This paper will examine William Fryer Harvey’s “August Heat,” a small classic of a horror story, hardly more than four pages long, which most people fail to see as such. Indeed, after I first read this story when I was 16 or 18, and was engulfed in the story’s terrifying imagery and incident, I found that most others I introduced the story to were not scared much at all. All I can say is that these readers lacked the skill to see the brilliance of Harvey’s dread and unease, the beautifully skillful story line that blends past, present and future into a harrowing glimpse into the known and unknown, the experienced and unexperienced, with a final sight onto nameless death approaching, and a dark, uncharted future that nebulously looms over the two main characters.
This might all sound fairly appealing in a horrific sense – visions of death and dire future materiality – but in terms of at least half of this formula, the future, we find that there is little analysis of this conception in terms of horror. In one well-known work, Noel Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror, there is nearly no mention of the future in terms of horror (one of many oversights in this, largely overrated work; its only strong point is that it is one of the few works that has studied this topic extensively). Or am I wrong? “The Pedestrian” by Ray Bradbury, a great, terrifying story (whether it is a “horror story” or not may be debatable) has been called a “paranoid vision of the future” (Aggelis, 125). The Haunters and the Haunted: Ghost Stories and Tales of the Supernatural observes a vision in horror “that sees through the Past, and cleaves through the veil of the Future” (Project Gutenberg, no page #). A work like Stephen King’s “The Reach” has apparitions, mostly of the past, but its visionistic element is outstanding, and it is a top-notch story. In some senses, visions of the future may be more prevalent in frightening science fiction or speculative stories, such as those of Lovecraft or Poe, who “includes various…speculations to create psychologically disturbing and mesmerizing effects in his dark tales” (here we see perhaps a sidelong look at what could be an orientation to the future; Rukeyser, 13). H. G. Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come might fall into this category, though it is perhaps read more as non-fiction future history (not horror). Such effects are even found in manga art, such as “Flower of the Deep Sleep” by Yuana Kazumi, which has been seen as a story about “coping with a psychic gift: the ability to dream the future” (Amazon.com).
For a broader futuristic view, see The Classic Horror Stories by H. P. Lovecraft, which contain extended examination of the future in horror and speculative fiction, and examine “Casting one's mind all over eternity for knowledge of past and future ages,” “the power of…keener minds to project themselves into the past and future,” and minds that envision “the whole history, past and future, of the cosmic space-time continuum” (389, 398, 429). In any case, Harvey’s story, in my view, clearly delves into futuristic vision, although in some senses he does not actually focus on this idea (there is no real explanation or analysis of such a theme in the story, simply an incident that readers take in). For Harvey, “it just happened,” the protagonists are not some kinds of mystic or supernatural apparitions, they must simply deal with the dark possibilities they have uncovered in the course of their daily (less future, though this is definitely indicated) life.
I will assume that readers of this paper have read this story (if you have not, get your hands on it as soon as possible; the story was published in 1910, possibly in a book of the same name), and thus I am not going to recount all the action, incident by incident.
And so, why do I, unlike several other people I have known, find this story so scary? At the highest level, and as noted, the story examines views onto the future (and to a lesser extent, the past), and very shadowy prospects that reside there. In a word, both characters in the tale – the semi-professional artist James Clarence Withencroft and the stonemason Chs. Atkinson – find that they have had visions of the future that indicate disaster in the works for both of them. We feel an intense empathy for the two men for the difficult and dangerous situation they have been thrust into.
The story begins with one of these visions and its suggestion of danger, though at this point we are not aware of its import. Early in the day, Mr. Withencroft draws the picture of a “mountain of flesh” of a man, “a criminal in the dock immediately after the judge had pronounced sentence.” The announced sentence was obviously guilty, but we do not know the crime. The man’s guilty face portrays a picture “not so much…of horror as of utter, absolute collapse,” and we sense that the crime must have been dreadfully serious – murder, we guess. This view of the protagonist suggests he has seen beyond, into a vision of something that has already happened – we might say a view onto the past at this point.
All of this takes place on a dreadfully hot day, “oppressively hot,” “hot as hell,” “hot and glary,” which itself seems to augur worse, with the heat penetrating into the brains of the characters, altering their consciousness, and copper-colored storm clouds masking the horizon. Mr. Withencroft tucks the picture into his pocket before taking a long walk to relax, not yet realizing what he has unearthed.
