The Travelling Grave and Other Stories by L.P. Hartley



My review of L.P. Hartley’s ‘Facial Justice’ in 2012:

My previous reviews of older or classic fictions:

When I read this book, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below….

41 thoughts on “The Travelling Grave and Other Stories by L.P. Hartley


    “‘Here is a candle to light you to bed.’ But he recollected the ominous conclusion of the distich, and fuddled though he was he left it unspoken.”

    This is where coincidence earns its keep. Coincidence conducting its own memory of a children’s party with now chilling nursery rhymes in echoed hindsight. And revenge as an apotheosis or gestalt, a journey ending here, the bus ticket inserted in stiff fingers. The first section’s paragraphs having ignited destiny’s slow motion destination. The eponymous visitor, Rumbold, shakes this hand of fingers as an icicle of coincidence.

    “What a testimony to coincidence! For cause and effect is against us, […] but coincidence is always on our side, teaching us how to eat our cake and have it! The long arm of coincidence!”

    Rumbold is fresh from the crime of making money in Australia and has arrived back home in England, and at the hotel he used to stay at, before he was rich. And he is infested or invested with his own guilt and infused by delirium with a customary environment with helpful porters and waiters being the prime place for uncustomary hauntings. Wood-house as book. Climbing, grappling branches and sleeves of corridors, without lifts in an overloaded hotel. The ghost story of retribution that has coincidence as a character and, from the earlier long arm, the two most frightening elbow-moments perhaps in the whole of literature.….

    “And there, sure enough, it was: a long dead bough, bare in patches where the bark had peeled off, and crooked in the middle like an elbow. […] …leaning forward his whole length he seized the bough at the elbow joint and strained it away from him. As it cracked he toppled over and the shroud came rushing upwards. . . .”

    From being down under for bad to being done over at home and now down under for good. An old nursery rhyme with a new character called Jimmy to make it work.

  2. Yet each man kills the thing he loves,…” Oscar Wilde


    “On the horizon it looks like a foot-rule. Even now, though I have been there many times, I cannot say whether it is a hundred yards long or two hundred. But I have no wish to go back and make certain.”

    The (probably male) narrator and Angela in white dress, with Mario the gondolier travel to what we sense is an island (Podolo) that is left alone four miles from Venice for good reasons? Angela’s husband has gone for the day on business to Trieste, a husband who jokes that he does not always welcome her to always welcome him. He likes her adventuring for her own sake without him? And the supposed deserted island, impossible to have anyone on there judging by the evidence, a foot-rule length, or a knife blade only as long as up to a stalwart little finger’s third joint, and an old military battery (“concrete emplacement, about as long as a tennis court, remained: but nature and the weather had conspired to break it up, leaving black holes large enough to admit a man”), ending with a single oar and “the horizon black” to match the possible “negro” we glimpse earlier on all fours. I was caught up if not put down with so much in all that, I got over-accustomed to the several references to the lonesome castaway of a cat and its wild spitting-toward-punctured-hiss. It needs to be captured back to Venice or put down (‘murdered’) or it’ll starve? And it was hinted at the start of this work that Angela is kind-hearted enough to do either. But I read far more within the measured lines of this chilling story. But whence did the machine gun reference derive?

    ‘Ha fatto male,’ said Mario. ‘In this country we are not accustomed to kill cats.’”

  3. Pingback: A VISITOR FROM DOWN UNDER by L.P. Hartley | Shadows & Elbows

  4. Pingback: Podolo by L.P. Hartley | Shadows & Elbows


    “It was late July in Venice, suffocatingly hot.”

