Underground Reading: Witching Hill by E.W. Hornung (1913)
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Witching Hill (1913) is a haunted house story, with the unusual twist that the "house" in question is an entire London suburb. Author E.W. Hornung (best known for his Raffles books and largely overshadowed by his brother-in-law, Arthur Conan Doyle), combines the supernatural with some pop psychology to create a very modern sort of thriller.
The Witching Hill Estate is somewhere within the greater London environs; a shiny new middle class suburb built on the grounds of the old "Mulcaster" lands. The houses are new, lovely and largely interchangeable. They all even have their own tennis courts. The central artery - Mulcaster Park Road - isn't paved, but they all have high hopes. Town is a short (but inconvenient) journey away, so most servants and staff stay on the estate as well. The original manor house still stands, Sir Christopher Stainsby residing. Sir Christopher maintains his own private wilderness as well; one that is well-littered with crumbling ruins.
For Gillon, our narrator, the Witching Hill Estate is like some sort of gloomy purgatory. Gillon is an open, friendly, broad-shouldered Scot. He's none too smart and, as he freely admits, a born follower. Currently serving as the general dogsbody at the Estate, salesman, light handyman and office manager, Gillon is bored to the point of tears.
Fortunately, entertainment soon arrives in the form of Uvo Delavoye, who "dropped into the office from another hemisphere". Delavoye is a young man of Gillon's age, recently returned from a short stint in the diplomatic corps. He's recovering from some sort of tropical disease, but what he lacks in constitution, he makes up for in charm, wit and enthusiasm. The two form the traditional Scooby team: brains & brawn, thinker & do-er, believer & skeptic.
Whereas Gillon finds his surroundings painfully dull, Delavoye thinks the Estate is "one of the most interesting in England! None of these fine old crusted country houses are half so fascinating as the ones quite near London. Think of the varied life they've seen, the bucks and bloods galore, the powder and patches, the orgies begun in town and finished out here..." (7). Delavoye goes on to describe the scandalous misadventures of an early Lord Mulcaster. Three centuries ago, that Lord committed "every crime in the Newgate Calendar" - murder, kidnapping, blasphemy, rape and more.
Delavoye is convinced that the heinous actions of that sinister noble still permeate the very "soil" of the Witching Hill Estate. Whenever Gillon is summoned to take care of a problem in his official capacity, Delavoye invariably follows, bounding along gamely like an occult-obsessed Airedale. Gillon explains away all the mysteries, Delavoye exaggerates them.
Initially, the mysteries are relatively minor. The two men find a secret tunnel and spy on Sir Christopher, learning that he's not quite the paragon of virtue that his public reputation would have them believe. "POSSESSION!" screams Delavoye. "JUST RICH!" responds Gillon. Later they interfere with a young couple's engagement. "THE RING IS HAUNTED!" yells Delavoye. "COLD FEET!" retorts Gillon. The vicar's young daughter writes a story that eerily captures the crimes of the old Lord Mulcaster. "MAGIC!" rants Delavoye. "SHE'S HEARD YOU TALKING" retaliates Gillon. Oh, the hijinks.
Were this as far as Witching Hill got, the reader would not be blamed for quitting. Goofy ghost-or-no-ghost pratfalls can only go so far, and there's a whiff of the romantic comedy about it that had me nervous every time Delavoye's unmarried sister walked into the room. However, halfway through, their adventures take an unexpectedly morbid turn. Delavoye and Gillon help solve a rash of local burglaries. During the adventure, Delavoye feigns a hatred of guns to fool the thieves. Given a pistol, he pretends to be fascinated with it - putting it against his head, studying the right angles for suicide in a mirror and other grim tricks. The act swiftly begins to concern his friend Gillon as well. Although Delavoye eventually gives up the weapon with no harm done, he confesses that he was being caught up in the charade. Still ill, unmarried, relatively friendless, worried about the malign influence of his malign ancestors (Delavoye is distantly related to the spooky Lord Mulcaster), Delavoye admits that a "painless exit" began to have its appeal.
