[The following is a reprint of a column which originally appeared in Hellnotes on September 1, 2006.]
Best known for “The Ghost Ship,” Richard Middleton was an accomplished stylist in writing weird fiction. Among the praise for Middleton’s work is this passage from Horror Literature (1981), edited by Marshall Tymn: “One of the most interesting stylists in British ghostly fiction, Middleton is rich and exuberant in his more traditional ghost stories (especially the humorous ones), lean and concise in his more original psychological tales.” And in Shadows in the Attic: A Guide to British Supernatural Fiction 1820-1950 (2000), Neil Wilson writes: “The author’s undeniable literary skill allows most stories to rise above the merely morbid and sentimental.”
Richard Barham Middleton was born on October 28, 1882, in Staines, Middlesex, England. During his school years, the bright, sensitive youth was teased by his peers, experiences that found their way into his story “A Drama of Youth.” He was educated at Cranbrook School in Kent and spent a year at the University of London. He passed the Oxford and Cambridge higher certificate examinations in mathematics, physics, and English. Despite his academic background, he took a job as a clerk with Royal Exchange Assurance Corporation in London. He started publishing essays and short stories in various periodicals during this time, and he joined The New Bohemians, a society of literary men, of which Arthur Machen was a member.
Middleton lasted at his clerical job for only six years, hating the drudgery of office work and lusting after the life of a bohemian writer. He quit his job in 1907 to live his dream life. But his dream turned into a nightmare. He did not make much money from his writing, and he lived in poverty. Though he was published widely in periodicals, such as The Academy and Vanity Fair and the American magazine The Century, he did not see any book publications during his lifetime. He also suffered from a number of physical ailments – either real or imagined – and from romantic disappointments.
Besides short stories and essays, he also ventured into poetry, though The Cambridge History of English and American Literature considers him a “lesser poet.” He held a couple of literary jobs during this time: Lord Alfred Douglas made him a book reviewer for The Academy, and Edward Jepson hired him as a sub-editor for Vanity Fair.
The humorous, much-anthologized story “The Ghost Ship” tells of an unearthly galleon that is blown by a tempest into a turnip field in an inland village, which is “the ghostiest place in all England.” In time, the spectral captain of the phantom ship riles up the respectable ghosts in the village and so upsets the villagers that they are asked to leave. As the ship leaves, the villagers are shocked to see that many of their favorite ghosts are on board.
“The Coffin Merchant” tells of a Londoner who, on a dreary November day, receives a handbill for funeral services. Going round to the undertaker, he finds out to his dismay for whom the services are intended. In “On the Brighton Road,” a tramp meets a boy-ghost wandering the title road, dying over and over. A child in “The Bird in the Garden” wanders through a fabulous garden, waiting for a wondrous bird, “a bird of all colours, ugly and beautiful, with a harsh sweet voice,” but when he wakes up, he finds reality is much different. A failing magician performing in a music-hall in “The Conjurer” tries one last, desperate trick to save his career and makes his beloved wife disappear, to thunderous applause, but then he finds she truly disappeared.
Some of Middleton’s tales tend toward the gruesome. In “The Hand,” a person groping about in the dark finds the severed title object on a tabletop. In “The Luck of Keith-Martin,” a traveler arrives at the darkened house of an old friend, and when a woman’s voice tells him to leave, he turns on the light and finds his friend had just been murdered by the woman, who is covered with his blood. A strangler contemplates the corpse he has just created in “Wet Eyes and Sad Mouth.” Two people chop up a corpse in “The Making of a Man.” Gruesome, but still stylishly written.
Searching for literary inspiration, Middleton moved to Brussels, Belgium, in early 1911. On December 1, 1911, at age 29, he committed suicide there by drinking chloroform. His suicide was a surprise as he had had a healthy personality. Perhaps poverty, failed love affairs, lack of success, and other disappointments built up to push him over the edge.
Middleton’s reputation soared after his death, thanks mainly to Henry Savage, Edgar Jepson, and John Gawsworth. Within a couple of years of his death, Savage published five books of Middleton’s works: The Ghost Ship and Other Stories (1912); Poems and Songs (1912); Poems and Songs, Second Series (1912); The Day Before Yesterday (1912), which is a collection of essays; and Monologues (1913). In 1933, Gawsworth edited The Pantomine Man, a collection of previously uncollected stories, essays, and sketches. Gawsworth also published several uncollected stories in various anthologies, including six stories in New Tales of Horror by Eminent Authors (1934).
The Ghost Ship and Other Stories contains the title tale and other stories, including “The Coffin Merchant,” “On the Brighton Road,” “The Conjurer,” and “Shepherd’s Boy.” Machen wrote a preface for the volume, in which he said of “The Ghost Ship:” “I declare I would not exchange this short, crazy, enchanting fantasy for a whole wilderness of seemly novels.”
Many of Middleton’s books and stories are available on-line. If you prefer ink on paper, Wildside Press has reprinted a number of the collections mentioned in this column.