and brought up short, face to face with terror and horror. Mr Hartley succeeds in doing this time after time, and doing it so well that I cannot offhand think of any other contemporary writer who managed this effect quite so memorably.”
I came to The Travelling Grave thinking of it as a collection of ghost stories, but they’re not ghost stories — even those with ghosts in them (or, really, walking corpses) — so much as contes cruels, whose focus is on the method of delivering each tale’s particular moment of comeuppance or revelation. Hartley plays an artful game of laying out everything a reader needs to anticipate what’s coming — all, that is, but the final detail, the who-it-happens-to, or how-it-happens.
The perfect example is the lead tale, “The Travelling Grave”, which introduces what I like to think of as a literal plot device, in the shape of a mobile, mechanical coffin that is not only self-burying, but will also gather up and kill — snatch and despatch — its occupant. As its owner Munt, a collector of unusual coffins, says:
“But it’s very quick, and it has that funny gift of anticipation. If it got a fellow up against a wall, I don’t think he’d stand much chance. I didn’t show you here, because I value my floors, but it can bury itself in wood in three minutes and in newly turned earth, say a flower-bed, in one.”
The tale begins by introducing us to Hugh Curtis — “a vague man with an unretentive mind”, making him sound like perfect victim material — who’s persuaded by an acquaintance to spend the weekend at Munt’s house. When Munt realises Curtis hasn’t told anyone else he’s come, and is unlikely to be missed for some time if he disappears, it of course sets this collector thinking about fully testing this latest addition to his collection. But, of course, things don’t quite work out the way Munt — or the reader — expects.
Those tales that do have ghosts — and the supernatural impinges on the majority of these tales — don’t look too deeply into the nature of the supernatural. Hartley’s walking corpses are there to exact retribution, sometimes deserved — as in “A Visitor from Down Under”, whose protagonist learns you can’t escape a crime committed on the other side of the world, especially if your revenger is (a) dead and (b) capable of using public transport — sometimes not deserved — as in “Feet Foremost”, where the new owners of an old haunted house inadvertently re-activate its ghost (despite the house having been redesigned long ago to prevent such an occurrence) simply because they neglected to inform the servants — but don’t really betray much of the metaphysical workings behind these revenants’ ability to linger beyond death as they do.
Hartley’s tales can’t help sounding comical in summary, but this, and the humour evident in this stories — he’s a witty stylist — do nothing to ameliorate their horror. As Jack Sullivan in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural says: “humour in Hartley’s work is not so much a relief from horror as another dimension of it.” And the humour (like the horror) is there at the verbal level, too, in Hartley’s way with macabre word-play. To give an example, the speaker here is one of his revenants, a masked walking corpse who (the reader will have already guessed) only a short time before put a bullet through his brain:
“I was always an empty-headed fellow,” he went on, tapping the waxed covering with his gloved forefinger, so that it gave out a wooden hollow sound — “there’s nothing much behind this. No brains to speak of, I mean. Less than I used to have, in fact.”
This mix of humour and terror — in particular, the way it’s both at once — and the way such double meanings create an air of intense anxiety in the very substance of the narrative, reminds me most of all of Ramsey Campbell. Both writers use language to create an all-pervading sense of unreliability in the world around their protagonists, creating an air of anything — and most likely any scary thing — being about to happen.
The thing that most stood out for me, in fact, is Hartley’s inventiveness at revealing the inner state of his (often highly anxious, though just about managing to keep it contained) protagonist’s psyches. In “A Change of Ownership”, for instance, Ernest, approaching his own house in the dark, starts imagining all sorts of inventive situations, conversations and meetings, all of them fanciful and designed to distract him from his fear of entering this empty house, but all of them somehow working their way round to latch onto the reasons for that fear. It’s Ernest’s effort not to think about what scares him that lays it bare.
Early on in another tale, “The Cotillon”, we learn that the protagonist, Marion Lane, is preoccupied by guilt about a recent relationship she only pretended to take seriously. Rather than simply saying she feels guilty, Hartley gives us this:
“She extinguished the light, but the gramophone within her went on more persistently than ever. It was a familiar record; she knew every word of it: it might have been called The Witness for the Defence.”
It might seem a commonplace nowadays to liken worrying thoughts to having a record playing in one’s head, but I can’t help feeling it was new when Hartley wrote it, and its inventiveness brings home both the force of Marion’s worry, and the very modern (when Hartley was writing it) world in which this scary story is about to play out.
I note this aspect of modernity because Julia Briggs, in her history of the ghost story, Night Visitors, criticises Hartley for this very reason:
“Hartley showed courage in introducing motor cars, a radio broadcast and a plane crash into his ghost stores, but they also created further problems for him.”
But, to me, Hartley’s use of the (to him) modern world just highlights the unfairness, cruelty, and horror of the horrors, when they turn up. Everyone else in, for instance, “The Cotillon” with its “brightly-lit modern urban scene” (as Briggs puts it), is having fun at a masked ball, and this just isolates Marion all the more, as well as making Hartley’s skill at introducing his walking corpse all the more notable, for it’s against this air of fun and modernity that things come to seem so very unfunny.
But the modernity of the “internal gramophone” idea also brings home Marion’s very real worries. This isn’t a distanced character like, say, Professor Parkins in M R James’s “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You”; this is someone I, at least, can relate to. And I suspect Hartley’s ability to evoke characters with obsessive anxious worries is too widespread in his stories — and too inventively and effectively evoked — not to have been based on his own inner life. Time and again we get characters struggling with worries before the supernatural element even hints at turning up. Henry Greenstream in “The Thought”, for instance, begins his tale with a habit of counting the number of times his latest worry intrudes into his thoughts when he goes for a daily walk. Jack Sullivan, again from his entry on Hartley in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror, notes that “The technique here of intensifying fears into actual supernatural visitations became, in later stories like ‘The Thought’ and ‘A Change of Ownership’, a Hartley trademark.”
Before reading The Travelling Grave, I mostly knew Hartley from the 1971 film (by Joseph Losey, who also did The Damned) of his most well-known novel, The Go-Between, and as a respected reviewer who was thoroughly capable of intelligently reviewing both the literary and the fantastic (writing positively on Stapledon’s Star Maker, for instance, and an insightful and mostly positive review of Lindsay’s Devil’s Tor). But I’d been meaning to read him for a while, and I’m glad I finally did.