1924 – Cold Harbour

1924. Harry Houdini exposes one of America’s most credible spirit mediums, Mina ‘Margery’ Crandon, as a fraud to the editor of Scientific American and a panel of scientists. Crandon had been recommended to Scientific American, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous author who was being advised by a deceased spirit on how to write his next book. She had also been thoroughly vetted by a team of scientists which included two members of the respected Society for Psychical Research, a UK-based non-profit that investigates supernatural occurrences. As far as the New York Times is concerned: “’Margery’ Passes All Psychic Tests. Scientists Find No Trickery in Scores of Séances with Boston Medium.” Considering the popularity of the Spiritualist movement, it came as no surprise then that the scientific panel found itself split over Houdini’s testimony.

Spiritualism is a religious movement which believes that spirits of the dead exist and that they have the ability and the desire to communicate with the living. The movement flourished between the 1840s and 1920s, especially in English speaking countries. By 1897, there were more than eight million Spiritualists in the United States and Europe, mostly among the middle and upper classes. Spiritualism was investigated very thoroughly by the scientific community, which resulted in many scientists becoming converts. Therefore, the magicians, lead by Harry Houdini, decided that it was up to them to expose the movement’s fraud. They more than succeeded. By the end of the 1920s, after a series of well publicized exposes, Spiritualism was viewed as a joke. However, in 1924 when Francis Brett Young published Cold Harbour, Spiritualism was still a mainstream religious movement, giving us a historical novel with some very chilling supernatural psychological horror elements.

Francis Brett Young (1884-1954) was an English novelist, poet, playwright and composer who started his career as a doctor. His father was a doctor and his mother came from a medical family, so the career choice was kind of obvious. During the Great War, he was injured while serving in German East Africa, in the medical corps, and was unable to continue practicing medicine. In desperation, he embarked on a quest for a mystical cure and ended up becoming the Sorcerer Supreme. He then proceeded to save the world from the Dread Dormammu and other numerous supernatural threats.

Sorry! Wrong doctor!

After he was injured, Young devoted the rest of his career to writing, and became a national icon.

Young’s most famous work is the epic poem “The Island” (1944), which recounts the history of England from the Bronze Age to the Battle of Britain in World War Two. The poem was an instant success and all 23,500 editions sold out immediately – during war time conditions – and then reprinted. Young’s most important project to him personally though was The Mercian Novels, a series of linked novels set in a fictional version of the English West Midlands and Welsh Borders. Originally, the novels were inspired by the construction of the Elan Valley Reservoirs, a series of man-made lakes, and the countryside affected by the project. Later the project expanded to explore the Midlands society from the 1890s until the outbreak of World War Two. The novels are linked by recurring characters, but each one can be read as an independent story. The series encompasses a wide range of styles from romantic family sagas, such as The Portrait of Clare to atmospheric psychological horrors, such as Cold Harbour; a novel praised by H. P. Lovecraft in his “Supernatural Horror in Literature” essay, which reviews the development of the horror fiction genre.

The framing of the story is four friends, the narrator, a chaplain, a doctor and his wife, who are sitting and socializing after a shared dinner. The doctor and his wife, Ronald and Evelyn Wake had recently been through a disturbing supernatural experience, and they decide to share their story, giving us a dual narrative within the main narrative.

While driving through a remote area of the Black Country (an area in the west-Midlands of England), a puncture and a storm had forced the Wakes to take shelter in a remote country inn, The Fox. There Evelyn encountered Mr. Furnival, a very educated and repulsive man, who punctuates each sentence with a very disturbing cackle. Furnival is the owner of Cold Harbour, a remote manor with an ancient history, and a collection of rare books, which Evelyn desires to see. Therefore, she overcame her and husband’s doubts, and accepted an invitation to visit the mysterious site. When they arrived, they both sensed an atmosphere of evil about the place, but felt it would be awkward on their part to leave so they completed the visit. Evelyn spent the afternoon with Mrs. Furnival and heard from her what it was like raising her children in a house possessed by a harmless poltergeist, Jerry, and an evil presence that drove away all visitors, and left her and her kids with permanent psychological trauma. Ronald spent the time socializing with Mr. Furnival, and got to learn first-hand how disturbing he could be.

The Omer today is splendor in eternity. I have very mixed feelings about how these attributes express themselves in this book. The splendor comes from Young’s masterful writing, which gives us breath-taking descriptions of the scenery and society; descriptions that manage to fully capture the experiences of the Wakes and open a window into the lives of a middle-class Spiritually leaning couple in a remote area of 1920s England. On the other-hand, the eternity attribute, which I was expecting to find in the supernatural elements of the story, falls a bit short. Very little happens in this book. The story is about a harmless visit to an isolated part of the country. The only supernatural elements to be found in the story are those described by Mrs. Furnival and the sense of evil that the Wakes experience. At no point does anything supernatural manifest in their presence. If I were Houdini, I would be accusing Young of fraud, except there was no fraud. He relayed the Wakes experiences accurately, and the feelings the book evokes are authentic, which either enhances or diminishes the story, depending on how you feel about the Spiritualist beliefs which were so widespread back then.

I think the eternity of Cold Harbour lies less in the supernatural, and more in the natural. The book opens a window to a very specific time and place in England’s past, and brings it to life. This is the true splendor in eternity; having your story captured in a way that continues to resonate long after the storyteller is no longer with us. And it doesn’t just have to be a book. There are also timeless works of art, studied centuries after they were created, and movies that resonate decades after they were filmed. So long as there are people reading your story, the splendor remains eternal, which I think is the most important lesson I took home after reading Cold Harbour.

Cold Harbour

Author: Francis Brett Young

Publisher: Collins

Published: 1924 

Pages: 212

Format reviewed: Physical