Contemporary reviews of The Hole of the Pit, part II

After my Christmas Day selection of contemporary reviews of Adrian Ross’s The Hole of the Pit, Douglas Anderson kindly sent me some I missed out on, so here’s a follow-up.

First, from The Observer, 16 Oct 1914, and like the London Evening Standard last time, one that gets the title wrong both in its heading (The Hole in the Pit) and the review:

Although the name of “Adrian Ross” is familiar as that of a writer of lyrics for the stage, this seems to be the first time that Mr Arthur Ropes has appeared as a novelist. He has many gifts for that part: a clear unhampered method of setting forth a story and nice invention. “The Hole in the Pit” is a tale of the English Civil War period, but the Civil War has very little to do with it, beyond sending Mr Hubert Leyton to his cousin’s castle to intercede with the Earl on behalf of terrorised villagers. The Earls of Deeping were a wild race and had upon them a curse of unusual potency. What the curse was shall not be told here, nor, indeed, could it be told in few and definite words. The book has an atmosphere of clinging terror which is most skilfully created and maintained. Period history and the like matter very little. Character and conversation hardly matter either, though Mr Hubert Leyton’s tone is very plausibly seventeenth century, and the Italian sorceress has an effectiveness. But for ghostliness and ghastliness the manifestations of the Deepings’ family curse are hard to equal, and it is the cleverly contrived air of the horrible in the scene and in the happenings that makes the book hard to put aside. It ought to be read in broad daylight, and in a robust mood.

Next, The Times Literary Supplement from 22 Oct 1914. This was published unsigned, but Doug tells me it’s by Harry Pirie-Gordon (who co-authored The Weird of the Wanderer with Baron Corvo, and perhaps knew M R James):

Mr Adrian Ross has dedicated The Hole of the Pit (Arnold, 6s.) to the Provost of King’s; and one may well imagine that the Curse which was loosed from the Hole was a sort of grey and amorphous elder brother of the engaging entity which haunted Canon Alberic’s scrap-book. As a rule those who write stories about the period of the Great Rebellion in England have enough to do to cope with the local and contemporary colour surrounding their plots. Mr Ross, however, makes his story centre on a horror which has nothing to do with history, and merely uses his period as a convenient store-house whence he may draw the picturesque persons of his drama. There is a pious preacher and a wicked Earl, a maiden in distress, a negro page, a murdered Countess, and a foreign witch; also many ruffians and a carnivorous Curse. The story threads amid scenes of bloodshed and outrage, and there are some horrible episodes nicely told and not over-described. The hero nearly falls a victim in rescuing the heroine from the clammy embrace of the Curse, which is too strong for the witch, who vainly calls up devils to fight against its powers—as she is menaced no less than the Earl, with whom she keeps company. From the moment when the Curse devours the captive cobbler to that when the Earl cheats it of its prey by drastic means the reader can watch the inexorable advance of the stinking doom.

Finally, the US edition of The Occult Review, from February 1915. It’s signed WHC, which Doug has identified as Wilfred Chesson:

Of an earl, figuring in rhymed prophecy, we are informed that, in a certain eventuality—

“What doth sit beneath the Hole
Shall come and take him body and soul.

The horrible “what” never loses it pronominal mystery in this seventeenth-century English romance of an aristocratic robber, a sorceress, a murdered wife, a charming innocent girl and one Hubert Leyton, who serves as chronicler. Mr Ropes skilfully blends the weird and repulsive in incident and local colour with the tender glow of first love, and the sublime heroism of a Cromwellian Puritan. His novel may be recommended as excellent mental fare for that time of the year when the body being fortified by unwonted rations, the imagination is inclined to feast itself on fictitious marvels and terrors.

Oddly, this review doesn’t seem to have appeared in the UK edition of The Occult Review, at least not in the scans available at The International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals (though I did find another review by WHC among them, for William Hope Hodgson’s Men of the Deep Waters).

