THE HOUSE (1947) by Hilda Lawrence

John Norris has featured several postwar Gothic mysteries of late over at his fantabulous Pretty Sinister Books, whetting my appetite for something similar. So I finally decided to dust off this mystery by Hilda Lawrence (1906-76) and give it a whirl. The House (aka ‘The Bleeding House’) doesn’t feature her regular series character Mark East but instead is narrated by Isobel Stone, a fragile woman a month shy of her 21st birthday. After spending 15 years away at boarding schools she finally returns home but this proves highly traumatic – not long afterwards her beloved but clearly ailing father apparently kills himself. Now she stands to inherit the eponymous family mansion, which inexplicably wasn’t left to her mother. Then things start to go bump in the night …

I submit the following review as part of Bev’s 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge, specifically the ‘Golden Age Girls‘ section where I have elected to review at least 8 mysteries by women authors published pre-1960. I also offer it as part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog and you should head over there to both of these blogs right now and check out some of the other selections on offer.

“Nothing is changed except that I am home, my father is dead, and my thoughts will not let me sleep”

Isobel’s father made her promise that if something happened to him she would stay in the house for at least a year, not a particularly onerous request one would have thought – this is the family home after all. But the trouble is that Isobel has spent so little time there – just Christmas holidays from the age of six onwards – that this dark and brooding place hardly feels like a home at all. On top of which, all her feelings about friends and family there are mainly tied in with her early childhood memories. It is however her mother’s  pride and joy, which makes her father’s will even harder to fathom. The house clearly suits her mother’s quiet and emotionally stilled personality far more than Isobel’s – she lives there with three servants (the superstitious animal lover Anna and Mr and Mrs Tench) and is visited regularly by her three spinster cousins: Jane, Bess and most caustic of all, Cassie, who still treats Isobel as a child. This is a place steeped in the past and formed of a routine that has remained unchanged in twenty years. Isobel finds it stifling and in fact would much rather live next door with the friendly and down-to-earth Barnabys, not least because she is in love, and always has been, with their eldest son Michael. And then there is Tray, her father’s grinning black dog. He now follows Isobel everywhere after somehow surviving the car crash in which her father apparently killed himself by driving into a ravine. It was classed as an accident but as it was a clear night and his health was already in decline, everyone assumes he decided to end it while his mind was under strain. But Isobel has many questions – why had her father not been eating and refusing to see a doctor? And why was he spending so much time among the indigent men living in a nearby encampment? Was he really losing his mental faculties? And who is it walking through the house at night?

“I heard the house hold its breath”

This is a smoothly written story that follows all the rules of the genre – there is the young and innocent female protagonist; the kindly father and remote mother; the hysterical maid; the avaricious relatives; the oppressive mansion; the mysterious death; scenes at night of candle-lit wanderings from room to room; the faithful butler and even more loyal pets; true love; even a secret chamber. Lawrence is a skillful and confident writer, happy to hit all the necessary points on the grid to make the book commercial yet also delivering dreamlike prose in a semi stream of consciousness style that is often arresting, if admittedly occasionally shrill. There are no chapters at all, only a single divide into two parts, which is very well-chosen however as it marks the point where the story seems to take a turn for the supernatural when Isobel starts to speak more and more of the house as a living being, suggesting that her father’s death has truly started to unbalance her. Given its rigid adherence to the conventions of the Gothic romance there are no real surprises perhaps and the plot has more than its fair share of illogicalities, especially in explaining the various peculiarities of Isobel’s father before his car crashed.

Isobel makes for an unusual narrator, one instantly familiar from the likes of Jane Eyre and Rebecca, in that she is unusually sensitive to atmosphere, which gives her thoughts a sometime alarmingly jumbled quality. On the other hand, her nice-guy  go-getting beau Michael is a truly stock character, which is a bit of a shame. But on the other hand the lowering Poe-like atmosphere is rather well caught as Isobel becomes and more entangled in the idea of the house as a sentient being. This may not ultimately go anywhere new or special but suggests that Lawrence was a more than capable writer even when working tightly to a formula an delivers a reasonable payoff to the accumulation of mysterious events, even if they have to be rather laboriously explained in the concluding wrap-up. This was a fun little read, well outside of my usual bailiwick, and although it is generally thought of as the least of Lawrence’s books I still found much to enjoy – another debt I owe to the indefatigable Bev. While my edition is a single volume reprint by Avon (its wax-laden cover is featured at the top of this page), this novel was originally published together with another shorter piece, ‘Composition for Four Hands’, to form Duet of Death in 1949.

An amusing portrait of the author emerges from her article ‘Domesticating the Murderer’, published in The Saturday Review (17 February 1945) and available online from:  www.unz.org/Pub/SaturdayRev-1945feb17-00016.

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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32 Responses to THE HOUSE (1947) by Hilda Lawrence

  1. Sergio – This one (I admit I’ve not read it) sounds like a a very solid take on that ‘house with dark secrets’ if you will kind of theme. Sometimes the author pulls off the unusually sensitive character well without making her or him seem too vulnerable. Other times it strays too far (or perhaps this is just my preference speaking) into the realm of the hard-to-believe. I’m glad you found some things to like in this one.

