Forgotten Author No. 42: William Fryer Harvey

Sunday 15 November 2009 01:00

Looking back at these columns, it seems that the fastest way to become a forgotten author is to be compared to some of the century's greatest writers. In 1955, The Times Literary Supplement praised William Fryer Harvey as the equal of MR James and Walter De La Mare, at which point he started a decline into such obscurity that even the internet is of little help in locating his fiction.

Harvey was fêted for saving lives in an ambulance unit in the First World War, but the Leeds-born Quaker should be remembered as one of Britain's finest ghost-story writers. Many literary giants have turned their hands to this genre, and as a consequence it's difficult to make a mark in a crowded field, but Harvey's style feels like a dark shadow-image to the tales of Saki, and deserves to be celebrated.

Having sustained lung damage in the war, Harvey remained in poor health throughout his relatively short life (he died at 52), and took up writing short fiction that employed the irrational subconscious to powerful effect. Although his output was relatively small, his stories benefited from their modern psychological insight and lack of easy conclusion. I count nine collections, but several have overlapping stories, and all are out of print. His best tales include the gruesome school yarn "The Dabblers", and "The Man Who Hated Aspidistras".

In 1928, Harvey published "The Beast With Five Fingers", which was filmed nearly two decades later with Peter Lorre in the lead. "The hand was writhing in agonized contortions, squirming and wriggling upon the nail like a worm upon a hook," he wrote, in this acclaimed tale of a pianist whose severed hand returns from his mausoleum to stage vengeful attacks on his secretary, who secretly craves the dead man's fortune. The film was a big hit, partly because of its exemplary special effects. Luis Buñuel is rumoured to have had a part in their design, and the surreal sight of the hand scuttling up a piano keyboard suggests this was so. The film also boasted music by Max Steiner, and retains much of its strange, haunting power. It led to a renewed interest in Harvey's work, and a few reprints followed. Recently, Tartarus Press published his complete short stories, in a limited edition, under the title The Double Eye, so it's now possible to plug another gap in the century's roll-call of top short-fiction writers.

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