    At first, I thought this famous story of an extra or two for dinner, dealing with a count’s suicide in the sugar business with a name that sounded like Joe O’Kelly, and an at first supposed explicitly-stated ‘dead cat’ topic in the canal, was a straight sequel of the previous Venice story called Podolo….
    “That depends if you’ve got one oar or two.” — “On the left lay the Piazzetta, the two columns, the rich intricate stonework of St. Mark’s,…”
    …but, then, when we are introduced to a Hull likeness from the east coast of England…
    “Two ugly useful old ships, nice oily water and lots of foreign bodies floating about in it.”
    And the wondrous mixed atmosphere of decay and palazzo…
    “Ten minutes sufficed to take them to the Lido. The little passeggiata that had started so pleasantly had become a funeral cortege. The friends hardly spoke. Then, when they were nearing the landing-stage and the ugly white hotel, an eyesore all the way across the lagoon, impended over them with its blazing lights and its distressing symmetry, Dickie said:….”
    (said what?) I knew these two good time chancers and cads from England, Dickie and Philip — with their drunken joke (or ‘April Fish’) and with the whistling boy that they later called a ‘whippersnapper’ — made this a definite sequel to OH WHISTLE, AND I’LL COME TO YOU, MY LAD, (see my review of the boy siffleur here: think about it…
    “Think of it, but for us that poor chap would be floating about the lagoons till Doomsday and none of his dusky offspring know what had happened to him.”
    …and the corpse came back to them as summoned by the siffleur and seemed to sit firmly on a chair, a chair with a ‘game leg’.
    “‘Bad name be hanged!’ he said. ‘What does it matter what we do in this tuppeny ha’penny hole?” — “‘Ho fatto un corso,’ he said, swelling with pride.”
    Disarmingly strange story that reminds me that the woman in Aickman’s BIND YOUR HAIR was called Hartley.

    “I’m sure the Count wouldn’t like having to sit down with a – a drowned rat.”

  6. Pingback: THREE, OR FOUR, FOR DINNER by L.P. Hartley | The Gestalt Real-Time Reviews of Books

  7. Below is my review of THE TRAVELLING GRAVE from May last year …




    “: a surrender of the personality, the fanciful might call it a little death.”

    I know the feeling, social unease, here physical unease, too, as we imagine the foreshortening of a body to fit that very death. A very very odd story that must have appealed to Aickman immensely. Gentlemen playing hide and seek in the dark, some of them not yet introduced to each other, if such permutations within four souls (excluding servants) can stretch that far! Confusions between perambulators and coffins and ‘mad scientist’ burrowers travelling between floors from Death-in-Mortalis to some strange state of Null Immortalis … I guess.
    A farce to die for. One foot in the grave. Two feet outside it.

    “…until it became meaningless; even its absurdity disappeared.”


    This is effectively the first story that Aickman chose us to read in this book series and makes a tantalising inversive comparison with the last one, THE LAST SÉANCE, that I fortuitously read earlier today here:
    Death and birth throes, physical and spiritual.

    Full context of above is here:

    From TALE OF TWO CITIES —“He had a strong idea that the coffin he had seen was running after him; and, pictured as hopping on behind him, bolt upright, upon its narrow end, always on the point of overtaking him and hopping on at his side—perhaps taking his arm—it was a pursuer to shun. It was an inconsistent and ubiquitous fiend too, for, while it was making the whole night behind him dreadful, he darted out into the roadway to avoid dark alleys, fearful of its coming hopping out of them like a dropsical boy’s-kite without tail and wings. It hid in doorways too, rubbing its horrible shoulders against doors, and drawing them up to its ears, as if it were laughing. It got into shadows on the road, and lay cunningly on its back to trip him up. All this time it was incessantly hopping on behind and gaining on him, so that when the boy got to his own door he had reason for being half dead. And even then it would not leave him, but followed him upstairs with a bump on every stair, scrambled into bed with him, and bumped down, dead and heavy, on his breast when he fell asleep.”


    “The arm beneath was chocolate-coloured to the elbow.”