    • Thanks Margot – this was a bit of a departure for me and on the whole I quite enjoyed it. It’s not particularly complex (it is a fairly short novel too, barely 150 pages in my edition) but Lawrence was I think a better than average writer, which really helps if the story is pretty by-the-numbers. I have Blood on the Snow of hers to read next …

  2. Colin says:

    Sounds interesting Sergio. I’ve only read Death of a Doll by this author, and thought it was a fine, creepy piece of work. Off to see if I can locate a copy as I’m partial to old spooky houses, whether on film or in print.

  3. Hilda Lawrence is better known for DEATH OF A DOLL. I have THE HOUSE, too. They’re written in a style that’s a bit dated for my taste.

    • Thanks for that George – I really will try to get Death of a Doll as that seems to be the favourite – very much a period piece and of its time. I found it to be quite charming but I can hardly disagree that it rightly belongs to another century – and not necessarily the last one either!

  4. John says:

    I’ve only read BLOOD UPON THE SNOW, her very first book and something of a pioneering work as it combined the HIBK genre with the private eye novel. Supposedly the first to do so.
    That had a lot of Gothicsim to it, too and I liked it though you will find many modern readers who dismiss it and do so meanly, IMO. This one sounds like it could’ve been turned into a giallo film back in the 1960s. I like the Hill House/Cold Harbuor element of this one and may track it down.

    OH! and thanks for yet another plug. Your payola is in the mail. ;^)

    • Definitely not in the class of Shirley Jackson John and the books you have reviewed sound a bit more fun too. What I enjoyed most probably was the sense of sheer revelling of the author in the atmosphere and genre trappings. Love to know what you make if it chum – at least you know what you’re talking about – I just enjoy barging around in your shadow.

  5. TracyK says:

    Gothic doesn’t sound like my kind of thing, but postwar does. Plus you make it sound very interesting. And, as always, I love the covers and would go for a copy of the one with the skull on it. Will add it to my list. And the private investigator series sounds worth a try also.

    • The skull cover from Ace is very attractive, I quite agree – definitely available out there though it was not as cheap as the Avon paperback I’m sure of that otherwise I probably would have gone for it too. If you want to get a real taste of Postwar Gothic, read’s John’s excellent reviews – I certainly found them really tempting!

  6. Mike says:

    I read Lawrence’s “Blood Upon the Snow” a short while ago; I’ll get around to posting my review of it one of these weeks. It is not, ultimately, a book that I would recommend. While it features the literary virtues of the kind that you highlight in your review of “The House”—creating a mysterious and compelling atmosphere, and so on—its plot proves to be quite a mess. You might be more forgiving of that flaw than I am. (To me, careful plotting is essential to making the gothic formula work: When the dark shadows finally lift, what you in their wake needs to have a clear and solid logic to it.)

    • Ah, thanks Mike – that is the one I’ve had tucked away for ages. Hmm, The House is certainly not a precisely engineered story in terms of plot though ti does basically work in terms of the overall style of the book. Really look forward to reading you review.

  7. This sounds like a deeply intriguing Gothic mystery with a lot happening in the family mansion. I haven’t read anything like this. Well reviewed, Sergio.

    • Thanks Prashant – it’s definitely a highly entertaining book. Not a patch on Rebecca let’s say in its combination of Gothic atmosphere and mystery elements, but highly diverting none the less.

  8. c mcgaughey says:

    That cover for ‘Death Walks in Eastrepps’ (copied on Nov 30th) is marvellously evocative of those windswept cliffs of the East Anglian coast, where a rambler dressed for the occasion may be lucky enough on a dark night to stumble upon a comely dead wench in a period miniskirt and net stockings. His torch will be further useful in locating his hat which will surely blow away in this gale. He only needs to follow his tie, which is blowing to his left, or his coat, which is blowing behind him and to his right, and he might care to study the grass, which isn’t moving at all. Very suspicious. Lovely cover though! The novel is still very enjoyable too.

    • You may have uncovered a somewhat impressionistic, not to say surrealist approach to the illustration to that edition Conor – and yes, on the inside, a very good book indeed.

  9. Bev Hankins says:

    I may be one of the modern readers who “meanly” discounts Lawrence’s Blood Upon the Snow. I read it in March of 2011 and it got an “almost” rating from me–The plot almost reeled me in. The mystery almost had me hooked. I almost liked the detective and the other characters. I almost cared what happened next. But I never really did. I just never felt like Lawrence pulled it together. But…having the respect I do for John, maybe I should try it again.

    I’ve got Death Walks in Eastrepps sitting on the 2013 TBR pile (all set for the Vintage Mystery Challenge!). My edition is the Dover reprint. I can’t wait to dive into next year’s list….

    And…finally thanks for the plugs, Sergio. Much appreciated.

    • I think you are probably right about Lawrence – I think almost is probably just about right in the sense that there is nothing I really liked without some sort of qualification. Gosh, is it time to sign up for the 2013 challenge already? I haven;t finished 2012 yet! I really will have to get my skates on – thanks Bev!

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