The Wyndcliffe by Louise Lawrence

cover art by Anthony Maitland

I came across this book while looking for art by Anthony Maitland (having seen his cover for John Gordon’s Giant Under the Snow and wanting more). Louise Lawrence was the pen-name of Elizabeth Holden (1943–2013), and this was her third novel, published in the UK in 1974. (It came out in the US in hardback in 1975, but doesn’t seem to have got a paperback edition in either country.)

It opens with the Hennessey family buying a house in a remote spot near the village of Oakers Mesne. Hollies Place, as the house is known, stands atop the Wyndcliffe, an escarpment overlooking the River Wye. As well as Mr and Mrs Hennessey, the family comprises Simon, 22, who’s studying at the Royal Academy of Music; Ruth, 17, who at first thinks moving to so remote a part of the country will leave her cut off from the world, but soon finds that being from London makes her somewhat glamorous and interesting at her new school and it’s not long before she’s set up with a boyfriend with a motorbike; and Anna, 15, who is lonely at the beginning, and remains lonely as she fails to click with her new classmates.

The contrast between Ruth and Anna is set up from the start:

“Only eighteen months divided Ruth and Anna in time, but Anna seemed so much younger, still a little girl who showed no sign of growing up. Anna at fifteen was very different from Ruth at fifteen, and Ruth at seventeen had left Anna far behind.”

Ruth is destined to fit in, while Anna seems bound for the opposite:

“Ruth had always said she [Anna] wasn’t normal and now Anna knew what she meant. Anna didn’t care about pop singers, and Georgie Best, and eyeshadow, and what her hair ought to look like, and what she ought to wear. But worst of all Anna had never had a boyfriend. There was something wrong with her and they all knew.”

But Anna soon finds a friend. John Hollis is a poet and lover of the natural landscape that surrounds the Wyndcliffe, and he’s 22 years old — but he’s been 22 for nearly a century and a half, as he died in 1823. (Lawrence dedicates the novel to Keats, who is presumably the inspiration for Hollis.) Though both dead and insubstantial, Hollis can be seen and heard by Anna; what’s more, Anna can feel his sensations and emotions, and comes to see the natural world around her in an entirely new way thanks to his presence:

“Perfect. Everything was so perfect. Each feathered grass, slender, delicate, separate and perfect. She was afraid to touch them for fear they’d break. Every frond of bracken, intricate, tinted, perfect. Spiders’ webs, filigree strands, complex, woven, perfect. Everything sprang at her, alive, vibrant with colour. It was as if she became part of the sunlight, insubstantial, intangible, slipping through pink flower petals that brushed her face, smooth, china-smooth, strong and cold…”

If this novel is a kind of supernatural teen romance, it’s clear from the language it’s not a romance between Anna and John Hollis so much as it is between Anna and the landscape, which takes her up and caresses her with its poetry:

“She was helpless in the booming wind. It clutched her with hollow hands as it beat on the percussion sky. It touched her with gentle fingers that played the harpstring trees. She was drowning in the sky full of sounds. Sinking and there was nothing to hold. She reached out for the moving wings, the drifting leaves, the propeller parachutes of white whirling seeds but everything eluded her. She was left to sink. But her falling brought no fear, only a thrill for she was buoyant and the wind always held her.”

Where Anna was lonely before, she comes to learn to appreciate solitude — that is, the solitude of being with John and the countryside that surrounds the Wyndcliffe:

“Solitude and loneliness, John had told her they were different. Once she’d been lonely, she’d had no one and she’d found it terrible to be alone. But now she chose it and was glad.”

back cover detail from the UK HB, art by Anthony Maitland

The Wyndcliffe started by reminding me of other YA novels in which the (often lonely or troubled) protagonist’s coming of age is achieved through contact with a supernatural entity, as in John Wyndham’s Chocky, or William Rayner’s Stag Boy. But whereas Chocky is being told through the sceptical father’s eyes, and he can never be sure, till the final chapter, that Chocky’s not just an imaginary friend, so for most it the whole thing’s treated with a sort of parental indulgence, the second half of Wyndcliffe is all about the very serious struggle to wrest Anna from her relationship with Hollis.

US HB. Art by Stephen Bommell (if I’m reading the signature correctly)

But it’s not her parents who do the wresting. Mr and Mrs Hennessey don’t stay around long enough to establish themselves as characters. Mr H has to go on a month-long-plus business trip to the States, and Mrs H goes with him, leaving Anna and Ruth alone in a new house. Ruth starts to suspect Anna has a boyfriend and follows her to find out who it is, but only sees her sister wandering the countryside talking to herself. When she hears Anna calling out John Hollis’s name, she asks around and though what she hears is clearly folklore, it’s evident this John Hollis is dead. There’s tales of “Mad Edie” who also walked about talking to him, and a story that, because he took the stone to build Hollies Place from the Wyndcliffe, he’s been cursed to haunt that location till he’s driven enough suicides over the cliff’s edge to repay each pound of stone with a pound of flesh. Ruth at first doesn’t believe it, but she can see it’s driving Anna to spend too long in the foul weather, making her ill. She calls Simon back home, and suddenly the pair are like stand-in parents — though far from ideal ones. Simon is condescending, still treating Anna like a little sister half her age and threatening to smack her if she doesn’t simply obey him; Ruth is indifferent and at times doesn’t seem to care if Anna is determined to self-destruct.

But both come to accept, to some degree, that Hollis is real. Both even talk to him, despite not seeing or hearing him: Simon to castigate him for preying on someone who’s still just a girl, Ruth to tell him to face up to reality — the reality being that he’s dead, and ought to act that way.

from the spine of the UK HB, art by Anthony Maitland

There are moments when the book teeters on the edge of Owl Service territory, with Ruth unintentionally taking on the appearance and manner of Sorrel Lancet, the girl who Hollis originally fell in love with, and who his attempts to please led to his early death. Is there to be a replaying of past tragedies? But ultimately, John Hollis is not the implacable force that haunts Garner’s Welsh valley, and Anna, by the end, achieves a new depth and maturity, though on her own terms. She doesn’t give in to Simon and Ruth’s demands she behave and fit in, but neither does she become wholly unworldly like Mad Edie. She hardens, but only to the extent of accepting that life for someone as sensitive and imaginative as she is will likely be tough, and not to the extent of giving up on being who she truly is.

Lawrence wrote a sequel, Sing and Scatter Daisies, published in 1977, but it’s pretty hard to find at a reasonable price, so it might be a while before I read it (if I ever get to). Instead, I think I’ll try some of her other books. She clearly has a way with language — she’s brave enough to give us a full poem from Hollis at one point, and it doesn’t fail to convince — plus a sensitivity for the solitudinous, imaginative type of soul that used to so populate 1970s YA.

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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

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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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