The Hole of the Pit by Adrian Ross

Bookship eBook cover

First published in October 1914 (shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, which can’t have helped sales much), The Hole of the Pit is the only novel by Adrian Ross, and aside from a short story (“By One, by Two, and by Three”, published in 1887), his only work of weird fiction. But when it was reprinted for the first time in Ramsey Campbell’s anthology Uncanny Banquet in 1992, Campbell wrote: “Only its extreme rarity has prevented it from being acknowledged as one of the first masterpieces of the novel of supernatural terror.” Its base-under-siege main plot, romantic subplot, and first person narration in a 17th century style recall William Hope Hodgson, while the novel itself is dedicated to M R James. (Whom Ross — real name Arthur Reed Ropes — knew, both of them being dons at King’s College, Cambridge, at one point. By the time he wrote The Hole of the Pit, though, Ross had given up his academic career and had been working for over two decades as a lyricist and producer of musicals in London. He’d also translated fiction for the Oxford University Press’s for-schools imprint, Pitt Press, collaborated with his sister on a children’s novel, On Peter’s Island, and written poetry.)

The Hole of the Pit is set in 1645, shortly after the Battle of Naseby, when Cromwell’s forces have defeated the King’s. The narrator is Hubert Leyton, a 27-year-old scholar and gentleman who has avoided taking any part in the Civil War, siding with neither “the ravaging rakes of the King’s army or the slaughtering saints of the Parliament”. (And a passing acquaintance with Cromwell means he has been mostly left alone.)

First HB edition

One day he’s visited by Eldad Pentry, a self-appointed Puritan preacher from Marsham, the closest village to the castle of Deeping Hold. This is the seat of the Earl of Deeping, who happens to be Leyton’s cousin, though a very different sort of man. After spending years involving himself in wars on the continent, and building up a crew of hard-bitten soldiers, the Earl returned to England to fight for the King, but fled when things turned against them at Naseby. Now he’s holed himself up at Deeping, and is demanding the people of Marsham provide him with enough supplies that he can withstand the inevitable siege when Cromwell comes looking for him. (Deeping Hold is built on an outcrop of rock in a treacherous salt marsh, so it’s unlikely to be assaulted.) The people of Marsham can’t provide what he needs without impoverishing themselves, but the Earl has said if they don’t, he’ll simply take it, and with violence. Normally, the villagers would have appealed to the Earl’s wife, but she has recently died under suspicious circumstances. Pentry, then, wants Leyton to appeal to the Earl on the villagers’ behalf.

It so happens Leyton has just discovered, in his library, an old rhyme about that branch of the family:

When the Lord of Deeping Hold
To the Fiend his soul hath sold,
And hath awaken’d what doth sit
In the darkness of the Pit,
Then what doth sit beneath the Hole
Shall come and take him body and soul.

Leyton goes with Pentry, and after witnessing how the Earl and his men have already assaulted the village (among other things, blowing up Pentry’s house, upon hearing he’d gone for help), sets out alone in a boat to reach the castle. On the way, he passes directly over the underwater “Hole” of the prophecy:

“There was nought to frighten a man, save the evil odour; and this seemed to rise from a certain grey glistering slime, whereof streaks and patches lay on the thick water, or coiled lazily towards the side, and now and then a bubble rose and hung long ere it burst. To one so near the water as I was, the blackness of the Hole did not so much appear as from the height above; but even there I could see that it made a round of some eighteen yards across, as I judged.”