Finally this quote from The Yorkshire Post is part of an entry for The Hole of the Pit in a catalogue of Edward Arnold’s new books that Doug came across. I can’t find the full review, but the excerpt is worth quoting:

Seldom since the death of Edgar Allan Poe has there been published a book more uncanny, yet stamped with greater verisimilitude than “The Hole of the Pit.” Mr A R Ropes has conceived a weird yet enthralling plot.

And to finish off, I found another picture of Adrian Ross, this time a full-page photograph in The Tatler, 13 Jan 1904. (The full page can be found at the British Newspaper Archive.)

On the wall behind him is his own portrait:

Adrian Ross in 1904


Contemporary reviews of The Hole of the Pit

Something a little different for Mewsings this time round, inspired by discovering that Adrian Ross’s weird 1914 novel The Hole of the Pit, which I reviewed back in March, was suggested in the 23 December 1914 issue of The Bystander as a possible Christmas gift book, accompanied by a photo of the author:

That made me seek out reviews of The Hole of the Pit from the time, and here’s what I found. They’re all from 1914. First, The Spectator, 17 Oct:

It is an open secret that under the pseudonym of “Adrian Ross” Mr Ropes has for many years contributed to the gaiety of nations as the author of scores, if not hundreds, of the smooth and well-turned lyrics which diversify the ineptitude of the prose dialogue of modern musical comedy. But these activities represent only one side of his literary existence. He has lectured and written on history, and about a dozen years ago wrote, in collaboration with his sister, an excellent historical romance with a Russian venue called On Peter’s Island. The scene of his new novel is laid in England, the time is that of the war of King and Parliament, and Mr Ropes makes a conscientious and, on the whole, successful effort to reproduce the mannered diction of the period, though there is a rather grotesque modern and masculine touch in the description of a lady being clad “in some sort of red stuff.” But this is no costume novel, nor does it rely for its appeal to the reader on the use of what Stevenson called “tushery”. The clue to its contents is to be found in the dedication to Dr Montague James, “Provost of King’s and Teller of Ghost Stories.” Like another purveyor of light and jocund entertainment—Mr W W Jacobs—Mr Ropes has here indemnified himself for his habitual levity by an incursion into the realm of the uncanny and the macabre. Hubert Leyton, the narrator of the tale, is a young country gentleman who was bred for the Church, but, developing Puritan views, settled down on his estate on the death of his parents. He is a serious youth, a scholar and something of a pedant, with a “Hamlet-esque” temper which keeps him out of the arena, though his sympathies are more with Cromwell than with the Cavaliers. To complicate the situation, he is cousin and heir to Philip, Earl of Deeping, who, after the rout of Naseby, has retired to an inaccessible stronghold on the coast with a following of desperadoes and soldiers of fortune, where he carries on a sort of small guerrilla war on the countryfolk, who are mostly Roundheads. After an especially destructive raid, Leyton is appealed to by the leader of the villagers, a fanatic preacher, to carry an ultimatum to his cousin. He does so, is promptly made prisoner, and detained in the castle. There he finds, besides his cousin and his cutthroat garrison, an Italian lady, the Earl’s paramour, who is versed in black magic; a Swedish soldier of fortune; and Rosamond Fanshawe, a kinswomen of the Earl’s murdered wife, and the only person on the side of the angels. For the further information of the reader it is enough to state that there is a curse on the House of Deeping, connected with a mysterious and noisome pool or hole in one of the channels which traverse the sands near the castle, that this hole is haunted by a horrific presence, and that the sands and tides are periodically possessed with an encroaching and engulfing power. The wicked Earl and his paramour are fully conscious of their peril, which the lady seeks to counteract by exercise of her witchcraft, and the situation develops in a crescendo of horrors until the doom of the House of Deeping is finally accomplished.