At the end of his walk, Mr. Atkinson finds himself in front of a stonemason’s workshop run by “CHS. ATKINSON, MONUMENTAL MASON / WORKER IN ENGLISH AND ITALIAN MARBLES.” Within moments he views Mr. Atkinson working on a stone, and he soon sees two terrifying things. First, he sees that the mason “was the man I had been drawing, whose portrait lay in my pocket.” This appears portentous enough, but further, Mr. Withencroft then sees the name and dates that the mason has been cutting into the stone. Who would not be horrified to see their own name on a gravestone, with the correct birth date, and the death date seeming to indicate that very day? The inscription on the stone reads:
SACRED TO THE MEMORY
“In the midst of life we are in death.” This seems to refer to the fact that the two men have both witnessed the future ends of lives in the midst of their own current situations (we will find, as we have seen already, that there is a tracing along lines that transgress the past, present and future in all that happens in this story – a view onto an “endeavor to defend…against the weight of the past and the anxiety of the present by searching out a deeper, more essential origin” (Blackburn). Mr. Withencroft probably takes little solace in the fact that the death date carved onto the headstone is itself fragmentary, though we certainly know the day; note that we see a brief reference to the past, with Mr. Withencroft’s birth date. In this respect the story is unfinished (as most of this story is), for the terror that had coursed through Mr. Withencroft’s mind when he had set eyes on the stone may be of no import – the actual day of death may not be this day (this year). But then again we feel that it is this day – it only makes sense that the stonemason would have “finished the job” he had started. And as well, Mr. Withencroft has dated the notes he is taking on the upper floor at the end (in fact the beginning) of the story as “August 20th, 190-,” mirroring what he had seen earlier in the day, and seeming to doom himself to what has been predicted; also in this respect, there is another sort of arc of time and in a sense unfinished element to the story, as we see that the story begins with Mr. Withencroft recalling the day that has passed, seated on the upper floor of Mr. Atkinson’s home, at the end of the story. The beginning and ending can be seen to be happening simultaneously, a deft narrative touch.
Upon seeing his name on the stone, Mr. Withencroft asks Mr. Atkinson straightforwardly where he had gotten the name. Mr. Atkinson answers, “Why do you want to know?”
“It’s a strange coincidence, but it happens to be mine,” replies Mr. Withencroft, and the suggestion is terrifying. Only a “strange coincidence” it might seem, but clearly it is much more that that, for it is a further view into the future that Mr. Withencroft had glimpsed that morning, though the relationship between the two is still unknown (though Mr. Withencroft may be guessing at this point that he finds himself in the company of a killer).
Then Mr. Atkinson enquires, “And the dates?”
“I can only answer for one of them, and that’s correct.”
“It’s a rum go!” cries Mr. Atkinson, and no doubt readers would agree with what looks like a bit of Old English lingo – and again ponder what must be no less than terror coursing through Mr. Withencroft’s mind.
Mr. Withencroft then draws out the picture he had drawn that morning. When the two observe this, they ponder whether they could have met or known each other before, but to no avail. “I tried at first to persuade myself that I had seen him before,” thinks Mr. Withencroft, “that his face, unknown to me, had found a place in some out-of-the-way corner of my memory.” But he recognizes this as “little more than a plausible piece of self-deception.” “You probably heard my name,” Mr. Withencroft says out loud, and Mr. Atkinson replies, “And you must have seen me somewhere and have forgotten it! Were you at Clacton-on-Sea last July?” Rather than finding an answer, they are forced to face a distressing fact: Whether they had this day “seen a ghost.” Two ghosts from the past, from the future? The two men realize almost simultaneously that they have witnessed and produced the occult and unknown during their daily labors, and the danger at hand cuts like a knife between them. In terms of what we see here, it indicates the hinge of this story. That is, neither of the protagonists fully realizes what they have revealed with their visions. They both know they have seen something, but they are not sure what this will lead to. They have seen glimpses of the future, they suspect, but it is a future as yet unrealized—and they and readers are left to contemplate whether these futures will actually come to pass or not. There is danger in the air, that is apparent, but…will anything actually happen? Will Mr. Withencroft die on this day as forecast, and will Mr. Atkinson be accused of and found guilty of a crime (a bit further yet into the future)? We don’t know, and we will not know at the end of the story, and here is the unfinished aspect of this story, the aspect that leaves readers in effect gasping and puzzling what exactly it is they can expect next. This lack of completion is at the heart of the horror of this tale, with readers feeling a waft of incomprehension. Not knowing what the future holds is the ultimate lack, the ultimate inadequacy, a feeling of being without any chance of safety or defense against the unknown, that which is remote and potentially threatening in life.
The ultimate question we are asking will remain unanswered, but we know that each of these men has seen a glimpse of two people whose lives are about to come to an end. The two protagonists may indeed wonder whether the two people in their visions are “really” them or not. Perhaps, in other words, what they have produced could only be phantasms, simply a “strange coincidence.” We sense otherwise, and the evidence seems conclusive that they are faced with the worst possibility that could be happening to them: terror, not terribly different from facing Dracula, zombies, or a werewolf with blood in his eyes.
