Tuesday, October 8, 2019

'tis the season, part two: He Arrived at Dusk, by R.C. Ashby.

Valancourt Books, 2013
originally published 1933
218 pp


Another book I pulled off the shelf for October reading, He Arrived at Dusk gave me such immense pleasure that I actually applauded at the end.  I do that sometimes (little claps and a "bravo" here and there that no one but myself can hear) when I like a novel as much as I enjoyed this one.  It really is the perfect crime read for the Halloween season, as the author blends mystery and more than a hint of the supernatural, and does it in a rather ingenious fashion.  And what is there not to love about the cover art?

For a short blurb about the author, Ruby Constance Ashby (Ferguson), you can click on through to Valancourt's website. 

As is revealed at the outset,
"The story as here presented is in three parts; three stories in one, three points of view; in fact, murder through the eyes of three men of widely differing mentality and outlook."
The first of these is Mertoun's account, which begins as he is in his club.  Something he's heard has seriously distressed him, and he reveals to another gentleman that he is "haunted."  That man, a certain Mr. Ahrman, has him relate what's happened to him over the previous three weeks; Mertoun agrees, in the hope that Ahrman will believe what will turn out to be a rather bizarre story.    It seems that Mertoun had been engaged by a certain Colonel Barr  to "value the contents" of his remote house in the Northumberland moors, The Broch, which derived its name from a nearby ancient ruin of a tower said to be haunted.   On entering the house to begin his work he immediately experiences a "hideous feeling,"  a "coldness" that hit him like "an electric shock from an unearthly battery."  After waiting some time, he meets Charlie Barr, who reveals to him that his uncle is ill, confined to his room, and is under the charge of a nurse, and that nobody is allowed to see him, not even his nephew.   The next day he also learns that the house has its own resident poltergeist.  When he finally meets the nurse, Miss Goff, she offers him another job, to arrange and catalogue the books in the Colonel's library, a task which should take Mertoun about two weeks.   It is during that time that Charlie tells him the story of an ancient Roman soldier whose ghost haunts the area around the Broch.  The legend is well known by the locals of the nearby village, who refuse to go anywhere near it, except for a shepherd who has, it seems, taken his flock to the tower ruins.    It is also during this time that he begins to experience some strange experiences in the house, which culminate in a rather bizarre seance (!) held there at the behest of a local doctor who wishes to contact his wife; it is shortly after this event that a seemingly-impossible, ghostly murder occurs.  However, that's not the only shock that awaits the inhabitants of the house.

RC Ashby, from Persephone Books

As Mark Valentine notes in his introduction, He Arrived at Dusk  is a "chilling story of apparitions, uncanny incidents, and dark legends... " and clearly the author has laid the foundations for such a tale  in the way she evokes the atmosphere that permeates this entire story.  The house at the edge of Northern Sea, the moors that could swallow an unsuspecting person,  the periodic sweeping of the lighthouse beam across the landscape, and the superstition surrounding the old tower itself all combine to create the perfect backdrop for what takes place here.  Add to that Mertoun's own sense of something "hideous" on entering the house for the first time and his recounting of his own strange experiences there, the mysterious Nurse Goff, and the scene is more than set for the strangeness that follows in the next two accounts.   However, there is also a seriously good mystery at the heart of it all, and as a keen reader of these old novels, for me the solution was almost as satisfying as the journey. 

For devotees of these older books, or for people looking for something a wee bit different than your standard British mystery, you really can't do much better.  He Arrived at Dusk is one of those hidden gems I live to discover, and my serious thanks go to Valancourt for bringing it back into print. 

Monday, October 7, 2019

'tis the season, part one: A House of Ghosts, by W.C. Ryan

Arcade Publishing, first North American edition, 2019
384 pp


October reading is generally given over to the strange and the supernatural, so when I heard about A House of Ghosts, I picked it up and on the list it went. 

It's winter, 1917, and a group of people are gathering at Blackwater Abbey at the time of the winter solstice.   The house is on the "remote" Blackwater Island off the coast of Devon, and the guests  of the owners, the Highmounts, will be there to try to contact the dead, hopefully their sons who died during the war.    Two mediums will be in attendance, and the house is the perfect location for doing so, since it has a "reputation" for its ghostly inhabitants, "a mixed group, from several different centuries." Kate Cartwright is more than aware of their existence; she not only seems to have clairvoyant abilities, but has also actually seen these ghosts.  Kate had prevously been invited to Blackwater Abbey along with her parents but had declined;  her plans change however when she is given an assignment by the Intelligence Service -- she is to make her way to the island in the company of her ex-fiancé Captain Rolleston Miller-White, who in turn will be attended by his valet, an undercover Intelligence officer by the name of Donovan.  It will be Donovan's job there to investigate the leak of some plans that had ended up in the hands of the Germans and to discover exactly whoever it was that had passed the classified information.  Since the house is located on an island, the only way to and from there is by their hosts' boat,  making it even more of a closed-circle type mystery; a storm soon traps everyone on the island, but who among them is it? 

I ask you, how could anyone  not enjoy a novel with a  remote island setting, a storm that makes it impossible for anyone to leave, an old house where spirits roam freely, a mystery involving spies,  a murder, and best of all the promise of a seance to bring forth even more spirits (I am HUGE fangirl of novels where there is a seance or two)?  These are all elements that tick my mystery/supernatural-reading buttons, but I was left completely unfazed.   By page 85 I was ready to scream because nothing had happened; by page 155 I was rejoicing that something had finally happened; even the dustjacket blurb promise that "soon one of their number will die" doesn't happen until over one hundred pages after that.  Given the fact that blurbers for this book referred to it as a "chilling ghost story," "a multilayered, gothic masterpiece," or "unbearably creepy," I had high hopes, but I was seriously let down.  Even the ending was a big what??  and believe it or not, I had a huge chunk of this thing figured out long before getting there.  And let's not even go there with the ghosts that haunt Blackwater Abbey -- I don't even get why they were included.  Trust me, traditional ghost stories over the ages are part of my reading bread and butter, and  the blurber who said to "think Agatha Christie meets M.R. James"  may get it right on the Christie end, this is definitely NOT  M.R. James.   

That's me again, the red fish swimming the wrong way against the tide, since I seem to be in the minority of people that didn't care for this book.  Most readers are absolutely thrilled by this novel giving it very, very high ratings in the usual places; sadly I'm not one of them.