The Tarn by Hugh Walpole

Hugh WalpoleSo, who was Hugh Walpole?

Well, apparently he was a hugely successful, well regarded and extremely popular author in the 1920’s and 30’s!  Never heard of him?  Nor had I until I was browsing the shelves in Waterstones a couple of months ago – I came across a collection of his supernatural tales (published by Tartarus Press).  Being a huge fan the uncanny tale I was interested to find out more about him.

Of course my first recourse (and the usual lazy one) was to refer to Wikipedia, which actually sums him up quite nicely in the first paragraph:-

Sir Hugh Seymour Walpole, CBE (13 March 1884 – 1 June 1941) was a New Zealand-born English novelist. A prolific writer, he published thirty-six novels, five volumes of short stories, two plays and three volumes of memoirs. His skill at scene-setting, his vivid plots, his high-profile as a lecturer and his driving ambition brought him a large readership in the United Kingdom and North America. He was a best-selling author in the 1920s and 1930s, but his works have been neglected since his death.

I’m fascinated by forgotten authors and a champion of the unjustly maligned – why should Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf (all who recognised Walpole’s scope and ability) be remembered, but not Hugh Walpole?

It was while I was making my way through ‘The Weird(which I highly recommend, by the way – it also includes ‘The Willows’ by Algernon Blackwood, which I reviewed a while back) when I came across the very short story ‘The Tarn’.

The story involves two characters of quite different temperament, who used to be friends – well, one of them still thinks they are friends, the other one hates him but keeps it very well hidden.  This suppressed tension is wonderfully realised and the writhing hatred in one of the men is so perfectly described that it almost made me laugh with appreciation.  It is the way Walpole expresses how someone can, from very little idiosyncrasies, build them into an all-consuming hatred.

The story ends badly for both men (I won’t tell you how, I don’t want to spoil it!), but it is the way the last death happens which makes this a suitably weird story – was it something inexplicable, or was it simply a thing of the mind.

Apart from the writing, it is the ambiguity of the ending which makes this story stand out and I’m hoping to find similar inventiveness when I read more of Hugh Walpole’s supernatural short stories.


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