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.

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Night Visitors by Julia Briggs

Night Visitors, Julia Briggs’s 1977 study of ‘The rise and fall of the English ghost story’, employs a bit of (potentially fatal) boundary-blurring early on, first as regards the term ‘ghost story’:

‘It may be apparent that the term ‘ghost story’ is being employed with something of the latitude that characterises the general usage, since it can denote not only stories about ghosts, but about possession and demonic bargains, spirits other than those of the dead, including ghouls, vampires, werewolves, the ‘swarths’ of living men and the ‘ghost-soul’ or Doppelgänger.’

NightVisitorsThe second bit of boundary-blurring regards the term ‘English’, as she includes Irish (Sheridan Le Fanu and Oscar Wilde), Welsh (Arthur Machen), Scottish (Robert Louis Stevenson), American (Henry James and Vernon Lee), and French (Guy de Maupassant) writers in her study. (And if Henry James is excused because he was living in England, what of Kipling, who was living in India?) What makes this so potentially fatal is that her thesis — that the ghost story, as a form, is dead, indeed ‘has become a vehicle for nostalgia, a formulaic exercise content merely to recreate a Dickensian or Monty Jamesian atmosphere. It no longer has any capacity for growth or adaption.’ — and her reasons for it, can perhaps only be taken to apply to the strictly defined ghost story, and perhaps only the English version of it, certainly not the breadth of weird fiction she covers in this study. After all, when the book was published, a horror boom was in full swing, with not only countless anthologies of old ghost and horror stories being published (driven, no doubt, by Hammer’s popularity in the 60s), but also horror novels hitting the bestseller charts for perhaps the first time since Dracula, thanks mostly to Stephen King, but helped by a Brit or two (James Herbert, Ramsey Campbell). So it seems Briggs’s argument should be that the purely English, purely literary, purely ghostly, purely short story may have become moribund, but that the rest of what was taken in by the boundary-blurred remit of her survey was booming.

There is another way to look at it, perhaps only possible now the book is over four decades old. This is that the ghost story achieved a brief and uncharacteristic literary relevance to the fin-de-siècle and Edwardian eras, then stepped back into the crypt of popular, generic fiction where it had always lurked, and where it remains to this day. And what, I’d say, Night Visitors is good for is its look at this brief foray into literary respectability, and why this phase came to an end. (Which perhaps also answers why it came about in the first place.)

So, why did it end?

In short, Freud and the Great War:

‘The Great War had not only trivialised invented horrors by comparison, it had also catalysed changes in society which affected the ghost story less directly but no less fundamentally. Atheism and agnosticism were now more widely tolerated, and totally materialistic philosophies were far commoner than heretofore. The rigid conventions of sexual behaviour which had influenced middle and upper class attitudes, began to be flouted more openly… Now the unconscious itself had become the subject of close scientific scrutiny rather than the more philosophic, often more amateur speculation of the previous century.’

NightVisitors_backSupernatural stories, at the end of the Victorian Age and into the Edwardian, achieved a new relevance and richness thanks to their exploration of the darker areas of human psychology that, after the World Wars, were more explicitly addressed using the newly-accepted scientific terminology of psychoanalysis. (Though some, between the two World Wars, like Blackwood, went to the opposite extreme and used the technical language of the occult.) The ‘psychic doctors’ of Le Fanu, Blackwood and Hodgson had been replaced by psychoanalysts, and the only recourse for the popular ghost story was a retreat into formal conventions, achieving a sort of final perfection in the hands of M R James, who:

‘…did not share the concern shown by other writers (Blackwood or Le Fanu, for instance) with the significance of spirits, the state of mind in which ghosts are seen, or the condition of a universe that permits the maleficent returning dead.’

But Briggs nevertheless finds certain writers who continued to make meaningful use of the ghost, each in their individual way. Elizabeth Bowen, for instance, whose 1945 collection The Demon Lover ‘reveals her ghosts as somehow necessary to their victims, occupying spiritual voids left by the shock of war.’ Or Walter de la Mare, in whose work ‘death has taken over the role which love traditionally plays in fiction, as the most central and significant experience of life…’ She doesn’t mention Robert Aickman, but he’s an author, I’d say, whose ‘strange stories’ — the closest thing the ghost story came to a reinvention in the 20th century — were enabled, not negated, by Freud.

Meanwhile, the 1970s, when Night Visitors appeared, had a definite tendency to render its horrors in gaudy, gory, sensationalistic cinema, often rendered as fleshily physical as the censors (and the special effects) would allow. The psychological subtlety of the ghostly tale, as championed by Briggs, was perhaps not so much dead but drowned out.

Julia Briggs, interviewed for a 1995 documentary, A Pleasant Terror: The Life & Ghosts of M.R. James

Julia Briggs, interviewed for a 1995 documentary, A Pleasant Terror: The Life & Ghosts of M.R. James

The fundamental human experiences that ghosts, as literary devices, were used to explore, though — secrets, repressions, guilt, loss — remain, and always will. Those dark, cobwebby corners of the psyche can’t have been entirely exorcised. So how were they addressed when the ghost story was superseded?

Modern psychological thrillers, whose killers are too often endowed with near-supernatural abilities, provide similar grounds for exploring the darker regions of the psyche. People may not be haunted, but they are stalked. Detectives and criminal profilers try to get into the minds of the killers they’re tracking, as though working on the assumption that these psychos are their own, personal Doppelgängers. The wrenching twists and revelations of a story like Gone Girl — a ghostly title, surely — may not be spiritual, but they tick the other boxes in the formula Briggs provides for what the ghost in the ghost story represents:

‘…the eruption of the tip of the spiritual iceberg, the sudden sense of the existence of previously unknown modes of being that undermined and ultimately invalidated a comfortable confidence in the world of appearances.’