As we read the story, we ponder whether the glimpse of the fat man who has been pronounced guilty will in fact be guilty of murder…of James Clarence Withencroft, the man Mr. Atkinson himself had pronounced dead that day? That is certainly the thought in Mr. Withencroft’s mind when he later asks Mr. Atkinson, “You must excuse my asking…but do you know of anything you’ve done for which you could be put on trial?” Mr. Atkinson replies no, “I’m not a bankrupt, the business is prosperous enough. Three years ago I gave turkeys to some of the guardians at Christmas, but that’s all I can think of. And they were small ones, too.” He too is searching for a way out; an explanation that what has happened is nothing more than happenstance.
With this weight on their minds, the two men have an anxious
supper, and ultimately retire to the upper floor of the house to try
to see out the remainder of the day safely. “It’s like this,”
Mr. Atkinson says. “We’ll look at the matter straight. If
you go back home tonight, you take your chance of accidents. A cart
may run you over, and there’s always banana skins and orange peel,
to say nothing of falling ladders.” He seems to be reasonable,
but in the reader’s mind there is the possibility that he is in
fact retaining Mr. Withencroft for the final act. In any case they agree
to wait upstairs until midnight. To be sure, danger seems to be afoot.
On the upper floor, Mr. Atkinson is sharpening tools, “putting
an edge on his chisel.” “The air seems charged with thunder,”
and Mr. Withencroft writes nervously on a “shaky table.”
He realizes “I shall be gone in less than an hour,” and
the import of this statement can only be guessed at – gone? Wheretofore?
Here is more that is unknown and unfinished in the story, and indeed,
as we have seen, this entire story is left unfinished, and readers are
left waiting on edge as the two men wait for midnight to arrive. By
this time “the heat is stifling,” and “It is enough
to send a man mad” writes Mr. Withencroft (the final words of
the story). Who is to go mad? Mr. Atkinson exploding in a hurtling burst
of murder? Or Mr. Withencroft, perhaps resulting in a madness-induced
cardiac arrest that will end his life on this predicted day? This question
of a potential “collapse,” as Mr. Withencroft had imagined
in his portrait, is left unanswered, and the reader is left drenched
in their own anxiety, wondering what is to happen next.
“August Heat” is a terrific “horror” story. Scary as hell, a mystical story of what could be, what may be foretold, what dreadful end might await us. We never learn the actual end of this story. Its unfinishedness is part of its mystique: the may, might, could. On the other hand, we very much see what has actually happened in the story – two views into a very possibly deadly future that will leave lives broken, lives lost. In this light, what we know is not indefinite at all, we are fully aware of its potential consequence. This balanced view onto the known and unknown is part of the magic of this tale. We are left in a middle ground of knowing and unknowing, between existence and expiry. “August Heat” is a remarkable tale of a remarkable day, touching on life and death in the most profound ways.
Amazon.com, “Flower of the Deep Sleep, Vol. 1 Paperback – January 1, 2007.” Located at <https://www.amazon.com/Flower-Deep-Sleep-Vol-1/dp/159532271X>.
Blackburn, John. “Portrait of the Artist: Sam Shepard and the Anxiety of Identity.” A masters thesis presented to the faculty of the University of Virginia on May 1, 1996. Sam Shepard and the Anxiety of Identity. Formerly located at <http://home.wlu.edu/~blackburnj/shepard/toc.html>.
Carroll, Noel. The Philosophy of Horror: Or, Paradoxes of the Heart. Routledge, 1990.
Harvey, William Fryer. “August Heat.” From the author’s personal collection of downloaded items.
Lovecraft, H. P. The Classic Horror Stories. Edited by Roger Luckhurst. Oxford UP, 2013. Located at http://shadowsgovernment.com/shadows-library/H.%20P.%20Lovecraft/The%20Classic%20Horror%20Stories%20(20849)/The%20Classic%20Horror%20Stories%20-%20H.%20P.%20Lovecraft.pdf.
Rukeyser, Muriel. “Science Fiction as the Mythology of the Future; The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” In Contemporary Futurist Thought; Science Fiction, Future Studies, and Theories and Visions of the Future in the Last Century, Thomas Lombardo, Ph.D. AuthorHouse, 2006.
Various authors, The Haunters and The Haunted: Ghost
Stories and Tales of the Supernatural. Edited with an introduction
By Ernest Rhys. Published in London by Daniel O'Connor. Located on Project
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