As an essay in the art of scalp-raising Mr Ropes’s story has much to recommend it. The contrast between the somewhat priggish, but wholly virtuous, narrator and the desperate villains with whom he is brought into contact lends piquancy to the recital, and in his handling of the atmosphere and the physical surroundings of the castle the author has shown considerable skill. Our only serious complaint is that when it comes to the horrors themselves he relies more on description than suggestion, and the reiterated references to the odious smell that emanated from the “hole of the Pit” savour of a crude and inartistic realism.

(To respond to the reviewer’s objection to “stuff” referring to the cloth of a garment as overly modern, the OED cites that usage as far back as 1462.)

The Birmingham Daily Post, 30 October:

This is a story of the Civil war that has nothing to do with the history of that much-used period. It is true that the atmosphere is that of the “Cavalier and Roundhead” days. There is a religious fanatic and a wicked earl. There are, we gather, Ironsides in the distant background; and Noll Cromwell is mentioned by name. But the story has nothing to do with the war. The wicked earl, the Italian witch who is his mistress, the foreign soldiery who have learned their brutality under Prince Rupert, are all conquered by a power even more potent than the arquebuses of the psalm-singing gentlemen. How they are shut up in Deeping Hold amid the salt marshes, how a great terror comes upon them out of the mist, how the Hold is finally broken and only the two righteous persons—hero and heroine, manage to escape—all this is told in a mystery story that is one of the best of its kind. The author is to be congratulated on the skill and taste with which he insinuates horrors rather than describes them. He is to be congratulated also on the skill with which he paints his characters. It is rare, in a story of this sort, for the reader to be interested in people as distinct from events. But Mr Adrian Ross certainly interests us so. We must confess even to a sneaking liking for the wicked earl, who for all his faults is certainly a gentleman.

Thus proving that one reviewer’s “relies more on description than suggestion” is another’s “insinuates rather than describes”.

The London Evening Standard, 3 November, refers to the novel in its heading and in the review as The Hole in the Pit:

Tales of the war between Cavaliers and Roundheads are so common that we must congratulate Mr Ross on having given a turn of originality to the one which he has added to their number. Though timed for the months immediately following Naseby, “The Hole in the Pit” does not owe its plot to any historical incident, nor do its pages make more than a passing reference to any of the great figures of those days. Did the story concern twentieth-century people it would be less picturesque, but it would lose in little else. The ancient curse, the wicked earl, and the Italian witch, though having their eternal places in fiction, are perhaps seen at their best across a few centuries, but neither they nor the hero and heroine are the true centre of interest. From chapter to chapter the reader is haunted by a horrid, amorphous terror. The carnage and outrage of guerrilla warfare, even the black magic of the foreign woman, are mild compared with this other nameless thing. Shivers of expectation and dread anticipate doom, and to all who have a taste for hair-raising narratives we can commend this book as excellent. But the real surprise of it all is that such a tale should come from Mr Ross, the writer of so many of the light lyrics of musical comedy.

The Northern Whig, 7 November:

“The Hole of the Pit” by Adrian Ross (London: Edward Arnold, 6s), is a not very successful combination of the historical novel a la Crockett and the blood-curdler after the manner of Bram Stoker. Placed in the middle of the Cromwellian wars, most of the happenings take place in an ancient castle owned by a brilliantly wicked Cavalier, whose principal possession was an Italian mistress who dabbled in the black art. Deeping Hold was not a prepossessing residence, built on a rock among quicksands and marshes, among which dwelt a something, a glutinous jelly-like mystery, a punishment born of wickedness, which in the end saps through the castle and destroys all that is in it, except of course the virtuous hero and the equally virtuous heroine. Taking the hair of Rosamond in his teeth, the former plunged desperately into the billows and swam desperately with hands and feet (the usual implements), surviving to marry and set down this story, which nevertheless fails to make our flesh creep as much as Mr Ross desires.

