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.


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.