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.

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