The Athenaeum, 7 November, which has to, even in so brief a review, call Ross out on a footnote of classical history:

It has been maintained more than once that a poet has it in him to transfer his energies with success to many spheres alien to his poetry. This may explain why Adrian Ross, whose signature we have seen under many excellent lyrics, is an expert in the gruesome. Here he invents a wicked earl, a Swedish swashbuckler, and an Italian sorceress of the most approved order; also — best of all — a horror connected with the sea. But very wisely he does not explain exactly what the horror is, though it is sufficiently awful and potent to swallow up the wicked earl’s castle, after refusing the sacrifice of a black cock and even of a negro, carried out by the sorceress.

Mr Ropes tells his story admirably; he does not overdo his mystery, yet he gives it its full importance; he has an eye for scenery and the right turn for description. The result is a book that should most certainly not be read late at night in a desolate house. There is, by the way, one curious slip (though it is put into the mouth of one of the characters): the consul who threw the scared chickens into the sea is called Claudius. It was in reality C Duilius Nepos who “forced” the omens before the battle of the Lipari Islands in 260BC. The slip may have arisen from the fact that, when the Columna Rostrata was destroyed, the new column was erected by the Emperor Claudius.

And Country Life, 14 November:

The reader who enjoys a thoroughly gruesome narrative should not miss The Hole of the Pit, wherein a young scholar of Puritan leanings details with an admirable restraint and no small dramatic power the form in which an ancient curse fulfilled itself. After the battle of Naseby the Earl of Deeping has betaken himself with some few troopers to his castle, an isolated stronghold built upon a rock in the sea-marches. A curse rests upon Deeping Hold, and it is upon this that the tale, an engrossing one, told with a leisured appreciation of its creeping horror, is hung, for while the Earl is preparing himself here in the anticipation of attack from a company of Roundheads the curse overtakes him in such stealthy and curious wise that the reader is himself left in ignorance as to its explanation and significance.

Finally, from January of the following year, a couple of newspapers tried to make a joke of the fact that Ross, most well known as a lyricist for the musical theatre, had written a horror novel. First, the Leicester Evening Mail’s hint at a pun:

Adrian Ross has written a novel called “The Hole of the Pit.” It has no bearing, however, on the falling off in popularity of musical comedies.

While The Globe achieves — one might say — the whole of the pun:

Mr Adrian Ross has written a novel called “The Hole of the Pit,” which is totally different in character from the lyrics with which he is wont to delight the whole of the pit, and stalls.


Treacle Walker by Alan Garner

Young Joe Coppock is lying in bed at home, alone, recuperating from an unspecified illness. (He gets sickly headaches and has to stay out of the sun; he also has one good eye and one “wonky” one, and has to wear a patch over the good one to make his brain set the wonky one right.) A train passes — the only train Joe ever hears, which he’s nicknamed Noony because it passes at noon — and he hears a call from the yard outside:

“Ragbone! Ragbone! Any rags! Pots for rags! Donkey stone!”

Joe rushes to find a rag (an old pair of pyjamas) and a bone (a lamb’s shoulder blade he’s stored with his little collection of bird’s eggs). In return, the rag-and-bone man gives him a donkey stone (used for whitening doorsteps, and which here bears an ancient horse symbol on its back) and his choice of pot from a chest on the rag-and-bone man’s cart — a chest which, oddly, has Joe’s name on it. Joe picks a small white cup with the words “Poor Man’s Friend” on it, that contains a tiny fragment of violet-green paste. The rag-and-bone man’s eyes are the same colour. His name is Treacle Walker, and as well as being a rag-and-bone man, claims to be a healer, of “All things; save jealousy. Which none can.” (“Treacle” originally meaning medicine, apparently.)

They go inside to the hearth and Treacle Walker produces a bone flute, which he lets Joe play. Joe produces a couple of notes, which are instantly answered by the call of a distant cuckoo — a cuckoo we never see (though Joe certainly tries to, as he wants to add one of its eggs to his collection) but which seems to preside over the rest of the novel, as though by playing his notes and waking this bird, Joe has set something in motion.

