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. 

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