The Weird – The Tarn – Hugh Walpole

Red Tarn, Helvellyn

When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing
Strode after me.

This famous section from Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem describes his moment of revelation while rowing across a lake, as he perceives the landscape imbued with a mysterious life of its own, tangible yet incomprehensible, emphasising the young and impressionable Wordsworth’s insignificance in the great scheme of things. Thus the Romantic relationship between humanity and nature is encapsulated in a few short lines. Humanity quails. Nature is indifferent.

Wordsworth, by his own admission, is transformed by this strange experience.

for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
>Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

Fenwick, the viewpoint character in Walpole’s ‘The Tarn’, doesn’t actually mention Wordsworth – probably too unfashionable for Fenwick to admit to liking him – but it would be difficult to believe that Fenwick was not familiar with his writings, not least because Fenwick has cloistered himself in the Lake District, in a house close to Ullswater and he seems the sort of man who would, despite disavowing them, return to the Romantics as he broods over the failures of his life.

The Wordsworthian influence is there too at times in the way Fenwick sees the landscape. Clouds are ‘ghost-like armies’, the hills behind Ullswater sprawl above the ‘breast of the plains’ (241). For all his attempts at metropolitan sophistication, Fenwick is in love with this landscape, ‘those curves and lines and hollows’ and casually personifies it with ‘cloudy purple hills hunched like blankets about the knees of some recumbent giant’ (243). Foster too will sense this presence. To him the hills look strange in the twilight, ‘like living men’ they gather ‘close around him’ (245). Where Fenwick sees beauty, he sees a threat, though a threat that he can’t easily articulate.

There is too a flavour of the town mouse and the country mouse about this story. We might read Foster as the urbane city author who knows how to play the game while Fenwick is the unpolished country-boy who believes that genuine ability can overcome a lack of connections. Fenwick may have exiled himself to the Lake District and may live in penury but he experiences a certain measure of mental comfort in his beloved country away from the ‘best of everything’ in London. One suspects his ‘three months in the country’ takes place in a very different kind of setting.

The psychology of the situation is intriguing. According to Fenwick, his failure is entirely attributable to Foster. Somehow he has always managed to trump Fenwick, taking a magazine editorship here, publishing his own better-received novel in the same week as Fenwick’s: the difference between them is reflected in the titles; The Bitter Aloe and The Circus. One might suspect that Fenwick’s unpolished ways are at fault; he seems unable to dissemble and his certainty in his own ability might be misread as arrogance. At the same time, Foster’s professions of admiration for Fenwick’s work don’t ring quite true. Why hasn’t Foster used his influence to help Fenwick if he regards his talent so highly? He can casually admonish Fenwick for ‘[l]iving up here, shut away here, closed in by all these mountains, in this wet climate – always raining – why, you’re out of things! You don’t see people, don’t talk and discover what’s really going on’ and his diagnosis is spot on, but Fenwick’s internal response to Foster’s artless laying out of his annual round – ‘when it had come to the actual counting of the pennies’ – also rings true. It suggests that his own stubbornness in rejecting London is matched by Fenwick’s obtuseness in failing to understand why he has had to reject London.

Fenwick is, in his way, the more emotionally aware of the two . He recognises the intensity of his hatred for Foster, that it is an obsession, and that it is safer that the two don’t meet. As to whether he really doesn’t want friends, as he claims, this is less clear. His perception of Foster’s character – ‘He could not bear to be disliked; he hated that anyone should think ill of him; he wanted everyone to be his friend’ (243) – seems to be equally accurate; one has a sense of two deeply prickly and vulnerable people who might well have been friends in different circumstances. And they are tied in some mysterious way for why else would Fenwick agree when Foster asks if he might visit?

And why he has offered to share his tarn, the special place that ‘seems to belong especially to me’ with Foster (245). ‘As soon as the words were out of his lips he felt as though someone else had said them for him’ (243), a sensation that has been with Fenwick ever since Foster arrived.

