The Old Dark House is one novel any horror literature fan should take the time to read. It’s not that long and takes place in the course of one evening. Written by J.B. Priestley in 1927, it was published in the United States as The Old Dark House, but originally as Benighted (the title you can find it at through Valancourt Books). It was filmed as The Old Dark House in 1932 and can be purchased on Blu-Ray.

Philip Waverton, his wife Margaret and their friend Roger Penderel are traveling across Wales in by car when they are beset by a thunderstorm. As the roads become impassable, their spot a house in the hillside and decide to make for it when a landslide buries the roads . They’re greeted at the door by a huge, mute butler, whom we soon learn is named Morgan. Inside the house, which turns out to be a 16th century manor, they are greeted by two of the other inhabitants of it: Horace Femm and his sister Rebecca. They soon learn there is another member of the family, Sir Roderick Femm, who is too ill to leave his room. Later that evening, Sir William Porterhouse and his chorus girlfriend Gladys make an appearance, as they too are seeking shelter from the storm.

As the night drags on, strange things begin to happen. Morgan the butler starts drinking in the kitchen and becomes a very mean drunk. Rebecca Femm begins preaching hell-fire and damnation to anyone who bothers to listen, Horace Femm reveals he’s wanted by the police and the travelers reveal interesting bits about their own backgrounds. Eventually the power fails and the Old Dark House is lit by candle lights and lamps. Then things become very strange.

The book is written in a very continental style. Long expository sentences and observations very typical of literature of this period. But the conversations are riveting in what you learn about the characters. At one point someone suggests they play Truth (as in Truth or Dare). Horace Femm mocking comments “Oh, its’ a game now. About time”. Sir Porterhouse who makes his stage entrance as a glad-handling money bags soon reveals he’s not to the manor born. And Penderel, a veteran, is still suffering from seeing his comrades mowed down in WWI.

Here’s a good example of how Priestly manages to take a character who might be a boob in any other story and give him depth:

  ‘Unless you’re very lucky,’ he began, ‘you only make money by wanting to make it, wanting hard all the time, not bothering about a lot of other things. And there’s usually got to be something to start you off, to give you the first sharp kick. After you’ve got really started, brought off a few deals and begun to live in the atmosphere of big money, the game gets hold of you and you don’t want any inducement to go on playing—d’you follow me? It’s the first push that’s so hard, when you’re still going round with your cap in your hand. It’s my experience there’s always something keeps a man going through that, puts an edge on him and starts him cutting, and it may be some quite little thing. A man I knew, a Lancashire man too, was an easy-going youngster, thought more about cricket than his business, until one day, having to see the head of a firm, he was kept waiting two hours, sitting there in the general office with the clerks cocking an eye at him every ten minutes. He’s told me this himself. “All right,” he said to himself, “I’ll show you.” He walked out when the two hours were up, and that turned him, gave him an edge. He did show ’em, too. I don’t say, of course, that every man who says something like that to himself brings it off, but some do. Well, it was the same with me.’

Of course, you can’t discuss the book without mentioning the movie version which came out a few years later. An early talkie, it suffers a bit from sound recording and the problems of preservation. It was only through the efforts of filmmaker Curtis Harrington that a decent copy was found. Following the heels of director James Whales’ Frankenstein  it was the ignored by the public, who didn’t seem to understand the mix of horror and comedy. But the movie is an excellent adaptation of the book with whole dialogue being taken from the original source. Although the upbeat “cold light of day” ending is absent in the book, I still highly recommend the film version. I’ve watched it many times. When I read the book I can’t help but hearing Ernest Thesiger’s voice every time Horace Femm speaks.

I must give a shout-out to Pretty Sinister Books for bringing this brilliant classic to my attention. Also to Valancourt Books who made an electronic version available.

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About Z7

Timothy "Z7" Mayer has written 174 post in this blog.

I've been a mystery, SF and fantasy fan every since I can remember. I'm a published author, a business owner, and a self-appointed expert on strange books, pulp literature, and spy movies. Available for lectures. Donations appreciated.

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11 years ago

It’s Priestley, actually.
Probable inspiration for the Femms is The South Wales Squires by Herbert Millingchamp Vaughan, first published in 1926 but reprinted since, an extraordinary book.