All of these are ghostly tropes, remade for a disbelieving age. (A pity they don’t work as well, for me. I need that hint of the weird, it seems.)

Briggs finishes her study by saying:

‘That bulging, cobwebby box which had so long been clamped down to prevent its terrors escaping has at last been opened, to reveal nothing at all…’

And it’s true, nothing’s there. But that’s probably because he’s standing behind you, with a knife.

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Three Types of Ghost Story

Hill Woman in BlackI’ve been reading a few ghost stories lately. Most recently Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (having already seen Nigel Kneale’s 1989 TV film, and the recent Hammer version), though I found it wanting in a way I didn’t with, say, Dark Matter, or my recent re-read of The Turn of the Screw. Thinking about why this was has led to a little bit of theorising about three types of ghost stories and how they work. So here goes.

The first, and purest, type of ghost story revels entirely in the protagonist’s horror of the supernatural. To make it work, the ordinariness of both the protagonist and their everyday world has to be clearly established, so when the supernatural makes its appearance, it feels truly weird and frightening. In this type of ghost story, the ‘ghost’ doesn’t even have to be a ghost, in the sense of a undead human spirit. M R James’s stories are probably the best example of this type, and his ‘ghosts’ are more often demons or elementals — embodied curses or prohibitions — and when they are human, as in, for instance, ‘Number 13’ or ‘Count Magnus’, they’re often supernaturally-tinged sorcerers or necromancers. This type of ghost story is all about technique — the way the supernatural is hinted at, built up, and finally revealed. The only emotion required of the protagonist is terror; details of his or her inner life just get in the way. You don’t get a lot of human insight from M R James’s stories, but you do get a good ghost story.

The Woman from The Woman in Black

from Nigel Kneale’s 1989 adaptation of The Woman in Black

The second type is as much about the protagonist’s horror at the display of human qualities, such as despair or sorrow, driven to such an extreme they’ve become supernatural. The Woman in Black is of this type. (The book is, anyway. I’d say the 2012 Hammer version, upping the cinematic shock value, turned the Woman into a far more demonic creature than she is in the book.) The bulk of conventional Victorian ghost stories are of this type, too. There, a ghost lingers beyond death because either it has been wronged, or has done wrong, and needs to set things right before it can move on. With The Woman in Black, there’s no longer that Victorian feeling of a moral order keeping certain dead souls from moving on till they’ve done what they’re supposed to; rather, it’s the Woman herself, so consumed by sorrow, anger and the need for revenge that she can’t pass on. The thing about this type of ghost story is that the protagonist is still looking on the ghost as something separate — as purely a horror. Things change slightly in the last chapter of The Woman in Black (the narrator comes to experience something of what made the Woman what she is) but not enough to take this story to the next type; the Woman is still seen as something exceptional and horrific, a twisted and rare form of human being, something to be pitied and feared, not empathised with.

The Haunting of Hill House coverThe third type is about how the protagonist’s own despair or sadness is brought to the fore by encounters with a ghost, until they experience it as a manifestation of their own inner world. The ghost still exists to embody (in a ghostly, disembodied way) supernaturally-distorted human qualities, but as much as the protagonist is haunted by the ghost, they’re haunted by something inside themselves too. The ghost and the protagonist’s inner life become entangled to the point where they’re indistinguishable. This is the type of story where the ghost needn’t exist at all — or it can exist in that Tzvetan Todorov hinterland where the story never makes it clear whether the ghost is a ‘real’ ghost or is just an externalisation of the protagonist’s own mental state. Listing examples, I find all my favourites: The Haunting of Hill House, The Influence, The Turn of the Screw.

It has to be said these three types have permeable walls. (Ghosts being ghosts, they’re not going to be stopped from wandering through walls anyway.) Jonathan Miller, after all, turned M R James’s ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ from a ghost story of the first type to the third, by emphasising how the basic character-type of so many of M R James’s protagonists (academic, reserved, distant and somewhat disapproving of lesser human beings) is exactly what makes them so vulnerable to the terror of an isolating ghostly visitation.

Woman in Black 2012Overall, I tend to like examples from the first and third types. The first work best as short stories — shocks work best when kept short. (Cinematic ghost stories, more and more, tend to be overlong examples of the first type, with nothing but shock after shock after shock. I ended up fast-forwarding much of the second half of the 2012 Woman in Black, searching for morsels of story, because I got bored of being supposedly shocked.) The third type mixes the supernatural with the psychological, which is how I prefer it, and this tends to be best when done at length, with plenty of build-up to establish both the protagonist’s psychology and the ‘normality’ of their world.

The trouble, for me, with the second type, is it’s basically disapproving. It’s about marking certain humans (undead ones, admittedly) as separate from ‘us’ (as represented by the protagonist and the rest of a quietly-ordered, functioning society). It seems to be saying that most of us don’t experience extremes of emotion, particularly negative emotion, so we can safely regard those who do as alien, other, horrific. But saying this is also saying that as soon as we experience such extremes, we have to regard ourselves as now separate, alienated, and horrific, too. This is perhaps a very English thing, where reserve and social propriety can make for a ridigly-defined norm, where extreme emotion is met with an embarrassment and disapproval close to horror — meaning you have to repress such emotions, to the point of being haunted by them. Perhaps that’s why the English write so many ghost stories.

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