Poor Man’s Friend, image from Worthpoint

But what? What is going on here? It soon becomes apparent that, however normal Joe’s convalescent life may seem at first, it’s anything but. We never see his parents. Things only seem to happen at noon, after the hoot of the train lets Joe know what time it is. And noon is when the sun is at its strongest, so it’s when Joe isn’t supposed to be outside. It’s as though his recovery, his need to stay out of the sun, his only seeming to exist in the noon of the day, are all a way of showing that Joe is stuck, his life composed of rituals (like the list of places he routinely checks from his window, to see who might be out there). And his home is an oddly reduced sort of home, consisting only of a bed (for rest and recovery), a hearth (for warmth, and conversations), and a door (to keep the unwanted out). Not so much a real home, then, as the archetype of one — a home in a dream, or a memory of homes past.

Treacle Walker comes to this world unasked for, and offers few answers as to why he’s here. He speaks a sort of nonsense (though, knowing Garner, it’s all, I’m sure, authentic dialect and abstruse vocabulary): “craven nidget”, “my amblyopic friend”, “the hurlothrumbo of winter”, “a lomperhomock of night”, “furibund”. “Such tarradiddles,” he exclaims at one point, “such macaronics. Such nominies for a young head.” He later claims:

“I have been through Hickety, Pickety, France and High Spain, by crinkum, crankims, crooks and straights.”

Treacle Walker comes across as a mix between the old wizard Cadellin of Garner’s first two books, and Murrangurk, a.k.a Strandloper, from his novel of that name — a walkabout tramp and shaman, a wise man of quiet power and mystery. But with his nonsensical hints, he’s also a bit of a Cheshire Cat to Joe’s Alice (and Joe soon takes his own trip through the Looking Glass, chasing a trio of characters who have emerged from his favourite comic). Perhaps we’re not in the real world, then, but a sort of Garner version of Wonderland.

coverJoe, it turns out, has a bit of Strandloper about him, too, but where William Buckley had to go through a hellish journey in the bowels of a ship and the unforgiving outback of Australia to learn to see the sacred in his home landscape, Joe already has the gift of second sight thanks to his “wonky” eye, as he learns when he goes to have it tested. Looking at an eye chart, he sees the usual jumble of random letters with one eye, but with the other sees letters that spell out what Joe doesn’t at the time know to be a pair of “catalectic hexameters” (more of Treacle Walker’s educated nonsense) in Latin. Later, venturing into a local patch of marsh, he finds that, when he looks at it with his special eye, it stretches off forever, as though he were seeing the present and the past in the landscape at once — like Murrangurk the shaman, in all but that he doesn’t understand what he’s seeing or why.

In the bog, Joe meets Thin Amren, a naked man in a leather hood who has, till now, been sleeping (and dreaming) under the water. Was he woken by Joe’s cuckoo call on the bone flute? It’s fairly clear that, just as the mark on the donkey stone resembles the White Horse of Uffington, Thin Amren is a bog-body, one of those eerie sacrifices preserved in the waters from ancient times. What’s he doing walking about, talking to Joe? And what of the characters that emerge from Joe’s comic, the Knockout (whose name, like the waters of the dreaming bog, implies a state of unconsciousness), Stonehenge Kit the Ancient Brit and his adversaries Whizzy the Wizard and the Brit Bashers? Why is Joe surrounded by imaginary characters?