He finds his cousin the Earl a doom-haunted man, alternating between bouts of dangerous vivacity and forlorn despondency, and seeming at times to see his dead wife (whose death he obviously feels guilty for). With him at the castle, as well as forty or so soldiers, is an Italian woman, Fiammetta Bardi, who joined him and his men some years back after they rescued her from a mob that had just killed her father, a reputed wizard. Perhaps the book’s most interesting character, Bardi combines Machiavelli and the Borgias in one, with an added dash of black magic. She’s constantly trying to manipulate the power-play on even so small a stage as Deeping Hold, has an evident knowledge of poisons, and in the novel’s most explicitly supernatural scene, performs a rite to summon a devil to get advice on how to deal with their desperate situation. Also at Deeping Hold is Rosamund Fanshawe, a gentlewoman and cousin to the Earl’s late wife, who soon comes to be Leyton’s only real ally once he finds himself trapped at the castle — for, as soon as he arrives, the Earl takes him as a hostage and has his boat broken up for firewood.

David Kearney cover to Ramsey Campbell’s Uncanny Banquet anthology, where The Hole of the Pit was republished for the first time since 1914.

It’s a dangerous enough situation as it is — only exacerbated by the Earl having an enormous store of stolen gunpowder in the castle’s cellar — but there’s also the Thing from the Hole. (The title The Hole of the Pit seems a bit tautologous, but the novel uses “the Pit” as a name for Hell, so it could be taken as meaning something like “The Hole into Hell”. It’s a crude title nonetheless, and can’t have helped sales, but for a now classic work of weird fiction seems oddly perfect.) Ross handles the horror aspects of the novel well, building up the assaults of the creature (if creature it is) from the Hole subtly and gradually. At one point the narrator and several soldiers go out in a boat to bury one of their dead on a small islet among the marshes, only for that section of land to be suddenly sucked away. It might simply have been unstable ground, but Leyton noticed an odd stirring in the waters of the marshes just beforehand, as well as the telltale stink of slime. Later, a man in full armour is thrown into the Hole, only to float up again a moment later. They haul him in, but find the armour an empty shell — all but one boneless foot.

We never really learn the true nature of the Thing in the Hole. (It’s never even called a Thing.) Fiammetta Bardi is the only one familiar with the supernatural, and she gives dark hints:

“There are strange things in this world we see, and in the world unseen, and yet stranger, perchance, in the world of the border.”

(Which makes me wonder if Ross had read Hodgson’s House on the Borderland.)

It’s an enjoyable short horror novel, one that would have been perfect for Hammer or Amicus, if they’d had the budget for a sea-dwelling slime-thing and the destruction of a small castle. Ross’s pastiche on 17th century prose feels spot on (Arthur Reed Ropes was a lecturer in history and poetry, after all), with small details — like Cromwell being referred to dismissively as “Noll Cromwell”, or the way Eldad Pentry doesn’t doff his hat when brought in to see Leyton — adding to the feel that this author knows the times he’s writing of, but is wielding his scholarship lightly. The slow vice-grip of the Earl’s instability, Bardi’s constant scheming, and the ever-encroaching attacks of the slime-thing, are all handled with a nice balance of subtlety and shock, counterpointed by the understated romance between Hubert and Rosamund.

Adrian Ross in 1904

Ultimately, it’s a book about moderation, particularly in regard to religious beliefs. Leyton sees both sides in the Civil War as driven by extremes, forcing everyone in the country to be polarised into one camp or the other, backed up on one side by the unforgiving nature of religious Puritanism, and on the other by the established but tyrannical idea of the Divine Right of Kings. The more practical Leyton knows that, though he may be a Christian, “the Lord has been known to let the worse cause win the field”, so it’s a man’s actions, not his beliefs that count. And those actions should tend towards forgiveness and humanity: “I have seen more than once that a man eaten up with the zeal of religion is wont to think but little of the earthly good of others,” he writes. His own secret belief is that “the infinite mercies of the Lord… are beyond the bounds of our creeds and controversies.” But to say so — to say anything, really — would be considered heresy, so he keeps quiet.

This theme is handled lightly, though, and never gets in the way of the weird yarn. Ross doesn’t have that peculiarity of outlook you find in the more classic writers of weird horror — Machen’s belief in the extremes of sanctity and sin, Blackwood’s in the technicalities of the occult, Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, or even James’s stuffy male-only academicism — which may be partly why The Hole of the Pit doesn’t have more of a reputation. But most likely it’s down to simply not being read, and it’s a book that deserves to be. The Hole of the Pit is a treat-in-waiting if you like classic weird fiction. I would certainly like to have had more in the same vein from Ross.


