Review by Helen C:
Our hero, Harkness, a pleasant young American, feeling aimless and useless in London, travels to a beautiful Cornish seaside town to see their annual August processional dance. He quickly becomes involved, through his own gallantry, and to experience the excitement missing in his life, in a plot to rescue a lovely girl from an evil marriage to the son of the Red Haired Man (Crispin), a short, stout eccentric, who meets Harkness in his hotel and takes a liking to him, inviting him to view his art collection in his grand home nearby, where his manservants are Japanese thugs.
Hugh Walpole describes this novel as ‘a romantic macabre’, which barely suggests its gathering suspense and ultimate horror. In his Dedicatory Letter to friends, he writes that, even though readers may feel it is a ‘fancy’ or an allegory (‘some one will soon be showing me that we have, each one of us, his Sea-Fog, his White Tower, and that it is the fault of his own weakness if he does not fling out of the window his Red-Haired Man’) he declares it is ‘a tale and nothing but a tale and that …once beginning it you will find it hard to lay down unfinished.’
I can agree wholeheartedly that it is a gripping tale, gathering momentum throughout, and reaching a horrifying climax. There is a sense of foreboding from the start of Harkness’s (our hero’s ) train journey, although his intention is to enjoy, and possibly find adventure in, a beautiful Cornish village. The vivid and brilliant writing too, makes the book hard to put down, e.g. the description of the processional dance through the village, which seems to plunge you into the celebrations and carry you along to an exhilarating climax.
But, exciting as the unfolding drama may be, beneath the somewhat unlikely horror storyline (which all takes place within 24 hours) there seems to be a quite different and more serious theme – the transformation of Harkness himself, who feels that at 35, he has failed in love and in life, which has no meaning for him. This underlying theme is suggested by the trouble the author takes to describe Harkness’s character and his fears, feelings, failures and aspirations – as well as that of his nemesis, Crispin, the Man with Red Hair, who appears pleasant and cultured, but later confides to Harkness his deranged theory of the necessity of inflicting pain, to awaken compassion and give the paingiver Godlike powers; in contrast, the other characters, including the lovely girl Harkness tries to rescue and falls immediately in love with, and her unloving new husband (Crispin’s son) and two others in the rescue plot, come across more as token characters than real individuals: a framework perhaps to hang the real substance of the story on?
The dramatic events of the story serve to prove to Harkness first, his own gallantry in agreeing to play a crucial part in the rescue plan; then his capacity to love passionately, for the first time, when he meets the lovely Hesther; and later, (when he realises the true character of his outwardly charming, but inwardly crazy host, the Red-Haired Man, and has to confront the possibility of suffering torture) his ability to withstand physical pain. The suspense builds until he finally succeeds in gaining his own redemption – but not that of Crispin: “His soul was free and Crispin’s was imprisoned.” And “With that first touch of the knife on Harkness’s body Crispin’s soul had died.”
Yes, it is ‘romantic’ in the sense that the sensitive, aesthetic hero puts himself in peril, falls desperately in love, faces trials – not of ‘fire and the sword’ perhaps, but of sea-fog and the knife – and emerges reborn: “He had been shy of man and was shy no longer; he had been in love, was in love now, but had surrendered it; he had been afraid of physical pain and was afraid no longer; he had looked his enemy in the eyes and borne him no ill-will.” And it is certainly ‘macabre’, with ghoulish and scarcely credible events building up to a violent conclusion. And I would argue that it is an allegory too – as Walpole hints, but quickly disclaims.
The modern reader might jib at the book’s idealistic and melodramatic elements, and expect more realism – but, accepted for what it is, it provides a memorable and excellently written read, though not for the faint-hearted!