Foster does not even know what a tarn is, and Fenwick explains:

A tarn is a miniature lake, a pool of water lying in the lap of the hill. Very quiet, lovely, silent. Some of them are immensely deep. […] – unfathomable – nobody touched the bottom – but quiet, like glass, with shadows only– (244)

Fenwick’s tie with this particular place is such that he can say ‘one day I fancy that it will take me, too, into its confidence – will whisper its secrets’ – while Foster can casually dismiss it with a ‘Very nice. Very beautiful’(245). Foster’s lack of appreciation is significant; for all his expressed desire for friendship he really has little idea of what moves Fenwick.

There is no suggestion that Fenwick planned to murder Foster when he suggested that the two men take an evening walk to the tarn, although there is no doubt that Fenwick harbours violent thoughts about Foster. However, thought is a long way from deed, particularly when you have deliberately tried to maintain a physical distance from the source of those violent thoughts. To whom, then, does Fenwick say, ‘You have some further design in this’ (243).

One might think back to Clark Ashton Smith’s ‘Genius Loci’ for an explanation but Smith’s story traces a distinct if slightly convoluted causal relationship between place and person. Even Blackwood’s ‘The Willows’, while it relies strongly on the remoteness of the landscape to generate atmosphere, nonetheless gives a shape of sorts to the power behind events, Walpole’s story is much more ambiguous. On the one hand, it may be that Fenwick’s obsession with Foster drives him and that it is entirely fitting that Foster himself puts the idea for his death into Fenwick’s mind when he confesses to a fear of water, but this is something he admits to only once they are on their way. There is no indication that Fenwick knew this beforehand; his fantasies concerning Foster have always involved direct physical action: the breaking of bones, though there is an oddity in that he first puts his hands around Foster’s neck before pushing him into the water. How does that work?

Having done the deed, Fenwick is ‘conscious of a warm luxurious relief, a sensuous feeling that was not thought at all’ (245). Surrounded by a silence that takes on human attributes – ‘it spread as though with finger on lip to the already quiescent hills’ (245) – Fenwick appears to be in communion with the tarn itself: ‘It stared back into Fenwick’s face approvingly’ (245). The tarn has become ‘the only friend he had in all the world’ (245); without it he is suddenly lonely. One might conclude that solitude and loneliness have actually driven Fenwick mad.

He had the strangest fancy, but his brain was throbbing so fiercely that he could not think, that it was the tarn that was following him, the tarn slipping, sliding along the road, being with him so that he should not be lonely. (246).

Every slight sound hints at guilt: ‘the click of the gate behind him as though it were shutting him in’ suggests the clang of the prison cell door. His senses are collapsing. Two candlesticks remind him of Foster’s voice, ‘whining with their miserable twinkling plaint’ (246).

Then finally, waking in the night, he finds his room filling, silently, with water, into which he falls: ‘something seemed to push him forward’ (247). And what is it that catches at his ankle, then his thigh, that pushes in his eyeballs? And do drowned humans really look as though they have been strangled or hanged? One can only conjecture.

As indeed one might conjecture whether Foster really exists; or Fenwick, for that matter. The similarity of the names, both confusingly beginning with F, coupled with the intensely antithetical nature of the two men, might suggest a cleaving of one character into two at some point prior to the story’s opening, and indeed might account for Fenwick’s unfathomable loneliness after the apparent murder.

Which, given the story’s ending, throws open a new line of speculation about the story’s viewpoint. All along one has assumed it is Fenwick’s but in the final section something else has clearly come into play. Indeed, what to make of that last line: ‘A twig of ivy, idly, in the little breeze, tapped the pane’ (247). So ordinary an image and yet so oddly menacing

In the end, we are no wiser as to what has happened than we were at the beginning of the story. What seemed certain has been undermined by further developments. Indeed, the more closely one examines the story the more fragile it becomes. What seemed initially to make sense no longer quite fits together but it is not clear why this might be. And there, in that gap where things don’t quite make sense resides the weirdness of this story. What seems so ordinary, so straightforward, becomes increasingly strange the deeper one digs into it. Which perhaps brings us back to Wordsworth, perhaps, and those ‘huge and mighty forms, that do not live like living men’.


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