Sunday, April 27, 2014

Patrick Carleton, Thirties Novelist

In a contribution to a mailing of the ghost story correspondence society The Everlasting Club (new members welcome), the eminent anthologist and scholar of the field Richard Dalby revealed his researches into the little-known author of a single Jamesian tale, ‘Dr Horder’s Room’. This was Patrick Carleton, whose story of the malevolent spectre of a Cambridge Master of College was published in the anthology Thrills (Philip Allan, 1935), and reprinted in Ghosts and Scholars (1987), edited by Richard with Rosemary Pardoe. As Richard noted, Carleton had also written novels for Allan, and so that must have been how he came to be included in the collection. But who was Patrick Carleton?

Richard noticed that one of Carleton’s novels was dedicated to the actor Michael Redgrave, and was able to discover more about him by consulting biographies of Redgrave. These revealed that Carleton was the slightly disguised pen-name of Patrick Railton (1907-42), known to his friends as Paddy. He is described as “a frequently heavy boozer and often wildly funny”. Richard further established that “he was invalided out of the army in 1941 and (spending his last months in a sanatorium in Ruthin, North Wales) died of tuberculosis in the summer of 1942.” As well as his novels, Carleton had written a study of ancient history, Buried Empires – The Earliest Civilisations of the Middle East (1939). As Richard noted, this had involved him in travels similar to those of Dr Horder in his story.

Doug Anderson was able to add to Richard’s work an explanation of the Carleton pseudonym, identifying that the author’s full name was Patrick Carleton Railton. He also noted that his father was Cecil Carleton Railton, who died in 1944, only two years after his son, while his mother Daisy (1879-1969) was long-lived, and renewed the copyrights on her son’s novels in the US in the 1950s and 60s.

Prompted by these revelations, I looked for Patrick Carleton’s novels. The first I tried, Desirable Young Men (1932) was very striking. The early part is about vivacious, rather precious young undergraduates at interwar Cambridge, with a distinct sense of E F Benson’s college novels, and even a tinge of the camp wit of Ronald Firbank, presumably reflecting Carleton’s own milieu. Though exuberant and witty, it might deter some readers as being a trifle too arch, but the book takes a darker turn in the final third, revealing the youthful hardships, and proud inner life, of the main dilettante figure of the earlier chapters.

Denied a Fellowship on grounds of character, he becomes a recluse in the bleak Peak District, Derbyshire, living in a village close to a thinly-disguised Buxton, and researches medieval witchcraft and paganism. This part, with its evocation of the haggard terrain, is very Machenesque - I'd be surprised if Carleton had not read him. Nothing supernatural happens, but the mood is most sinister.

His brooding scholar falls into obsession and personal neglect, though a worldly doctor befriends and seeks to ‘rescue’ him, rather as the local doctor tries to nurture Lucian Taylor in Machen’s The Hill of Dreams. But whether Machen was an influence or not, Baron Corvo evidently was: “Fr Rolfe’s Adrian VII (sic)” is evoked with approval. This second part of the book presents an interesting and abrupt change in tone, even if it makes for a slightly awkward structure. Though ultimately it doesn’t quite work, the book is exceptionally well written, bold and confident.

A second contemporary novel, The Hawk and The Tree (1934), follows a down-at-heel educated young man on a picaresque journey around England, including stints as a tramp, barman, circus hand, and in other casual jobs. It has deft and memorable portrayals of unusual minor characters he meets on the way, and gives an insight into the devil-may-care mood of subsistence England in the interwar years, again presumably based on Carleton’s own experiences.

His next, Saturday to Monday (1935), is about the intertwining lives of an impoverished but genteel young bank clerk, and an archaeologist returned from the Near East after an injury, and now director of a museum. It includes some brisk, realistic “interior monologue” in which we see into a character’s swiftly-rushing, unguarded thoughts. The technique could be trying if over-used, but Carleton keeps such passages succinct and to the point. The plot is perhaps somewhat too tentative, but once again the authorial bravado rather carries one along.

His final novel, No Stone Unturned (1939), is, on a first reading anyway, less successful: its protagonist is a young American (somewhat unsurely depicted) who has been sent to research family roots in the Peak District by a wealthy Aunt of whom he has expectations. It is notable though, especially for the period, for its sympathetic portrait of a cultured young Jewish diamond merchant.

Carleton’s remaining two novels, One Breath (1934), about a family of travelling showmen, and Under the Hog (1937), about the times of Richard III, are historical romances I have yet to read. It is clear, however, that even if none of his full length fiction is exactly fantastical, Carleton certainly ought to be better-known among aficionados of unusual literature.

Checklist of Books by Patrick Carleton

Desirable Young Men (Philip Allan, 1932)
The Hawk and The Tree; A Novel (Philip Allan, 1933)
One Breath; A Novel (Philip Allan, 1934)
Saturday to Monday: A Novel (Philip Allan, 1935)
Under the Hog; An Historical Novel (Rich and Cowan, 1937)
The Amateur Stage: A Symposium [editor] (Geoffrey Bles, 1939)
Buried Empires: the earliest civilisations of the Middle East (Arnold, 1939)
No Stone Unturned; A Comedy (Rich and Cowan, 1939)

Mark Valentine


  1. "Desirable Young Men" and "The Hawk and the Tree" are uncommon and on the expensive side, but thank you once again for introducing me to a writer whose books I will watch out for.

  2. Good information, Mr. Mark Valentine. You are always interesting.

  3. After all these years I finally found Thrills, with Carleton's Dr Horder's Room, the one Creeps anthology I could never locate!