    In these episodes — during August at Low Threshold Hall in Suffolk that makes the reference to Lord Deadham seem strangely significant (a much rainier August than our current one in the same general area!) — I admit I became confused by the characters and the various “Termes of her Curse” relating to the vengeful ghost of Lady Elinor, but this work certainly chilled me with several frissons that still recur even as I write this and also teeming with inspirations of conceit, including the best ‘elbow moment’ ever! Including the dead cat doorstep bounce reminding me of Podolo and Three or Four for Dinner. And “According to one story, she doesn’t go out with the corpse, she goes out in it” gives a whole new slant to the Travelling Grave! The drawings morphing the person being drawn! And much more of Low and High Absurdism that even outdoes Aickman’s Compulsory Games with its aeroplane earlier crashing through this work’s ‘Thresholdiana’, with its broken wing later used as a stretcher for a corpse that is piloted feet first “should its path be crossed by a Body yet nearer Dissolution. . . .”!

    “Have you been sleeping in both beds?”

  9. Pingback: FEET FOREMOST by L.P. Hartley | The Gestalt Real-Time Reviews of Books


    “thoughts broke free from their bondage to the turning wheel”

    …indeed also to a gramophone.
    Pretty, sought-after Marion Lane’s thoughts are earlier said to be articulated like a record on a gramophone, that happen to presage the climax of the Christmastime cotillon — a cotillon in a large house with elements of the ‘masked’ hide-and-seek in ‘The Travelling Grave” and with a certain loophole of entry (here an opened window, one of five in a row, causing the snowy cold outside to battle with the roaring log fires inside), yes, entry by the damned dead reminiscent of ‘Feet Foremost’ — presaging the complex cotillon’s aftermath as a record being played, followed by an ending ‘shriek’ perhaps as the needle flies off?… “The room rustled with their whispering, with the soft hissing sound of ‘Chichester’ and the succeeding ‘Hush!’ which was meant to stifle but only multiplied and prolonged it. [……]” — and, incredibly, an explicitly mentioned ‘cartridge’ as bullet or needle holder upon a wooden head that perhaps represented the body of the gramophone that played the record: ‘Would you like to see? Would you like to look right into my mind?’
    Also somehow presaging, in many preternatural ways, our own recent grappling with the wearing of masks socially (“these confounded masks”), not just on the upper face as someone says here in domino or masked balls, but men whose smiling (or not) could not be discerned. “Knowing how fallible are human plans, she had left in the cloakroom a small supply of masks for those men who, she knew, would forget to bring them. She thought her arrangements were proof against mischance,…”

    This is the chilling story of Marion and the love-crossed suicide called Harry or Hal (cf Shakespeare?) that she caused by her behaviour, a man now supernaturally seeking revenge (“I never much valued Truth for its own sake, and I am grateful to Chance for affording me that peep behind the scenes last night. I am more grateful to you for keeping up the disguise as long as you did”) as part of that cotillon that seems to be still dancing in my head as I write this about it. And other moments that haunt me: “masked males, leaping like salmon,…”, “…while the man at the back, never shifting his position, drooped over her like an earring”, ‘anonymous fingers’ grasping the top of a sheet, a sheet like an opaque badminton net…
    …and ‘The dead travel fast.’ — if not we alive ones who are still counting the minutes to Midnight….

  11. Pingback: THE COTILLON by L.P. Hartley | Träumtrawler


    “; it oozes a kind of bright sticky froth, and if you could bring yourself to do it, you could shove your arm in up to the elbow….”

    “…perhaps shared a bedroom with three or four others, perhaps even a bed! What fun for him, after these constricted years, to come home to a big house of his own,…”

    Now “no vociferous callboys, no youthful blades returning singing after a wet night.” Where has this story been all my life? It is a genuine classic of the weird gestalt! No ifs, no buts, nor even any passion of a reading moment to be used as a reason! It is what it is and ever will be. Of its times. I could quote it all! An amalgam of Robert Aickman, Elizabeth Bowen and, indeed, Charles Wilkinson’s house ownership torts etc.