The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish

The Blazing World (Penguin) coverThe Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish — or, to give both their full titles, The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World, by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle — was first published in 1666 (‘a year of blaze and revelation’ as Alan Moore calls it, as it also saw the Great Fire of London), oddly paired under the same covers as her non-fictional Observations on Experimental Philosophy. But Cavendish regarded the two pieces of writing as complimentary, as though the ‘fantastical’ narrative rounded off the rational one. The two parts, she said ‘were joyned together as Two several Worlds, at their Two Poles’, which is how The Blazing World itself starts, with its protagonist, known at first only as the Lady (later, as the Empress), kidnapped by a merchant who wants to marry her. But the boat in which she’s carried away is somehow drawn to the pole, where, it turns out, two worlds touch. Everyone in the boat is killed by the extreme cold, except the Lady, who survives ‘by the light of her beauty, the heat of her youth, and protection of the gods’. It feels like an allegory of the human brain, divided into the rational and imaginative, joined at a central bridge-point, through which the rational (the men in the boat) can’t pass.

Having travelled to the Blazing World, the Lady meets some bear-men, who decide to take her to their Emperor. On the way, she meets various other fantastical beings: fish-men, bird-men, fox-men, worm-men, geese-men, even lice-men and spider-men. The Emperor’s Imperial City, Paradise, is reached through a winding watery passage between rocks, a little reminiscent of the sea-maze that protects Melniboné in the Elric books. The Emperor is instantly fascinated with the Lady and marries her, whereupon she settles down to improving this already magical world by gathering together its various ‘natural philosophers’ and quizzing them on what they’ve learned. Rather a lot of the book is made up of these inquisitions — which aren’t really interesting, except to throw some light on the scientific speculations of the time, perhaps — but we do at least learn why this world is called the Blazing World:

‘Having thus finished their discourse of the Sun and Moon, the Empress desired to know what Stars there were besides? But they answer’d, that they could perceive in that World none other but Blazing Stars, and from thence it had the name that it was called the Blazing-World; and these Blazing-Stars, said they, were such solid, firm and shining bodies as the Sun and Moon, not of a Globular, but of several sorts of figures: some had tails; and some, other kinds of shapes.’

Soon after this, things get a bit metafictional. The Empress summons the spirit of the Duchess of Newcastle to be her scribe. (It’s only at this point that we learn that the world the Lady originally came from is not our world, as I’d assumed, but another one.) After being told all about the Empress and her story, the Duchess becomes melancholy, as she’d like to be Empress of a world, too. The Empress sends out her spirits to find a world the Duchess can rule, but they come back saying that though there are infinite worlds, they’re all inhabited, and to rule one would mean having to conquer it first, and ‘for the most part, Conquerers seldom enjoy their conquest, for they being more feared than loved, most commonly come to an untimely end’.

The spirits, though, have another suggestion:

‘Yes, answered the Spirits; for every human Creature can create an Immaterial World fully inhabited by Immaterial Creatures, and populous of Immaterial subjects, such as we are, and all this within the compass of the head or scull; nay, not only so, but he may create a World of what fashion and Government he will…’

The Duchess, then, resolves to make her own world in her own head, and be its Empress. She tries out various approaches to world-creation, based on the thinking of various philosophers: Thales, Pythagoras, Plato, Epicurus, Aristotle, Descartes and Hobbs. None work. With the Pythagorean approach, for instance:

‘…she was so puzzled with numbers, how to order and compose the several parts, that she having no skill in Arithmetick, was forced also to desist from the making of that World.’

