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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The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson

Sphere PB, art by Terry Oakes

The title alone is enough to earn Hodgson’s 1908 novel a place at the heart of any weird fiction canon. And the book’s first quarter, with its nameless narrator (known as “the Recluse” to this found-manuscript’s editor) holing himself up in a remote country house and fending off nightly attacks from noxious swine-things like a classic Doctor Who base-under-siege story, feels like the perfect set up for a weird adventure story. But then things take a ninety-degree swerve into the cosmic, visionary, and psychedelic, with a long trip through accelerated time. We see the death of our Earth and the Sun, then follow a slow, abstract path to the heart of the universe, to glimpse the truth behind “the scheme of material creation”: a pair of massive central suns, one a giant, weird green (“the abode of some vast Intelligence?”), the other utterly dark. Then back to the present and the house under siege, though not, now, by a host of fleshy-white swine-things, but one giant green glowing one, whose touch leaves a fungous infection that recalls, to my mind, the bleak and inexplicable creeping death in Lovecraft’s most coldly cosmic tale, “The Colour Out of Space”.

Ian Miller art for Panther PB

To be wrenched out of what seems like such a brilliant set up for a weird adventure novel into that rather abstract, visionary journey to the heart of the cosmos always leaves me wondering if The House on the Borderland has a single, unifying idea behind its various, brilliantly weird episodes, or is just a collection of Hodgson’s wilder imaginings. As well as the swine-things and the time journey, there’s a curtailed afterlife love story, as the Recluse has a perhaps visionary, perhaps extra-dimensional, meeting with his lost, dead love — and this is another jarring moment, because at this point it’s revealed that most of this section of the manuscript is missing. It’s almost modernistic in effect, as we experience the Recluse’s feelings of loss through having the relevant portion of the story itself missing, apart from hints and echoes.

Lovecraft loved the book (though he couldn’t help squirming at its “few touches of commonplace sentimentality”), but came to it too late for it to really be an influence. And I feel that Hodgson is far more of a gut writer than one like Lovecraft, who had a definite outlook and philosophy. (I almost wonder if the book didn’t kick off after a fevered reading of Wells’s The Time Machine, which has the same mix of beast-men (the Morlocks) and a trip to the end of time. Only, Hodgson takes things to far weirder extremes.) Still, it seems, from his author’s note at the start, that The House on the Borderland has some unifying meaning:

“The inner story must be uncovered, personally, by each reader, according to ability and desire. And even should any fail to see, as now I see, the shadowed picture and conception of that to which one may well give the accepted titles of Heaven and Hell; yet can I promise certain thrills, merely taking the story as a story.”

The start of the novel, with its nightly assaults by semi-human swine-things, is chock full of classic Gothic imagery of the dark subconscious: a bottomless Pit, an unexplored cellar, a trapdoor opening onto unimaginable depths, an overpowering rush of water, the swine-things themselves, and the fact that they don’t seem to be seen by the Recluse’s sister, the one person with whom he lives. Plus there’s the lure of the shadow-self, and that need to stare into one’s personal Nietzschean Abyss:

“Sometimes, I have an inexplicable desire to go down to the great cellar, open the trap, and gaze into the impenetrable, spray-damp darkness. At times, the desire becomes almost overpowering, in its intensity.”

The novel feels like a wholesale reaction to all the nineteenth century’s upendings of religious certainties: Darwin’s linking of man to the animals (the swine-things), the realisation that the sun must one day die, even the germ theory of disease (in the way the dog’s eerily glowing wound infects a cut on the Recluse’s arm), plus the gradual replacement of a Christian Heaven by an astronomical cosmos of suns, planets, and nebulae.

Ace Books (1962) edition, art by Ed Emshwiller

But I think the thing that unifies Hodgson’s novel is clear in its title. This house stands on a borderland, and so it is the house, by being where it is, that unites the various weird realities it touches. Living in it, the Recluse is living between the bestial (attacks by the swine-things) and the spiritual (his visions of his dead love in her seashore afterlife); also between life and death (the gods that surround the house’s visionary twin in the Arena seem to represent “a state of life-in-death”); and between Heaven and Hell (the house has “Little curved towers and pinnacles, with outlines suggestive of leaping flames”), or hope and despair, in the way the narrator’s connection with his lost love at the Sea of Sleep, and his apprehension of the Green Sun as some sort of ultimate intelligence, are set against the swine-things, the beast-headed gods of the Plain of Silence, the Dark Sun that twins the Green Sun, and the Dark Nebula (“a very hell-fog”), which seems to contain souls trapped in agony (“A face, human in its outline; but so tortured with woe, that I stared, aghast. I had not thought there was such sorrow, as I saw there.”)

These extremes of Heaven and Hell, hope and despair, are part of a package. You can’t have one without at least risking the other. Or so the Recluse’s dead love tells him, at one point:

“Strangely, she warned me; warned me passionately against this house; begged me to leave it; but admitted, when I questioned her, that she could not have come to me, had I been elsewhere.”

William Hope Hodgson

And if it’s the house that unifies the various elements in Hodgson’s weird novel, then it’s not much of a leap to taking that house as a metaphor for the human condition. Its cellars are the outermost regions of the unconscious, whose key the narrator keeps with him at all times (though he only, at first, goes down there to store and retrieve wine, inebriation being one way into the realms of the unconscious). Below these are far vaster, perhaps limitless depths. The Recluse spends most of his time, though, in his study, a room which symbolises the intellect. It’s this room that has the weakest external door, and where the swine-things get closest to breaking in. As a final indicator that the house and the man who lives in it are one, it’s only when the Recluse’s body is invaded by the giant green swine-beast’s infection that the swine-thing(s) manage to get inside the house.

It seems to me that, though The House on the Borderland’s depiction of humankind as standing on the edge of all sorts of weird realms is undoubtedly cosmic, it’s not as despairing as Lovecraft’s cosmicism. Hodgson isn’t saying, as Lovecraft did, that humankind is utterly insignificant compared to the vastness of the cosmos, but he is saying that it’s possible, in such enormous and strange spaces, to be infinitely lonely:

“…I realised, despairingly, that the world might wander forever, through that enormous night. For a while, the unwholesome idea filled me, with a sensation of overbearing desolation; so that I could have cried like a child.”

But this could just be a depiction of the Recluse’s own particular type of Hell. He seems to have become locked in loss since the death of his loved one. He still, for instance, lives with a woman (his sister), but appears to have absolutely no emotional or intellectual connection with her (“I have made a rule never to speak to her about the strange things that happen in this great, old house”). Similarly, after his dog dies, he acquires another one, but can’t bring himself to take it into the house, even when it’s being attacked at night by the massive green swine-thing. His one physical contact with it results in his own infection.

The House on the Borderland is undoubtedly a classic of weird fiction. I still find the central time-travel section too slow-moving and abstract, and the Doctor Who fan in me would love to read a version that was only about the swine-things assailing the house at night, but perhaps it’s the unforgiving strangeness of the book’s jarring shifts in narrative direction that really encapsulate its meaning and power: we’re all of us living in houses on many strange and disquieting borderlands, and had better watch out.

The House on the Borderland is available at Project Gutenberg. The William Hope Hodgson blog contains a lot of information about the writer and his works.

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