Norman Ward’s Stonehenge Kit from The Knockout comic

Perhaps, though, that’s the wrong way to put it. Perhaps Joe isn’t so much surrounded by imaginary characters as in his natural element. Perhaps he’s imaginary himself. Because, to me, Treacle Walker reads like it’s all taking place inside Garner’s head. These are all characters we’ve met in his fiction before, in different forms. Joe is, though younger, like so many of Garner’s troubled young male protagonists, with their “badly” fits and visions. Like those boys and men — the Tom/Thomas/Macey of Red Shift, the William Buckley of Strandloper — he has his totemic objects, his nonsensically-named, apparently worthless but actually ancient or old or magical artefacts. They had their “Bunty”, their “grallus”, their “swaddledidaff”; Joe has his marbles (with their nonsensical schoolboy names, his “dobber glass alley”, and his “blood alley”), his “Poor Man’s Friend” cup, his donkey stone — he has a whole host of totemic nonsense objects, in fact. But each of these characters is a progression, a variant, and here, for the first time, we have a young Garner protagonist not in a relationship with a woman whose work it is to heal him (in fact, there are no women in the book). But there is still healing going on, and as in those earlier books it’s healing that works through telling, through story, through opening up despite the difficulty in doing so. (This book has its equivalent of the invitation-to-tell-a-story conversation that occurs in other Garner books. Here, it’s “Tell me.” “I can’t.” repeated three times, before the dam breaks and the telling starts.)

However much the setting, here, resembles that of Garner’s own childhood, it’s not a real world. At one point, Treacle Walker calls the yard outside Joe’s home “this Middle-Yard”, and makes it sound like the Middle-Earth of norse myth, the region between heaven and hell where men spend their brief mortal moment, which might as well be a dream.

Boneland coverIf Joe is a sort of Tom/Thomas/Macey, and Treacle Walker a Cadellin and a Murrengurk, what of Thin Amren, the bog man who should be dreaming? Perhaps he’s that other presence that lurks in Garner’s fiction, the Sleeper Under the Hill (and Joe briefly goes out to a hill and feels the presence of a sleeper under it, and also feels a “Nothing. No one. Only loss”, like an echo of the deep sense of emptiness and isolation in Tom from Red Shift or Colin from Boneland, though here it’s only a moment, then it’s gone). Thin Amren is a dreamer, and whether he’s a figure from Joe’s inner life, or Joe is his dream, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that between them they represent the young present rooted in the ancient past, and in this they sum up the entire Garner double-vision view of the world. They aren’t cause and effect, but coexistent.

Near the end of this very short novel, Joe asks a question of Treacle Walker (whom Thin Amren, another dialect nonsense-talker, calls “that pickthank psychopomp”) which might be a solution to this whole situation, but if so, it’s a throwaway one. I prefer my feeling that all the characters, here, are Garner archetypes, and it’s all taking place in the author’s dream-time world. What we have here, then, is Garner’s autobiography, not of facts or reminiscences, but of his dreaming self, in which the boy he once was, the sick kid in bed who was twice declared dead, turns into the shamanistic wanderer, the healer and storyteller, the combined tramp-and-wizard, the bog-man dreamer and comic-reading little boy, all in one. (And I can’t help likening the cuckoo Joe wakes with his playing of the bone flute with the idea that Garner, as a young man, came to feel alienated from both his family and the landscape he’d grown up in, when he was the first of them to be educated, and so to come to see the world through both the folkloristic view of his family, and the archeological and historical view of a scientist. That, perhaps, was the cuckoo-call that set off his own writerly journey.) This is the story of how all these dualities are in fact one thing, and how they return to that oneness, through the calling of a cuckoo and a chase through mirrors. And, like all of Garner’s books, it’s a story of healing — self-healing.

One more thing to say is that, for perhaps the first time in his novels, I really feel Garner, here, is having fun. Not that there isn’t distress and peril and pain (Joe’s headaches, his being chased through mirror-worlds, the loneliness he feels on the hill), but there’s an air of nonsense-play, and a fondness for the little things of distant childhood (comics, marbles, trains, bird’s eggs) that far outweighs the darker elements.

It’s a dream, this novel, a making sense through image and archetype, on the level of imagination and story, which has, really, been the trajectory of Garner’s novels from the start. This, perhaps, is it in its purest, most concentrated, yet lightest, form yet.