Review by Thecla:
This is a dark, uncanny novel, one of Walpole’s macabre works. It is subtitled “A Strange Story” and the dedication to Henry James reads “This macabre is dedicated in loving memory and humble admiration to the great author of The Turn of the Screw.”
This is Walpole’s version of the doppelgänger story. John loathes James, and James, while professing to like John, clearly despises him but they are inextricably linked from their schooldays. Indeed they have the same initials. Both characters make reference to this sense of connection. James says that they are Siamese twins and that he is the side of John that John doesn’t admit to.
Walpole’s description of the bullying at their school is very powerful, not just the sense of humiliation, powerlessness and dread but also the physical shrinking from the tormentors. James protects John from others but bullies him himself.
“He would stand quite close to me, holding my arm, looking into my face with his bold, bright, sparkling eyes, and I felt as though he absorbed me, took me right inside himself, inside his hateful self, and kept me there a prisoner.
‘You know, Jacko, I do like you, although you’re such a goup. I think you really like me too, although you’re a bit afraid of me. I like that as well.’
‘I hate you! I hate you!’ I cried, breaking away from him”.
In fact throughout the novel the author is very acute about the power dynamics within relationships.
Walpole conveys effectively the fluid and unstable nature of John’s identity and sense of self. After murdering James, he seems gradually to “become” him, both physically and mentally. John is aware of these changes and at times his old self surfaces, fighting against the feeling of being possessed. At other times, he glories in his new persona and the sense of power it gives him.
Alongside the objective changes, John has intense internal experiences which have a hallucinatory quality. He hears James laugh or speak, feels his presence and sees him. He knows that these perceptions are not rooted in reality but he cannot ignore them and they are accompanied by a dread of possession which amounts almost to a tactile hallucination.
“It was a peculiar physical fear, the sense that one’s body would open and allow this horrible presence in.”
At a later stage of his mental disintegration he dreams that he and James are imprisoned naked together.
“He tries to kill me and I try to kill him. We are bound so closely together that we can hug one another, that we may crush one another. Then slowly his bare chest opens and I begin to be drawn, struggling, screaming, crying inside.”
There is a striking eroticism here which recalls that of vampire stories such as Dracula, though here it is homoeroticism. In fact all through the novel there is an emphasis on the physical and sexual. At school John is mortified when James tears his shirt off him, leaving him naked. He adores his wife but is aware that he doesn’t satisfy her sexually. He hates James’ shoulder-clapping heartiness and is disgusted and repulsed by his detailed confidences about his mistress, Bella. But as he “becomes” James he is more masterful in bed, to his wife’s pleasure, and he also takes up with Bella.
John and James represent extreme versions of competing masculinities with John so weak and effeminate and James so hearty and virile.
The conflict between Good and Evil is another theme. James’ wife, Leila is a good woman who tries to save John, telling him that he is possessed by a devil just as James had been in his last months. She believes that one can choose Good and fight Evil but John, while recognizing her goodness, is no longer able to follow her advice.
This story is very satisfying in that it works in different ways: the haunting of and possession of a murderer by his victim; a tale of how a person who is bullied can become a bully in his turn and also a powerful description of an individual’s descent into madness. Later in the novel John develops a strong sense of persecution. He hates Richard and, although Richard avoids him, John sees him everywhere “a spy and a murderer…..watching me at every step”. His thoughts and behaviour become increasingly violent and detached from reality: he decides to kill Richard but in the final confrontation with Leila and Richard he shoots himself instead. Once dead he looks like the John of old (cf Dorian Gray’s portrait).
Quite apart from the overtly Stevensonian and Jamesian subject matter, this is very much a literary novel. John is an admirer of Gissing and a novelist himself, one of whose works looks forward to later events in his life. In it a husband murders his wife and John thinks of these characters, “How thoroughly I understood their hates and their fears! It seemed to me that they were both part of me, both murderer and murderee.”
This novel is favourably reviewed by a famous novelist called Rose. Although John has a low opinion of Rose’s novels, calling them “old-fashioned, romantic, platitudinous”, he understands the advantage of a good review from such a source. His third novel contains a character which the public takes to be a caricature of Rose. This helps sales but, although in public Rose takes it well, John learns later that privately he was very hurt. This must be a reference to the widespread identification of Walpole as the prolific, popular, second rate novelist, Alroy Kear, in Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale. Walpole regarded Maugham as a friend and was deeply distressed.
In turn, Elinor Mordaunt, upset at the supposed identification of characters in the same novel with Thomas Hardy and his second wife, a friend of hers, satirized Maugham in Full Circle. Initially this was published pseudonymously as Gin and Bitters by A. Riposte and Walpole was further distressed because he was afraid that Maugham would think he had written it. (In the Somerset Maugham papers in Yale University Library there is an etching by the satirist and cartoonist, W.H. Dyson, of Walpole hitting Mordaunt on the jaw.)
This was Walpole’s last novel, written as his health began to fail and bombs were falling on London, and was published posthumously in 1942. He had passed the peak of his popularity some time before but to me his powers were undiminished.
Although it is a very dark, macabre novel, it is creepily effective and a real page turner. I found it fascinating; he was so perceptive about cruelty and power and the fragility of self. In this novel he combines these brilliantly in a superb psychological horror story.