    A tale of the different natures of loneliness and aloneness. A tale of Ernest, the supposed New Proprietor of a property after a life of laddish flat sharing, a very large, many-roomed property with a tower in a semi-rural street, and frightening, politically reprehensible sash windows (“the windows being visible as patches of intense black, like eyeless sockets in a negro’s face”) and a high box room with ‘vulnerable’ entry point for feet foremost or knees foremost or even elbows, with lackadaisical health and safety concerns relating especially to the use of its gas supply. Ernest arrives home in Hubert’s seemingly prehensile car after a stuffy night in the theatre, and they flirt together almost beyond naive bromance, tantalisingly debating whether to stay together for the night. And there are “important shadows”, a sensitivity to time ticking like clocks or ticking like gas meters, and “Number double o double o infinity” as a missing telephone number. And a lawn the gardener would find difficult to mow, a potential landscape to match our severe drought today: “it was like the form of an enormous hare, and each blade of grass was broken-backed and sallow, as though the juice had been squeezed out of it.” — “And of course he likes the trees; he doesn’t notice that the branches are black and dead at the tips, as though the life of the tree were ebbing, dropping back into its trunk, like a failing fountain.”

    With Hubert gone, and Ernest locked out by what he had left as an unlocked house, locked by someone who has locked it from within, like this very story itself, he makes the most dangerous climb and grappling with windows, and frightening visions of hands halting his way inside. The house seems as prehensile with sounds and motives as Hubert’s car. with Ernest tantamount to becoming its burglar. Burgling himself, as it were. The puckish inverse of Puck of Stithies. Or he has become his own wicked policeman? Elbows first. “Half kneeling, half supporting himself on his elbows,…” an elbow moment that presages much genuine horror about loneliness nd aloneness and self-identity as he seeks entry — and makes me think that the smeared marks the charlady finds at the end upon the box room window are really elbows!

    “The imprint of a man’s knees perhaps?”

  13. Pingback: A Change of Ownership by L.P. Hartley | The Gestalt Real-Time Reviews of Books


    “…counting the minutes that elapsed between one visitation of the Thought and the next.”


    This is a highly spiritual work that inchoately reminds me of a cross between a churchly ghost story by M.R. James (many of which I happen to be currently re-reading) and L.P. Hartley’s own ‘Facial Justice’ that I reviewed ten years ago HERE.
    An articulated but involuntary or rogueishly autonomous Thought is as if played by an independent LP upon the gramophone in ‘The Cotillon’ and it is here magnified in a Mr Greenstream whose settled siesta of a life is disrupted by it, and he fails to remove the Thought even by making his mind blank as it ought to be to quench it, until he finds by an uncharacteristic turning in his daily walk to what he sees as Hartley’s cat, “A whiskered church”…
    “…the monumental inscriptions, black lettering on white marble or white lettering on black marble.”
    ‘He prays for what he didn’t ought.’ – says one of the local likely lads who are set to taunt Mr G’s manic strident praying in the church that helps quench the Thought.
    But an older lad says: ‘you chaps can go and blank yourselves. There’s nothing else for you to do. I’m off.’
    “…the six bell-ropes swayed in all directions lashing each other and casting fantastic shadows.”
    And a gargoyle has fallen, after Mr G has been away from the church, till now again he comes to give confession he hopes…
    “The storm had split it but the odd thing was that the two halves, instead of being splintered and separated by their fall, lay intact on the sodden grass within a few inches of each other.”
    leaving a naked spout aloft like a snake.
    Inside the church, the red hot stove like a drum freezes him instead…
    I cannot rid myself now of the Thought of this story. I trust you will fare less ill.

  15. Pingback: THE THOUGHT by L.P. Hartley | Träumtrawler


    “He had a copy of the speech in his cap, to read if his mind became a blank.”

    And that gave me the clue that the dragon in this story is in fact a running metaphor for the THOUGHT immediately above, or vice versa. Just read it and see. The THOUGHT here being the gestalt of fairy-tale love and an autonomous shadow as well as an autonomous pen, the vulnerability of men who would be princely suitors, and the princess herself being an unobtainable gestalt in a hidden heart of a castle that is the self or in the series of light reflectors of the soul. With the impish magician in attendance, as we all have within us. Leading at the end to the THOUGHT’s naked spout from within a mountain’s gargoyle head of rock and merging stone… “The Dragon’s claws lost their hold on the rock, and it sprawled outwards, exposing a long, black tubular body no one had seen till now.”