Or a world based on the ideas of the atomistic Epicurus:

‘…but the infinite Atoms made such a mist, that it quite blinded the perception of her mind; neither was she able to make a Vacuum as a receptacle for those Atoms, or a place which they might retire into…’

Eventually she settles on her own approach:

‘…she was resolved to make a World of her own Invention, and this World was composed of sensitive and rational self-moving Matter; indeed, it was composed only of the Rational, which is the subtlest and purest degree of Matter; for as the Sensitive did move and act both to the perceptions and consistency of the body, so this degree of Matter at the same point of time (for though the degrees are mixt, yet the several parts may move several ways at one time) did move to the Creation of the Imaginary World; which World after it was made, appear’d so curious and full of variety, so well order’d and wisely govern’d, that it cannot possibly be expressed by words, nor the delight and pleasure which the Duchess took in making this World-of-her-own.’

Great results, then, but it makes no sense to me.

The Duchess invites the Empress into her imaginary world, and the two travel there as disembodied spirits. Then, getting homesick, they travel to the Duchess’s home — our world — to visit her husband. As they’re spirits, they can’t talk to him. So, in a potentially awkward move, the Empress and the Duchess pile into the Duke’s body:

‘And then the Duke had three Souls in one Body; and had there been some such Souls more, the Duke would have been like the Grand-Signior in his Seraglio, only it would have been a Platonick Seraglio. But the Duke’s Soul being wise, honest, witty, complaisant and noble, afforded such delight and pleasure to the Empress’s Soul by his conversation, that these two souls became enamoured of each other; which the Duchess’s soul perceiving, grew jealous at first, but then considering that no Adultery could be committed amongst Platonick Lovers, and that Platonism, was Divine, as being derived from Divine Plato, cast forth of her mind that Idea of Jealousie.’

So far, the book has been more about imaginative play and philosophical speculation than any sort of story (the Lady’s initial journey is over with very quickly), but in the final quarter, we do get a story of sorts, as the Empress hears that her original homeland is about to lose a war fought against all the other lands of that world. She decides to help it, using the natural wonders of the Blazing World, including wet-burning fire-stone and light-giving star-stone, and forces of bird-men, fish-men and worm-men. She trounces the opposition at sea, then harries them on land, planting fire-stone bombs under their very towns thanks to the worm-men being able to move through the earth. Then, much praised by everyone, she returns home.

Margaret Cavendish (portrait)Cavendish herself was quite a character, who ‘self-consciously produced herself as a fantastic and singular woman’ (as Kate Lilley writes in the introduction to the Penguin edition), at a time when just to be a woman who wrote was singular enough. The Blazing World is by no means a fantasy as we know it today, nor, really, is it much of a utopia (which is how it’s often classed). With utopias, you expect some sort of blueprint or example of how to change our world for the better, but the Blazing World is wonderful because it’s a place of wonders, not because it has any political or philosophical answers. If it’s selling anything, it’s imagination: the chance that everyone has to make a world for themselves, inside their own heads.

The thing that makes it still readable (though it has its longueurs) is its playful quality, the entirely innocent approach to fantasy world-making, which Cavendish says in her introduction is her main aim and pleasure in writing it:

‘That though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second; yet, I will endeavour to be, Margaret the First: and, though I have neither Power, Time nor Occasion, to be a great Conqueror, like Alexander, or Cesar; yet, rather than not be Mistress of a World, since Fortune and the Fates would give me none, I have made One of my own.’

And, in a bold move that may well make her the creator of the Restoration equivalent of a multi-user dungeon — or which certainly places her alongside the likes of Tolkien, and MAR Barker, and the Lovecraft circle, as well of course as Gary Gygax & co., as people who don’t just make up fantasy worlds to tell stories, but keep them on as game-worlds and places to bring invented languages to life — she issues an invitation to her readers:

‘…and if any should like the World I have made, and be willing to be my Subjects, they may imagine themselves such, and they are such, I mean in their Minds, Fancies or Imaginations; but if they cannot endure to be Subjects, they may create Worlds of their own, and Govern themselves as they please.’

The Blazing World can be read online here.