Nor is he the only person in the estate to contemplate suicide. An accountant, caught for stealing money from his employer kills himself in one of the first stories - earning Delavoye's praise for sparing his family the "disgrace of capture". Even the ridiculous story about the on-again/off-again engaged couple has an ominous foreshadowing, as the groom-to-be is plagued by dreams of killing both himself and his bride.
Still, none of this compares to the overtly grisly adventure that Gillon has with Nettleton, a retired schoolteacher and one of the estate's weirder residents. Alerted by Nettleton's maid, Gillon finds a row of candles - surrounded by wood shavings - in Nettleton's study. Worried that the unhinged resident is trying to commit arson, Gillon confronts him. The rattle-brained teacher apologises and explains that it was all a science experiment. No harm done - traditional light ending to a traditional light story. Except Nettleton then lures Gillon into a bear trap, and restarts his fires. Gillon, leg shattered, desperately flings the contents of his pockets at the burning candles. Nettleton stands in the doorway and laughs at his futile attempts to survive. The scene is harrowing - a far cry from the early chapters and the light-hearted banter.
The final story in Witching Hill focuses on Delavoye. He's now feeling the full force of the "corrupting influence". Unlike the earlier pull towards suicide, he's now being led towards an affair with the unhappy wife of another estate resident. Lonely, miserable, self-absorbed, a bit emo, Delavoye is lured towards dishonor. The ancient Lord Mulcaster, of course, had no such scruples. Delavoye's encounters with the woman take place in one of his ancestor's follies, a ruined temple of Bacchus, hidden in the estate's park. In the shadow of that orgiastic structure, Delavoye must make the final choice between redemption and corruption. (I bet you can guess which one he picks.)
Mr. Hornung never explicitly answers the question of Lord Mulcaster's influence. There's no question that the Witching Hill Estate is unnaturally plagued with disaster, but Gillon's rational and Delavoye's irrational explanations are equally balanced. However, what the author does emphasize is that it doesn't really matter. Whatever the source of an evil suggestion, be it economic necessity, loneliness or malign spiritual forces, the final responsibility on whether or not to enact it still rests with the individual. The many stories within Witching Hill all reinforce this thesis. Even if Gillon and Delavoye disagree on what spurs the estate's many characters to evil and/or redemption, they both concur that it comes down to the person's own decision. Delavoye eventually becomes the center of all possible influences - mental and spiritual - but triumphantly makes his own decision. This may still fall short of modern psychological science, but it does make a nice change of pace from blaming things solely on omnipotent external forces.
Witching Hill makes an odd sort of haunted house story. There's no ghost, just a (maybe) aura of corruption. Although it starts as a silly series of mysteries, it gradually unfolds into a more complex character study. The reader initially views the trials and tribulations of the estate residents from an external point of view - Gillon and Delavoye, Meddling Detectives. When the trouble strikes closer to home, Witching Hill becomes a more powerful book. It is no longer an exercise in creative problem solving, it is a study in lost souls and their redemption.
Set alongside another recently read book about evil neighborhoods, Mr. Hornung's book is a genteel precursor of Gary McMahon's Concrete Grove. Mr. McMahon is less subtle - his timeless forces do very much exist, but, like in Witching Hill, he sees the supernatural as exacerbating personalities, rather than rewriting them. The occult is used as a means of heightening the tension, not creating it.
On the other end of the spectrum, Mr. Hornung's book is also a precursor of John McPartland's novel of surburban scandal, No Down Payment. Although the Witching Hill Estate doesn't have the same utopian halo as Mr. McPartland's 1950s American suburb, there are many of the same themes involved. Both neighborhoods are filled with people often more concerned about the appearance of success (and the appearance of their neighbours) than actual human connection. Repeatedly in Witching Hill, problems are reported to Gillon on the basis of snobbery and suspicion, rather than genuine need. In turn, some of the most visibly affluent members of the estate are the most miserable - the degenerate Sir Christopher, for example, or the vicar's daughter, and her plea for attention. Like No Down Payment, Witching Hill illustrates the loneliness of success and the artificiality of the modern neighborhood. Except with bear traps.
Witching Hill is available as a free download from Project Gutenberg.