    Below are just some of the moments I loved during the foresting backstory of Conrad and his agonisings about his two brothers, but above all about the princess and the dragon within her as well as within himself….

    “…in fours marched heralds blowing trumpets, and moving so slowly they scarcely seemed to move at all.”

    “There was a movement in the face of the living rock, a wrinkling and crumbling, and a drift of powdery smoke flung up into the air. A hole appeared in the hillside, and out of it came a head – a snake-like head, blacker than the hole it issued from, solid as ebony, large as the shadow of a cloud. It writhed this way and that on its thick round neck, then suddenly darted forward. The crowd gave way on either hand, leaving in the centre a bulging space like an egg.”

    ‘I don’t suppose she was anywhere in particular.’

    “He began to write, but the pen would not answer to his thoughts.”

    “The Princess turned her head, hidden by the chair-back, invisible to us; but the shadow of her features started up on the wall, a shadow so beautiful that (report said) it would not disappear when the Princess turned again, but clung on with a life of its own, until dissolved by the magician.”

    “But,’ said the magician, suddenly grave, ‘I’m not sure that he loves you.’
    ‘Ah!’ cried the Princess, jubilation in her voice. ‘I love him most of all for that!’”

    And the writing of words that mean things other than what they mean, before applying the chloroform or poison of an obviously unreliably narrated happy ending? There is no secret from various interpolations in the text that it is indeed an unreliable narrator, as much as I am an unreliable reader who merely hopes to hit some version of fiction-truth with a preternatural synchronicity that we all can wield, if we so desire. Just a thought.

  17. Pingback: Conrad and the Dragon by L.P. Hartley | Nemonymous Night


    “I had found it irritating to watch the regular expansion and shrinkage of my shadow.”

    To match those shadows adumbrated above. And a Hartley cat too — “…my staying in the house as Mrs. Santander’s guest, an unsporting little mouse playing when the cat was so undeniably, so effectually away.” But not away at all; it is the so-called electrician with a wounded fingernail now unretracted like a cat’s claw, whatever Hugo Wolf music the visiting narrator (whom I shall now deem to be me) had earlier played, on the piano, as a gramophone needle’s exorcism, I wonder? And I do not want to overblow this, but the story is an undiscovered masterpiece of insidious suggestion (well, I had not discovered it till now!) — A miraculous blend of Elizabeth Bowen / Robert Aickman and Samuel Beckett / Harold Pinter and something I have now learnt to be essentially L.P. Hartley. It narrates my visit to the island to meet Gertrude Santander whom I take in hindsight to have been my mistress, across “a sea running high and so dark that, save for the transparent but scarcely luminous wave-tips, it looked like an agitated solid.” — “I remembered having once admired the lighting of the house. I had an odd fancy that it had a quality not found elsewhere, a kind of whiteness, a power of suggesting silence. It helped to give her house its peculiar hush.” Do you remember that triggered ‘hush’ in The Cotillon and the articulated gramophone of thoughts evolving into The Thought itself. Here, “the sea makes it, just by going in and out!” and “– a soft labial sound, like the licking of lips. It wasn’t intelligible, it wasn’t even articulate, yet I felt that if I listened longer it would become both.” Had Gertrude really sacked her maid? Was this electrician really her husband? Was I one of a series of reduplicated lovers whom Gertrude had taken, perhaps the least important of them? “…but why should the same words have been written twice and even three times, not more plainly, for Gertrude never tried to write plainly, but with a deliberate illegibility?” — “; it was inconceivable, I felt, after several safely negotiated turns, that anything sinister could lurk behind those politely rounded corners – Gertrude had had their angularities smoothed into curves; it would be so terrible, she said, if going to bed one stumbled (one easily might) and fell against an edge!” — “I went from one dust-heap to another, from dust unto dust I might almost say. . . .” Why a gun now ‘stuffed’ with cartridges, cartridges like that single cartridge (or gramophone needle?) in The Cotillon? And who was left for me to meet for dinner? Was I alone in the house? All my mice now gone? And who was I, exactly?

    “But wasn’t conversation – conversation with Gertrude – made up of little half-truths, small forays into fiction?”

  19. Pingback: THE ISLAND by L.P Hartley | Shadows & Elbows


    “Now he scarcely noticed its blankness. His thoughts were few but pleasant to dwell on, and in the solitude they had the intensity of sensations. He arranged them in cycles, the rotation coming at the end of ten paces or so when he turned to go back over his tracks. He enjoyed the thought that held his mind for the moment,…”

    A short but thoughtful anecdote as an atmospheric and theatrical theme-and-variations on The Thought. A nightwatchman with his brazier who is looking after an area marked by seemingly random poles. An anxious soliloquy about his wife and how he sometimes pulled the wool over her eyes about the exciting stories he told about being a nightwatchman in wartime and now turned on its head as to what she might be doing while he is doing this job — or a dream of meeting a stranger or, indeed, an actual meeting with a stranger as a confession / fulfilment of fears while his friend the coke brazier runs out of coke. His own stream of thought halted by a change in point of view of narrative omniscience towards possible lethal consequence.
    I noted, as random areas of my own thought, the red hankie around his neck that once served to carry his supper and the thiught of air-raid blinds being used to wrap parcels as an aid to his thrift for wife and kids…

    “As the stranger took no notice, but continued to sit wrapped in thought,…”

  21. Pingback: NIGHT FEARS by L.P. Hartley | The Gestalt Real-Time Reviews of Books


    “….with a few tricks of emphasis, of skipping here and reading between the lines there, demonstrated that Jimmy Rintoul’s career, without any effort of his own, was shaping itself on sound, safe lines.”

    There are some great stylistic and memorable moments in this work fitting the Hartley gestalt I have been gradually formulating with a few definite classics above, but, overall, I found this one too long, confusing, rambling, info-dumpish and unbelievable. I did however appreciate the character of Jimmy, butterfly and moth collector, and his remarkably described ‘killing bottle’ also referred to as “lethal chamber” in which we witness a butterfly die. Jimmy, with this bottle, is visiting a large house and moated castle in the back of beyond, as invited by his friend Rollo, along with Rollo’s pushy somewhat over-dramatic wife and Rollo’s increasingly sinister-seeming brother Randolph who ran the whole place, with various rooms like the Pink one and the Onyx one, the latter with an amazing ceiling that features in the, for me, incomprehensible but wildly haunting climax…and, surprisingly, no hunting trophies on the house’s walls!

    The first time the sinister aspects become obvious is at this elbow-point: “‘What do you suppose won’t come to light?’ inquired a voice at his elbow. He looked up. Randolph Verdew was standing by his chair and looking over his shoulder at the newspaper.” And this is a newspaper which, in a different edition to hand, had an inexplicable hole cut into it, an article cut out appertaining, as it turned out, to the central theme illustrated, for me, by this later strange statement by a man to Jimmy in the woods: “And Mr. Verdew [Randolph] has always been cruel fond of animals….”


    One aspect that stood out for me is the mention of the “inward monitor” of what I see as this whole revelatory book’s gestalt of an autonomous THOUGHT, mentioned in this last story soon after this telling passage: “The substance of his day-dream had been forgotten; but it had left its ambassador behind it – something that whether apprehended by the mind as a colour, a taste, or a local inflammation, spoke with an insistent voice and always to the same purpose: ‘Don’t show Randolph Verdew the butterfly; let it go, here, out of the window, and send him an apology.’” and later this passage: “It was two-syllabled, like the interval of the cuckoo’s call inverted, and might have been his own name.”


  23. Pingback: BETTER NOT by Elizabeth Taylor | The Gestalt Real-Time Reviews of Books

  24. Pingback: THE TWO VAYNES by L.P. Hartley | Nemonymous Night

  25. Pingback: W.S. by L.P. Hartley | The Gestalt Real-Time Reviews of Books

  26. Pingback: Other Stories by L.P Hartley | The Gestalt Real-Time Reviews of Books

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